You know that feeling. You just got through upgrading crop rotation and gold mining in Age of Empires II when a pack of Teutons crests over the hill and wipes you out. Sometimes you just want to optimize your return on investment, not smash things like some brain-dead troglodyte.
Evidently Soren Johnson, lead designer of Civilization IV, got tired of such unprofitable savagery. Enter Offworld Trading Company, a game in which all the action happens in the marketplace and nobody has to die. You don't murder your enemies; you buy them out. However, the game is much more than an RTS without combat—and the cutthroat business dealings on Mars can be more stressful than a spear pointed at your face.
A standard game of Offworld Trading Company begins with all the players scanning the map for resources. Immediately the game presents you with tough, meaningful choices. Do you keep scanning to find the best spot to plunk down your HQ, or do you set up quickly to ensure no one snags that rich silicon vein? Unlike almost every other game in the RTS or 4X genre, you don't choose your faction before beginning play. Instead, you let the map inform your decision. Not enough water? Maybe choose the robot faction, which doesn't require food to sustain itself.
Beyond the usual money and resources, expansion is strictly limited by land claims. These precious flags are doled out in very short supply and can't be reverted, making each one a commitment. You have to choose carefully whether you want to claim an iron tile to make steel or plumb a water tile to make food. You may not have enough claims to provide for all your needs, but that's what the marketplace is for.
All resources—from the basic to the most valuable—can be bought and sold at the click of a button. However, your actions have consequences: buying tons of electricity is sure to drive the price up, and quickly selling all the oxygen you're producing will flood the market and tank the price for everyone. Monitoring and manipulating the price of goods is one of the key requirements for victory and is surprisingly thrilling.
If that doesn't fit your definition of “thrilling,” all players have access to the Black Market at regular intervals. For a price, you can set off an EMP to disable your opponent's energy grid, inspire a mutiny to steal a factory's production, or even set a trap on your most valuable tile.
The Black Market is essential to many of your biggest plays. For example, maybe you see your rival has based all of their electricity production on a single geothermal vent. First, you expand your own power-producing capabilities. Then you use the Black Market to cut off your rival's supply. He'll be forced to buy the power to keep his factories running, and your own supply will increase in value. Then you use your hacker array to artificially inflate the price even more, crippling your opponent and making them easy prey for a buyout.
Diversify your portfolio
This core play is what makes Offworld Trading Company shine like a solar condenser. It nails the right level of complexity and is short enough to be multiplayer-friendly. Unfortunately, there are many things on the periphery that drag the experience down.
The presentation feels a bit utilitarian, and the attempts at injecting some pizzazz lead to a strange inconsistency in tone. The opening cutscene, for instance, shows tremendous promise. The main theme by Christopher Tin (composer of Civilization IV's much-loved “Baba Yetu”) is sombre, alien and yet nostalgic. A melancholy narrator explains the stakes: “Earth may be dying. Some are looking offworld for a fresh start. The competition for land and resources out here is brutal. In this winner-take-all environment, people are doing anything to succeed.” The actual game, however, is full of somewhat chuckle-worthy anti-capitalist humour, cutesy loading-screen cartoons and increasingly annoying vocal cues (Get ready to hear an overenthusiastic “Look at all the money!” a lot). There are traces of character and pathos in the tutorial, but nothing ever comes of it.
There's not much in terms of excitement, either. The visuals are clean but nondescript. While the muted industrial tunes will definitely have fans, there's no bombast to any of them. There are no truly momentous technologies to build up to, like the wonders in Civilization. The rigid land-claim system and a lack of quick-to-digest information about your opponents' progress lead to less dynamic, less interactive games.
Most often you'll feel, at best, looming dread or smug satisfaction and only rarely shock or triumph. Of course, some players will prefer that to the chorus of shotgun blasts found in so many other titles.
You get the sense that Offworld Trading Company is trying to be all things to all people. It wants to be a fast-paced RTS but also a deep, strategic experience. It wants to evoke the grandeur of space and the desperation of a new era but also crack jokes about drugs and pirates and ex-cons baking baguettes. It's a testament to the developers' craftsmanship that the result is genuinely engaging, even to the finance-adverse who get nervous at the thought of RRSPs. Still, some ancillary blunders keep Offworld Trading Company from reaching its potential. And remember: in the world of business, it's not how successful you are that matters; it's how successful you could be.