Sunday, January 22, 2017

A different kind of strategy

I like playing strategy games. I enjoy plotting and planning. I also enjoy playing business simulations and building games, though. Because of that, I soon realized that “Offworld Trading Company” was a strategy game and not a business simulation or a building game, despite its look.

I stumbled over OTC a little while back at GOG, during one of their sales. The game looked like a building game of sorts to me and I decided to buy it for myself. After playing through the tutorials, however, it was very obvious I had not bought a building game. Nor was it a business simulation, despite how well it simulates the movements of a market. It was a strategy game, but an unusual one.

Why was it unusual? Because it’s not the kind of game you imagine when I say ‘strategy.’ You don’t fight with soldiers and tanks and other weaponry. You fight with money. You do not set out to destroy what your enemies have built. You buy them up and use their production for your own gain. That makes it a very interesting and challenging game and I do have a lot of fun with it.

I also like the setting very much. Mankind has started to colonize Mars. But the colonies up there need a lot of things: food, water, air, building materials, and so on. This is where companies from earth and companies only created for this venture step in. They provide what the colony can’t create by itself, because they have a lot of other work to do. They build farms and sell food. They build wells and sell water. They build converters and sell oxygen and hydrogen (which serves as fuel). They build mines and sell aluminium and iron. They build factories and sell steel, glass, electronics, chemicals. They even build structures like the pleasure dome and profit from the workers relaxing and having fun in there. Or they even use their money and resources to expand the colony.

But, as with the Highlander, there can be only one. To make the best out of the deal, only one company can cater to one colony. Since several usually set up close by, the only way to become this one company is to eradicate the competitors. And since open violence is frowned upon, the companies fight with shares. Every company has a total of 10,000 shares. 2,000 usually are owned by them at the beginning. If you own 6,000 shares of another company, they become your subsidiaries. If you own all 10,000, they become part of your company. Shares have to be bought at market value and in packages of 1,000 shares. If a company owns at least 5,000 of its own stock, you have to buy those in bulk. If they own more, not only do you have to buy in bulk, you also have to buy for a much higher price. So it’s in your best interest to make sure you buy in early.
How do you make money? By producing goods and selling them. It’s literally the only thing you can do in this game. You can buy from the black market, to protect yourself (with the hologram or the goon squad) or to damage the others (with the pirates or bombs), but that will only give you a slight advantage and the more you partake in the offers of the black market, the more it costs you. Trading offworld with a rocket brings a lot of money, but to get there, you need to earn a lot first. And you only have limited space, too.

Limited space is actually where this game becomes a strategy game. With every upgrade of your headquarters, you get a number of new claims, which means you can build a couple more structures. You can also buy claims from the black market, but, as mentioned, that gets more expensive every time. You have to plan what you want to buy. You can destroy structures again and build something else instead, but you don’t have enough claims to build up a huge production. You need to decide what to build and what to do with it. Do you want a second offworld market (the rocket) or do you want a hacker array to manipulate the prices with? Do you want to invest in research or do you rather want to overproduce on food and send out rocket over rocket to the asteroid belt?
In the end, it doesn’t matter what strategy you have for making money, as long as you make much of it quickly. At the beginning, the shares usually are in a range of $15 to $17 a share, which means you need around $15,000 to $17,000 to buy the first package. After you start buying, as with everything on the market, shares go up in price. Do you want to go ‘all out’ and buy in bulk, even though the last packages will be very expensive like this? Do you want to buy a package here and there, which is cheaper, but will allow the other player to buy up shares as well to make it harder for you? You can cash everything you have in at once and use the money to buy up package after package, but what if you lack a few thousand in the end? It will take you ages to build up your stock again. You can go the safe way and buy shares only when you have enough money on the side, but that gives your competitors time and resources to do the same to you - or to buy their own shares to force you to buy in bulk. That is where the game becomes challenging. Have I also mentioned the game runs in real time? This isn’t one of your 4x4 turn-based affairs, despite the hexagonal tiles.

