Offworld Trading Company Review
Some people get excited by economics. Others over statistics. Yet more about explosives. Let us introduce Offworld Trading Company a game about creating a business enterprise on Mars. With a small amount of explosions. Created by Civilisation IV lead designer Soren Johnson, Offworld Trading Company is a game of balance. Each of the game’s thirteen commodities must be kept in check to provide the greatest profit. It is economics in its purest form: supply and demand. On Mars. With explosions and pirates.
Initially confusing, even after an extensive series of tutorials, it takes some time to fully grasp the basic concepts of the game. The player must first scan a small section of Mars’ surface for resources, then decide where the most efficient site would be to set up their headquarters. Once sited, they choose where to place their next building, most likely a production facility for the more basic resources such as water, power, fuel or oxygen. Mines for ore or pumps for water can only be founded on locations marked with these resources, and the distance from the headquarters will cost fuel as the supply shipments fly back and forth thus making that original building site rather important.
Each building requires materials to construct, but since every resource has a value on the open market that fluctuates over time this can be equated to a monetary amount as well, allowing the player to build even if they lack the specific resource assuming they have enough money stockpiled. More importantly every building on Mars requires a permit, presumably because the government does not want huge commercial expansion that could destabilise the planet, so players must be extremely careful in placing their buildings to avoid lacking the production of a valuable commodity. More permits are obtained by upgrading the HQ, a costly enterprise that requires a large investment or specific resources, so often the best approach is provide these resources yourself and upgrade early and make more plots available.
One of the most pleasing parts of Offworld Trading Company is its commodity trading. It successfully imitates a realistic economic market where supply and demand are key. Every building on Mars’ surface consumes or supplies resources (and most do both) which means as the game evolves so does the value of each commodity. On a map rich in underground water resources, for example, the price of H2O will fall as pumps are constructed and the excess is sold to the market, meanwhile the scarcity of other resources, perhaps silicon, will rise as demand exceeds supply. This will then have a knock-on effect with other resources such as food (requiring water to be grown) falling and electronics (which have a direct correlation to silicon in production) rising. Canny investors can therefore play the market as well as producing their own resources, realising the likelihood of certain commodities rapidly escalating in price and invest early, stockpiling that resource, then sell high when demand is at its peak. It’s like your very own stockmarket sim set on Mars.
Now if that does not get your adrenaline pumping there is a little more to the game than just economics. Every player can choose a faction when starting the game, each one altering the playstyle slightly. The Yoshimi Robotics corporation for example require electronics instead of glass to upgrade and thus creating an early supply chain to provide the electronics is essential, meanwhile the Reclamation Inc., some form of murky gangster led rabble, has access to the black market more frequently than other factions. And this is where the game gets a little more interesting.
While the game could be entirely played with little to no interaction between players, each simply amassing resources and then selling them at a profit, it would be rather dull and sterile. Fortunately the black market opens at regular intervals to spice up proceedings. Players may purchase rather more nefarious resources from here, ranging from magnetic storms that destroy all ships in an area to underground nukes that decimate the resources available on a single tile. You could employ these tactics to aggravate players, stagnating their production lines and putting you one step ahead. However the more cunning player would also consider the economic effect using these hostile actions might have. For example using a power surge, which disables all buildings in a connected area for a short period, might create a severe shortage of one resource, a resource that one might have invested in heavily just prior to the surge. One needs to act with care however as a predictable move could be countered by a goon squad that catches such moves in the act, preventing them and gifting it to the opposition.
The game is over when one player has bought out all the competition and created a monopoly. To do this they must purchase more than half of the shares of their competitors and thus buy them out. To prevent this happening players can buy their own shares which decreases their liquidity but makes them more secure, their share price dependent on their current value and the resources they hold. Opponents must then perform a hostile takeover by purchasing all the shares in one huge lump sum to remove them from the game. It’s an interesting take on the typical approach to multiplayer games, you cannot simply destroy their HQ, however it does result in some rather anticlimactic finishes. Often you realise that the game could have ended some time ago if you just sold everything you had to buy out an opponent’s company or worse the game suddenly finishes unexpectedly because they have realised just that and beaten you to it.
For a time it is rather wonderful to see all this economic embattlement in action, staring at line charts and bar charts that illustrate the fluctuations of goods over time, reminiscing of that time you massively shorted the availability of food on the planet (and most likely killed off a good number of Martians in the process) for a huge profit. However Offworld Trading Company becomes stale rather too quickly. There may be many options to approach the game and try to make the biggest profit but in the end they all feel rather identical. It’s all just numbers on the screen. You could invest in upgrading the production efficiency of your buildings, or research a patent that reduces their power consumption, but all of this just slightly offsets some of those numbers. Unlike other resource simulations such as Tropico, SimCity or even to a certain extent Civilisation, Offworld Trading Company does not evolve beyond those numbers. What you see on screen, with the production of the buildings and the shuttles flying back and forth, changes little between the start of the game and the very end. As a result it is hard to get a real sense of achievement, particularly as the average game will last less than an hour.
The campaign adds some level of depth to proceedings. Strangely only available after you have completed a standard skirmish, you find yourself setting up a company on Mars and competing against other companies over multiple maps, each area providing you with income over time as one would expect from an expanding empire. Unlike in skirmishes where everything is available from the beginning, you must purchase engineers that allow you to build certain production facilities, before each map. This provides some level of strategy as you must balance your restrictions with what is available to you. Hopefully over time you will unlock every building and be running a successful business, but bizarrely this makes the game easier instead of harder as it progresses. While the campaign does offer some sense of growth and achievement that is missing from a standard mission, it sadly feels rather lacking in other departments. There is no plot or storyline other than running your company and competing with others, essentially it is just a string of missions with a slowly evolving set of tools at your disposal. It’s strange to have this game set on Mars and not really do anything with it.
Multiplayer in Offworld Trading Company opens up a few more options. The AI is not terrible and will offer a worthy battle, but they do not seem to be as cunning as a human mind. Being outsmarted in Offworld Trading Company hurts, but it is easy to appreciate the sneaky business-like dealings of someone who ruins your power supplies at the same time as shorting its availability thus putting you cripplingly into debt. Playing with others is most likely the game’s high point but it is a shame that events cannot be sped up in this mode as scenarios can be rather long and drawn out.
If you’re into numbers there is much to love about Offworld Trading Company. It is all about the bottom line and getting those figures to add up. The novel use of money not just as a resource but as liquidity for your company allowing you to purchase all the other resources you require is initially confusing, but ultimately rather wonderful when you fully understand it. The trouble is that all these numbers begin to feel rather heartless after a few hours. The short length of each mission means you never truly appreciate what you have created (as you would in Civilisation IV for example) and delving into the black market is fun but never quite as exciting as setting off an underground nuke should be. Meanwhile the campaign is let down by being nothing more than a string of scenarios.