OTC Designer Notes #15: Black Market (Part III)

The following is an excerpt from the Designer Notes for Offworld Trading Company. The game, an economic RTS set on Mars, released on April 28, 2016, and is available for purchase here. (A Game Almanac, which includes the full Designer Notes, is available as free DLC.)

Adrenaline Boost – The original concept of the Adrenaline Boost was to be the opposite of the EMP, meaning an area-of-effect black market item that boosted buildings instead of disabling them. However, players need to be careful with Boosts as they increase a building’s speed (how fast it works) and not its efficiency (how much of resource X is made from resource Y). Thus, a boosted Steel Mill will produces twice as much Steel but also consume twice as much Iron, which means that the player may not have enough Iron to support the boosted Mill, which means the price of Iron will rise as the player has to buy more and more Iron to feed the Mill. By the time the Boost is over, the building might even be running at a loss (especially since the price of Steel might drop from the sudden overproduction). Adrenaline Boosts are also great for advanced buildings as they make them all work faster, meaning quicker patents, optimizations, hacks, and (most importantly) launches. In fact, players favored boosted Offworlds so much that we had to add a special rule for them, increasing the speed of just that one building by 50% instead of the standard 100%. We dislike adding special rules to handle a single tactic, but a boosted Offworld (especially if protected with a Goon Squad) could simply end the game, especially in 1v1.

Slowdown Strike – Initially, the Slowdown Strike was meant to be just an alternate version of the EMP, hitting all buildings within a certain radius but slowing them down instead of disabling them. However, the EMP was still strictly better, which put the item in an odd place; it is never good to give a player two choices, one of which is always worse. We tried to fix this imbalance by giving the Slowdown Strike a bigger radius and longer effect time, but we had to increase those numbers so much that the item somehow felt both too powerful and yet still too weak (because the buildings did keep working). Instead, we gave the Slowdown Strike a unique power — the ability to ignore Goon Squads. This change gave the item an important strategic position, a way to hurt a player even if everyone knows he has a Goon Squad on that one important building. Ignoring Goon Squads only works because the original effect was so weak, an example of solving a design problem with an orthogonal power instead of just turning up the numbers. Further, the Slowdown Strike is the mirror opposite of the Adrenaline Boost (meaning a building with both effects works just like normal), and as players often protect their Boosts with Goon Squads, the Strike is the natural counter to that situation.

Network Virus – Perhaps the most conceptually strange item on the black market, the Network Virus punishes other players for allowing their buildings to become unprofitable. Initially, the effect only prevented players from deleting buildings and turning them on or off. However, as long as a player turned off his buildings when they were losing money, the Network Virus wasn’t that dangerous. Thus, we changed the effect to force a building to be always on. Still, players could still find a way out by selling off all of the input resource consumed by the building (which means it would stop processing). Next, we turned on auto-supply for all buildings, which meant that the input resources would be automatically purchased by the owning player. Of course, players found a way out of that too, by simply getting rid of all their cash to prevent auto-supply from happening. To fix that, we made Network Virus auto-supply actually buy input resources from debt if necessary. This change fixed all the ways player could avoid the effect, but it created a new, bizarre problem, which is that auto-supplying using debt is actually a GOOD thing if a building was profitable (because the building can now work even if the player is out of cash and resources). Fortunately, a fix was possible by simply not allowing players to hit their own buildings with a Network Virus, which was not something we had worried about previously. A Network Virus is most effective if the attacker is also manipulating the market at the same time; for example, if Steel Mills are hit with a Virus, the player who attacked should also buy up as much Iron as possible to drive up the price and push the Steel Mills further into the red.

Circuit Overload – Originally, the Power doubling of Circuit Overload was part of the Network Virus. The player couldn’t turn his buildings off, and the building would consume twice as much Power, which usually guaranteed that the building would be locked in an unprofitable state. However, players quickly found ways to hurt their rivals with the Network Virus regardless of the price of Power, but if Power was high, the combination was devastating. Thus, we created Circuit Overload for just the Power effect. However, because the item didn’t affect Power buildings at all, we also extended Circuit Overload to shut down buildings that were producing Power. Occasionally (and especially on maps with lots of Geothermal Plants), the price of Power drops so low that Circuit Overloads are not particularly effective; in that situation, players will often use the item as a cheap and safe method for removing Goon Squads from enemy buildings. (Because the price of Power is low, giving a Circuit Overload to an opponent is not particularly dangerous.)

