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Lifewire / Thomas Hindmarch
Clever, and often funny
A smart, fast-paced game of economic one-upmanship that’s surprisingly easy to learn
Almost totally non-violent, aside from the possibility for theft
Come-from-behind victories are difficult
Doesn’t feel like there are multiple valid paths to victory.
The online multiplayer is mostly dead
Offworld Trading Company flexes a different set of muscles than most real-time strategy games, focusing on economic manipulation and intelligent sabotage on top of the usual snap decision-making.
Co-created by Soren Johnson, one of the lead designers for the notoriously addictive strategy games Civilization III and IV, Offworld Trading Company is a game of (nearly) pure economic warfare. You play as a novice in one of several businesses racing to capitalize on the possibilities of a newly-settled Mars.
Your eventual goal is to eliminate all other players from the game, by buying a majority share of stock in their companies and staging a hostile takeover. At the same time, you must keep your profits high and debt low, to make it infeasibly expensive for other players to buy some of your own stock. Along the way, you can seize control of various useful commodities, buy and sell resources on an open market, and use underworld contacts to sabotage your opponents.
Offworld Trading Company can be purchased for your PC via digital storefronts, with its multiplayer available as a free-to-play service. Simply pay your money and wait for it to finish.
At this point, you can spend a surprising amount of money on the game by grabbing all its expansions at once. However, you’d do better to try the base game first, just to make sure you’re interested before you go all in.
It’s the distant future, and several different economic blocs have come to Mars to capitalize on its newly available resources. As one of these corporations, ranging from a couple of obsessed scientists to a surprisingly sarcastic all-robot team, you race to stake your claims, open mines, acquire materials, and turn those materials into facilities and a solid profit. It’s all delivered with the gleeful matter-of-fact immorality of a PG-rated Gordon Gecko, through a handful of signature characters of varying degrees of eccentricity.
It’s a bit shallow, particularly versus the AI, as there’s only one real way to win: a hostile takeover of all competitors. Anything you do is part of that central goal. Granted, that’s fine in chess, but it’s weird that a game that focuses this hard on plate-spinning and multiple possible approaches doesn’t also offer multiple paths to victory.
It’s a bit shallow, particularly versus the AI, as there’s only one real way to win: a hostile takeover of all competitors.
The game come into its own once you’ve got three or more human players wheeling and dealing, which is more or less the intended experience. In fact, the game’s Deluxe Edition specifically includes a gift key for the game, so you can give it to a friend and play with them. If you set up a local network game, or coordinate with an online community, it’s a fun, relatively non-violent way to spend an evening or a weekend.
Do yourself a favor and play through all the tutorials. At the start of a round, you pick a spot on the Martian landscape to drop your base module, and have a handful of land claims that you can use to place your buildings. You also have a limited amount of hard currency with which to outright buy materials on the open market. Resources you need to burn to stay in operation, such as food and fuel, will automatically be purchased, driving you into debt if necessary, but construction material will not.
You use your land claims to put up mines to generate resources, such as water, iron, and silicon. As you accumulate that, you can use more land claims to build facilities to turn your incoming resources into refined goods, which can be used for your own projects or traded on the market for a profit. (Glass and steel are solid early-game market winners, but you’ll want to get into chemicals or electronics sooner or later.)
In the meantime, your competitors are doing the same thing, racing to upgrade their buildings, construct advanced facilities, and ideally, put together a launch platform so you can sell your goods to offworld colonies for an astonishing profit. Along the way, you can use black-market ties to harass each other with pirates, sabotage, and market manipulation. Sell off a big stack of your own surplus goods in order to deliberately tank the stock price and harm your opponent’s business, but make sure to keep an eye on your own bottom line, as the higher your debt load, the less your stock is worth. It’s always worth burning some surplus currency on a stock buyback or paying off your debts, which protects you from your opponent’s attempts to buy you out.
An honest player is working at a substantial disadvantage, but you have to be careful, as black-market moves have a lengthy recharge timer.
The winner is the last business standing, after buying out all the other competitors on the field. It’s initially intense, as it’s easy to leave yourself open on a crucial front, such as by not building an iron or silicon mine early on, and eventually settles down into a fast-paced game of move and countermove. On paper, this is strictly an economic struggle, with victory going to the smartest contender. However, you can use black-market ties to slow down your competitors’ game, by paying off pirates to sit along their supply routes, blacking out their command centers, or even setting off underground nukes to destroy their mines.
An honest player is working at a substantial disadvantage, but you have to be careful, as black-market moves have a lengthy recharge timer. If you waste one, you’ve spent a substantial sum of cash, wasted some precious time, and in a worst-case scenario, have actually handed your opponent a useful resource.
As a side effect, however, if one player manages to make all the right decisions early on, it can set up a profit engine that’s difficult for opponents to overcome; you can use sabotage to cripple or slow their production, of course, but that’s easy for a well-heeled player to predict and counter. Setting up a goon squad to protect your most crucial facilities is surprisingly cheap and effective, which limits an opponent to a handful of indirect tactics.
However, in a big game, that initial monopoly becomes difficult to manage. Offworld Trading Company is a lot more fun with four or more human players than it is against the AI, as you can unite to bring down a market leader or scheme against one another. Half the fun is the in-game politics and short-lived alliances.
We found Offworld Trading Company lost its luster quickly. It’s a fun initial run and you can get a lot out of it at a game night, but it doesn’t have the endless appeal of a Civilization.
That said, if the world and background of the game interest you, be sure to pick up the Market Corrections DLC, which includes a few character campaigns that fill in some of the universe’s narrative. You can also challenge yourself with last year’s Limited Supply DLC, which adds new scenarios that change you from an established corporate titan to a struggling pioneer, trying to survive on a newly-settled planet.
You don’t actually see much in Offworld Trading Company. It’s all flying drones and Martian landscapes, viewed from an omniscient perspective. It’s actually nice to look at, more so than it needed to be.
The screen can occasionally get busy and complex, but even towards the end of a game when your central base is a humming chrome science-fiction city, it’s relatively easy to figure out what’s going on. It’s not something we’d hand to a total novice, but it’s also got a surprisingly forgiving learning curve.
Offworld Trading Company’s multiplayer mode is free-to-play as of February 28th, 2019. You can buy the deluxe edition from Steam or Stardock for $39.99, or a standard edition with a few less bells and whistles for $29.99; a deep-discount bundle on Steam which includes multiple downloadable content packs is currently $55.40.
The multiplayer is really where the meat of the game lies, so try it for free and see if it grabs you, ideally with a few interested friends along for the ride. After that, you can pick up the main game and its DLC to expand your options.
Offworld Trading Company has a fast-paced feel like a war game, but the market manipulation and general political/financial struggles are more reminiscent of Sid Meier’s Civilization series. If you’re planning to play alone, then there’s really no reason to pick up Offworld when a recent Civilization game exists.
Offworld also has a lot in common with certain really elaborate board games and simulations, such as the forthcoming Nintendo Switch version of the award-winning Settlers of Catan. Offworld Trading Company is more big-picture and abstract, but it’s a similar experience.
Unique, addictive, but not particularly long-lasting.
Offworld Trading Company is surprisingly easy to pick up considering its relative complexity, and has a lot of content at this point, with a compelling central loop and a good use of market forces. However, the central gameplay mechanic is always basically the same: cripple your opponent, build up your factories, buy the other guy out. As a result, we found Offworld Trading Company lost its luster quickly. It’s a fun initial run and you can get a lot out of it at a game night, but it doesn’t have the endless appeal of a Civilization.