I like to think that I’m a moderately intelligent human being. I can walk on two legs, and even in a straight line if need be. I can speak in complete sentences, if I’m not trying to walk. When I’m hungry, I’m quite capable of whipping up a meal and feeding myself. I’ve even been known to win a game of Civilization from time to time, all on my own.
But I can’t balance a checkbook to save my life. Seriously. Just ask my wife! Gratitude to whatever fate brought this lovely woman into my life. Without her I’d likely be playing an old GameBoy in a cardboard box in the shadows of some dark alley. She even shoots me some Steam cash now and again, bless her soul.
So, now that you understand my generally favorable level of intelligence and utter lack of financial acuity, it’s interesting that I quickly fell in love with Mohawk Game’s Offworld Trading Company. How in love? I was head over heels before I even finished the tutorial. Granted, the tutorial is lengthy, but still, it was nearly love at first sight. The question now is this: has Offworld managed to keep my love after 23+ hours of play, or has it squandered it along the way? Kinda like I would squander real-world monies without my better half?
An Artful Landing
The art style in Offworld is clean and clear. It reminds me of the Advance Wars series which, if you’ve never played it, is a simple but addictive take on the Panzer General formula. Sadly, Advance Wars is only available on Nintendo handhelds – and they haven’t made a new one in way too long. But I digress! The Offworld art is excellent, including the more cartoony style of the Corporation leaders and the elegant lines of the buildings and transports.
I really dig the building animations too. Sure, watching your buildings grow is an old RTS trope, but it’s really well done in this game. When you decide to place a building on a certain tile, a winged builder unit launches from the HQ, travels to the building site, and places the building apparatus on the surface of Mars before flying away. The package quickly erupts into robotic action, erecting itself over a short period of furious building creation. It’s kinda awesome.
And the music is just as gratifying. Christopher Tin’s score is haunting and melodic, full of echoing piano keys over an often dissonant industrial throb or mechanical churn. It’s bloody amazing. The sounds are also quite good, and I really dig the robotic voices. They’re often hilarious in a sarcastic robot kinda way.
The Art of Business
Offworld Trading Company is a very unique game. Imagine a fairly standard RTS game like StarCraft II or the new Ashes of the Singularity… But without units. That is to say, totally remove the tactical micro aspects of play and be content with the building and the macro left behind? Yeah, kinda makes no sense at first glance right? I mean, how do you fight? But in the case of Offworld, it works great.
You take control of a Corporation attempting to set up shop on a newly colonized Mars. The aim of your business is to support a local colony. Unfortunately, you’re not the only Corporation on Mars. It quickly becomes your “business” to put these other businesses out of business. Specifically, you have to earn enough space bucks to buy the other Corporations out, while also keeping the price of your stocks high enough to avoid being bought out yourself.
Each player’s stock is broken down into ten shares. You begin with a certain number of stocks already invested in your own company, depending on the difficulty. If you buy into your own company until you have at least half of your own stocks, it creates a block of stocks that must be purchased as a whole, making it tougher for players to buy you out early on. So yeah, it’s good to get to this point quickly, while still keeping an eye on your opponent’s stock and who is buying stock in who. Eventually, you’ll want to start chipping away at your opponent’s stocks and creating enough revenue to buy them out, which can be a big chunk of change to spend in the late-game.
The economics are the core of Offworld. The laissez faire economic model drives every decision you make on what to build, what to produce, and what to sell. But before we get into the full-on economics involved in running a successful Corporation, let’s concentrate on running your business from the ground up, then we’ll layer on some of the more interesting and complicated aspects of the game.
In the beginning of a match, before you have any physical presence on Mars, you survey the planet by eliminating the fog of war one small hexagonal area at a time in order to find the best resources and potential landing sites. This part of the game seemed unfair to me, at first, because everyone is surveying at the same time, looking for that sweet spot. Whoever finds the best spot and lands their HQ first wins, right? Not really, because you’re burdened with more initial debt if you land earlier. And this initial debt can be difficult to overcome.
Surveying becomes a game of finding one or two great locations, quickly ascertaining the relative scarcity or complete lack of some resources, and landing at the best possible time. If someone grabs your best spot just before you land your HQ, you better have a Plan B in mind. Like the rest of the game, it’s not about fast reflexes but more about smart decision-making and gaining a quick feel for the situation.
