Over the years, I've been desperately latching onto any crime simulator that looks like it might bring back the glory days of the genre—specifically between 1997 and 1998, when a heady mix of Dope Wars and Gangsters: Organized Crime sparked my 11-year-old self's interest in running a criminal enterprise. But no game, from 1999's Mob Rule to the recent Empire of Sin, has been able to get those ratios quite right. Can Cartel Tycoon become Don in this most misdirected of genres?
Cartel Tycoon takes its illicit operations away from the spats and moonshine of Prohibition-era Chicago to the clammy jungles and drug farms of '80s South America. It's all crooks making deals while hunched over piles of white powder, and even though the game is clearly at the start of its long journey through Early Access, it has the right spirit. There's the breezy tone of Tropico mixed with a hint of Cities: Skylines, put through the all-important seedy Narcos filter.
First of all, it's almost entirely a building and management game, which means it isn't diluted through a superfluous tactical combat system that's bogged down so many other crime sims. Cartel Tycoon is all about resource management, flow of goods, and a bit of people management. Everyone from your own lieutenants to the mayor of the local city has fluid loyalties that can be won with money and favours, and lost through neglect.
I start the story campaign with control over one of several regions in a fictionalised South American state. With $60,000 of dirty money to my name, I build my first batch of opium farms on the most fertile land in the region, accompanied by a warehouse—the fact that I build this operation basically in the backyard of my gaudy drug-lord mansion doesn't seem to bother the authorities. I give an order to regularly transport the precious plants to the nearest airport, where a plane routinely smuggles them out of the country before flying back a few days later with my money.
Most of the money you make in Cartel Tycoon is through export. Private airfields are the simplest but least lucrative method, seaports ferry larger amounts but you'll need to hide your drugs among legal produce, while land borders offer high throughput at high risk.
Once that money starts pouring in, you'll need to launder it. You do this by building taxi companies, churches, casinos and other fronts in cities, which will grant you some bonuses too. At one point, I got the priest at one of my churches to mention my name in a sermon, boosting my reputation among the regular folk. There are already a few nice touches like this that help evoke that fantasy of becoming your own little Pablo Escobar.
There's a bit of narrative thrust here too, with some good writing and character portraits giving dialogue interactions and story points some liveliness. At one point in the campaign, I was faced with the choice to pay back the money provided to me by my benefactor at the start of the game, or arrange for him to be killed. The ease with which I dispatched him—a simple order for my in-house assassin Vanessa Diaz Venji—was a lesson that death comes easily in this cruel world.
Your character can die in much the same way—through a police sting or at the hands of a rival boss who takes exception to you usurping their coca farms. When this inevitably happens, you take control of one of your lieutenants, which creates a satisfying sense of continuity to your drug lord dynasty. There's not enough personality or dialogue variety yet to really invest you in these characters like you would in, say, Crusader Kings, but that's the kind of thing that you'd hope will get added throughout Early Access.
Lieutenants are hired to carry out special tasks like robberies, assassinations, transporting money and taking over enemy buildings. They'll come to you with demands, too, such as pay rises, promotions and quests. Fail to retain your lieutenants' loyalty, and you may find yourself put in the difficult position of having to knock them off your payroll with a bullet to the head.
So all the right principles are here (i.e. the morally slimy principles by which you run a ruthless drug empire), but at this early stage of development, you only have a few hours until the frustrations start creeping in.
For a game about massive-scale criminal enterprise, there's an awful lot of micromanagement, and it's a struggle to get business flowing. You can only give lieutenants a single order at a time, which means you're always having to keep an eye on them to make sure they're not idling around. You can't take just a portion of money from one building to another—it's all or nothing—which combined with the fiddly lieutenant system makes it a nightmare to put money where it needs to go.
It took me a while to realise that dirty money needs to physically be at a building for that building to function, whereas laundered money can be used remotely (the tutorial—more a pause-screen manual that you can refer to at any point—doesn't make this clear). This makes sense and provides a tangible benefit to laundering your dollars, but it's still too fussy. Once buildings have the funds to run, for example, there should be an option for them to resume work automatically rather than having to click the 'On' switch each time for every single one.
The game needs to implement more systems that allow for smart automation so that you can focus on the bigger picture of expanding your empire, cutting deals with politicians, and eliminating opposition. Right now, I feel like I spend too much time ordering dozy lieutenants who've been passed out for days on the opium farm to get off their asses and do some work.
I've reached a point where my ambitions to expand my operations into cannabis plantations keep being stumped by the seemingly irreversible attentions of the federal police, who are apparently more miffed by the thought of people smoking weed and eating Haribo than shooting up heroin and shooting up fuel stations. Given this and the awkwardness of managing funds and production chains, I think it's a good time to postpone my ambitions for a few months until the whole operation becomes a bit smoother.
There's no rush, and given the current power vacuum in the genre, Cartel Tycoon may yet step up to fill it.