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Orbital Trader Strategy Guide

Compiled by Dave Johson

Orbital Trader is a great little game. It combines the fun of being a super rich merchant with the challenges of market trading. It is a simple game with a great deal of depth. The in game help feature will answer almost all of your "how to" questions and this modest strategy guide may give you some ideas on how to rack up high scores.

Before you read any farther, you should know that the game has a huge amount of in game information. Put your mouse over just about anything and it will tell you what is happening. Take a few minutes to do this at the start of your next game, it will boost your understanding and your score.

Time is Money

Sure, you have heard the old cliche, but in this game it is very true. Time is the key to how much cash you make and how high your final score will be. It affects the game in several ways.

One: The longer the game you pick, the more money you will make. In the short game, you are unlikely to be able to buy many planetary improvements and it is almost guaranteed you will not make a profit off them. These improvements can make you a lot of cash, but they need time. In the medium game, you can make money from them, but you need to be picky and you will not get them all. If you note the high scores, you will see they are kept in different tables, one for each combination of time and number of planets. The highest of the high scores will be in the 50 year game.

Two: Watch the travel time indicator. You make money trading, not flying around. Sure, your planetary investments generally pay off per month, but their rate does not change because you are on a long business trip. If you see a great price 8 months the way across the galaxy, remember that you are likely to make more trading four times at planets 2 months apart. Weapons during wars are a possible exception to this rule, as they bring a very high profit per unit. Missions are also an exception, as they can bring a lot of money into your pocket.

Three: The space elevator can really reduce your travel time. I like putting one on the rim planets, as they tend to have the longest flight times. You may wish to consider having one on an inner planet as well, so you can get out quickly as well. Cutting a trip from 8 months to 4 months essentially doubles the number of trades you can make. Moderation is good, as these do not return any money directly. Also, unless you are in a really big hurry, it is better to make the long trip to the rim with lots of short hops and lots of trading. The Space Portal are even faster, but only go to other planets that have Space Portals. In my opinion, this is not terribly versatile and I do not recommend them, even with the cheaper price

Four: When should you stop investing in planets? What, you mean you can not just keep investing until the end? Of course not, you need to know when to stop. Watch the amount of time left in the game, as it will tell you when to stop investing in different things. Some investments will stop being worthwhile earlier than others. This is very important in the short game, fairly important in the medium game and not very important in the long game. In the long game, you should pretty much have finished buying everything some time before the end.

Five: Wormholes are your friend. The instant travel means extra riches. Be sure to look at the possibilities, especially if you get one of the wonderful ones which go both ways. You can make a lot of cash in a hurry in those situations.

Six: Compound growth. Remember, that at a 4% growth rate, things will double in 17 time units. In the short game, the planet populations are small and you will find that bonds give better yields. But in the longer games, the populations can get huge and you can make a lot of cash from population dependent investments.

For example, I ran a 50 year game, not trading anything, just watching the populations. Sinope was a medicine producing planet with a starting population of 2,250 and a growth rate of 1.8%. This is not a very impressive return, especially in real life. However, the growth rate is per month, not per year, so by the end of the 50 years the population was 901,300! This is 400 times as large as it started and means that if you had bought a planetary improvement there, you would be getting 400 times the initial return.

This last point about compound growth is so important that I am going to say even more. What look like small percentages, such as the above 1.8% will have a huge impact over a long time. What look like moderate percentages, like the -11.8% I saw during one virus attack, will have a huge impact over a short time. In ten months, a planet with a population of 10,000 would drop to 2,850. That only 28.5% of the original total. Using the same example, if the planet started with 10,000 and you get a solid rate of 5%, you would have 15,513 population after ten months, a 55% growth. With heavy trading, you can get the growth rates over 10%

So, if you had investments on the example planet, the growth rate is going to make all the difference. And remember, these examples were only for 10 months, the long games goes for 600! The Gene Lab, which boosts the population growth rate of the entire system by 1%, is a very good investment. Get it early, as it will really pay off. Note that if you buy two, the effect is not cumulative. Seven: Save games. Ok, I am a bit dumb, but I missed out on the fact that if you exit, your game is saved. When you start again, you jump straight back in. Only one game can be saved, so do not let your brother/sister/significant other start the game and mess with it. I am lucky, my girlfriend would rather play Diablo... In any case, the 50 year games can take a fair bit of real time, so do not be afraid to save.

