Economic RTS – Money matters

With the recent launch of Mohawk’s Offworld Trading Company I’d like to trace back it’s inspiration and look at it the changes it has made to the formula.
Several of the team at Mohawk were previously employee of Firaxis, during their time there they worked on or around Sid Meier’s Railroads.
Although this game departed from the previous Railroad Tycoon games by focusing on shorter , compact multiplayer games. At the time many of the fans were disappointed that it wasn’t a full Railroad Tycoon sequel but what it did do was set out a solid foundation for Economic RTS games.

A common framework 
The short games of under an hour are won or lost by competing to transport commodities from location to location I’m the most efficient way possible. Players win by purchasing stock in rival companies until they are bought out completely. Whilst doing this auctions come up which players bid on to gain advantages. This will all sound very familiar to those who have played Offworld Trading Company. Outside this general game structure the two titles diverge.

Railroads focuses on the map; creating routes, managing trains and buying industries. Offworld focuses on the resources; trading on the stock market, staking claims and contributing to outposts.

Railroads-AuctionsA place to call home
As both games don’t have units in a classic sense some techniques have been used to give a sense of map presence. These give the player a location to call home and stop you expanding instantly all over the field of play. In Railroads you start with a station at a city and all new tracks must extend from the existing track. This doesn’t feel immediately intuitive if you have played something like Transport Tycoon before but it definitely focuses the expansion to be a lot more organic.

In Offworld players set down a base and have a limited number of claims to pull resources from. Although these claims can be anywhere on the map all resources are transported back to the base. The travel time involved also encourages claims to be placed as close to the base as possible. Claims are plots of land which you can claim and then build on. The number of claims are limited and only increase as you upgrade your base in typical “age of….” RTS style, or you can give an increasing expensive bribe to the black market.

Where is the Strategy?
A competitive multiplayer game wouldn’t be much without conflict. As an economic RTS doesn’t have tanks to smash in to each other there are a few other mechanics used here and this is where Offworld really adds extra depth.
With Railroads the most basic interaction between players is the laying and obstructing of tracks. If an enemy gets somewhere first you need to go around or over their track which will inevitably make your system less efficient. As Offworld doesn’t have tracks they instead opted for area of effect abilities from the black market. These can be periodically purchased in limited supply which let you directly sabotage enemy transporters, power supplies or supply chains. This shows a shift between passive conflict in Railroads to active conflict in Offworld.

Offworld

The auction systems in both games also provide opportunities to get one up on your competitors. Both systems are largely similar although I find some of the auctions in Railroads slightly more engaging. Whenever you wish to buy an industry it must go up for auction. Do you spend money up front on a currently under performing industry or do you risk allowing other players to buy an industry you have cultivated? Essentially leeching off your work for the rest of the game. Railroads as a whole sticks clearly to the Sid Meier’s game style. There is a small well defined and realised set of mechanics which are easy to pickup and start enjoying. Generally once you accept the limitations of the game everything is logical and self explanatory.

Where Offworld really pulls away is the stock market. As well as the active black market abilities you also have a fully working real time stock market. If your opponent relies on
purchasing a resource you can drive up the price. Likewise you can drive down the price to stop them making a large profit. This really makes Offworld a more aggressive game to play although it does take some time to learn as it’s strategies are quite subtle. There is definitely a lot of depth to gain mastery over for those who are willing to spend the time.

The end is nigh

The threat of losing in each game is kept in view using two mechanics; time and the stock market.

Depending on the game type Railroads and Offworld impose a limited game time. Offworld compounds this by factoring in day/night cycles which also effect energy production. Once the time limit has been reached the winner is determined by score.

Offworld-StocksTo defeat you rivals before this you can buy all of the shares of their company. At the start all companies have half of their shares available for purchase. You can sell your own shares to raise a bit of money in the short term but this leaves you more vulnerable to being bought out. Alternatively buying your own shares secures your company against buyouts but costs you money which you could otherwise invest in your company. It is a great mechanic which is straightforward and shows a clear state of the game for all players. There are some subtle differences with what happens when you buy out other players. Offworld in particular has gone through several iterations during its early access testing. These range between gaining control of everything the rival previous controlled and simply getting a regular dividends payment.

I for one welcome our new capitalist overlords
The Economic RTS has a solid foundation which subsequent games can hopefully build upon and refine. Despite being built around a similar core Railroads and Offworld still have their own defined character, gameplay and mechanics. There are a lot of different themes this core can be applied to and as long as the developers are willing to customise the mechanics there are is an untapped and interested market here. Overall economic RTS games show there are a lot of genres out there waiting to be discovered.

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