A blend of Sim City and Tropico, Cartel Tycoon gives you the opportunity to take control of a ‘Capo’ in the 1980s, hoping to make a lot of money from the drug trade.
You’re introduced to three campaigns as you begin the game, with one being the tutorial which positions you as the son of an established kingpin showing you the ropes. It’s best to think of the campaign as easy, medium and hard scenarios and whilst they overlay a light plot context to proceedings, you’re faced with really making challenging situations thrive, as is often the case with these types of builder games.
Some nice voice acting in the tutorial helps add some flavour to what you need to do, although oddly this disappears for the other campaigns leaving you to read text. Outside of the voices, there is a fair bit to read too by way of game mechanics, which throws you in pretty quickly towards building your world.
As you start placing your structures, the chase for the optimum build becomes clear to you. There aren’t masses of different types (one farm, one warehouse) with some configuring to do between them, but from what is overly complex at the start (perhaps compounded by a good-but-not-great tutorial) it quickly becomes clear what you need to do.
For anyone that’s played a city builder type of game before, you’ll be familiar with how things work. Connect buildings by roads, link them in a way that makes sense (so farmers can get to farms, that goods have appropriate transport out etc via a logistics hub) and rake in the money. Where things get interesting is the cartel element. It’s not just ‘make drugs’, you have to consider the impact of the law.
You can hold your lovely illegal goods (all varieties of drugs, such as cannabis, heroin etc.) and then hide them by packing them into vegetables. This confuses the cops, which is a nice touch. Money too comes in flavours; illegal and legal. They have slightly different purposes and can be used in different ways (such as instantly completing a structure rather than waiting for a build time) and they similarly establish some legal companies alongside your dirty business to keep funds flowing. I suppose potentially you could play this as a straight-up entrepreneur simulator, but that feels a bit reductive.
You can manually control some units, by instructing lieutenants to do certain jobs for you. The way you play roads can be a bit fiddly too, with how buildings need to connect to them, so you can end up with a wacky road structure, which means taking control of these lieutenants is a faff at points getting them from A to B. This lets you manually deliver goods or carry out assassinations.
Another ‘faff’ element is the micromanagement required. I think your mileage will vary depending on whether or not you enjoy these sorts of games, so balancing your legal and illegal funds, and laundered money does require a careful eye. Other meters are important to monitor too, such as managing terror levels and building capacity before exporting goods.
A sandbox mode tops off the package to let you just continue to grow and grow over time. I enjoyed Cartel Tycoon, although I’m not quite sure if it’s trying to be a criminal management sim (in which case, Tropico is probably better) or a Tycoon sim (Ala Rollercoaster etc.) in which case the management is perhaps a bit too granular and manual. Either way, it’s a low price point and is more than worth the money if you like these types of games, and aren’t put off by the ethical troubles of farming opium.
Reviewed on PC