Core Sample – The Core Sample is the only way to add resources to the map after the game starts. This ability could easily be too strong if players could control which resource is found, so we made the discovery random. However, the probability for each resource is different depending on the terrain; for example, a Core Sample of a Volcanic tile is most likely to find Iron. Thus, players can usually find the resource they want if they take the time to find the right terrain type. Randomness after the player makes a choice is generally not a good fit for Offworld (see above as we stopped Power Surges from hitting Goon Squads randomly), but we mitigate that issue by actually showing the odds of discovering the most likely resource to be found in the popup help when mousing over a tile. If players are going to roll a virtual die, best to be as transparent as possible with their chances.

Underground Nuke – In some ways, the Underground Nuke is the mirror opposite of the Core Sample; it is the only way to subtract a resource away from the map. However, that is actually a bit of an understatement — the Underground Nuke is the only way to permanently damage another player. Every other type of sabotage, while painful, is still only temporary. EMPs and Power Surges wear off eventually. Pirates leave after stealing enough resources. Buildings destroyed with Dynamite can be repaired. Not only do Mutinies end, but a building can be stolen back with another Mutiny. An Underground Nuke, however, is forever. Thus, players sometimes treat Underground Nukes the way real nukes were treated during the Cold War — with the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. If Nukes are available, players will often not use them, unless someone else makes the first move. If one player nukes another’s Aluminum, the victim is probably just going to nuke the attacker’s Aluminum in return, so maybe the players will all just watch and wait. Not all players are this cautious, of course, but this situation is common enough. One important change to Nukes came when Scientists were no longer the only HQ that could see Trace resources; instead of just removing Trace levels from the game, we made it the minimum state for a nuked tile, which did help Nukes from being too powerful.

Dynamite – As mentioned above, Dynamite replaced the ability of the original Pirate unit to destroy buildings. The effect could never be quite as strong as before because an unchallenged Pirate could wipe out all of a player’s buildings away from the HQ (which had natural protection against Pirates). Indeed, we were worried that Dynamite was going to be a little bit boring; the building gets blown up and then simply gets repaired. Was there an interesting choice being made? After adding Dynamite to the game, however, we found that it had two interesting uses. First, because the repair unit, the Engineer, is very slow, distance makes a great deal of difference. Dynamite is a powerful tool against a Geothermal Plant, or even just a Mine, on the other side of the map from the owner’s HQ. Also, because the owner needs to pay half the construction resources to repair a building, Dynamite is great against Offworld Markets, by far the most expensive building in the game. Even though Offworlds are usually near the owner’s HQ (so repair times are minimal), having to buy large quantities of Glass, Electronics, and either Steel or Carbon can really slow down a player. Furthermore, if the saboteur happens to be making Glass or Electronics and would benefit from an increase in demand, it is all the better.

Mutiny – Another one of the original black market items, the Mutiny allows perhaps the most devastating of powers — stealing an opponent’s building for a period of time. The Mutiny is best used to take a building at the peak of its effectiveness. If Power spikes, grab a Geothermal Plant. If Water becomes a problem, steal a Water Pump. Better yet, the player should take one next to his own Pump, benefiting from an adjacency bonus. Advanced buildings are also great targets for a Mutiny to grab a patent, trigger a shortage, or even launch resources offworld. If the launches are arranged ahead of time, a stolen Offworld Market can launch twice during a Mutiny. (Taking a boosted Offworld is one of the greatest pleasures in the game.) Stealing a tile already hit with a Mutiny is also a great move because those tiles are very unlikely to be protected by a Goon Squad (although that is occasionally seen in 1v1 play).

Goon Squad – The Goon Squad has been mentioned so many times already that it is hard to know what else to say about it. Although the item was created to give players a defense against sabotage, we designed it to also encourage revenge. If sabotage is caught by a Goon Squad, the identity of the attacker is then revealed, and the sabotage item is then given to the defender. Thus, the game encourages the defender to strike back at the attacker with the same sabotage used against her. Players often make an emotional decision in this situation, even if it’s not necessarily the correct one; saving the sabotage for later or for a different player might be the best choice, but revenge definitely feels better. One interesting aspect of Goon Squad use is guessing where one’s opponents have placed them; every time a black market item is purchased, the price goes up, so everyone knows when a Goon Squad has been bought. If a player gets down the first Geothermal Plant, and Mutinies are on the market, then a Goon Squad would be a good idea to protect the tile. However, once the Goon Squad is purchased, and the price goes up, everyone is going to assume that the Geothermal is protected. Perhaps it would be better to protect the Steel Mills and catch everyone by surprise? Finally, we made one small but important tweak to Goon Squad after seeing it in action. The protected tile is shielded from EMPs, Power Surges, and other sabotage that hits multiple tiles, which of course reveals the location of the Goon Squad. After seeing players watch for these events, trying to remember which tile had the Goon Squad for later, we decided to just make it easier for players and permanently reveal the Goon Squad to everyone once it had been exposed. If information has been available to players previously, we don’t believe taxing their memory is good game design — better to help them remember to inform decisions later in the game.

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