Wot I Think: Offworld Trading Company

Offworld Trading Company [official site], the new game from Civ IV lead designer Soren Johnson and his team at Mohawk Games, is a strategic simulation of a sci-fi Martian economy. It’s also one of the smartest strategy games I’ve ever played.

Money is no object. That’s the most important lesson I’ve taken from the hours I’ve spent running a corporation exploiting the raw materials of Mars. It’s a phrase that I mean in a very literal sense and cuts to the heart of the brilliance of the game’s design: it’s a game about making money in which the actual amount of money you have doesn’t matter anywhere near as much as the flow of cash and resources.

Offworld Trading Company treats money as ephemeral. Values change constantly in the dynamic market that is the game-space. Mars may be the landscape on which you’re constructing the tools of capitalism, but the entire corporate conflict plays out in the markets. Just as many RTS games are played on the minimap, Offworld is played in the numbers at the side of the screen. The genius of the game is in making the manipulation of those markets comprehensible while never allowing them to become predictable.

And yet they’re entirely predictable. Everything that you and your opponents do causes the figures to shift in a sensible fashion. Build a production chain to make glass or computer components and you can flood the market with the end-product, causing prices to plummet. Create a monopoly on one of the resources necessary for survival on the planet and you can hoard the fruits of your labour (or your labourers’ labour, I guess), forcing everyone else to ship the stuff in from off-planet at great expense.

You’re always making choices, every second that you play. There are ways to interact with other players directly through purchases made on the black market. These disrupt and interfere, cutting off sources of revenue, stealing resources or manipulating the market to present false figures. All of that comes later. The most important decisions are related to the limited claims you’re given at the beginning of each game. Looking at a random map, you must decide where to place your headquarters and then secure the first pieces of land that you’ll construct factories, solar panels and other facilities on. There are obvious sequences of construction to follow in the early minutes of each map, but to win you’ll need to adapt to the situation as it changes.

Everytime you upgrade your HQ, which costs cash and specific resources you’ll receive a new set of claims. There are other ways to get them as well, but mostly you’ll be working your way up through the game’s equivalent of a tech tree, enjoying a brief flurry of expansion each step of the way. The claims system ensures that your corporation can’t produce everything – you need to specialise and, crucially, you need to engage in a symbiotic relationship with your opponents.

Offworld creates an incredible tension through this forced cooperation. The difficulty of operating on a planet with an unfriendly environment makes the corporations reliant on one anothers’ produce, particularly in the early game. They can’t thrive – or even survive – without what the others have. To destroy them would be suicidal. You’re not trying to destroy your opponents, you’re trying to absorb them. The end-game isn’t destruction, it’s a hostile takeover.

When you’re vulnerable to a takeover, the game tells you. It crunches the numbers, figures out that somebody has enough assets to buy a majority holding in your company, and lets you know. Your opponent – the person currently holding all the cards – doesn’t get that message. They may have the ability to snuff you out but the game doesn’t tell them; the potential victim sees the Sword of Damocles but unless their opponent is paying close attention, they might just see a CEO sitting on his throne.

That goes back to that opening phrase: money is no object. Cash alone isn’t always enough and the buy-out might require liquidation of stock. Performing the buy-out might then make the buyer vulnerable to the remaining corporations and will almost certainly cause an upset in the markets that might dangerously upset the balance of power.

Everything that you do has consequences and everything that your opponents do will have an impact on the state of the world. I can’t think of another strategy game that is so changeable. To succeed you’ll need to be flexible, not just building bigger and better, but willing to change course, tearing down facilities that have been rendered obsolete by market forces and replacing them with something new. The market never stands still but, thankfully, the game does. In the endlessly replayable singleplayer campaign, the world pauses whenever you make a decision, and can indeed be halted at anytime with a push of the space bar.

The entire campaign is like a turn-based variant of the rapid-fire multiplayer game. There’s a progression system threaded through the randomised scenarios and it’s forced me to reconsider the entire game, having only experienced it in multiplayer for so long during Early Access. When I came to write this review, I asked myself if I’d buy the game just for the singleplayer mode. I would. The multiplayer brings out the best of the systems, creating its own weird momentum through panicked mistakes and elegant deceptions, but the singleplayer takes all of those same systems and creates a slower, more thoughtful experience out of them.

That the economic simulation can cater to these two varied experiences is testament to the intricacy of the design. The core mechanic – the market that acts as a malleable foundation on which every other system is built – is close to perfect.

