I can see why you might be slowly backing away from your computer already. An economic real-time strategy game, you say? Hey, I live paycheck to paycheck too, pal. That’s an economic RTS in real life. We don’t need to bring video games into this, do we?
But we do. We do need to bring video games into this. The lead designer of Sid Meier’s Civilization IV, Soren Johnson, brought video games into this. And so, with that pedigree on his resume, Johnson set out to recapture his love of the noncombatant RTS. Noncombatant does not mean noncompetitive. Because Offworld is all competition. You have to command and conquer market economies; you have to Zerg rush supply lines; and you have to starcraft your martian resources into finished goods for sale.
Johnson set out to make something like the next Railroad Tycoon or SimCity--but set on the Red Planet. While Offworld doesn’t have the seemingly laid-back pacing of a resource management game or a straightforward city builder, it does have you shuttling supplies around a map, business rivals cutting into your bottom line, and continuous infrastructure problems (and opportunities) to resolve. Everybody in Offworld wants to be the Monopoly Guy, where passing Go has more to do with setting up sensible supply chains than just blatantly land grabbing every open property.
In Offworld Trading Company, you lead a corporation looking to turn underground resources into fistfuls of profits. You start by scanning the randomized Martian surface. Mars looks samey, at first. But as you do the building-placement dance across various maps, you’ll see canyons and peaks, plateaus and striations, plains, volcanoes, and craters. You’ll dash across dried-up riverbeds and ancient lakebeds. You’ll set up shop on both frozen and fiery landscapes.
To what end? Profits. Of course it’s all for profits. The sheer number of systems at play, however, boggles the mind. Good thing there’s one of the best tutorials I’ve ever seen in a game of this nature. With baby steps, it takes you through a multistage tutorial that gives you some easy wins in small scenarios, building up your confidence. Then it ramps up one aspect, then another, until you get the hang of things. Some games can be won or lost on the tutorial screen, and Offworld definitely wins.
The tutorials begin with quirky dialogue from a company called Yoshimi Robotics. If you’re missing the reference there, “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” is an epic robo-wars ballad from rock band The Flaming Lips. I can’t think of a more perfect start to my relationship with Offworld Trading Company. It's also cute that the entire purpose of the game is to usher in the era of “Human Retirement.” I'm happily imagining the lazy, nobody-works utopia we’re crafting in Offworld.
The tutorial also occasionally—and smartly—gets past the how of production and into the why of business. Take glass factories, for example. Producing glass requires oxygen (for burning) and silicon. But glass is heavily used in human architecture because humans love the look of glass in commercial structures, which also aids in “executive retention.” In other words, staring at walls all day sucks, and no CEO wants that: so you build a room with a view.
Great beginning, but Offworld doesn’t bog down the rest of the game with that level of exposition. It's some sharp writing, though.
In-game, watching the buildings practically 3D print themselves into existence is awesome. The tiles animate with the same thoughtful exuberance usually reserved for smoke and explosions in typical RTS games.
At some point, Offworld’s rhythm gets into me. I’m scanning the market prices on the left, selling off 10 units of this, 100 units of that. I’m scanning my opponents’ colonial purchases on the right, and I’m buying a warehouse here, a habitat there. An auction pops up, and I’m weighing needs versus finances, calculating whether one more tile claim is worth that much more debt. I see the ones and zeroes of The Matrix cascade in front of my eyes.
That may be hyperbolizing a bit. But Offworld Trading Company is a numbers game, through and through. There’s nothing personal here, though it may feel like it from time to time. It might feel personal when you get into yet another map where the resources aren't showing you any love. It might feel personal when one (or two! Or three!) of the non-player characters put you on their blacklist, targeting you incessantly with attack after attack on your market and resources. And it might feel personal when a rival company plunks down a resource collector right on top of the tile you’d been eyeballing for 10 seconds too long. You snooze, you lose.
But it’s not personal. It’s business. And business owners can be some of the meanest cats in the universe. I know. I used to be a business major. You’d be surprised how many of us were willing to eat up the stereotype of being a calculating business-minded individual with ice-cold veins. As long as the line on the graph was moving up, we were charting success. Glad I dropped out of business school. But you don’t have to get a degree in business management to wrap your head around Offworld. Sure, the game gets deeper than I ever intend to go. I can stare at the aptly titled “Insane Resource Graph” all I want; it doesn’t mean I’m going to extract its secrets. But Offworld also works well on the surface.
Depending on the game mode—and there are many—I’ve found success several different ways. In skirmish mode, a lot of things are off the chain, so I’ve gone jack-of-all-trades in my playstyle and piled up the cash to buy out the competition. On the campaign route, I’ve flexed my economic muscles, one by one, until I’ve surpassed the highly restrictive conditions I'm put into. Certain resources may be in a chokehold on this map; the map itself puts you in a bind for total building area on another; or the fast-thinking AI starts shoveling cash into the black market, starting a subterfuge-fueled econo-war, moving up to the frontline of what constitutes warfare in Offworld.
If you think there’s ever a dull moment in Offworld, you’d be wrong. Selling off stockpiles of goods for cash is as satisfying as cranking out foot soldiers in other strategy games. Buying out an opponent with cold, hard clicks of the mouse—and of course cold, hard cash in hand—can be as satisfying as going nuclear on a rival. And pulling off a hard-won economic victory feels every bit as brain draining as a prolonged military campaign in your average real-time title.
Offworld is meant to play much faster than the average RTS, though. Skirmishes can run 20 or 30 minutes. Maybe up to an hour if I can't get my act together. The campaign is broken down into several stages, each one also hovering around that 30-minute mark, but moving on to the next stage and objective before you get too entrenched in any one map.
I’m sure there’s balancing and rebalancing and buffing and nerfing that needs to happen. Somewhere buried in the spreadsheets are some sneaky little “errors” that require tweaking from the developer. But Offworld Trading Company manufactures a variety of gameplay styles, beckoning you into trying several kinds. Just when you're getting comfy, Offworld introduces a new set of win conditions and along-the-way hindrances (and, again, opportunities) to keep the maps and scenarios worth playing and replaying. And for a game purportedly about numbers, it can feel like the boxing gloves have come off and you’re fighting for your life. At least in a businesslike fashion. This is full-contact economics 101.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
Randy gravitates toward anything open world, open ended, or open to interpretation. He prefers strategy over shooting, introspection over action, and stealth and survival over looting and grinding. He's been a gamer since 1982, and writing critically about video games for over 15 years. A few of his favorites are Skyrim, Elite Dangerous, and Red Dead Redemption. He lives with his wife and daughter in Oregon.View Profile