Another wrench thrown into this early period of surveying and claiming is deciding which type of HQ building to construct. There are four to choose from, Scientific, Robotic, Expansion, and Scavenger, and they are all very different. Each HQ relies on a certain combination of resources to upgrade, like Aluminum, Steel, and Glass for the Science HQ, or Aluminum, Steel, and Electronics for the Robotics HQ. In addition, each type grants certain benefits that change how you play a match. Playing as Scavenger allows you to use the Black Market more frequently and you can also learn about new events before other Corporation types. Playing as Expansion gives you an extra land claim (more on this shortly) for each HQ upgrade, and you also need 50% less steel for each upgrade and your units travel 50% faster (these are not the units you are looking for – seriously, it’s just the guys carrying your materials, not units you control).
Once you land and set up your level one headquarters, you’ll find yourself with a certain number of “claims,” based on difficulty and type of HQ. You gain more claims as you upgrade your headquarters, up to a maximum level of five. You use these claims on the surface of Mars, acquiring various resources and open spots for different types of buildings. Some resources are actually available on the surface of Mars itself, and have to be extracted, while others are created by factories through the combination of different resources.
Building a Future
Clear as mud? There’s more!
After you’ve found a good spot to drop your headquarters, it’s time to start gathering the resources “laying around Mars.” You can build mines to extract Aluminum and Iron, quarries for Carbon and Silicon, and pumps or condensers for Water. Each resource tile can be of a low, medium, or high density. The more dense the tile, the more resources it will grant per second. Another, mostly latent resource, is Power. You can build Solar Arrays to harness the power of the sun by day (there is a day/night cycle), but you can also build Wind Turbines on higher elevations and – if you’re lucky enough to get one or two – you can build a massive Geothermal Plant on the (usually rare) geothermal tiles.
There are several refined products that are derived from these basic resources. To quickly name them: Steel, Food, Oxygen, Fuel, Glass, and Electronics. A Steel Mill produces Steel (duh) but only if you have enough Power and Iron to feed it. A Hydrolysis Reactor produces Oxygen and Fuel but at the cost of Power and Water. Electronics are tougher, requiring an Electronics Factory and a supply of Power, Aluminum, Carbon and Silicon. Electronics are often a late-game money-maker. All of these goods – produced or extracted – become the backbone of your economy. Structures also receive bonuses to extraction or production when they are adjacent to similar structures. Tight knots of three buildings seemed to be the most useful.
Getting a basic Corporation off the ground would be simple if it was just about building mines, quarries and factories to create goods to sell on the market, but as I said, we’re just getting started.
When I first saw Offworld coming to Early Access, my first impression was that it was a city-builder like SimCity or Cities: Skylines. Oh boy, was I wrong. Instead of a city-builder it’s a very competitive game against AI or human opponents.
It all comes back to the Market. It’s the core of the game and, ultimately, how you’ll make the money you need to upgrade your HQ, stake your claims, and buy out your opponents.
The Market takes up the majority of the left-hand side of the screen. You can monitor the prices of every good, if the price is rising or falling, and at a click you can buy what you need or sell what others (hopefully) need. Watching the commodities shift as players endeavor upon their own strategies is very engaging. Offworld has somehow made this type of thing fun for me. The interface reflects the current situation very clearly and concisely at all times. That’s not to say that it’ll hold your hand, but it gives you the information to quickly make important decisions.
Understanding debt is also integral to mastering the market and how player stock prices rise and fall. Debt is figured separately from the cash you have on hand and the money you are making. This makes sense from a real-world standpoint, but took me a game or two to wrap my head around in Offworld. Obviously, keeping your debt low is important, but sometimes you have to accrue a certain amount of debt to make that big leap in production you need in order to get ahead. It’s a fine balancing act. The object of most any match is to raise the price of your stock and drive down the stock prices of your opponents in order to, eventually, buy all of them out.
The Art of War
Offworld would be little more than a competitive economic simulator were it not for one little wrinkle: the Black Market. This is where Offworld starts to show how devious it can sometimes be. The Black Market offers an array of nasty things you can do to your opponents in order to slow or halt their production, or even steal their products. For instance, you can purchase Filthy Pirates and place them in a small zone upon Mars – they’ll raid resource units as they pass through that area and give a portion of those resources to you. Dynamite will blow a building into a pile of rubble, forcing the targeted Corporation to pay to rebuild it. Slowdown Strikes halve production of a single building for a period of time. You can also buy a Goon Squad to protect a building, like the Offworld Market.
