The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, releases today and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)
Bribe Claim – Certainly the simplest black market item, Bribe Claim is one of only two (along with Cook the Books) which takes effect immediately. Everyone wants more claims, but however appealing a new claim may be, players should be careful not to overvalue the item. Bribing a claim for $4K may sound great, but what if the player could instead upgrade her HQ for $8K and get three claims? The best time to bribe a claim is if the player has one claim left for a new building and needs the extra claim to at least build a second building for the +50% adjacency bonus.
Cook the Books – This item is one of only two (along with Bribe Claim) that can be purchased with a D bond rating, which is especially important in this case because buying Cook the Books can actually raise the player up to a C rating. (However, the game will track if the player’s debt is so bad that he would be below D if such a rating existed. In that case, buying Cook the Books will not raise the bond rating.) Games with Cook the Books available are interesting because players know that they can take on more debt than normal. However, a lower interest rate on a larger amount of debt can still spiral out of control, so sometimes the winner ends up being the Robotic player who decided to skip debt and just sell Power.
Auction Tile – The first version of this item only allowed players to auction off their own tiles. The upside is that the seller is rewarded in straight cash (while the buyer can overbid with debt), and if the other players get into a bidding war, the money can fund something much more important than the lost tile. In fact, the building on the tile is auctioned off as well; I’ve always been curious to know how much people would pay for an Offworld Market although I have certainly be too hesitant to try that myself. However, auctioning off one’s own tiles is a rare strategy, so we also added the ability to auction off neutral tiles (although in this case, the money goes to the bank). The typical strategy is to auction off a tile next to one’s own HQ so that it is not particularly valuable to anyone else and can therefore be bought for a low price.
Hologram – Philosophically, I have always designed games for both the human and the AI. Obviously, game mechanics needs to be fun for the human as the artificial intelligence is not going to be buying our game. However, I also always evaluate game mechanics by whether the AI can, not necessarily have fun with them, but can understand them and use them in a reasonable way. The hologram is a very interesting black market item that adds an element of guessing the opponent’s mind into the game, but it is completely unsuitable for the AI. The problem is making the AI capable of guessing where the humans placed her Holograms. If we don’t solve that problem, then the human can easily hide every Offworld Market and just walk to victory. On the other hand, if we DO solve that not insignificant problem, then the human is going to just assume the AI is cheating and peeking at a bit of game state it shouldn’t be seeing. It’s a classic lose-lose situation for an AI developer. We solved this problem by finally drawing a line between the single-player and the multiplayer versions of the game; the Hologram (along with the Spy and Auction Tile) would be considered Advanced Sabotage and turned off by default in the single-player game. Keeping both sides of the game identical is still the rule, but sometimes breaking that rule is worth it. Holograms were simply too much fun to sacrifice to a philosophical goal.
Spy – Of course, the Hologram would never have worked at all if there wasn’t some way to counter it, which is why the Spy exists. However, the Spy does a whole lot more; it reveals hidden Goon Squads, what advanced buildings (such as Patent Labs and Hacker Arrays) are doing, and the stockpile stored inside a building (which can be useful when destroying a full Glass Kiln with Dynamite). Information is powerful although that power is also hard to quantify; many players felt that the Spy was not worth triggering a black market cooldown, especially when looking for an Offworld Market to steal with a Mutiny. Thus, we removed the cooldown for the Spy, as well as for the Hologram, so that players could use as many as they could afford. Because both items only affect information and not actual resources, this change was still balanced with the rest of the black market. (We also tried taking the cooldown away from Auction Tile, but Zultar proved in a memorable game how much one player could grind everything to a halt by auctioning off all his buildings.)
MULE – A not very subtle nod to one of the major inspirations for Offworld, the MULE also lets the player do something unique — to mine resources without constructing a building or even using a claim. Thus, players can acquire 200 Aluminum without actually having to commit to an Aluminum tile. MULEs are also a great way to take advantage of a primary resource that has spiked in value by simply mining the most valuable resource relatively close to the player’s HQ. MULEs do, however, consume Fuel while traveling and while mining, so players should be careful not to use MULEs if the price of Fuel is too high.
