Offworld Trading Company interview with Soren Johnson

Offworld Trading Company Logo

Offworld Trading Company is an upcoming RTS where, to quote developer Mohawk Games, “money, not firepower, is the player’s weapon”. Its stated inspirations include board games, Railroad Tycoon, and conventional real-time strategy.

Below, I am very pleased to present an email interview with Soren Johnson, the lead designer of OTC. Soren has previously been co-lead designer of Civilization III, lead designer of Civilization IV, a senior designer and programmer of Spore, and lead designer of Dragon Age: Legends.


Peter Sahui: Hello, Soren – welcome to the site!

Offworld Trading Company is one of the most unique strategy games I’ve encountered. Even after finishing the tutorial and playing several rounds against the AI, it still feels unfamiliar.

Does that affect your work as a designer? Has OTC’s novelty posed any particular challenges?

Soren Johnson: We are purposely making a game unlike any other. As a small studio, our games will never be able to compete with established strategy franchises from big publishers, so we have to be different to stand out. Offworld is an RTS game that uses tycoon game mechanics, instead of combat mechanics, to create conflict between players. The only well-known video games somewhat similar are M.U.L.E. or Railroad Tycoon, which are both quite old and also not really competitive RTS’s. What makes Offworld unique will hopefully get the game attention, but we are aware that it could also put off people who are unsure what they would be buying. Thus, as a designer, I am trying to ground Offworld as much in the conventions of RTS games as possible – from game length (30 minutes) to number of players (2 to 8) to game options (multiplayer matchmaking, single-player skirmishes, dynamic campaigns, etc). We are hoping to develop some type of cooperative mode for team play or just fighting the AI. We want people to understand that it is still a competitive RTS at the core – just one without guns.

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Age of Wonders III Preview

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III
My army marches on a hostile city. The actual playable area extends to that open courtyard holding the soldiers in white.
My army marches into battle. You can see flame tanks and giants in the front row, while my leader rides the boar (second row).


This is it, the biggest battle of this map so far. On my side, four towering giants – amongst the most powerful units in the game – backed by the fruits of military technology:  cannon, musketeers, flame-throwing tanks. Against this, the computer’s forces are inadequate. Its giants are frightening, but outnumbered by my own. Its use of battlefield magic  – “Wind Ward”, which weakens ranged attacks – is clever, given my overwhelming superiority in ranged troops, but not enough. Its regular soldiers? Pfft. A flame tank explodes beneath an enemy giant’s fists – but I have more. The enemy army dwindles. Their giants stagger, pelted by bullets and flames and magic. The last enemy giant turns toward his tormentor.  I check the tooltips. The moment is ripe.  My general storms in with “Charge” and “Flanking” bonuses. The giant falls.


At this point, I notice my general is riding a giant boar.


Welcome to Age of Wonders III, the upcoming fantasy turn-based strategy game from Triumph Studios. I’ve dabbled with the previous AoW games, and after interviewing designer Lennart Sas when AoW3 was first announced last year, I jumped at the chance to try out a preview build. After a number of hours, I’ve now finished two maps — the first mission in each of the game’s two campaigns – and spent some time with a third, random map; here are my impressions.

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Race to Mars Q&A, with Szymon Janus

ea628dec4e69fbbbccb3b223ca0bca11_largeInspired by tycoon games and the classic Buzz Aldrin’s Race into Space, indie developer INTERMARUM is raising funds on Kickstarter for its upcoming turn-based strategy game, Race to Mars. RTM will task players with helming a private space company, with the end goal of establishing a base on Mars. Read on for my email interview with INTERMARUM CEO Szymon Janus:


Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site! Could you please tell us more about your team & your previous experience?

Szymon Janus: Hello Peter. My name is Szymon and I am the owner and founder of INTERMARUM, a game development studio in a small little city called Opole. Right now there are 12 people working on Race To Mars with different levels of involvement. Up until now we did mostly contract work and this is our first independent production. We cooperate with many different developers from known Polish companies though.


PS: How will the typical Race to Mars campaign will play out? It looks like the basic “flow” of gameplay will be: (1) accept simple contracts, (2) use the profits to develop new facilities and technology, (3) use the new capabilities to take on more ambitious contracts, and so on, until you finally have enough money and technology to settle Mars and win the game.

