Planet MULE — Simulation Game Evaluation

Planet_MULE_670b

We have been evaluating simulation games. Planet M.U.L.E. is a modern re-write of a classic four-player land settlement game, engineered for network play. 

Learning Curve: 1 hour.
Suitability for a policy context: limited

There is a fairly high learning curve to the game, since there are so many different elements that you need to invest in to sustain your growth, and each of these elements is more-or-less important as the game goes on. The game takes about a half hour to understand both how it works, and how each piece fits into the simulation. The introduction video is more useful in this regard than the Documentation, and sped up the process a lot. It would be good if they had an in-game tutorial that would take you through the steps and ease you into playing. There was more than one occasion when I didn’t know that I had (or hadn’t) done something in the game, and was punished greatly for it (and in most cases I ended up restarting the game to try again). Because of this, it actually took over an hour before I actually felt like I was confident in how the mechanics of the game worked.

Suitability for a policy context: Planet M.U.L.E. could possibly have applications for understanding economic policy, since you get an introduction to how a simple marketplace works, and to some of the decisions that you can make in that marketplace. It is, however, very difficult to generalize this game for applications in other policy areas. M.U.L.E. is good for what it is trying to accomplish. However what it is trying to accomplish is very specific and does not lend itself to more general solutions. I could see the marketplace and economic elements of this game being included as a component in a policy game.

Game play

Stages

The game is broken down into 5 stages: land grant/auctions, development, production, auction and summary.

  1. In land grants/auctions you have one “land grant” to use each turn for a free land plot and then there are a random number of additional land plots that are auctioned off. Land plots are used to farm all the game’s resources and each land plot can only be used for one resource each turn.
  2. In development you have a limited amount of time (normally 45 seconds but this can be reduced by other factors) to develop your land plots. To develop these plots you must buy a M.U.L.E. and then outfit it for the resource you want to develop (food, energy, smithore or crystite) and then return to the base to spend whatever amount of time you have left “gambling” (i.e., making money) in the bar. In this stage you can also hunt for the Mountain Wampus (who seems very easy for the computers to catch but very hard for players) and you can survey your land plots for crystite deposits.
  3. In production each land plot that you own that is working (and that has a M.U.L.E. outfitted for harvesting a resource) will give you some amount of that resource. The amount you receive is based on the terrain of the land plot, the number of M.U.L.E.s that you have of that type and any outside effects that have occurred that round.
  4. In auction, for each resource, you have the opportunity to buy more of that resource if you have a deficit or sell some if you have a surplus. In each case you can buy or sell with other players if you agree on the price or, if you have to, with the bank (for a less optimal price).
  5. Finally, summary is just a summary of each players’ assets, money and land plots

Resources

There are also 4 resources in the game: food, energy, smithore and crystite.

  1. Food is used each turn to feed your worker. If you do not have enough food for your worker the time you have for development will be decreased (up to the point where you will only be able to go to the pub and drown your sorrows).
  2. Energy is used to power your land plots. Each land plot requires 1 energy per turn to operate. If you do not have enough energy then for each point you are short, one of your land plots will not produce resources for that turn (randomly chosen). Note: Some of the food and energy that you have kept over from the last turn (if you had an excess) will spoil, so it is not a good idea to continually stockpile these resources.
  3. Smithore is not used directly for sustaining you or your land plots but it is the main way to acquire points for winning the game. It also determines the price of M.U.L.E.s for the next turn (the price of an M.U.L.E. is twice that of smithore).
  4. Crystite is similar to smithore in that it is only used for points. It is much rarer, and there is no guarantee that you will acquire it each turn. Its value is also determined randomly and not by in-game variables (as it is sold off planet). It is also the most likely resource to get stolen.

What is the game simulating? Is the simulation adequate? How could it be improved?

The resource system is very good. It forces players to balance what they need to sustain themselves, to sustain their production, to make money, and to acquire “points”. This last metric is an area that could be improved. The “points” system seems to be more disconnected from your money than I think it should be, since in real life your available cash is your “points” (so to speak). Most people and companies do not hold value in things other than cash, although they may spend cash to acquire different luxury items. Overall, however, the simulation is an adequate representation of a basic economic system.

Is the game play the right level of complexity? Too simple? Too complex?

I found that the basics of the game were not hard to understand. The interactions, however, felt complicated when you started off. The system is not actually too complicated, but some of the elements aren’t explained very well. It is hard to understand why those elements are useful and how to interact with them. The uses of smithore, for example, were not explained very well. As a result, I didn’t see the point in investing smithore until the computers did. At that point, the computer players had more than double my score and it was too late to change.

Is it fun? Why or why not? Would you want to play this a lot?

I did not find it particularly enjoyable for two reasons.

First, the computer players had a huge advantage over the human players when starting off. It is not possible for the humans to perform their actions as quickly as the computer players. Since some of the interactions are based on reaction time (like getting land plots) the computer has a huge advantage. There is not a physical learning curve for the computer players, and they are also generally faster. This made it very hard for the human player to compete. I would assume that as you got better at the game you would be more competitive with the computers, but the unfair advantage enjoyed by the computers made the game less enjoyable.

Second, I found that there was a lot of waiting around in the game. Game play that could have been sped up took a long time. Because of this I often found myself getting bored during the game.

I would be more likely to play this game if I was playing against other people instead of computers. The dynamics would be more interesting and the players would be on a more level playing field. However at that point I’m not sure how much better this game is than a board game. You gain some ability for the economic system to work in this game but lose (with server play) the direct human interaction (which you do have with a game like Catan or Agricola).

One other thing that could be improved is personalization. When you start the game, you choose a species. M.U.L.E. has detailed descriptions of the different species, which contributes to your personal investment in that player. Once you start playing the game, however, there is no difference between playing as one species or playing as another species. It would be great if you could have more options to customize your character since this would add more complexity to the game play and make the user more invested in the game.

Is the game free?

Yes

Is it open source?

No

How moddable is it? Are there instructions for modding? A community of modders?

It is not moddable at present. There is a forum that has suggestions and ideas, but without any actual modding.

How difficult would you judge it to be to reimplement from scratch (a matter of weeks, months or years).

Reimplementing would probably a matter of at least a year, since M.U.L.E. has a lot of complicated interactions in the marketplace. It also requires the development of an intelligent AI.

How many people are working on it / worked on it?

One company (Turborilla), which seems like a fairly small game development company, (probably 5-15 people), seems to have developed this version of M.U.L.E.

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