Sunday 14 February 2021

Offworld Trading Company

In the future, mankind is busy colonising Mars and the moons of Jupiter. The expansion has been privatised, with several corporations engaging in financial warfare to gain the initiative.

Offworld Trading Company is a strategy title from Mohawk Games where you play the head of a corporation trying to win the race to colonise Mars and, in the expansions Jupiter's Forge and The Europa Wager, the moons of Jupiter. In a novel move, there is no capacity here for military action. Aside from bribing pirates into interfering with your opponents' supply lines and occasionally sending a demolition team to blow up a single building, there is no way of directly confronting your rivals.

Instead, the game is about resources, supply lines and accumulating cash. At the start of each mission you have to choose where to place your base. You can scan for the optimal location, but if you take too long, the other players (AI or human) will get the best locations and you could end up losing out. But of course if you choose too soon, you may find a suboptimal location whilst another player gets cooler area surrounded by resources. That done, you get to build up to five resource-gathering operations. You can mine aluminium, iron, silicon, carbon or water. Additional buildings you construct at your base produce food, oxygen and fuel, glass, electronics and chemicals from those resources. However, you can only build five facilities at a time. You then have to pay a lot of money and resources to level up your base to a second tier, where you get another five facility slots and so on, up to five tiers. Each mission has different finances in operation, so you constantly have to adjust your strategy: you might find electronics nearly worthless on one level but vitally important on another.

Additional twists come in the form of supply and demand mechanics. You may find yourself producing vast quantities of water, which is in urgent need, so you sell lots of water...which brings the price crashing down and suddenly you're producing tons of a substance which is now effectively worthless. You can then hoard water for ages to send the price back up, or build a hacking station and get some tech guys to manipulate the market for you. Building a starport is also a great idea, allowing you to mass-transport resources back to Earth, which has a different supply and demand system going on, but a starport is hugely expensive and you may prefer to focus on building up your resource-gathering operation. But missions which require you to "buy out" your opponent by buying shares in their company require massive influxes of cash that only a starport can really generate.

The result is a game of Wall Street if it was written by Kim Stanley Robinson and set in space. Oh, and each game rarely lasts more than hour, frequently much less than that, with buy-outs being hard and brutal. This is not a slow, steady strategy game you can let unfold slowly over many days of carefully-weighed options, but a cutthroat game of backstabbing, commercial subterfuge and ruthless information control. It's like Civilization VI if it had the furious pacing of Street Fighter II Turbo.

The result is a finely-balanced game of give and take, supply and weaponised demand. It's fiendish, intelligent and at times frustrating (an early mistake in setting up a supply line can doom your entire campaign), but also rewarding. Blowing up enemy cities in strategy games may be entertaining, but buying out a rival corporation and firing their CEO with a smug grin on your face is far more satisfying.

Between the original game and the two expansions, there's a lot of content here. Multiple corporations, each with their own quirks (robots that don't need food, scrappy junkyard guys who specialise in cheap and cheerful operations, or hyper-advanced scientists who over-engineer every solution to a problem), are available to play, and new ideas trickle in during the game. Once you get used to playing on Mars, moving to Io or Europa can mean some readjusting as you adapt to the changing landscapes.

On the negative side of things, Offworld Trading Company shows most of its hand early. New mechanics and ideas do emerge in later campaigns, but these are variations on the theme. If you lock in and love the theme, there's a huge amount of game here. For those who want more novelty in their games, the relentless pace and repetitive moves may start to grate after a dozen or so hours. But it's one of those games you can easily put down for a while and come back a few weeks later and clock in a few more missions or campaigns.

Offworld Trading Company (****) is a refreshingly different kind of strategy game, one that is less interested in slow-paced turtling and more in a straight-for-the-jugular, hyper-capitalist form of (almost) non-violent warfare. It's different and interesting, but over the long run may be a little wearying. The game is available on PC now.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have always wanted a game about managing a trading company in the American West 1800 - 1850, this sounds like it would very similar to what I was Imagining. I will have to check it out