Consider a fact-based game about the trials of settling a far-off land where a life of mining awaits—a place where resources are at a premium and money must be carefully invested. Food is a constant worry in this game, and trade is essential. The game, start-to-finish, might take 40 minutes—just enough time to play during a single class period. You come away from the computer having learned something about frontier settlement, but more importantly, you’ve just had an absolute blast. That game is definitely Oregon Trail—only in this case it isn't. Rather, it is a glimpse of humanity's next journey and the trials that await. This game is called Offworld Trading Company, and it might be the Oregon Trail of the next generation.
AN ECONOMIC, REAL-TIME STRATEGY GAME
Developed by members of the team behind Civilization IV, Offworld Trading Company is an economic strategy game set on Mars. Downloadable here, the game has both single player and multiplayer modes. Much in the way that Civilization IV involves building settlements that eventually form empires, players in Offworld Trading Company build bases that support resource-harvesting equipment. A cultivated manufacturing sector turns those raw materials into such things as water, food, glass, steel, and electronics. Once produced, players sell those goods off-world for big profits. The goal, as you might imagine, is to be the last corporation standing.
The game, developed over two and a half years, was inspired in part by The Case for Mars: The Plan to Settle the Red Planet and Why We Must, a highly influential book by author Robert Zubrin. In that book, Zubrin asserts that the real money in the solar system can be found in the Asteroid Belt, where rare metals can be mined and sent back to Earth. Supplying miners who work in the Asteroid Belt is a daunting challenge if you're flying from Earth, however, which is where Mars comes in.
According to Soren Johnson, founder of Mohawk Games, "Industry would have to figure out a way to supply the Asteroid Belt from Mars as opposed to Earth. A triangle trade system would have to be established." Rare metals mined from asteroids would be sent to Earth. Earth would send colonists to Mars. Mars would send such life-sustaining items as food to the Asteroid Belt.
"That’s a major part of the game," Johnson tells mental_floss. After establishing a workable Mars settlement, players then endeavor to build an "off-world market" launch pad. "Once the Martian launch pad is up, you can send such things to the Asteroid Belt as food, water, and equipment, all of which are obviously quite valuable out there." This sets into motion an interesting and elaborate system of economics.
"You've got a popular local market that depends on how much you buy and sell on Mars," Johnson says. "Those prices fluctuate constantly, whereas prices off-world—in the Asteroid Belt—would change slowly. The much wider solar system market, where goods, resources, and manpower are sold across the different locations spanning Earth to the Asteroid Belt—that economy is more stable. So through the game you get a sense of how micro versus macro economies operate."
SCIENCE: IT JUST WORKS!
Economic theory isn't the only thing a player is likely to learn from Offworld Trading Company. Maryland, where the Mohawk team is based, is also home to the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University. If the name sounds familiar, it's because APL is the facility responsible for the New Horizons mission to Pluto; the MESSENGER spacecraft that unlocked the secrets of planet Mercury; and the proposed Titan submarine that might one day explore the methane lakes of Saturn's largest moon. By happenstance, a member of the Mohawk team met a member of the New Horizons team, and a friendship ensued that would bring Offworld Trading Company to the next level.
Kirby Runyon of APL is a planetary geologist who, in addition to exploring Pluto, is a collaborator on the Mars HiRISE project—a high resolution camera onboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. His job involves planning observations of the red planet—in other words, he literally stares from above at the Martian surface for a living. For a game whose fixed-perspective is a camera staring down at the Martian surface, he was a godsend.
"The game is a three-way balance between gameplay, artistic license, and science, and that's a balance I respect," Runyon says of his scientific contributions. "The terrain in the game is a simplification of what's actually there." He described how actual Martian geography could influence gameplay. "One of the big inputs is to correlate resources—aluminum, iron, ice, silicon—with a geologic material. For instance, where you might have a volcanic terrain, there's a random probability of resource generation for lava flow. Geothermal vents would be conducive for a geothermal power generator. If you have a lake bed or any terrain modified by water, there's a higher probability of clay." Why does this matter? "When you have clay, there is a high probability that some of it is bauxite—a geologic ore mineral—and as a result, a higher probability of settlers being able to mine aluminum," Runyon says.
YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY
Offworld Trading Company, now available on Steam, features spectacular graphics under the art direction of Dorian Newcomb. It is multiplayer and fast-paced. A game from start to finish takes the length of a class period, with the benefit of making two fairly sophisticated subject areas—planetary geology and economics—both accessible and exciting. While no classmates are likely to be taken with cholera over the span of a game, bankruptcy is certainly in the cards. And who among us wouldn't prefer to have a failed business on Mars rather than an intestinal disease in the American Midwest?