Profits are good!

Profits are, in fact, the entire point of the game. You want to end up with the highest net worth you can. How to get the highest score is the hard part. Try thinking about some of the following points, they will help you make more money.

As the name, Orbital Trader suggests, you are going to do a lot of trading. In fact, never stop, no matter how much you might become focused on your investments. Trade is the only way to make money in the beginning and is likely to be the main source of income over all. Further, almost every trade you make will boost the population growth, which will boost your investment profits.

A good principle to remember is that while in real life you can make a fortune on cheap goods sold in large volume, in Orbital Trader it is better to sell expensive goods in large volume. Think of your cargo hold. It only fits a limited number of items. You want to get the greatest profit from each item. Now, think of percentages versus absolute amounts. Pretend you have a choice between five food or five antimatter. You buy the food at 10 and sell it at 50, a great return of 500%. The antimatter you buy at 300 and sell at 600, a mere 200% profit. However, the five units of food earn you 40 profit each, for a total of 200. The five units of antimatter earn you 300 each, for a total of 1500!

This is what I mean when I say trading expensive goods is best. Focus on absolute profits per unit, rather than percentage gain. That said, food, medicine and crystals, the cheapest goods, also tend to give the greatest benefits to population growth, so include them when you can.

Green prices are lowest, yellow are moderate and red prices are highest. Red prices are good for you as you make more money per sale, green prices are good for the planets and yellow is in between. Of course, that is unless the good is something like narcotics or weapons. According to the programmer, all prices have a minimum value and a maximum value and just float between the two, growing until they reach the maximum value and dropping when you sell goods there. You will notice that prices tend to be high on a planet you have not visited for some time and the growth rate is usually low or negative. It is all driven by the price and you need to drive those prices down. Read on to the investment section to see why growth is good.

Space in your cargo hold is usually your biggest problem, so use it well. Do not ever leave empty! Just because you are not going to earn a lot of money on food, you will still earn some money. If you end up on such a planet, perhaps because it was close or had good prices, be sure to take at least some profit from the food. Of course, if you know you are going back to a planet that will not buy all the product in your cargo, and you know you want to buy a lot of what they are selling, you might leave empty space. This is somewhat unusual and you need to exercise good judgment.

Trade as often as you can. It is hard to lose money in the game, so pretty much any trade you make is going to be a profitable one. There are times this is not true, so watch for it, but it is not that common. You will note that as you sell things, the profit is shown next to the line, which is a good indicator when to stop.

Tied to this and the time issue, it is usually better to make short trips and trade as much as you can. You will get times that longer trips are more profitable, particularly wars, but most time a trip with three or four stops to trade will bring much more profit than a long trip of seven months. If you have a huge cargo, you might have some of the very profitable item in storage, while you trade along the way with other goods. You can have your cake and eat it too! Your cargo can get really, really huge, it is a different world than when you start out.

Watch for special deals. If the market fluctuates and something is very cheap or very expensive, try to take advantage of it. If you become a planetary governor, take advantage of it. Tied to the above about per unit cost, see if you can become governor on planets with the most expensive goods, as those are the ones you want to trade the most. Further, the 25% discount will have a bigger impact on more expensive goods. It is a lovely synergy.

