When I first saw Offworld Trading Company, the videos were full of cute little spaceships on an alien planet...and while those things technically feature, this is not really a space strategy game. Despite the fact that the same guy who was lead designer on Civ IV was in charge of OTC's development, you're not getting Alpha Centauri 2 here.
What you are getting is a stock market simulator. And, somehow, an enjoyable one at that.
It's amazing how presentation and game design can take something so alien and uninteresting to me — the concept of stocks and shares are like poison to my attention span — and transform it into something I can't stop playing.
Even without a proper tutorial (it's an Early Access game) it only takes an hour or so to get on top of everything, because there's not much scope to this game. Players aren't controlling military operations, or conducting diplomacy, they're just out to make money. You build a base on Mars, you build stuff on resource tiles, then you use the materials you get from those tiles to buy stuff that improves your tech and let you build more gear.
Only, here's the thing: you have to earn your money the hard way. You're given direct control of your inventory of resources — even oxygen, water and food — and have to sell them to get cash. Which sounds easy enough, but the entire game is based on the concept of an open market, and that both complicates and benefits everything.
Your OTC experience consists of juggling the harvesting, buying and selling of resources, which all tie together. You make money selling resources, but the value of resources goes down the more you sell, so you need to diversify (and be careful of how quickly you sell things). Some resources need other resources to be made, and you need to balance spending money on improving your own gear, buying resources you can't get and spending it on other players.
Yes, I meant that last part. This is a stock market game, after all, and if you get enough cash together you can start buying shares in your competitors. If you were wondering how you'd "beat" opponents if you can't militarily invade them, this is how. Buy enough shares and you take over their company, kicking them out of the game.
All of which makes playing OTC a strange experience. There's none of the map scanning and navel-gazing of a more traditional strategy game; instead, you spend most of your time monitoring the price list of the planet's resources, buying and selling. You click away, eyes on three things at once, and all those cute little spaceships buzzing around and mining stuff are just window dressing. You start to see, and care, about only one thing: numbers. And the money those numbers are bringing in.
As much fun as I've had with, I'd be hesitant to recommend you spend money on it just yet. OTC is still in Early Access, so there's a lot missing. It needs a decent tutorial, for one (as well as some in-game prompts and tips), as well as more meat on the game's campaign. But what's there, a frantic scramble for resources then a highwire dance trying to keep the money coming in, already shows this has the potential to be one of the more unique and interesting strategy games to come along in a long time. Once there's a little more to it to justify the pricetag, it's definitely worth checking out.