SJ: Roughly speaking – everything is correct ;) . Adding to that is making sure the tech has a good enough degree of quality or the safety level. It will also be important to deal with random events or training your team.
What it will definitely NOT feature is being able to choose just any contract – we will compete with different companies and, for example, we will not be able to compete with them on price at a certain stage, which will force a change in expansion strategy.

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What’s new in Dominions 4: Thrones of Ascension

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Dominions 4
A game of Dominions begins with creating your pretender god. In my case, I've chosen the Celestial General, a powerful air, earth, and astral mage whose land is thriving and prosperous.
A game of Dominions begins with creating your pretender god. In my case, I’ve chosen the Celestial General, a powerful mage whose land is thriving and prosperous.

I’m several hours into a preview copy of Dominions 4, the follow-up to one of my favourite strategy games. Dominions 3 was user-unfriendly, a beast to learn, and a devil to master; it was also deep, rich, and rewarding, both in its gameplay and also in its mythically-inspired lore. For newcomers to the series, Gamespot’s review is very fair and, I think, very good at identifying who will like and who will not like Dominions; meanwhile, for those interested in what made Dominions’ atmosphere and worldbuilding so remarkable, check out a guest piece I wrote at Flash of Steel several years ago. For series veterans, Dominions 4 is recognisably an evolution, not a revolution; going from 3 to 4, the differences are much less visible than going from 2 to 3, or 1 to 2. However, the changes are real and, from what I have seen, positive. Here’s what I’ve noticed:


New content:

* While most of the nations in Dom4 are returnees from the previous game, each of the three Dominions eras (early, middle, late) has received a new nation or two.

*I also spotted a number of new pretender chassis, new magic items, and some new spells (e.g. some painful-looking high-level direct damage Water spells; new Nature buffs/debuffs).

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Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson

This entry is part 2 of 12 in the series Europa Universalis IV

EuropaUniversalisIV_Coverart_lowrez_shrunkEuropa Universalis IV is an upcoming grand strategy game by Paradox Development Studio, set during the early modern era of world history (roughly 1450 to 1800). When it was announced last year, it immediately caught my eye: I’m a long-time player of Paradox games (including the previous Europa Universalis titles); and to me, the game’s period is one of the most fascinating in history – its rich mix of global interactions ultimately laid the groundwork for our modern, industrialised world. So with the game due out in August 2013, just a couple of months away, the time seemed ripe for a chat with the developers. Read on for my email Q&A with Thomas Johansson, project lead for Europa Universalis IV.


Europa Univeralis IV and other Paradox games


Peter Sahui: Paradox Development Studio’s last major release, Crusader Kings II, has also probably been its most successful to date (both critically, and in terms of its ability to break out beyond the traditional PDS niche). What lessons did you learn from CK2’s success, and how are you applying them to EU4?


Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4
Thomas Johansson, Project Lead of EU4

Thomas Johansson: Crusader Kings II’s two biggest strengths were that it was well polished and we had worked hard on improving the interface. We worked hard with the tutorial, the hint system and to make it a very polished release. With Europa Universalis IV, we are aiming to do even better! Our goal is our most polished release to date and have the best interfaces we have ever created. The main focus of the whole development team is polishing the game and refining the interfaces.

What I also believe has really helped Crusader Kings II is that it was a breakthrough for gamers to realize that the game creates stories that you want to tell other people about. So the simple answer would be that it is a game that makes people talk about it, because they want to share their dramatic events, the intrigue, backstabbing and romances with their friends. Because it constantly surprises you. Just when you thought you had everything going and an easy road to power, money and conquering new territories – then you get stabbed in the back, your wife gets murdered and your sister steals your throne. Just like life… ;)

So the fact that the storytelling came across strong with Crusader Kings II, we hope that people can see that Europa Universalis IV also allows you yourself to create the stories when playing the game. You attack your neighbours, alliances gets broken, you get an incompetent ruler and need to get creative on how to handle his/hers strength and weaknesses while keeping your territory hungry opponents at bay. Continue reading “Europa Universalis IV Q&A, with Thomas Johansson”

Wargame: AirLand Battle: right troops, right place, right time

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
A view to a kill: a French Super Etendard strike plane fires a missile at a command vehicle.
A view to a kill: a French Super Etendard strike plane fires a missile at a command vehicle.



My last attack failed. This one, I promise myself, won’t.