Investing for Profit

Bonds are a favorite of mine in the short game. A 500% return over 20 months! If populations are low, this is far better than the other investments, so, buy, buy, buy! Also, the 150k which returns 300k in five months is attractive, especially early when you need money to buy other investments. However, in the long game, populations grow and they grow big. You need to look closely at these, examine the length of time left and the population of the planet. In the long game, I try to minimize bond purchases, but sometimes in the early stages, it is a nice way to boost income.

For the more mundane investment items, those which produce goods, here are some thoughts.

Note that when you invest in something, the asset value is a lot lower than the purchase price. This is realistic, but it does have the nasty side effect of lowering your net worth. If we are tying to maximize our net worth, why would we do it then? Simple, it is an investment and we are going to earn a return on it.

How do we tell if it is a good investment? You need to calculate your rate of return and how long you will hold the investment. This is simpler in the game than in real life for a few reasons. One, you can not sell the investment in Orbital Trader, so you do not have to worry about resale value. Two, you know exactly when the game ends, unlike real life, where most of us do not know when we die! So how do you do it? Well, the following is one way that might makes sense at first.

First, subtract the asset value from the purchase price. This will tell you how much your net worth will drop. You need to make at least this much back before the end of the game or it is a bad investment. As I mentioned in the Time section, at a certain stage, you will stop investing in new planetary investments and simply trade as much as you can.

How do you figure out if you will earn the money back, plus, hopefully, more? This is where things start to get a bit trickier and where the really good players can make a lot more money than beginners like me.

Typical investments provide a certain amount of a product each month, depending on the population of the planet. For example, the Hydrofarm produces one unit of food for each 1000 population, then sells it at the market price. For quick calculation purposes, you can look at the price of food at the market and multiply it by the amount of food the population will produce each month. This will give you your monthly return.

Divide this monthly return by the total difference between the purchase price and the asset value and you will see how many months it will take before you break even. If that figure is higher than the number of months left in the game, you may not want to buy.

Now, this might sound great, but it won't work. It ignores the population growth rate. As mentioned earlier, the populations grow at an amazing rate, because of the compounding effect. As the growth rates are per month, a planet with a 6% growth rate can double the population in a year! Whoever we are trading with, they are not human. Let us not be xenophobic, they are great for business, so long live inter-species commerce!

Planets grow, as indicated by the percentage growth rate. You have some influence over this, both negative and positive. You can buy a hospital, sell narcotics, weapons or anything at all, all of which will change the rate of growth. Pretty much any kind of trade will change the growth rate, you need to play around to see which does what.. The more positive the growth rate, the faster the investment will pay off and the faster you will start making big profits. In other words, while selling drugs and guns can make you rich in the short term, they will drop the growth rate into the negative and it will cost you a lot in the long term. Narcotics are much worse than weapons. At times, the same of weapons will actually increase the growth rate, but as the price drops, the effect becomes negative. In a small system, you probably can not afford to sell narcotics and need to be careful with weapons, as you will be investing everywhere. However, in the beginning, you need some fast money and drugs and guns may be the way to go. In a large system, you might be able to poison a few worlds, while keeping others healthy. Who would have thought morality would come into a simple space trading game? I told you this game was deep.

When you put the mouse over the population growth rate, you get a series of % next to each good. This represents the contribution of that good to the growth rate. The sum of these percentages will usually equal the growth rate, but some buildings or the Virus can effect it. Thank you Diodor for this information, I had no clue!

If you are lucky enough to play multiplayer, and your opponent becomes a planetary governor, it means they have a lot invested in one planet. Seems like a great place to sell all your narcotics and weapons, ruining your opponent's investment...

So, returning to how to tell if the planet is close to the break even point, you can do things to increase the growth rate and ensure you break even. For a planet that is certainly going to break even, you still want to increase the growth rate, as, in the long run, you will increase your profits. A smart player will do this. The growth rate will effect all the investments you have made.

