Platforms: PC (Reviewed) 

If it has ever been your dream to prospect for oil in the Old West, then Turmoil is the game for you. Developed by Gamious, a small studio from the Netherlands, this simulation places you in the shoes of an entrepreneur hunting after black gold.

There isn’t all that much turmoil in the game, which made me wonder about the title until I read the last three letters and I was hit by a ‘duh!’ moment. There is some strife involved in the game, though, as you battle three AI competitors for control of the oil fields and the town at the center of them.

Gameplay

You start out the game by picking one of four pre-generated characters: a retired sailor, a cowboy who has hung up his spurs, a bored realtor, or a disgraced lawyer. This choice is entirely cosmetic, as their backstories don’t influence gameplay in any way, all it does is decide which portrait you look at in overviews.

You’re then given a couple of bucks and a piece of land by the mayor. That plot of land is where you’ll play each level and you view it the same way you would an ant farm. First order of business is to find the pockets of oil hidden beneath the ground, for which you need to employ dowsers that will detect them for you.

That’s one thing I learned from this game – dowsers don’t just go after water, they find oil, too. I was thinking prospector would have been a better word, but a Google search showed that YouTube has plenty of videos of guys claiming to be able to find oil using Y-shaped sticks. Shows what I know.

Once your dowser finds something, he’ll whistle at you and start jumping up and down. This is where things get tricky – you put up a rig and start drilling pipes into the ground hoping you’ll strike it rich. The problem is that your guys aren’t very accurate without upgrades and sometimes you’ll have to lay a lot of pipe to find a pocket worth pumping.

Once the black stuff starts flowing you need to transport it by horse-drawn cart to one of the two companies on each side of the screen, imaginatively named Left, Inc. and Right, Inc. Their prices rise and fall constantly, making it important that you keep an eye on the signs over their doors so you don’t accidentally cheat yourself out of some money.

You only have a very limited budget, so anything you need on top of that comes from either selling oil or borrowing money at punitive interest rates. You also need to make sure that your oil rig doesn’t overflow or you’ll get fined, making transport a priority as well. You get to store oil to prevent such spillage and wait out the best prices, but that costs money, too.

For such a simple game, it’s actually quite fast-paced and intense thanks to all these different things happening simultaneously, and the time limit of around ten minutes ticking down adds to that excitement.

Taking it to Town

Once you finish a level, hopefully with a bit of profit, you’re transported to the town screen where you can buy upgrades for your wagons at the stables, give your dowsers new abilities at the workshop, and improve your equipment at the factory. Each of these upgrades is pretty expensive and you’re forced to make some hard decisions between them.

There’s also a bank where you get to check on your financial health and view graphs marking your progress (pretty soothing for your inner accountant), as well as a bar that represents the town’s seedy underbelly. Here, you can bribe officials to overlook your oil spills and disgruntled middle-managers to fix the prices on the oil you sell.

Lay of the Land

In town is also where you bid on plots of land against your three AI competitors. The bidding gets pretty heated at times, especially toward the end of the game when the good plots are all gone and you end up scrambling for land that will at least give you some oil, hopefully enough to break even. The AI occasionally bankrupts itself during this process, which is amusing to watch.

The world map where these plots are located is divided into four regions, each with around twenty parcels. There’s a desert, a temperate zone, etc. Each one of these regions introduces a new gameplay mechanic, flattening the learning curve somewhat and preventing the game from becoming stale.

The mechanic that in my opinion is the most fun is introduced in the third region: natural gas. It exists in pockets alongside oil, but can’t be sold directly; instead, it propels the oil faster through your pipes. Great if you’re prepared for it, but if you don’t have enough carts or storage it can lead to spills and the fines that go with them.

A little later in the game, you can buy some pretty expensive upgrades that expand the use of gas: you can pump it straight into either of the companies, raising their oil price. Timing is absolutely essential here, as gas depletes quickly and the price tumbles down with it. Some forward thinking comes in handy, too, as you want to avoid drilling gas until the absolute perfect moment.

This is definitely my favorite thing about the game – it’s not just original, but you can choose if and how to use it, too. It’s not often that a game gives you a tool that’s so flexible and powerful, yet also completely optional.

In It to Win It

You win the game by buying 50 percent of stock in the town. Halfway or so through the game, the mayor starts selling this stock through a so-called Dutch auction. Between every round, the mayor puts up a certain percentage for sale, sets the price at something ridiculously high, after which that amount starts counting down. Whoever presses first gets the shares, as simple as that.

I found these Dutch auctions to be a nifty idea that add further tension as stock gets cheaper as you wait, but the chance of your competitor pressing the buy button gets higher. This balancing act is made harder by the unpredictability of the AI; sometimes you’ll get stock for a song, other times one of your competitors will bid well before you do.

This victory condition does create a bit of a disconnect, however, as how well you do at the drilling has no direct impact on winning the game except for how much money you have to spend at the auctions. You could be the best, most efficient pipe-layer in the history of the game, but if you constantly press the buy button too late you’ll still lose.