I’m playing a NATO vs NATO mirror match, one of the options available in skirmish and, in this case, multiplayer. (In universe, I imagine it as an especially realistic military exercise.) Last time I made the rookie mistake of advancing without reconnaissance; my raiding force drove straight into a platoon of Challenger main battle tanks. This time, I’ve infiltrated an SAS patrol behind enemy lines to scout out my objective, and they’ve spotted nothing but a platoon of mechanised infantry. Since then, I’ve spent several minutes hatching my plans: Norwegian infantry will assault from the south, US marines and French tanks will come from the southeast, and I’ll use artillery smoke shells to screen their advance.


It’s time to go. A smokescreen billows into life, and my tanks and APCs burst out of cover. No resistance so far – the recon work paid off. Excellent. I look at the minimap… and see an enemy horde advancing on the other side of the map,  towards an objective I’d secured earlier. My opponent, it seems, chose the exact same time to make his push.


I’ve already committed my ground reserve, but I have one last lever to pull – RAF Tornados loaded with tank-busting cluster bombs. Aircraft are as fragile as they are valuable, and if the attackers brought enough anti-air units, my Tornado pilots could be flying into a suicide mission, their planes’ advanced countermeasures notwithstanding. But sometimes, fortune favours the bold…


Welcome to the second part of my Wargame: AirLand Battle preview, based on the game’s current pre-order beta! I’ve divided this into two sections, below – one for new players, and one for returning European Escalation veterans – before offering up some concluding thoughts.

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Wargame: AirLand Battle: opening a box of virtual chocolates

This entry is part 6 of 12 in the series Wargame: European Escalation/AirLand Battle/Red Dragon
The raciest thing you'll ever see on this site
The raciest thing you’ll ever see on this site


Wargame: AirLand Battle is the upcoming sequel to Wargame: European Escalation, a Cold War-themed fusion of two genres: the RTS and the beer-and-pretzels wargame. EE was one of my favourite games of last year, and despite its beta status (1), AB is shaping up to be one of my favourites of this year, too.


AB’s appeal begins even before the first shot is fired. In AB as in EE, players start by choosing the units they will take into a match, and then grouping these into a “deck”. However, where EE offered “only” 361 units, AB offers a whopping 826! More units are not necessarily better, but here it works for two reasons.

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Guns of Icarus Online: Adventure Mode Q&A with Jess Haskins

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Guns of Icarus Online

GOIO Adv Mode Banner


Last year, I wrote about Guns of Icarus Online, an interesting, atmospheric shooter set on board opposing steam/dieselpunk airships. Since then, developer Muse Games has unveiled a Kickstarter campaign for the long-awaited paid expansion, Adventure mode. Muse’s stated plan for Adventure includes three key elements:


1. PVE and co-op gameplay, unlocked at the Kickstarter’s threshold of $100,000;


2. An in-game economy and faction system, flagged as Muse’s first major stretch goal ($350,000)


3. Worldbuilding tools, flagged as the second stretch goal ($500,000).


Muse has stated that, should it secure more than $100,000 but less than the full $500,000, all Kickstarter backers will receive a “season pass” that will entitle them to future elements of Adventure Mode as and when they are released.


Read on for my email Q&A with Jess Haskins, Designer and Chief Nomenclator at Muse:

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Age of Wonders III Q&A with Lennart Sas

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Age of Wonders III



As promised, here’s the Age of Wonders III Q&A with designer Lennart Sas of Triumph Studios!


By way of introduction, Age of Wonders is a high fantasy, turn-based strategy series that has been around since the late 1990s. In AoW, players build up their cities, recruit armies of soldiers and elves, cannons and dragons, and then pit them against rivals in a tactical combat minigame, a la Master of Magic. Fond memories of the earlier games, Triumph’s promise of further improvements, and gorgeous early screenshots all piqued my interest in Age of Wonders III; and it didn’t hurt that the most recent AoW game, Shadow Magic, held up well when I replayed it to prepare for this interview. Sadly I wasn’t able to include every question sent in (I received some separately from the comments to my original post), but I hope this Q&A will address some of what you guys (and I) had in mind. Read on…

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At the Gates Q&A with Jon Shafer!

At the Gates banner


Civilization V designer Jon Shafer has unveiled his latest project on Kickstarter: At the Gates, a 4X strategy game that casts the player as a barbarian chief out to pick the carcass of the crumbling Roman Empire. The game sets out to fix one of the biggest problems in strategy gaming, the boring middle/late game, and its promised features include:


1. An emphasis on supply: armies will have only a limited capacity to live off the land, making them reliant on supply trains and friendly cities;


2. A dynamic map: resources will deplete over time (placing players under greater and greater pressure as the game goes on); seasons will affect the map as rivers freeze and food stockpiles dwindle during winter;


3. Asymmetric non-player factions: the Romans are still on the map, play by different rules to the barbarians, and won’t give up without a fight.