But the question remains, how do you know exactly when to stop investing? Well, let me be honest here. How serious are you about the game? Are you trying desperately to beat your brother's high score or are you just having fun? If you want to figure out exactly when to stop and get the optimal maximum score, you need to do some serious math. You need to use a formula which determines the rate of compound interest, based on projected growth rates, which will give you your predicted population. Then you have to match that to the return, per month. The last time I did that sort of math was 19 years ago and I don't have the calculator any more, so I do not worry about it. For those who do, use the following formula: Profit = Principle (2.7183) rate x time.

If all of that seems too complicated, just know this. At a certain point in the short game and possibly the medium game, you should stop investing. If you use the simple method above and ignore growth rate, you will be stopping way too early. Cut it in half and you are still probably safe. If you are an accountant and reading this, let us know and we will be happy to add your more professional comments here.

A couple of last comments on investments generally, before moving on to specific ones. You can manipulate the price of products in the game. Have you noticed that when you buy a lot, the price goes up? How to take advantage of this is simple. If a planet sells a certain good, try to buy the investment which produces that product. Make a point of buying a lot there, driving the price up. You then get the benefit of the higher price as your good sells there. Note that the change in the price is dependent on the ration between size of planet population and the amount you sell. In other words, you need a lot of goods to change the price on a big planet. Once you get really high populations, you can sell small amounts of narcotics at little risk of hurting growth. You will get a good return on them, but the total profits will be relatively small. There is also a random element in the price changes, but for your planning, assume it will average out over time.

Except for narcotics and weapons, every sale you make increases the growth rate. That is right, somehow robots make the people in the game have more babies. So sell as much as you can, it helps the planet populations. Even weapons sales will increase the population, as long as the price of weapons does not get too low. Narcotics in small amounts may not effect a very large planet and it is said that a low medicine price will reduce their negative effect. You might want to experiment with this, especially combined with the global militia. Personally, I see so much advantage in a high growth rate, I do not want to risk it. In any case, a reminder that instead of a single long trip, take a lot of short ones, with lots of selling on the way. If you get the price of crystals, robots and antimatter down at the same time, the effects are better than one at a time. With lots of trading, all the time, you will managed to do this.

If you buy one of the investments which produces goods, it will help keep the price of those goods down. In turn, this keeps the growth rate up. The food and medicine producing investments seem to do this particularly well. Thus, the cheap hydro farm appears to have some hidden benefits which make it more worthwhile.

Each planet gives you a different set of investment choices. The three tiers give you three choices. Plan ahead, to see if you can maximize the benefits. Try to makes sure you are helping yourself. Do not invest in a hospital and a space elevator in the same place. Why? The hospital helps keep your growth rate up, but the elevator's benefits have nothing to do with population. Make this planet one that population is not so important. Only purchase the hospital in a place where your other two investments depend on population.

Comments on Different Investments

The Art School and Art Gallery. If you can get these two together, it is great. You produce the luxuries, then sell them straight to the highest priced market in the system. Further, every time you sell something here, you get both the profit and a boost to the asset value $1000 per unit. It is worth selling more luxuries here, even if the simple profit is lower than elsewhere, as the boost in asset value alone is huge. Later in the game, having liquid cash is not difficult, so sell as many luxuries here as you can.

Hospital. This does not bring you money or growth, but it protects your growth rate. If you have other planets near by that have medicine or narcotics, consider this as a purchase, as you can sell those items here to good effect.

Megacaves and Megatowers. The towers boost population 1% and the caves 2%. This is usually a great choice, as it boosts long term growth on this planet. Just be sure that your other investments' profit is based on population. The description states that the cave make the towers obsolete and it does. This means that your first level investment is cancelled out by the second level one. The the Solar Bank loves a big population, so having one of these plays well into that strategy. Getting both on the same planet is not such a great idea. I suggest that if the planet offers both, chose to get a population dependent first level investment, then get the Megacaves at the second level. That two percent is a huge boost to growth and you do not lose the first level one.

