I'm not really sure what I expected from Offworld Trading Company, the Early Access combat-free economic RTS from Soren Johnson, designer of Civilization IV, now of Mohawk Games. With no tanks or military units, surely it would be a leisurely excursion into spreadsheets and calculations? Certainly, being an Early Access game, and one not due to release until next year, it would be an incomplete and buggy experience full of gaps to be filled later? I'm happy to say the game is frantic, exciting, and surprising. And, with a couple minor exceptions, it feels pretty much done.
In Offworld Trading Company, Mars is open for business and players compete to build a successful corporate colony. Scan the red planet for resources like carbon, iron, water, and silicon. Decide which type of colony will thrive given the randomized conditions: for instance, a robot colony doesn't need water or food and scientific colonies develop technology and patents faster. Build factories to transform resources into steel and glass, generate oxygen, food, fuel, and power, sell your surplus goods on the open market and buy whatever you're lacking. Compete with other companies for resources, sabotage each other's efforts, and earn enough cash to win, not by destroying other colonies with military units, but by purchasing enough of their stock to completely buy them out.
The resource market rises and falls based on the actions of the players. If you need cash you can sell your resources, but sell too much too fast and the market saturates, sharply dropping the asking price, meaning that even if you're sitting on a massive load of goods you can't just unload them all at once for hefty profits. There are ways to game the market, though. The hacking array is an amazingly fun building, letting you fabricate a surplus or shortage of a particular resource to either drive the price up or nosedive it for a cheap buy. You can also launch your goods into space with rockets and sell them outside the local market.
While most of the violence is of the economic variety, there are a few attacks that can be purchased intermittently on the black market. Dynamite and EMP blasts can disable your competitors' structures, and underground nukes can be used to contaminate a resource to prevent others from harvesting it. You can bribe your opponents' workers to go on strike, and bid on the services of pirate fleets to attack supply lines and hijack goods. You can also pay a defensive squad to protect your most important structures from these kinds of attacks.
The first thing that really struck me about OTC was the speed of the game. I was surprised by how fast-paced it is, even playing on normal speed, and how abruptly matches can end. More than once I was carefully building and managing my company, thinking I was doing just fine, when I suddenly received alarming notifications that my stock was being gobbled up by other players. Before I could even react, I'd been bought out and my match was over. It's happened plenty of times the other way, too. Someone's stock price dips just when I've made some profitable moves, and suddenly I'm flush with enough cash to buy out my opponent completely. Matches can turn on a dime and end in hurry.
At first, I was disappointed in how quickly matches could come to a close. Part of the enjoyment of building a booming business on Mars, surely, is sitting back and watching it run it for a good long while, right? There's precious little time to bask in the robust economic machine you've built, however, and it can be a bit jarring when a match ends, even when you win. It's like stumbling into a checkmate in chess while almost all the pieces are still on the board and you're still in the midst of your plotting and planning.
The more I play OTC, though, the more I've come to really appreciate the short rounds and the sudden game-ending moves. There are plenty of strategy games in which a single match can fill an entire evening, or even several evenings. OTC, in skirmish or multiplayer mode, feels more like a strategy rougelike. A randomized world, a short, frantic match, an abrupt and shocking end, a dive back in to start from scratch. You can play through two or even three matches in a single hour, and still experience an entire evening's worth of drama, heartbreak, and victory. Ultimately, it's a great and refreshing design choice. And, if you do want a more drawn out experience, there's an enjoyable single-player campaign mode.
OTC could use some polish. Notifications appear in the right-hand corner of the screen and are both oversized and yet difficult to read. The voices that read these notifications aloud are annoying and inconsistent. Tooltips, as you hover over a resource or menu item, feel slow to respond, problematic in a game where you're often scrambling to keep ahead of your opponents. There are sample levels to learn the ropes but not a proper tutorial.
For a game on Early Access, though, Offworld Trading Company has arrived in a state that feels far more complete than pretty much any other Early Access game I've played. Since Mohawk doesn't plan to fully release the game until 2016, they've given themselves plenty of time to tighten up a game that already feels pretty damn solid.