around with Super Bomberman 2 got me thinking
about the truly great multiplayer games. The best ones always allow
for that extra edge. It's fun to outmaneuver your friends, but when
you can really put the screws to them, you're on to something. A
brilliant example, one of my personal favorites, is the computer
game classic, M.U.L.E.
was the product of an Arkansas-based development team called Ozark
Softscape. The team was comprised of Dan Bunten (project leader),
Bill Bunten, Alan Watson, and Jim Rushing. These were the heady
days of the early 1980s, with the fall of dedicated consoles (Atari
2600), and the rise of home computers. There was a great desire
to experiment and create games that stretched out in new directions.
An upstart company named Electronic Arts was entering its own "golden
age," with a solid string of excellent, original games like
Pinball Construction Set, Archon, and One
Arts followed the trail blazed by Activision. Game designers weren't
stereotypical computer nerds, but young, creative, and above all,
craving attention. They imagined themselves as the new artists,
and their games as a creative work. These were not merely children's
games, they were
something more. Different. New. Electronic
Arts promoted this idea, and Bunten and his team were willing to
what kind of game is MULE? It really is difficult to describe,
since it seems so different from the conventional shoot-em-up, sports,
and adventure genres crowding today's market. Perhaps it is most
similar to Monopoly, with a dash of arcade action and commodities
trading added to the mix. Taking place on the world of Irata, four
alien settlers set out to develop the land over the course of 12
monthly turns. Each player selects a plot of land, and then equips
that plot for production of food, energy, or mining ore and crystite.
At the end of each turn, the plots bear fruit, and the players buy
and sell their goods at the market.
afraid that I am making MULE sound boring, but it is anything
but. The casual pace belies a fiendishly competitive atmosphere
where friendships are made and lost in a matter of minutes. If you
do not grow enough food, you will lose precious time for your turns
and risk falling behind. If you do not produce enough energy, your
plots will suffer. And if enough ore is not made, there will be
a shortage of mules.
mule (for Multiple Use Labor Element) is one of the game's more
clever touches. Each plot of land needs to be equipped for the proper
function, and for that, you need mules. A mule is bought at the
colony store, equipped, and then added to your plot.
development phase is only one part of the game. The other part is
the trading phase. After the monthly harvest, players meet at the
market, watch the progress of their crops, and buy or sell with
each other or the store. This is where MULE can become
so fierce. True, it would be nice to share your extra food with
everyone for the good of the colony, but what fun is that? Sharing
is for losers. The real fun comes from cornering the market. When
there is plenty of food in the store, for instance, the price is
very low. But when there are shortages, the price soars.
is where you screw your friends into the ground. How desperate are
they for that extra unit of food or energy? Make them run up the
screen and raise the price. Skilled players can learn how to control
the market and make a killing in the process. And, yes, this is
where shoulders start getting punched between curses.
bidding in MULE is simple, with buyers on the bottom and
sellers on the top. A price is found by both parties meeting somewhere
in the middle. There is a certain, almost masochistic joy in watching
other players desperately running up prices while you sit safely
at the top of the screen. Another great "fuck you" moment
comes during plot auctions; the leader runs up the price, then quickly
darts back down at the last second, sticking someone else with the
the end, we are all competing for bragging rights and the rank of
"First Founder" at the end of the game. However, in another
inspired stroke, the colony as a whole must survive together. If
the colony fails to make enough money at year's end, nobody is the
winner. Think about that while you're cutting everyone off at the
are still more surprises to be found in MULE that I haven't
mentioned. Mules go crazy and run off; pests eat your food; pirates
steal all your crystite (diamonds); there are earthquakes, acid
rainstorms, and meteorite strikes; the store catches fire, taking
with it all surplus goods. And the game itself subtly teaches market
economics: supply and demand, economies of scale, the Learning Curve
theory of production, the Law of Diminishing Returns, the Maslow
Hierarchy of Needs.
really has never been a game like MULE, and that is a tragedy.
It deserves to be seen by anyone who considers themselves a lover