A monster on the verge of eating an adventurer.


Review: Cartel

by Ramanan Sivaranjan on March 05, 2018

Tagged: storygames apocalypseworld cartel pbta

You’ve got your hands on the ashcan of the full game, a preview of Cartel that’s got everything you need to sample the game before it’s released next year. — Mark Diaz Truman, Cartel “Ashcan Edition”, 2015.

Well, it took him a bit more than a year. The kickstarter for Cartel is today, so it seems like as good a time as any to write about the game.1 I picked up an early “ashcan” version of the game a couple years ago from 401 Games here in Toronto. Since then the author Mark Diaz Truman released an updated set of quick start rules with some nice art and much better graphic design. This game has been a long time coming.

Cartel is like D&D, but everyone is a drug trafficking Mexican gangster. The game is an engine to produce the sorts of stories you see in Breaking Bad and Narcos. Like other Apocalypse World games the mechanics look to push you towards eventual calamity. I suspect like Breaking Bad you would play a game where your hijinks are funny till they’re not.

The game doesn’t drift too far from the general the core of Apocalypse World’s rules, so for most players familiar with the rule set it should be easy to jump into. The genre the game emulates is a lot more accessible than some of the other (particularly niche) Powered by the Apocalypse games I’ve picked up. I think it’ll be an easy game to get into. You’ll recognize the archetypes the playbooks describe: the dirty cop, the naive spouse, the “cook”, etc. The most notable changes to the rules (that I picked up on, and really, what do I know?) is around how you gain experience and advance your character. I am a fan of the change: each playbook has thematic options for how you advance that encourage you to play your role. (And, when you get bored of your experience objective you can move in the opposite direction to cancel it out and pick a new one.)

When I first picked up the game my friend Gus brought up something that’s always on my mind with these Powered by the Apocalypse games: are they making light of a serious topics?

I’m not sure how I feel about a game that romanticizes the Mexican Drug War. Though I want to be a cleric of Nuestra Señora de la Santa Muerte when we play. … I find Latin American and American pulp narco-fiction to be pretty damn creepy and exploitative (El Marginal and Sicaro both, and also yeah Netflix’s Narcos) already, and I wonder how beer and pretzels tabletop can do better. This is sort of why I like my fantasy games and moral play to be a bit more removed - give me Carcossan cannibals, not Los Zetas. — Gus, 2016.

Moments after Gus asked the question fellow Torontonian and BreakoutCon organize Rob chimed in with a link to an old Gaunlet podcast episode where Mark discusses this very topic with Jason Cordova. Jason is a lawyer and had previously worked with people affected by Mexican drug trade. His initial feelings about this game were pretty strong (and negative). (This interview takes place a year after he first encountered the game, so his views had cooled a fair bit.) Their conversation on this podcast is really fantastic. It’s probably one of the best episodes. (So rare!) I’ve been looking forward to the game since listening to this interview.

These Apocalypse World games are at their best when they help the players navigate what might be unfamiliar territory for them. You can see in the playbooks and the writing and everything that orbits the game thus far that Mark’s really put a lot (of himself!) into this game: exactly what I want from my games that are “like D&D, but …”.2

  1. I have so many half written blog posts I should finish. What’s the point of a blog if you don’t write anything, right? At least this post is more topical, now. 

  2. My initial interest in the game was specifically because Mark was the author. He wrote a really thoughtful blog post about the short comings of the indie game scene that was such a good read i’ve been following him and the work his team does ever since.