If a player attacks that building, you’ll not only nullify their attack but you’ll also receive a free use of that exact attack as well. Back atcha, sucka! There is a wide variety of these fun abilities but only seven are available in most games, making the Black Market different with each game.
Auctions also appear from time to time, offering players the chance to bid on a new claim, a specific patent, or even the use of a Black Market ability. One of my favorites is the Magnetic Storm. When it comes up for auction a mechanical voice elicits, “I’m not sure how you can buy a magnetic storm, but there’s one up for auction now.” I roffle a little every time. Anyway, auctions can be a great tool if you’re careful. But they can also be a quick way to find yourself deeper in debt if you overbid on something you thought you really needed but actually didn’t..
The Market, and to a certain extent the Black Market, will drive nearly every action you take. In most games, claims are scarce, and you have to use them smartly in order to get a leg up on the competition. For instance, let’s say that water is scarce on a map, and most players have built HQs that require life support, i.e. non-Robotic. You might choose to play Robotic because they don’t require food (which takes water to produce). You can go one step further – you claim the best water tiles early on and begin to stockpile the Water, the resource required to produce Food. Meanwhile, you have a good time sabotaging your opponent’s Water tiles by smart use of the Black Market. They’ll likely have Water on auto-buy so you could take an early-game lead with this simple strategy.
However, you have to change strategies as the game progresses. Nuking Water and selling it high isn’t enough to fund buying everyone out after thirty minutes. As players move into more advanced production, you have to find ways to make “all the money” while keeping others from doing the same. Like chess, there seem to be very deliberate and important early-, mid- and late-game tactics in Offworld Trading Company.
It is possible to snowball all the way through, but only through smart decisions and great play. Most games will progress as the weaker players are bought out, meaning that an 8-player FFA might quickly become a 4-player FFA as the four leading players buy out those lagging behind, and then two of those players will eventually buy out the weaker of the four, etc.
And it gets more complicated from there! There are five specialized buildings that create additional strategies. It’s usually impossible to build all of them, particularly at higher difficulty levels where players have fewer claims. You’ll have to decide on a building or two that fits your current strategy and use it well.
I mentioned the Offworld Market earlier. It’s arguably the most powerful of these special buildings. It’s exactly what it says it is – it’s an Offworld Market that every minute or so launches a bunch of a single resource offworld for a big payoff. It’s a late-game building that can bring in stacks of cash.
The Patent Lab unlocks a long list of a dozen Patents you can research, but generally only one of each Patent can be had by any single player. There are Patents like Cold Fusion, which powers all buildings with Water, or Teleportation, which teleports all resources instead of flying them to and fro.
The Optimization Center is used to increase the production of every resource. Each lab can upgrade a single resource’s production by 25% at a time, but only one resource at a time, and only if you have the Chemicals on-hand to queue them up.
The Pleasure Dome is simple – it bring happiness to the colony, and it brings you a steady income so long as energy is cheap. It’s a “crazy party spot for the colonists,” according to the tooltip, and as such usually brings in more money if you can sandwich it between certain buildings at the colony itself.
Lastly, there’s the Hacker Array. This one can be a hoot, particularly when used in conjunction with the Black Market. It basically spoofs the market into either a fake surplus or a fake shortage of a certain resource. The Hacker Array can also be quite dangerous if you dump money into a shortage and someone else collapses the market on that resource. Each successive hack becomes more expensive than the last, so use with caution – you may not be making the money you need to to cover the initial cost.
Offworld features a campaign that is played entirely against the AI (cooperative/competitive campaign play would certainly be interesting, but it’s not an option). You start by choosing one of the initial four Corporations, broken down into categories according to the four different types of HQs. Other Corporations unlock as you win campaigns with each Corporation. Each is colorful and very different.
The campaign isn’t very long, but it is replayable. You guide your Corporation to victory during seven weeks of economic competition. In essence, it’s a non-linear string of seven skirmishes against your rivals. There are a lot of choices to be made before each skirmish. You can choose franchise location, which is basically a choice of maps with different mission rewards. On top of this, each franchise location is also subsidized by one of the four big countries making claims on Mars: the USA, EU, Russia, and China. Not only will you gain the basic mission reward for a franchise location, if you win that week, but you’ll also gain a subsidy from that country. These subsidies stack if you continue to win for that same country, up to level three, and can be quite powerful late-game.
