Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company

Written by Rob Larkin on 3/16/2015 for PC  
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Offworld Trading Company is an economic RTS from Mohawk Games and Soren Johnson, the former Lead Designer of Civ IV. The premise is pretty simple: build a resource exploration company on Mars, collect resources, sell them for a profit, buyout the competition, and repeat. There are a few avenues within that structure to get where you're going, but in essence the game boils down to digestible, 30 minute or so chunks of gameplay to do just that. There are a variety of modes, tutorials, games against other players, against the AI, daily challenges, but each boils down to those 30 minutes. This helps avoid the "one more turn" phenomenon of many RTS games, because each match really does feel complete when the last player is bought out. 

A typical match plays out pretty consistently into a few stages. First you are presented the map, unexplored and dark. The first stage is to try and bring some light to the darkness by dropping probes to scan small hexagonal zones of territory and sort out where those precious resources are hidden. There is no clear end to this phase, you can explore until every nook and cranny of the map is revealed, or find a good enough locale and drop one of 4 types of bases to get going. The bases (Scavenger, Scientific, Robotic, and Expansive) all have some unique perks and abilities. For example, Robotic bases don't require food, water, or oxygen but do require electronics. Matches consist of four players and each will drop a base at a different time, whenever the player is ready. Players who wait to the end do get certain bonus like an extra claim or earlier access to the Black Market. But players who drop early have the first opportunity to stake their claims on the choicest real estate. And that's the second phase, staking claims.

Bases can be leveled up, and as they do they receive 4-5 new claims. Claims are just opportunities to drop a building on a resource or create a factory. So you might start the game with 4 claims and immediately drop an iron mine on a fish source of iron, make a steel mill to cover the iron into steel, build a solar panel to start collecting power, and build a hydro plant to collect water. Now you're out of claims and anything else you need will require cash to obtain. You start out with a small bankroll but can sell surplus supplies to beef that up. You'll also start out with limited supply of each of the most common resources: water, food, oxygen, fuel to power your transports, glass to build structures, etc. When you have enough of that steel to upgrade your base to the next level, you'll know exactly what resources you are operating at a deficit on and will likely try to remedy that. This goes on though four base expansions, getting deficits and collecting resources, selling surpluses to cover losses and buy what you need until you can harvest it later. Everything is for sale and the prices are always fluctuating. 

The game does an extremely good job at taking all of this fast moving economic data and providing a view to process it all quickly and efficiently. Across the length of the left hand side of the screen is a thick bar that displays all resources, your current holdings, and the current price. It's basically a spreadsheet in a sidebar. Hovering a mouse over a resource opens up buttons to use a claim to develop a building that will provide that resource. Your available funds, debt, and remaining claims are across the top, and upgrades and special buildings are to the bottom. There is a lot of data there, but it's laid out expertly, and east to digest. It's also essential, because most of the game is spent avoiding the distractions of the pretty blinking lights on the map to pour over the numbers on the spreadsheet. 

What is not so easy to come by is similar data about your opponents, and that's what makes much of the game difficult to fully realize. As you build and expand, collect and sell, there is an entire Black Market with multiple options to halt your opponent's production and cause other chaos with worker riots, EMP freezes, dynamite, and even underground nukes waiting to be exploited, but there isn't a way to really get a sense of where your opponents are weak most effectively target these measures. The AI certainly seems to know your weakness, and I've seen a few AI opponents pull of some extremely clever combos, such as the time I had all of my water pumps frozen just after getting a special bonus to run all my transports on water instead of fuel. So my demand was sky high, my pumps frozen, and at that moment an opponent asked into the system to cause a water shortage scare shooting prices through the roof. It just about bankrupted me but and I had to sell off resources everywhere else to to stay afloat. But it seems very scattershot to really get dirty into the black market yourself. With no way of getting aggregate data on your opponents, hitting them where it would hurt most would take too much time to manually tally their weaknesses than it seems is worth it.

The end game can get a bit maddening. Overall the pace of the game is pretty quick for an RTS game, and the endgame can be a dash for the cash. Once the claims are all staked out, there isn't much left to do but collect and sell resources to try and buy the stock of the other players before all of yours is swept up. As rockets blast supplies off world for the biggest payouts and high value reserves are dumped into the open market, often the final blow is dealt by who can liquidate their assets the fastest to force the other out. 

Visually the game is very well done. The graphics are nothing spectacular but there is enough detail to keep me satisfied. The music is virtually nonexistent because the developers made the wise choice to forego any elevator tunes to make the most of the audio sphere to continue to drop hints of other goings on in the world. So when opponents upgrade, buy stock, or detonate an underground nuke, but you're busy pouring over the sidebar spreadsheet of your supplies and costs, you won't be left out of the loop from events as an audible voiceover will clue you in.   

Offworld Trading Company is a lot of fun to play. My only concern is that each game feels a little too similar. There are the 4 base types and each map is unique, but it feels the same process again and again. Perhaps as I get a better grip on the Black Market I might find another layer of depth, but even so I worry about long term playability. The game is a great concept, but will it have the staying power to convince me to jump in for another match months from now?

Off world Trading Company is still in Early Access on Steam. However, this is a very polished game. I've played a few Early Access titles that were a long way from ready and nearly unplayable, but Offworld Trading Company already feels very close to a finished product. I think the game does a lot right and very little wrong. I would like a little more feedback on my opponents weakness to be a little more effective on the Black Market and make that aspect a bit more attractive, and I wonder about the lack of variety in the gameplay and long term interest, but in the short time I've been playing I haven't been disappointed, and am eager to see the final product.

* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.

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 First picked up a game controller when my mother bought an Atari 2600 for my brother and I one fateful Christmas.  
Now I'm a Software Developer in my day job who is happy to be a part of the Gaming Nexus team so I can have at least a flimsy excuse for my wife as to why I need to get those 15 more minutes of game time in...

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