Though created by the lead designer of Civilization IV, Offworld Trading Company has very few similarities to that series. Corporations take the place of battling nations, with money being the driving force for everything. Deceptively approachable and surprisingly deep mechanics make Offworld Trading Company a fantastic game but one that feels inexplicably shallow.
Always be making money: that is the easiest way to explain Offworld Trading Company, but that would be selling it short. You’ll manage one of the game’s corporations as they try to turn Mars into a profitable business. New colonies need supplies, entertainment, and people to sell them things, why shouldn’t that be you? Different factions have different benefits such as not needing certain resources or having greater access to black market goods. The landscape of Mars is covered in resources, but you’ll need to claim those tiles before you can go around building all willy nilly. Each corporation is given a set number of claims and can earn more by upgrading their HQ. These upgrades can be expensive, especially if you don’t have access to the required resources from your current claims. Anything you lack can be purchased from the market and market prices fluctuate based on supply and demand, as well as some more nefarious means.
Of course, all this purchasing builds debt, especially when it comes to the necessities like food, water, fuel, and power. OTC treats debt as any other resource, and that makes for some interesting decision making. Debt is not inherently bad, as the game points out several times in the tutorial. Paying off your debt isn’t always and often isn’t the best option. Debt and cash are two different numbers. You can have a million dollars (be it in actual cash or sellable resources) and be a million dollars in debt simultaneously. This is where your credit rating comes into play. The higher your debt, the more you pay back in interest. It is best not to let things spiral out of control until your debt is unsustainable, but having a lot of debt can sometime work to your favor. Winning auctions at any cost and receiving new claims, buildings, or black market goods for “free” can mean a lot more than a few thousand dollars more debt. My most satisfying victory came when I had about $1.18 million in debt but still managed to out maneuver my competition despite their AA and AAA credit ratings.
Ultimately, you want to own all the business on Mars. That means buying out the competition. Each company has shares for sale, and these shares can be bought or sold by yourself or your competitors. Buying a competitor makes them your subsidiary and gives you bonuses as well as value dictated by your current stock price. Buying the competition isn’t cheap but understanding the market and striking when the iron is hot can have you sitting pretty at the top. If all else fails, make the market understand you. There are a handful of specialized buildings that can be real game changers. One can drive up or down the prices of goods, netting you some extra cash and lowering the value of an opponent’s resources. Others can increase your efficiency in generating resources, give access to exclusive patents, or even send large amounts of resources off world (woah!).
My only real complaint with regards to gameplay is the passive aggressive nature of the game. The black market is full of cheap, though increasingly expensive, means of doing some pretty serious damage throughout the game. Having high yield resources rendered all but useless, watching as pirates and magnetic storms decimate your incoming supplies, and no means of deterrence or perfect counters get old. Goon Squads can be used to protect individual buildings, but only if they are directly targeted, not merely part of the fallout. Of course, winning makes you a very appealing target. Even still, and especially so in A.I. matches, you can be targeted so frequently and with such consistency that the game can become more frustrating than fun. It would be nice to either have less options, or far more expensive ones, at the black market, making the decisions to use them more strategic.
Story and Modes:
Your only job is to win the rights to Mars. Plenty of companies want to be the exclusive supporters of the up and coming colonies on the planet, but you’ll have to buy your way to the top. The campaign is structured in such a way that you contribute colony modules, resulting in weekly income from those colonies. Give more, earn more. Those funds are then used to improve your ability to generate more funds, meaning more money. After seven weeks, you’ll either have bought all the competition or have been bought. Campaign plays a bit different from standard games since resources amount are lower, but there are ways to overcome that through your weekly purchases.
On top of the campaign are your standard vs. A.I. mode and online multiplayer. Most of my time was spent playing A.I. as there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people currently playing online. Given that it is a very niche economic management game, I doubt we’ll see any large influxes of players past the initial launch and first good Steam sale. There is an excellent tutorial that breaks down the many facets of gameplay across multiple missions while also introducing you to the dynamic mechanics of each faction.
Visuals and Sound:
OTC is a good looking game, but just good. At first I was captivated by all the moving parts and some flashy colors. There are some truly great effects at work here, but when you are ultimately zoomed out, buying and selling like a madman on Wall Street, it all just looks like a bunch of sand with some flashing lights on it. Further impeding it is the rather large UI which takes up just a bit too much real estate. The game does well to provide visual cues of where you can place buildings, but even fully zoomed there can be a fair bit of scrolling to do on the relatively small maps. There is too much in the way to appreciate anything going on behind it. The music is powerful, tense, and almost too much for what is going on. It tries to make the game feel grander than it is, which is fine. Other effects are again good, but nothing spectacular. Voice acting is so-so, good enough for what little is there.
I can’t think of many games that make the buying and selling of assets this fun with this level of detail. The game plays at a frantic pace and one wrong move can ruin you. The factions are unique, though one may be inspired by a current presidential candidate. OTC stands out because it takes its deep mechanics and makes them approachable. After completing the tutorials I quickly worked my way up to the harder A.I. difficulty levels to challenge my skills with moderate success. Your mileage may vary, but OTC is a game that anyone can play, which in itself is something that many games cannot say.
So here’s the thing. I spent a lot of time playing OTC over the first few days, but now find myself playing it sparingly. Given the limited online player base I was forced to spend most of my time playing against the A.I. It started to feel like a game I should be playing on break at work, on my phone or on a tablet, not something I paid $40 for. I realize that there are a lot of people who will likely find countless hours of enjoyment in this game, but at the current price, I can’t give it a ringing endorsement. As deep mechanically as it is, it is too easy to put down in favor of a game with more depth overall. It has all the makings of a great package but not at this price. Wait on this one unless you absolutely need to be the biggest name in business on Mars.