I picked this game up on a sale, based solely on the fact that I like space and thought the concept of a non-military RTS sounded intriguing. I was not disappointed!
In Offworld Trading Company, your ultimate goal is to establish a monopoly over the business of a Mars colony. In brief, you establish your base, stake land claims on which you build resource generating facilities, and then buy and sell commodities until you can buy out your competition.
There are many different resources, though not too many to keep track of, and they all have a specific purpose. Chemicals are used in researching patents, for instance. Water, food, oxygen, and fuel provide the basic infrastructure for your HQ and ships (except for the Robotics HQ, which I’ll get to in a second). Materials like Aluminium, Steel, Carbon, Glass, and Silicon are used for building and refining. If you don’t have what you need to build something, you can pay out of pocket automatically to buy up what you need. But if you have all the resources, building is free. The primary limiting factor here is your land claims, which are very limited, requiring you to make careful decisions about the direction your business will go.
Players cannot control the way the colony grows; it runs itself. But its needs help shape the market’s prices. The more habitats the colony has, the higher the price of food, for instance. The really neat thing is that the other players’ needs also influence these prices! If there’s a lot of people buying up Aluminium, the price will go up, and a shrewd businessperson can take advantage of the fact that everyone needs this by harvesting lots of it and sitting on a stockpile until the need peaks.
If straight up trading on the market isn’t enough for you, all players have access to the Black Market, a set of shady actions you can take to give yourself an edge for a price. It only becomes available every minute or so. You can disguise your special buildings with holograms, take over competitors’ buildings with a mutiny, disable them temporarily with an EMP, destroy resources with an underground nuke, straight up steal from your competitors’ resource ships using pirates, shield yourself from enemy black market attacks with a goon squad, and many other actions depending on which are selected for the match. There are also several special buildings that let you influence the course of the game in generally less hostile ways, but I don’t have the room to describe them in detail.
The game has an ingenious risk/reward system in place that allows you to accrue debt in order to accomplish your objectives, whether it’s buying powerful rewards from auctions against other players, or paying for resources you don’t have but need to manufacture things, etc. However, as your debt increases, you not only lose some access to the black market, but your stock price will dip. The price of your stock is your lifeblood, as it determines how expensive it will be for your competitors to buy you out.
At the start of a match, players scan the map looking for resources, and trying to decide when and where to place their HQ, while a timer ticks away. Somewhat disappointingly, against computers the game will auto-pause while you make decisions, which includes pausing between scans at the start. But it does make it easier to learn what you’re doing, as the game can be really complicated at first. In any case, scanning reveals the map a little at a time, and at any point, a player can decide where to place their HQ and what type to place. The timer is tied to a few different things. Those who place sooner will acquire a nice chunk of debt to start them off, meaning their stock price will be lower at first, making them vulnerable to a buyout rush. They’ll also have slower initial access to the black market. However, placing sooner means you have a better choice of locations, which is critical because proximity to resources means you’ll consume less Fuel (or Power) shipping the stuff back to base. If you wait long enough, the debt timer counts down to zero and you get a monetary bonus for placing very late. Will it be enough to make up for everyone else having a head start? Only you can decide that.
There’s 4 different kinds of HQs you can establish, and each has a distinct playstyle associated with it. The Expansive HQ gives extra land claims when you upgrade it, makes your buildings cost less Steel, and makes your resource and building ships move faster. The Scavenger HQ substitutes Carbon for Steel in your buildings, and gives you more frequent access to the black market. The Robotics HQ doesn’t require life support, its ships run on Power instead of Fuel, and you use Electronics in place of Glass when building. And the Scientific HQ gives you the capability to build on top of resource nodes, and the building will use that resource as intake without needing to build specific harvesting buildings, thus saving you land claims. Scientific HQs also research patents twice as fast.
In Skirmish mode, you’re not tied down to a particular faction. You’re free to scan and determine which type of HQ will be best on the fly. In the Campaign, however, you choose a CEO that’s tied to a particular faction, and can generally (though there are unlockable exceptions) build only one type of HQ for the duration of the campaign. Where you place your HQ is based on what kind of resources your faction needs to get off the ground, and whether you can find a nice spot that fits your ideals (and whether you act fast enough to place there before a competitor does).
Winning is accomplished by buying out your competitors, turning them into your subsidiaries. Everyone has 10 bars by their name, representing 10,000 shares of total stock in their company, bought up 1,000 at a time. At the start of the match, how much of your company is personally owned by you varies with the match settings and difficulty (if playing against the AI). At any point, anyone can buy shares in a competitor by paying out enough money to do so. Unbought shares are presumably owned by the company itself, and are gray. If at any point, other players buy out more than 50% of your company’s shares, they now collectively or individually have a controlling interest in your company, and you are removed from the game. There are only 2 things you can do to protect yourself from this. You can buy up at least 50% of the shares yourself, forcing them to buy them all at once and thus buying you time by making a hostile takeover much more expensive. You can also play well, and keep your debt low, raising the cost of your shares.
The rules of Campaign mode are pretty different, adding in a mechanic where you have to hire specialists in order to build buildings, and hiring more of them makes those buildings more effective. You also have to focus on buying modules for the colony before your competitors do, rather than buying out your competitors, playing several matches in a row, accruing benefits along the way from which missions you decide to do. Unlike many RTSes, though, the campaign is not designed to teach you the game as you go. I strongly recommend playing the tutorials first, which are excellent, and then trying a few skirmishes against the AI to get the hang of things when you have more freedom.
All in all, I really can’t recommend Offworld Trading Company strongly enough. It’s a fantastic game full of nuanced complexity, and it’s also one of the few games on the market with a primarily non-violent approach to victory in a competitive environment. It’s an RTS without military units, it’s an economic victory in a Civilization game but on fast forward. It’s immensely engrossing, and provides lots of opportunities to express yourself and your business strategies against others trying to do the same.