If I describe to you what the concept of “Offworld Trading Company” is, you will probably walk away from me. I have proof of that, as I hopelessly tried to explain to my friends just how much fun it was to profit in a free market economy only to be rewarded with blank stares. To be fair, the only people watching FOX Business or playing economic simulators are those with something invested in it. Yet, through some ingenious design, straight forward gameplay and deep mechanics “Offworld Trading Company” made the art of a corporate takeover one of the most thrilling strategic experiences I have ever had.
You are part of a land rush in Mars, taking the role of one of four different companies in a bid for resources on the red planet. Each match starts with all the players scouring the map for the appropriate resources at the same time and dropping their colonies wherever they see fit. In order to be successful at this you must have an understanding of what each colony type needs. Robotic colonies benefit from not needing life support such as water or oxygen, so you aim to place them close to some silicon deposits for electronics manufacturing and maybe a geothermal vent to get suitable amounts of power. Scavenger colonies do not require steel to build their structures, so you need to focus on getting as much carbon as possible while scientific colonies can create finished goods from a core resource (like putting a steel mill on an iron deposit, bypassing an iron mine all together). Then, the expansive colonies have the upper hand in maps where resources are scattered throughout and their fast freighters can give them a clear advantage over the competition. The pressure is on as the round starts as each player has a claim to any kind of colony in any part of the map they see fit. It balances out, however, as the quicker you fund your colony the more debt you will start the match with, while waiting for a little bit can have you starting in the green. While you are more than able to live with debt, you will have a harder time buying your way out of sticky situations.
Once your colony is up and running it is time to put your business strategy to work. Any resource is available to any colony, so deciding early what you want to focus on is key to developing a functional company. There is a live market tracker of every resource’s valuation, that climbs and lowers depending on the game situation. If you see that a certain map has very little aluminum, for example, you can make a monopoly on the metal and sell it at an inordinately high price to your competition. At the same time, if you have a ton of steel and there is a shortage incoming, waiting until the best time to sell it can net you incredible profits and launch your company’s stock into the stratosphere. It is a careful dance that requires as much planing as it does quick reaction time, and it made me forget that there is no combat in this competitive strategy game.
However, you can use some dirty ploys to get an upper hand on your competition. There is a black market that is available to every player where you can buy some truly devastating sabotage methods. Is that robotic colony sucking up a ton of power during a shortage? Set off an EMP next to their generators to cripple their economy. In dire need of food? Orchestrate a mutiny to take another player’s farm for a couple of minutes. The black market attacks can make or break the game if they are used right, which is why you can also buy defenses to hold off any pesky incursions. The late game also provides some perks with more of a grey area if you feel your moral compass being skewed by the black market. Investing in a hacker array can let you set shortages or surpluses of certain products, optimization centers will increase your factories’ production, innovation centers lets you build game altering patents, and the offworld market lets you ship off goods to other planets and see massive profits rake in.
There is some major flexibility in the way you build your colony, but the game makes sure you think strategically by giving you limited numbers of claims in which to place your buildings. Once you are out, you have to hope the profit engine you built does not crumble in your rush to buy out the other player’s stock. Your assets determine how much your stock is worth, so having plenty of industry, as well as plenty of money can make your stock impossible to catch. Once you are a majority holder in your company, the other players will have to buy you outright, meaning it will take a major financial investment. However, owning someone else’s company will give you a cut of their profits. The only real gripe with this system is that once a player is winning, it becomes really hard to catch up to them. The game boils down to a race to the late game, and whoever gets there first has a clear upper hand on the competition.
Skirmish mode is where the game lives. The lightning quick rounds have you thinking on your feet and crafting clever ways to make money and bring down the opposition as quickly as possible. However, once you jump into the campaign, the game takes a slower turn where long-term planning is the key to success. The short game is identical to the skirmish, except instead of trying to buy another player’s stock, you have to invest into a neutral colony. The player who invests the most at the end of a week will receive a perk, while anyone who invested will get a cut of the profits from that colony. After the first few weeks, you enter an elimination round, where the companies with the lowest stock valuation will be eliminated. In the end, there is a final showdown between the surviving companies that plays out like your standard skirmish round. However, what you do in between matches is what will determine your victory. Here you are locked to a certain character and you have to hire different kinds of engineers to unlock certain buildings. Sometimes I ran into a dead end when the plan I had thought out fell flat on its face as the map tossed a curve ball my way. At the same time, the length of the campaign does not compare to something you might find in other games of this kind, letting you wrap up a whole session in a weekend. You unlock newer colonists to play as, but those looking for an epic sci-fi RTS should look elsewhere.
Despite all the complexity “Offworld Trading Company” brings, the game is surprisingly approachable thanks to clear artistic design. Each colony has its unique look and the information presented is concise. All of the information you need is right in front of you, no need to dive through dozens of menus. Mohawk Games did a fantastic job of breaking down complex business mechanics into digestible information without losing the depth that makes these games shine. Not to mention the music is outstanding, giving a rich atmosphere to the colonization of Mars.
Trying to explain what makes “Offworld Trading Company” a breakneck strategic experience is futile experiment. No matter how I break it down, a corporate takeover is not sexy and keeping an eye on resource demand can make most people fall asleep. Which is why I cannot give this game any more praise that to say you just have to play it. This combat free, economic RTS gave me some of the most white knuckle matches I have ever played in a strategy game. The flexibility to build the colony you need and adapt to a changing market makes you feel like Godon Gekko without the need to get an MBA.
- Deep, accessible economic gameplay.
- Endless strategies to make profit.
- Straightforward and atmospheric presentation.
- The campaign is pretty short.
- Hard to make comebacks.