Business simulation games have had a long history in digital form, stretching all the way back to 1973 when Bob Jamison of the Minnesota Educational Computing Consortium created Lemonade Stand. Later bundled free with the Apple II, this early edutainment title had the player run a lemonade stand, balancing the costs of ingredients against pricing and demand to try to turn a profit. In more recent years, the early days of Facebook featured many games with iterations on this concept, swapping lemonade for drugs and criminals to keep things appropriately edgy. Now in 2019, solo developer AkriGames attempts to refresh the concept once again with Mango Cart, an in-depth trading simulation about buying and selling mangoes between two countries. With worker conditions, mango quality, environmental impact, political parties, bank loans, shipping insurance, and wholesale prices to consider, Mango Cart offers a complex simulation, but lacks the personality to keep players invested in its screens upon screens of raw data.
The journey of the mango from overseas to local supermarkets is a long one, with many variables to consider along the way. The player’s fledgling company in the fictional country of Comedia begins with ₤12,000 to spend, which is little when establishing a new business. The first order of business is to open a bank account, with four different banks to choose from. The banks vary in size, technological focus, and shadiness. The dodgy Cayman bank will have low fees, but money may mysteriously disappear from the player’s account. The trustworthy Coopcom bank is more reliable, but will refuse to help the player evade their taxes. By and large, the banks operate in the same manner, with the choice of bank boiling down to what flavour text appears in random events. Once a bank is chosen, the player can take out a loan. The amount that can be loaned will depend on the player’s credit rating, which is updated annually depending on performance.
With the finances sorted, the player must purchase some mangoes. The fruit is grown in the tropical land of Pomery, and can be obtained by either purchasing a mango field, which will produce a set amount of mangoes each year, or buying from an established mango producer. If a field is owned, the player can set the working conditions and environmental impact of the field. Mangoes sold by producers are also graded by quality, environmental impact, and worker conditions. Unethically farmed mangoes save money in the short term, but can be a liability if the media catches wind of the company’s poor behaviour.
While the player waits for the mangoes to be harvested, the yearly elections of Comedia occur. Donations can be made to the different political parties, and the party in power will affect the import tariffs and taxes that the player pays. A new party in power can save the player a lot of money, but can also cause civil unrest, which is never great for business.
Harvest time rolls around, with the quality and quantity of the crop affected by weather conditions. The mangoes need to be shipped home, with four shipping companies of varying reliability to choose from. The seas between Comedia and Pomery are hilariously dangerous, with the chance of capsizing or having mangoes stolen by pirates surprisingly high. Optional shipping insurance will recoup some money lost, but the loss of stock is still a big blow to the company.
Should the mangoes survive the trip back to Comedia, a wholesaler needs to be chosen to distribute the product to supermarkets. The three wholesalers will only sell mangoes of a certain quality, preferring either cheap, good quality or ethically farmed fruit. Each wholesaler offers payment at a fixed or variable rate. A variable is riskier than taking a fixed lump sum, but if mangoes are in high demand a variable rate can gain the player a greater pay day.
Now that the mangoes have completed their arduous journey, players must repeat the task all over again with a new crop. Mango Cart has no win state, and, once the basics of buying and selling mangoes are understood, the goal becomes keeping the business going for as long as possible. New opportunities arise as the company becomes more powerful, with the option to sell shares in the company and hire executive officers to run things more smoothly. Chances are, however, that a run of bad luck will cause the company to go bankrupt long before that stage. Random events occur throughout the game, the majority of which will have a negative impact: banks losing the player’s money, spikes in oil prices, global financial crises dropping consumer spending, even a political revolution resulting in an instant game over. While this variability adds some freshness to each run, having a good run ruined by a random event can be frustrating, with chance a more likely indicator of success than the core gameplay of careful decision making.
While many choices are made in a playthrough of Mango Cart, surprisingly few are available at any one time. Gameplay is strictly turn-based, with each month of the year comprising a single turn. Actions are tied to particular months, with January being the time to open a bank account, February to take out a loan, March to purchase a mango field, April to purchase mangoes from producers, and so on. With no in-game tutorial or manual to speak of, this month-to-month restriction is initially very confusing. One’s first instinct in a game about buying and selling mangoes is to attempt to purchase mangoes. Not being able to buy them right away with no visual indicator as to why they are not available is frustrating. Clicking on a month will show the required actions for that month, but if the player would like to take out a bank loan in May or purchase mangoes in September, they are out of luck. Allowing the player to take more actions each month might also make the game more interesting. Once the player understands how the game works, each playthrough making the same choices at the same time starts to drag. Juggling multiple mango shipments as conditions change in the market could make for more dynamic gameplay.
Compounding Mango Cart‘s issues are the bugs, which are infrequent but will ruin a run when they occur. Insurance has failed to pay out when mangoes were stolen, a three-year loan mysteriously disappeared in the second year of a playthrough, and the business has been penalised for poor working conditions when workers were treated well. This lack of consistency is frustrating and discourages the player from trying again.
The real problem with Mango Cart, however, is the lack of a hook to keep players interested. The presentation is minimal, with no sound effects and only the occasional small illustration breaking up grey screens of numbers. Successful business simulation games often have a creative element to spice up the drab spreadsheets: Game Dev Tycoon has the player choose the name and genre of their games, and visually shows the progression of the business from one person in a basement to a large company; Cities: Skylines has a full city grow from the number crunching; Plague Inc shows the player’s disease spreading across the world, with the challenge ramping up smoothly as humanity tries to stop it. Alternatively, leaning further into the edutainment beginnings of this genre would also be a valid approach. A lot is to be learned about the world of commerce here, and explaining all the specialised financial terms would be helpful.
Mango Cart may have many more variables to balance for running a successful company than the Lemonade Stands of video gaming past, but a lack of personality or educational value makes it difficult to recommend. The bones of an interesting game are present, but a lot more work is needed to make Mango Cart an enjoyable experience.
Reviewed on PC.