Preview: Offworld Trading Company brings German-style board games to life

I'm a pretty big fan of board games. Specifically, German-style board games, which downplay combat and luck in favor of resource collection and economy management as core gameplay mechanics. These board games also encourage players to devise non-obvious strategies to gain an upper hand over their opponents, and some of the best moments I've witnessed were unexpected last-minute turnarounds that happened when a player used a novel strategy to gain a winning advantage.

When I began playing the early access version of Offworld Trading Company, I couldn't help but think about how closely it resembles German-style board games like Puerto RicoPower Grid, and Agricola. Collecting resources, investing in your economy, and theorycrafting new strategies are all present in Offworld Trading Company, as are the vibrant colors, clever design, and the bird's-eye view you'll find in German-style board games.

But unlike board games, which are turn-based, Offworld Trading Company is played in real-time like StarCraft, or better yet, the actual economy. This means there are no turns, everyone gets to go first, and most importantly, time is of the essence. Transactions, manufacturing, and construction all happen in real time, and this is really where Offworld Trading Company starts to shine.

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The Basics

Developed by Mohawk Games and Stardock Entertainment, Offworld Trading Company is an economic real-time strategy game that takes players to Mars where their objective is to build a mining corporation, develop their infrastructure, and eventually become a monopoly by buying out their competitors.

Each game begins with an unexplored map, and the player's first step is to explore the map and identify what resources are available. Once the players have explored their immediate vicinity, their goal is to choose what kind of headquarters they want to play as. Like other real-time or turn-based strategy games, these headquarter types can be likened to 'races,' and each race has its own set of distinct advantages and disadvantages.Depending on what resource is most abundant near the player, certain headquarter types are will fare better during the early stages of the game, but this in and of itself does not guarantee a clear path to victory.

Once the headquarter type is selected, the player will begin building their corporation. There are 13 different resources to mine, and each resource plays a different role in the economy. Food, for example, is a resource that can't be used to upgrade or improve your corporation; however it's necessary to feed your workers. Chemicals, which require carbon and fuel to produce, are necessary for researching upgrades, but aren't otherwise valuable in their own right. One of the most basic resources in the game is power, as it not only allows you to run your buildings, but surplus electricity can also be sold off, which helps reduce your debt burden.

Offworld Trading Company (3) Speaking of debt, Offworld Trading Company does a wonderful job at recreating real-world economies by implementing funds (or, assets), debt, and stock price in the user interface. If  you're not able to produce enough power or food to run your corporation, you'll have to buy it from your corporation, which in turn increases your debt. You may also take debt when buying new plots of land  at auctions to build new buildings. Of course, having debt does not decrease your funds, but it does lower your stock price, which makes it easier for other players to buy you out.

So let's do a brief recap of the 'virtual tokens' that are used in Offworld Trading Company. You have resources that can be mined, you have stocks that can be bought or sold,  and you have debt that you can accrue by buying something at auctions or running a resource or power deficit.

All good? Awesome.

Gameplay and Flow

One of the most fundamental aspects of Offworld Trading Company is the subtle interplay between all these elements. I've won games where I had zero debt, a lot of funds, and not too many resources. I've also won games where I had a lot of debt, not a lot of funds, but tons of resources. There isn't a single good strategy, and victory often comes down to identifying the best way to exploit a given map's resources and player types (i.e. certain headquarters depend more on one resource over another).

There are also ways to disrupt your enemies' economies by going to the black market, where you can cause artificial shortages by firing an EMP at your opponent's power production facility, cause a mutiny at their aluminum mill, or even fire an underground nuke. Sabotaging enemies often sounds like a good idea, but like all things on the black market, these weapons don't come cheap, and may cause you to lag behind in certain scenarios.

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Like German-style board games, Offworld Trading Company has a discernible early game, a mid-game, and an end-game. Your headquart can be upgraded four times to reach Level 5, and which each upgrade you'll get more claims, which give you the ability to construct additional buildings on new plots of lands. Upgrading also makes your economy more efficient, but this also means that your power consumption and resource requirements for food and water go up. While it may make sense to race to the fifth level to get access to powerful economic buildings like the Offworld Rocket, which lets you send resources back to earth for a huge profit, it'll often come at the expense of having a lot of debt and not many resources.

In addition to buying and selling stocks in your own company and your competitors' companies, you can also buy and sell resources. The value of each resource is determined by the age-old economic fundamentals of supply and demand. If you run a resource deficit, the value of that resource will rise, making it more expensive for you to buy. If you sell a lot of resources or over produce a certain resource, the value of that resource will fall. Certain resources, like electronics, will always have a higher base price than basic resources like water and power, but in turn they are harder to produce and take a longer time to harvest. It's up to you as a corporation to determine which resources you want to go after, and as of yet I've ended up focusing on different resource types in almost every game I've played.

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Most Offworld Trading Company games take between 20 to 30 minutes, though I've had some that have lasted upwards of an hour depending on how big the map is and how many players are playing. Before jumping into a competitive online game, I heavily recommend playing through the tutorials, and trying out some of the campaign missions though.

Impressions

After playing some 12 hours of Offworld Trading Company, I feel as though I've barely scratched the surface. The level of nuance and sophistication Offworld Trading Company has is on par with any German-style board game, and it really shows. Offworld Trading Company is also one of the cleanest, most 'retail-ready' early access games I've had the pleasure of playing, and what's even more impressive is that Stardock Entertainment told me that they won't release the game until 2016.

The one worry I have about Offworld Trading Company—and this is a concern that German-style board games also share—is the learning curve. Although I've played over a dozen or so games, I still feel that I'm an utter and complete novice, which is why I haven't dared to venture into the online multiplayer mode yet, where I'll surely get wrecked. Like in StarCraft, the tutorials in Offworld Trading Company will only take you so far, and it's up to the players to learn and study the current meta game if they want to have a realistic chance of being competitive online.

You'll see this screen a lot when you're learning the basics. That being said, there is already a growing player base of Offworld Trading Company players, and you'll be able to find some good guides to help you get started.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed playing Offworld Trading Company, and I'm very excited to see what additions and changes we'll see prior to the game's launch next year. For those interested in getting early access, I feel the $40 price point is well worth it, especially since Offworld Trading Company  will easily reach the 'one hour  of entertainment per dollar paid' value.