In addition, you have to hire staff before each mission. Early on, you only have staffers for a handful of buildings, meaning that you won’t be able to build some buildings at all, unlike regular skirmish in which every building is unlocked. You can hire staff permanently or on a weekly basis. Obviously, permanent staffing is the best option, but it’s also more expensive, so often a weekly hire can be useful.
Overall, the campaign is engaging and great if you just want to fit in a quick set of challenges in two or three hours, but ultimately it won’t be the mode that makes or breaks the longevity of Offworld. This is where I think a lot of people will find themselves divided. If you’re in it just for the campaign, you’ll likely find yourself done with the game in 15 hours or so. Maybe longer, if you really want to try out some different strategies as you replay various factions. The campaign is a great addition, but for most I don’t believe it’ll be main attraction.
Punching Your Friends (or the AI)
Sure, the campaign is great, but once it dries up, you’re left with standard skirmishes at a variety of difficulty levels, the Daily Challenge, and online play. Skirmishes are great, and could feasibly keep players in business (or out of business) for a long time. The Skirmish options – from map size to map type to map rules – are enough to keep the Skirmish feeling fresh. The Daily Challenges are also a nice addition, offering specific maps on a daily basis against the AI. Finish the Daily Challenge, and you’ll be able to able to compare your victory time to others on the leaderboard. Mock your friends if you like, because if they are like me, they didn’t even finish it. The Dailies can be quite tough.
I must say, the AI is outstanding and will likely trounce you for a long while at the higher settings. Still, it’s not a long game of growing your city and balancing your budget, it’s a cutthroat burst of economics that’s usually over within half an hour.
But, ultimately, I think the main attraction on offer is the online play. Offworld is a competitive RTS. It’s fundamentally different from other RTS games, but it’s a game that still thrives on competition against cunning humans. You can participate in unranked play, which lets you set up games much like Skirmish mode, with up to eight players in an FFA or into a variety of team modes of your choosing. In addition, there’s also 1v1 or 4-player FFA Ranked Matchmaking. As always, the life of these online modes will be determined by the population of the community playing online. There’s nearly always a 1v1 game match available for ranked play, and I reckon that’s where most of the competition will take place, but it can be a little tougher to find a bigger game. Of course, you can always get your friends together for a few comp stomps or some real cutthroat competition (it’s one of my favorite ways to play RTS games). My friends are (mostly) old and slow, too – so this works well for me!.
A Modern RTS Classic
A big congratulations to Soren Johnson and Mohawk Interactive! I said it before, but I’ll say it again: Offworld Trading Company is flippin’ brilliant. It’s a beautiful game, both visually and mechanically. Every aspect of it works and plays great, creating exciting moments of economic competition. Each facet of the game has been given serious thought and careful implementation. It’s very obviously Soren Johnson’s labor of love and Mohawk’s attention to detail has created a modern masterpiece of game design. And regular updates continue to refine the core game.
The learning curve starts simple but ramps up nicely as you learn the nuance of the Market, Black Market and specialized buildings like the Offworld Market. All of this is multiplied by the variety of HQ playstyles and the total lack of a standard build order from game to game. I could go on and on but suffice it to say that, in a year full of fantastic strategy and 4x games, Offworld is currently sitting near the top of the stack.
TL;DR: Offworld Trading Company is simply brilliant game design. The time and care taken to bring this gem to fruition is obvious in every detail. It’s a unique, fascinating game full of economic nuance that creates a real-time experience based not on APM but on smart decisions and careful, well-timed action. And it makes the Market exciting with short, furious matches which can lead to downright evil actions that will have you cackling with glee when it works out, and crying in debt if you find yourself on the losing end. A masterpiece!
You Might Like This Game If:
- You fancy laissez faire economic competition.
- You love to cut your friends. It’s just money, but yeah, it smarts.
- You enjoy smart, thoughtful games playable in short, thoughtful bursts.
You Might Not Like This Game If:
- You’re expecting Cities: Skylines – it’s not that type of game, despite appearances.
- You’re not interested in laissez faire economic competition.
- Cutting your friends is abhorrent. (What’s wrong with you?)
Chris has played this game 23+ hours on an Intel Core i7-4790 CPU (3.60GHz), 12GB RAM, nVidia 4GB GTX 745.