All this talk of systems (and there’s much more of that in my preview) makes Offworld Trading Company sound like an abstract thing, disconnected from its setting. Every element is thematically appropriate though and there’s some subtle world-building between the interplay of mechanics, particularly in the implied off-screen asteroid mines that are an essential part of the flow of capital. Mars is a relatively safe and serene place, even when there are horrible weather conditions and pirates buzzing around, and if you focus on the map and manage to filter out the movements of the market for a while, there’s a certain tranquility at odds with the cutthroat deals and deceptions.

The score helps – it’s the work of Christopher Tin, composer of Civilization IV’s Baba Yetu.

Civilization IV – the greatest strategy game ever made – was Offworld creator Soren Johnson’s first commercial games as a lead designer. Offworld Trading Company is an entirely different proposition: short-form rather than ultra-long-form, real-time rather than turn-based, sci-fi rather than history. Its surface complexity and basis in economics rather than war and culture make it a less immediately attractive game than Civ, but it’s an exceedingly intelligent game.

I haven’t even mentioned the different challenges offered by each of the four factions. There’s so much to analyse that I could write another couple of thousand words, but you don’t need to know everything. What you need to know is that Mohawk have made a game that creates tension and ruthless competition out of a screen of ever-changing numbers. Every victory feels hard-earned and every defeat can be traced back to specific twists in the tale, and in each of its half hour sessions, there are as many twists as in Civ’s six thousand years.

Offworld Trading Company is out now.

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  1. Abacus says:

    Soren Johnson! Christopher Tin! I’m looking forward to picking this up.

  2. Choca says:

    It’s a very good game, be wary however that you will get your ass murdered in multiplayer in you haven’t played the early access.

    • Captain Joyless says:

      Yeah. The gap between the tutorial and what I’ve seen people do in multiplayer (twitch streams) is huge. The skill ceiling looks so high.

  3. Undermind_Mike says:

    I desperately want to like this game, on paper it sounds perfect for me. But I really struggle.

    In wargames etc. it’s easier: oh I lost because I had the wrong type of vehicles and therefore they lost a fight- or they were in the wrong place at the crucial time.

    But even with the graphs, with the tables of figures, with the improvements that came with full release, and even having read and listened to enough to understand all the underlying principles, I still finish a game and I don’t truly understand what I should have done strategically to do better next time.

    • Undermind_Mike says:

      That last sentence was a bit of a grammatical mess, sorry! You get the idea I hope.

    • sosolidshoe says:

      The one that gets me about these kinds of games is the passive lack of ambition about them, the mindless orthodoxy. You make more and more, your technology gets better and better, but at no point do you have to deal with any complications from that, there’s no attempt to portray the messy reality of what you upgrading your factory automation to level 3 or whatever actually means(what, did you just turn the big group of angry jobless workers you created into Soylent Green or something?).

      But then I suppose that doesn’t apply to OWTC does it, since it’s not passively reinforcing orthodox economics, it’s gleefully endorsing them as the only path, so dealing with those kinds of questions would be mighty inconvenient.

      • SargyBargy says:

        Heartily agree.

        Why do economic simulations always seem to have the invisible hand hardcoded in – it just perpetuates the underpinnings (ie myths) of modern (ie 16th century) economics.

      • Bweahns says:

        The USA has spent the last 70 years making sure the only option is crony capitalism. Get with the program and stop thinking about your workers!

  4. Premium User Badge

    SimonOrbit says:

    How many people can play in a multiplayer game? And am I correct in assuming there is no co-op?

    (I’ll be picking it up regardless for single-player but curious if it would work with my gaming group.)

  5. Soren Johnson says:

    Goes from 2-8 players, and there is teamplay.

  6. Jharakn says:

    Not really my sort of game but that soundtrack sounds awesome, might have to pick that up.

    • Moose Malloy says:

      Reminds me of Mogwai’s theme for Les Revenants / The Returned.

  7. Vintageryan says:

    Really love the concept behind this game but been waiting for a review like this that talks about the single player.

    The mention that single player is a slower pace is a bonus for me. Going to buy.

  8. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Somehow I was under the impression this couldn’t be paused. Now that I read that it can be, I’m very interested since the SP experience sounds good.

    • Vinraith says:

      Even 3MA’s extremely positive coverage of the game makes it pretty clear that the SP is pretty inadequate. The AI isn’t capable of handling this kind of trading/diplo/deception game (they never are).

      • Bobtree says:

        The “fair” AI is soundly kicking my ass after 12+ hours of play. The 5th and final tutorial challenge (a fair skirmish on a fixed map) is particularly brutal. I spent a good 6+ hours and can’t win that one. Even replicating their starting builds, pausing constantly and doing the math, I finish a distant second. I expect the campaign to be a breeze next to that.