And you have the choice between four types of companies, too. There’s the expansive fraction which seem pretty much the regular ones. They have advantages in freighter movement and building and get extra tiles per upgrade of their headquarters. There’s the scavenger fraction who are connected to the black market much better. They build with carbon instead of steel, so they don’t need steel mills, they learn about shortages in advance, and they can buy from the black market more often (all companies have a cool-down time after buying a black market offer). There’s the scientific fraction which has the advantage of technology. They can build production buildings on resources to cut out mines, quarries, or wells, EMP attacks and power surges are over more quickly for them, and they can do their patent research faster. Finally, there is the robotic fraction which doesn’t employ humans. They don’t need life support (food, air) and work on power (of which they need more, of course), they use electronics in upgrades (and don’t need glass), they don’t need hydrogen fuels, and their production buildings become more efficient when next to a building which produces their resources.
The choice of the fraction has a huge influence on your strategy. Robots can settle even in places without water resources (or ice) nearby. They can produce food to sell it (same goes for oxygen and hydrogen), but they can totally forego water and invest in other buildings. Scavengers can do without iron and steel. Their close connection to the black market allows for pulling a lot of tricks on their competition, such as munity (redirect resources from a building to your own headquarter for a while) or slowdown strike (lowers productivity of the building targeted and those around, very effecting in clusters). They can make use of the market more often, because of the shorter cool-down time, but they will suffer from the increased prices and lower efficiency on the same tile as well. The scientists don’t need to go for quarries or mines (except for aluminium, which is used ‘raw’), because they can build production buildings directly on a resource. But many buildings need two resources and thus they need to produce one of the resources directly or to auto-buy it. They have an advantage in research, but since their production buildings are usually scattered around, they can’t make as much use of clusters (productivity is enhanced, if production buildings of the same type touch). The expansive fraction is the most beginner-friendly of the four, it doesn’t have huge advantages (building cost, speed, and more tiles aren’t that much of an advantage), but it also doesn’t require an ultra-specialized strategy. If you want to experiment and play around, they’re the best choice.

But the core of the game which really makes it a taxing real-time strategy game is the market as a such. All of the resources, primary or otherwise, are on the market and the prices offered for them constantly change. If a player buys a lot of a resource, prices go up. If a player sells a lot of a resource, prices go down. If there is a shortage, you can take advantage of it and sell a lot of a resource at once for a higher price. If there’s overproduction, you can take advantage and buy. Every action on the market is met with in real time. Every time you click on the sell or the buy button, the prices change. Sell much at once and the price hits rock bottom, which means you don’t get as much as you thought. Buy much at once and the price skyrockets, forcing you to pay a lot more. Build a hacker array and you can create false shortages or overproductions and take advantage of them - but the competitors will suspect something and they can take advantage, too. Sooner or later, you will need to sell or buy. The claim limit means you can’t produce everything for every eventuality and you will at some point need more money than you have, too. You might have to sell so you can buy a share package, you might have to sell to meet the financial requirements for the first rocket shipment (afterwards, you usually have the money from the last shipment), or you might have to sell so you can buy a resource you can’t produce yourself. Every time, you will influence the market and your competitors can see it. And that is what I like about the game. I like it that you have to outsmart your opponents, that you can’t just rush at them. You can’t just produce more than everyone else, because you lack space for that. You can’t just make soldiers and overrun them. You have to devise a strategy to make money faster than they do.

And the games don’t take that long, which is a plus for me, too. Instead of spending hours with advancing my culture in AOE or AOM (which I also love playing) to build up a large army, I need to advance my headquarters, build up a production, and find a way to efficiently sell what I make so I can buy the others up.

OTC is a very good example of taking a genre into an unusual setting and making it work. So if you like strategy games, I suggest you give it a chance or at least a good look.

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