Pirates – As mentioned above, Pirates were originally actual units that the player would buy and move around the map, attacking enemy ships and buildings. The black market version simply stayed on one tile and stole resources from every Freighter that came within range (and would disappear after giving a total of 100 resource to the attacker) Initially, every ship was shot down, so a player hit with Pirates early in the game might be knocked out entirely if he lost his first 100 units of Steel to another player. Thus, we added a dice roll for each shot so that each Freighter had a 50% chance of surviving. This system worked reasonably well but could still annoy players (either the attacker or the victim) if the dice were streaky. Our artists came up with a new concept for the Pirates; they would no longer fly in circles but instead shoot at Freighters from the ground to knock off resources. This art change inspired the final system, which uses no luck and also doesn’t strangle victims. Now, Pirates always hit Freighters but only steal half of the resources; we’re not sure why it took so long to get to this obvious solution! (Putting Pirates on the ground also creates an interesting, if obscure, wrinkle; players can actually remove Pirates from the game if they construct a building in the same tile. Normally, placing a building in a tile just to kill Pirates doesn’t make sense, but players should at least consider this possibility when placing them.)
Magnetic Storm – The Magnetic Storm originated from trying to design a way to hurt Freighters differently than Pirates do. We chose the simplest approach — to simply destroy all Freighters (and their cargo) within a large radius. This power can be especially useful if multiple players are shipping across the same territory as it can hit as many units as are within its range. Scientific HQs are especially vulnerable to Magnetic Storm as they sometimes ship Food, Oxygen, Fuel, Steel, Glass, and even Chemicals and Electronics across the map, all of which tend to be valuable. Players who want to wipe out a specific resource can use an EMP first on the distant buildings, which then automatically triggers a shipment to the owner’s HQ, which can then be wiped out immediately with a Magnetic Storm. One rare, but still powerful, use of a Magnetic Storm is to prevent a player from repairing a distant building destroyed with a Dynamite; the repair Engineer can be wiped out just before it gets to the tile (and although the it does regenerate at the HQ, these units travel very slowly).
EMP – One of the original black market items, the EMP may have been the first one added to the game as it has such a straightforward effect – simply turn off all the buildings of another player within a certain radius. Initially, all buildings were shut off for the same period of time, but we found the choice more interesting if the effect decreased by distance from the target tile — not only did this effect make sense thematically, but players now needed to consider which specific buildings were the most important to freeze. Because an early EMP can be so devastating (potentially shutting down all of a player’s buildings), an expert player will often split her early buildings between different sides of her HQ, making sure that at least half of her production would survive an EMP attack.
Power Surge – The Power Surge works similar to an EMP but is meant to punish players for a different type of arrangement. The EMP is most destructive if a player clumps his buildings together to take advantage of adjacency bonuses. A Power Surge, on the other hand, is most dangerous if a player builds out in snaky lines, which are less vulnerable to EMPs and can be useful for connecting the HQ to distant resources. The Power Surge moves to adjacent tiles randomly but cannot hit the same tile twice. Therefore, if a player isn’t careful, a Surge can end prematurely if it gets trapped on a tile without a valid path; the best place to start a Surge is at the end of a line of buildings because it will have a clear path. We made one important change to how Power Surges interact with Goon Squads, which kill Power Surges if they randomly hit them. After the change, the Surge will only move onto a tile with a Goon Squad (even if unrevealed) if there are no other options available, which means that players never get an unlucky roll with Surges. Players had referred to hitting Goon Squads with an unlucky roll as a “bad bounce” — which meant an unintentional and unwanted bit of luck had entered the system. (Goon Squads were meant to protect primarily against single-tile sabotage, like Mutiny or Dynamite; it was not meant to kill Power Surges randomly.) Now, if a player wants to protect against Surges, she should arrange her buildings with chokepoints and place the Goon Squads on those tiles, guaranteeing the block.