Real-time strategy games are, in a way, games of competitive economics. Within the framework of a real-time strategy match, in almost every case players are asked to build an economy – building and growing an income comprised of 1 or more resources (often, 2 – 4 resources of varying application and scarcity) and commit those resources in various ways: expending the potential of those resources into production structures, upgrades of various types, and units. Units, of course, are the typical means of player interaction with the other player or players in a match. They deal damage to the other units and structures in the game, which becomes a contest of who can produce the most units and utilize them in the most efficient manner.
Ultimately, the destruction of the player’s units and structures is a form of economic damage. A structure often exists to convert resources into units, which takes the potential implicit in the resources themselves and effects some change on the battlefield. Ultimately, units should expect to do at least their resource cost in damage to the opponent before their destruction, otherwise they are a net loss. The more efficient a ratio of cost to damage inflicted, the more effective a unit will be. Over the course of a match, both efficiency in utilizing resources (units) and efficiency in obtaining resources (economy) are often cornerstone elements of a player’s success.
Of course, in a game like StarCraft or especially Company of Heroes, this often takes the form of epic battles where tanks or giant robot death-machines duke it out with one another. But, in many ways, it’s all just economics. Economy of movement, efficiency of planning and reading the indicators of a player’s choices with their resources.
I think you see where I’m going with this.
Enter Offworld Trading Company, the so-called “economic RTS” by acclaimed game designer Soren Johnson and his team at Mohawk Games. It’s billing is less, I hope, because of the game’s premise than the fact that it mechanically strips all of the gross combat metaphor from the RTS genre and lays bare the reality of how these games are really played: literally, Offworld Trading Company is a game of competitive economics.
The player, as should be perfectly evident if you’ve seen any of the game’s coverage to date, takes on the role of a startup resource mining and production company on the surface of Mars in the near future. It’s the hope of every player within a match in OTC to become the next company allowed to export their products offworld. hence, of course, the name. To do so, they must grow their company through the manipulation of one of the game’s core features – the open market.
Players in OTC purchase hexagonal ‘claims’ of land on the Martian wasteland, granting them the wherewithal to extract the resources located on that claim and sell them. Players can harvest or produce about 13 different resources in the game, from the concrete like Carbon or Silicon or water to Power, Fuel, ‘chemicals’ or ‘electronics.’ In some cases, producing a resource consumes one or more other resources.
Players are tasked with choosing which resource(s) to harvest to produce income which they can use to, ultimately, buy out their opponent’s companies one by one. To this end they are aided by intermittent auctions, the ability to freely buy and sell any resource in the game, whether or not they produce it, attack their opponent’s production with Pirates, EMPs, nuclear warheads or temporary takeovers of their operations, in addition to manipulating the market with hackers. Ultimately and essentially, OTC is a game of efficiency, coupled with prediction and daring. It is, in every sense ,the essence of what RTS games are about laid bare for all to see. Each match is its own narrative of corporate backstabbing, market manipulation, Machiavellianism and hostile takeovers. Honestly, at its best, the gameplay in Offword Trading Company fits the quote below perfectly:
Intellectually, Offworld Trading Company immensely satisfying in its scope and complexity.
Offworld Trading Company has the soul of a board game, as much as it has the form of a strategy game. Players are, essentially, in the game until they’re bought out. Forcing a player from a match feels more like something out of Monopoly to me than taking out a player in Command and Conquer. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I’m not trying to say that this bothers me. In fact, since players essentially operate at full capacity until they’re bought out, this gives the appearance, at least, of allowing comebacks from the brink of defeat. I don’t know as I’ve played enough to determine for sure whether or not this works in practice, however.
Players effectively have global reach in Offworld, as well, able to build or execute abilities anywhere on the game’s map (or board, as it’s almost impossible for me to avoid thinking of it). This is a really interesting mechanic and very different from what one would expect when playing an RTS – this, again, feels to me like something out of a board game.
Even visually, factories and refineries, and even the player’s colony evoke plastic game pieces or cardboard chits as much as actual structures. And, again, I mean this in a good way. The game has a very unique aesthetic that I was skeptical of at first but do greatly appreciate.
As a longtime and serious RTS gamer, I deeply appreciate Soren and Mohawk for trying to innovate in the RTS space. Having Offworld Trading Company distill RTS to its economic core while adding enough resource complexity and manipulative tools to keep things interesting is a worthy feat. Doing away with fog of war altogether (if you don’t count the game’s initial exploration phase) and elegantly implementing ‘perfect knowledge’ into the game is likewise incredibly mechanically exciting.
And I guess that describes my main issue with the game: the phrase “mechanically exciting.” Despite some of what I’ve seen around on the internet, I don’t (at this point) find Offworld Trading Company to be a viscerally appealing game in the way I do a StarCraft or a Company of Heroes. Despite all the fuss I’ve made of ‘distillation’ thus far, my play sessions in Offworld Trading Company have felt a bit detached. While I haven’t played a human opponent yet (and I’m sure this will make a huge difference in the game’s emotional resonance for me – playing humans is nothing at all like playing AI) the act of buying and selling on the game’s market just doesn’t resonate with me as a player the way that ordering troops around a battlefield does.
This is something that may change over time: just like plans, first impressions rarely survive contact with the enemy (or, you know, other players). I want – desperately – to be able to recommend Offworld Trading Company unreservedly to other players. I think it’s easy to get into and quite hard to master, and its simplicity of presentation hints that, like the best competitive analog games (like chess), Offworld Trading Company could have a lasting appeal beyond the typical 1-3 year life cycle of an RTS. Simultaneously, this same aspect of the game is what gives me the most pause, though I feel like I’m unable to articulate that as succinctly.
It’s inspiring to see Soren wax loquacious about this game, his game. He’s done the vast majority of the game’s introduction for his studio, and is (rightfully) a zealous advocate for his title. It’s a thoughtfully, a mindfully crafted game. But, I suppose, thus far it’s failed to capture my imagination.
I do have a recommendation for you. Check the game out. Watch the videos of Soren’s live-streams. If and when the game has a demo, try it for yourself. No RTS has been this ambitious in bucking the norms of the industry in years, perhaps since the genre’s inception. It’s worthy of your attention.