        The AI may not be properly devious, but being effective at the core game is good enough. It will make me enjoy going back to slow human games with friends.

  9. WladTapas says:

    This sounds a bit like the classic M.U.L.E., am I much mistaken? It was so amazing to have four-player simultaneous multiplayer in a C64 game in 1983.

    • LionsPhil says:

      Yeah, that’s what I was thinking of from early in the review*, especially the competative collaboration because you can only make so many claims and need to specialize. Which is a good comparison. MULE is still fun today.

      * But for the far superior Atari 800, of course. ;)

    • Maxheadroom says:

      Initially I thought it might be a remake of Psi-5 Trading Company, and admit I was a little disappointed it wasn’t.

      Desperately want someone to remake that game

  10. Vesperan says:

    Of course Adam Smith, the father of economics, likes this.

    I’ve been a bit wary as I don’t do multiplayer for this sort of thing… but I’m warming to it.

    The podcast Three Moves Ahead just did an interview with the developer, Soren, on this that is a nice listen to if anyones interested in the development story. Quite a bit on the pros/cons/experiences with Steam early access.

  11. PsychoWedge says:

    well, the music is fucking awesome. xD

  12. mtomto says:

    Triple AAA price for what looks like an average 20€ game. I am not even buying it at 20€ – I would buy it at 10-15€. Good luck though :)

    • Phinor says:

      Triple A games cost 60€. This one is exactly half that price right now or if you split a two pack with someone, one third of the price.

      • Thurgret says:

        I hadn’t even noticed the two-pack, since I tend to just gloss over anything with ‘Deluxe Edition’ written on it, and had to spend a few moments searching to find it even after reading your post.


  13. shagen454 says:

    It’s a fun game but it definitely feels like a semi-casual $20 indie game, no Alpha Centauri here :) if someone can nail an AC inspired remake I’ll put down $80.00. Where’s Brian Reynolds when you need him….

    • BluePencil says:

      Why do you say “casual”? I find it hard enough just constantly looking to see what resources you need for what, let alone the complexity of all the rest of it.

    • Unsheep says:

      It’s not the same type of game though.

      Offworld is closer to games like Capitalism, Railroad Tycoon, Transport Tycoon, Industry Giant, Patrician, the Guild, Planetbase and so on. As the title of the game fully states, Offworld is a game about trading, that’s the focus.

      Alpha Centauri is a 4X game, where trading is just one of its many components, it’s not the focus of the game. Sure, all 4X games need an economic system, but the interaction with this system is simplistic and minimal compared to business games like Capitalism.

      So from this perspective it is in fact Alpha Centauri that is the simplified game, since it’s economic/trading system is rather basic compared to that in Offworld Trading Company. Again, this is because each game focuses on different things.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      shagen… Casual? Really? Reading this review it sounds pretty hardcore. I’m somewhat intimidated and I’m someone who likes my strategy games Paradox flavored and finds things like Civ pretty watered down. Or do you simply mean that as an indie game it looks “casual” in the sense that it’s a casual project where not as much money has been spent on production? I’d have to disagree there too I think it looks pretty bloody good and it’s certainly been long enough in the making.

    • shagen454 says:

      The game feels like it has some of those casual game ticks in there. Short matches, small maps, lots of clicking sell to win, once you figure it out there’s not much there, I’ve had more challenge playing Candy Crush (and the audience goes crazy, jk)!

      No need to explain that Alpha Centauri is a 4X, I’m well aware of their differences. It’s just that Offworld doesn’t feel as full of a package for the asking price. It’s an awesome concept that is cool for an hour or two but I think the Hooked Gamers review hit the nail on the head with [Offworld] is like “ordering a vanilla ice cream dessert and being served pistachio instead”. I’d further that and say it’s like getting coffee ice cream. Maybe there is a little caffeine in there, and certainly a lot of caffeine punch would have rectified the situation, but there is only a pinch and it quickly wears off.

    • KingSnorky says:

      Not sure where you’re looking, but the game is only about $30 on Steam right now…

  14. Unsheep says:

    Counting the days until the GOG release. I hope the game does well, there are not that many games like this being made anymore.

    • Bobtree says:

      The official FAQ says “Offworld Trading Company will be distributed exclusively through Steam.”

      • shadow9d9 says:

        Yet, search on gog and it pops up.

      • Pink Gregory says:

        It’s been listed on GoG as ‘upcoming’ for quite a while, perhaps exclusive distribution only applied to the early access builds.