by Sergio Brinkhuis
reviewed on PC
An end to my misery?
Good economic simulation games, or even business management games are rare as kryptonite. Why? Beats me. I am aching for a new Capitalism, dying for the next The Guild and would donate my left arm to charity if it would allow Chris Sawyer to work on the next Transport Tycoon. Kalypso’s Patrician and Port Royale games are all that keep me from giving up on the genre in its entirety.
Offworld Trading Company looked to end my misery. Built by Civilization IV Lead Designer Soren Johnson, it appeared to have all the makings of a deep trading empire simulation. We got the simulation, but it is not as deep as I would have liked.
The Wolf of…
Calling something a trading game raises certain expectations. In the strictest sense, all the expectations are met; the game throws you into the seat of a budding trading company and starts you off on alien worlds ready to be exploited by entrepreneurial Earthlings. You mine, pump, extract and manufacture a variety of goods, increase your efficiency through research and keep an eye on market prices. If you do well for yourself, you can afford to also keep an eye out for the stock prices of competitors and try to buy them up before they can do the same to you.
Everything is there, and if you like doing all of the above in a fast-paced setting where the speed of your decisions and clicks are a primary factors for your success, then stop reading and buy Offworld Trading Company right now – you have found the perfect game.
If you prefer your economic simulations to involve deep planning and thoughtful expansion, then keep reading because that expectation isn’t met. Trading companies are about long-term vision and growth. They are about cornering a market and defending it, and about cutting your losses when you can’t. They are about looking at what your competitor is doing and thinking to yourself “I bet I can do that better and make a buck in the process”. Offworld Trading Company is fast paced, too fast paced for any of that.
Buying, selling, building… everything goes so quickly and missions are so short that you are almost fully consumed by what is going on in your own company. Fortunately, pausing the game buys some time to have a look at what is happening on the outside. Other companies are competing for the same resources, which in some cases are as rare as a single source on the entire map. Scarcity is but one of the things factoring in prices for both resources and manufactured goods. Your goods supply the local colony and its development influences what goods it requires. Food, water, glass – its needs grow with its population.
You never sell goods directly to them though, or to competitors for that matter. Every trade goes through the local market where it is priced and anonymised. You dumping goods onto the market at low prices may play straight into the cards of your competition who may be picking up the cheap resources to turn them into expensive ones.
You could do this yourself as well, as long as you have the cash, materials and land claims to do so. Land claims are tied to the level of your headquarters. You will get a handful of claims with each new level and while it is possible to acquire land through auctions and the black market, land stays in short supply. Because of that, production levels remain modest, though they can be augmented through research.
Thwarting your competition on the market is the primary way to compete, but not the only way. There are hacks, patents, sabotages and more to work with. EMP-ing an enemy production facility can severely hurt their bottom line. Acquiring a financing patent gives you a share of the interest on their debt and instigating a revolt will give you temporary access to the goods coming out of one of their plants.
When the mission ends, you’re presented with a pie-chart that becomes quite confusing a moment later when it’s being broken down in the detailed statistics that follow. In most of my games, the statistics would show my financial dominance where the pie-chart had indicated that I occupied the bottom ranks. I have yet to explain that difference.
One armed bandit
With Offworld Trading Company, Mohawk did something quite remarkable. They turned an activity that should by all rights be slow and deliberate – trade – into something that is full of action. The game feels tense, sometimes almost explosive. Given that it is being sold as an economic game, I think for many players this aspect will be quite unexpected.
Equally unexpected are the short length of the missions and a complete lack of a backstory. The game’s payload is “Save Humanity. Turn A Profit. Preferably Both.”. The profit part is omnipresent but there is no hint whatsoever that you are saving humanity. I am sure Mohawk follows Sid Meier’s philosophy that you create the story as you play. This works well in a lengthy game of Civ, but not in something as short as on display here today.
There is no trace of any connectedness between the missions in the campaign. Had there been a backstory, it might have felt like there was a reason for doing what you are doing. Without it, even the wonderfully tense strive with the competition does not keep you invested. As soon as the mission ends, your commitment to the all too thinly laid down cause disappears. Add the unpredictable nature of the market and you will feel like you are pulling the lever of a one armed bandit in a casino rather than building a trading empire brick by brick.
I am left wondering if all these surprises will be pleasant to everyone. There is a good measure of fun to be had with Offworld Trading Company, but it’s a bit like ordering a vanilla ice cream dessert and being served pistachio instead – it will be enjoyable but it’s not quite what you wanted.
Missions are tense with a sense of urgency throughout.
Lacks a reason to string multiple missions together.