This all sounded very interesting to me, and Jon was kind enough to sit down for an email interview. Read on:


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X-Com 1.5? Xenonauts Alpha Preview

This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series Xenonauts

I’ve previously written about Xenonauts, the indie strategy game inspired by UFO: Enemy Unknown/X-Com: UFO Defence. Developer Goldhawk Interactive has taken pre-orders for a long time, but now it’s launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise US$50,000, and released a public, alpha demo of the game. Is it worth your attention?


After spending some time with a preview build (a recent predecessor of the public demo), I can say this: as promised, Xenonauts is evolutionary, not revolutionary. Its concept, mechanics, and feel are straight out of the original game; however, Goldhawk’s clear intent is to make it more user-friendly; iron out some of the original’s annoyances; cut down on busywork and no-brainer decisions, and replace them with interesting choices. Here are the details of what I saw:


Geoscape (world map)


The Xenonauts’ base: Earth’s last, best hope


  • As with the original X-Com, your first sight of the game will be its world map – black, stark and crisp, but still recognisably the good old Geoscape. Zooming down to an individual base reveals management has been tidied up. One general store will now hold all your goods. Conventional Earth weapons are now available in unlimited supply – not only does this make sense thematically, it cuts down on the workload at the start of the game. Unusable loot (e.g. duplicates of a widget you’ve already researched) is automatically sold or destroyed. Soldiers’ stats – and their encumbrance! – are now visible on the inventory screen. All in all, the emphasis here seems clearly on reducing tedious maintenance in between the good parts.


  • Air battles are much more involved than in the original game. Instead of hitting one button to engage, your aircraft and the UFOs now manoeuvre in pausable real-time – a little like a real-time Steambirds. And unlike the original game, where two air-to-air weapons were hands-down optimal (Avalanche missiles at the start of the game, then plasma beams once they became available), Xenonauts’ air combat is closer to rock-paper-scissors. You now have two fighters available early on, and each fills a different role: F-17 Condors armed with cannon and light missiles are good against small, agile UFOs, while lumbering MiG-32s with Avalanche torpedoes are good against bigger foes. So far this is a nice change, though it’s possible it could eventually become repetitive.


Air combat


Ground battles

  • Xenonauts’ clean UI and aesthetic are also evident in its battles. There are fewer buttons to worry about; the art style is simple but clear; and a faint dark outline helps you pick out soldiers and aliens. The controls feel like Jagged Alliance 2’s: left-clicking on a destination square will show a soldier’s projected path and how many APs will remain; right-clicking on a target determines how long a soldier will aim his shot; burst fire is toggled by hitting a button. Unsurprisingly, this is a big improvement over the original.


The Xenonauts (bottom left) prepare to engage an alien (top right)


  • The “interesting choices” extend to your soldiers’ weapons, which feel nicely differentiated. Take the small arms. Assault rifles are jacks of all trade, masters of none. Shotguns are hideously short-ranged, but take relatively few action points to shoot, meaning a Xenonaut can still fire after moving long distances. At this stage, however, it looks like the squad’s real killing power is in its support weapons. These are heavy, take an accuracy penalty if their bearer moves and shoots in the same turn – and hit like a ton of bricks. Machine guns can unleash whole volleys at a time. Even unaimed, precision rifles take plenty of AP to fire, but investing just a few more APs pushes their accuracy into the stratosphere. And rocket launchers, just as they did in the original, will level anything near their target.


All in all, if the early game is any indication, Goldhawk knows what it’s doing at the design level.  It has plenty of work yet to do, and it’s too soon to tell how balance, pacing, and the other ingredients of “fun” will eventually come together. However, if Goldhawk can (A) sustain the quality of its ideas through the mid-to-late game; and (B) get the nuts and bolts right, this would bode very well for the final product. In the meantime, yes, Xenonauts is definitely worth your attention.




Public alpha demo, mirror, and official torrent.

Xenonauts’ Kickstarter page.

Official website.


Note: the above comments were based on a preview build supplied by the game’s developer, Goldhawk Interactive.