M.U.L.E. The Board Game – 2021 Interview with Heikki Harju

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Author: Karawane

Link back to main article and 2015 interview: M.U.L.E. board games

World of M.U.L.E. (WoM): When and how was your first encounter with M.U.L.E. the computer game?
Heikki Harju (HH): I discovered M.U.L.E. when I bought Seven Cities of Gold (another great game ahead of its time) by Ozark Softscape when I was 13 or 14 for my C-64. The back cover of the floppy disc package also had reprints of glowing reviews of M.U.L.E.
I liked Seven Cities, so I decided to give M.U.L.E. a try. Before the Internet, there really weren’t so many ways to get information about games. At the day, what went viral was pretty much influenced by either marketing spend or the degree of pirating that went around – and M.U.L.E. was pirated a lot. At first, I was a bit shocked by the rough graphics and the abstract nature of the game, but after a few games, I started to get into it. Once I’d played it together with friends, that’s when M.U.L.E. really got me addicted. I loved how the game managed to combine underhanded, brutal economics with non-violence and sci-fi cuteness. It took a particular kind of humour to play it with friends and still remain friends. I ended up playing many more competitive games together with those friends. It was really important to capture this atmosphere to the board game, not just the mechanics.

WoM: Is M.U.L.E. the Boardgame the first boardgame you have developed?
HH: It’s the first that I started to develop, together with my friend Tuomo Mattila, and the first (and so far the only one) of my designs that I have had published. Designing is quite fast, prototyping takes a bit more time, but playtesting and perfecting is really where the main effort is.

WoM: Why have you decided to develop M.U.L.E. the Boardgame?
HH: In the late 1980s, German board game designs like Settlers of Catan and Carcassone started to spread to Finland. We played a lot of those games with Tuomo and other friends. After one gaming night it occurred to us that M.U.L.E. would be a great board game. It was something we had both loved to play together and we took it as a fun challenge to see if we could make an adaptation. Initially, we did it just to get a game for ourselves. Once we started getting good feedback from play-testers, we thought maybe we should publish it for others, too. I saw a few other M.U.L.E. designs that had been tried that were published in the internet, but they were too complex to play as board games. It took quite a bit effort to simplify the game and “automate” mechanisms in the board game world, so that there would not be too much math and it would not be easy to ruin the game by forgetting to do something – but still keep it distinctly M.U.L.E. We decided that it would have to be M.U.L.E., not just a game inspired by M.U.L.E. Only later did I learn that M.U.L.E. was inspired by board games that Dan Bunten played as a child.

WoM: How long has it taken you to develop it?
HH: In the end, it took more than ten years. These years, however, included years of the prototype spending time in the drawer with nothing going on (for example, because we didn’t know who owned the copyrights), one complete re-design (from a game where the lands and M.U.L.E.s were represented by cards), a change of the publisher as our first publisher went into economic difficulties and eventually bankrupt. I wish the game could have been brought to the market sooner.

WoM: What advantage of the boardgame over the computer game do you see (and vice versa)?
HH: I think the board game is a perfect means of re-creating the social dynamics of the hotseat computer game (hotseat = multiplayer game played locally and not over the internet by taking turns). I think some of the fun and emotional experience is lost if played over the internet: In M.U.L.E., you need to be able to gloat, manipulate, laugh, and cry with your friends. In fact, this aspect of M.U.L.E. is only amplified in a board game. I should also mention the wonderful art by Tuuli Hypén, depicting the land and the cute/rough inhabitants of Planet Irata. Finally, the board game is immensely adaptable. Not only can you play it with three players without a Mechtron NPC (which change the game dynamics quite a bit), but you can also play all kinds of what-if mods and adaptations, while the computer program is (in this case) completely fixed.
Playing the computer game, on the other hand, is certainly more effortless as the computer takes care of all the calculations and maintenance, even though we adapted and simplified the mechanics for the board game. You can play the computer game with one or two players and the Mechtron NPCs. Finally, you get to enjoy the M.U.L.E. theme music by Roy Glover, which all M.U.L.E. fans I know love without exception. When playing the board game, someone will often sing it.

WoM: Do you enjoy playing the game more with cut-throat capitalists or cooperative players?
HH: Are there also co-operative players? I guess you could try to maximize the colony score, but I think the game isn’t really built for that. The reality of the game is that when you co-operate with one player, you kind of slap the other players on the face because there are never enough resources for everybody. In the end, cutthroat players are at least fair, because you can count on them to only think of themselves and not play favourites with another player, which would make you suffer. In board games, being fair is generally more important than being kind.

WoM: Do you have a winning strategy for M.U.L.E. the Boardgame?
HH: In the computer game, I usually went for crystite. This is really because we usually played with two or three people and the computer players always sold their supply too soon to fully exploit their monopolies. I only really learned the efficiency of market cornering tactics for smithore and other goods by reading game reports of players who played with four people.
In the board game, I like hedging my bets and keeping my options open, whatever happens. I try to succeed without others noticing it before it’s too late. It can become quite important to be able recover from shortages, because there is no NPC who will save you if you’re down. On the other hand, I often end up throwing caution and my strategy to the wind, tempted by a lucrative
opportunity that other players have left open… and sometimes regret doing so later.

WoM: Who was the person most surprised when you first confronted her/him with the game?
HH: It must have been me, seeing the game come out after all these years, beautiful and smelling of fresh carboard.

WoM: What other computer game(s) or board game(s) do you enjoy?
HH: Among computer games, I love strategy games, such as Paradox titles (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Stellaris, Hearts of Iron), and Indie games with an exploration/role playing element (such as Outer Wilds, Deep Rock Galactic, and Valheim), and computer adaptations of board games like (Root and Twilight Struggle).
Among board games, I love fun economic games like Le Havre, Brass, Agricola, San Juan, and
Nations, games with asymmetric sides like Root or Twilight Struggle, and sometimes co-operative story-driven games like Arkham Horror. I’ve probably missed quite a few recently published titles.

WoM: Do you have any anecdote regarding the development or the playing of the game?
HH: I remember talking with the board game artist, Tuuli Hypén over the phone about some draft art drawings. I had to tell her the awkward message that the land tile component showing a meteor strike with a rich crystite deposit looked, well, a bit too much like a breast. Her reply was simply: “yes I know. Me and my partner call it the space nipple”. Well, perhaps a bit boringly, the design was slightly changed to look like just meteor crater on a dusty planet.