Solar Bank. What can I say, this is a real money spinner. It is based on the system population, not the individual planet, though the planet is included. This will pay off anywhere and massively in the larger systems. You can have more than one of these and, as far as I can tell, they are by far the best investment.

Global Militia. An interesting mix of benefits. Less war, so less population loss. It negates the effect of low weapons prices, making this a great place to sell them. Tied to this, the price of weapons goes up, so you get more when you sell them! Finally, it fights narcotics. Suddenly, this is the planet to dump guns and drugs on! On a planet without this investment, weapons have a negative effect when the price is around 4,400. Usually you can buy them around 3,500, so it is tempting to sell them for a profit, even if it hurts population.

Research Inc. This makes goods cheaper to buy, but the cost of selling remains the same. This means fatter profit margins for you and the large volumes you can move late in the game can really make this add up.

The Gene Lab. As mentioned earlier, this is a wonderful investment, as it boosts populations across the system by 1%. This means every single one of your population dependent investments will now grow 1% faster and be more profitable. Remember, only one of these will increase the rate of growth, so do not waste money on two.

Investment funds. These items reduce the cost of the next purchase by a set percentage. If you know what you want to buy, it is easy to determine how much money you will save. Seems pretty straightforward, but is it? If you buy one of these, it prevents you from buying another second level investment? You need to look at opportunity cost here. If you buy the investment fund, yes, you will save a lot of money. However, the cost you pay is the missed opportunity of buying something else. This happens in two ways. First, the money you spend on the fund is not invested somewhere else. You do not gain from it. Second, you can only have three investments on each planet. If you buy the investment fund, you will not buy something else that will give you a return.

You need to balance your investment. If you buy the fund, you might get the next investment a lot earlier. This might balance out the lost investment earlier. Also, you might save so much money on the purchase that it makes up for the profits from the bank or hydrofarm you did not buy.

As a final word on this, in the long game you are going to make hundreds of billions of dollars. The most expensive investment is the one billion dollar Solar Bank. Saving 20% of one billion is nice, but in comparison to the final score, it is not a big deal, especially when you know you could have bought something else which would have made back at least part of the 20%. I don't use these and I do not think they are worthwhile, but that is my opinion.

The Virus and the Bust

These are two special events you really need to pay attention to. The Virus devastates planetary populations, you need to stop it as soon as possible. This is a dangerous and vicious slap at your income. Remember my example of what happens to a planet with an -11.8% population crash? In 10 months, you have only 28% of the population/income left...

You get nice cash bonuses when you stop the virus, but that is not important. What is important is that you have saved your income. Notice that you save thousands of lives in the process and that you only managed to do it because you were rich enough to buy the medicine. Do not let anyone tell you money is evil!

To stop the Virus, you need medicine. Carry as much as you can, as you can trade extra to bring the population rate back up. Do not trade it all though, as until you get the Virus Cured message, another planet is going to get it. You want to be able to go there as fast as possible to stop the damage.

Busts are not as bad and can be cured with big trades of medicine or food. Not as bad does not mean good, so try to tackle these as soon as possible. All of this is in the single player game. In a multiplayer game, feel free to let the Virus run wild on your opponent's planets!

The Start.

You have noticed that you start with very little money in a place where you can buy food? That is a pretty big hint. Now look for the nearest medicine planet. You might need to do a few trips back and forth until you have some real cash. While you can make a great profit on narcotics, until you have 1000, you can not buy a single unit. Do not fly somewhere, sell your goods and then find you can not buy anything to fly out with. It is a waste of time and time is all important in this game. I have not used the term exponential growth, but it is the right term. Get a good start and watch it grow.

Expand your cargo. As soon as you can expand your cargo and still afford to fill it, do so. More goods means more profit. The price for cargo space escalates pretty rapidly, so watch out that you do not spend all your cash on new cargo space and find yourself unable to fill it.

Later in the game, you will find that the more you visit a planet, the lower the prices tend to be. This is due to your earlier trades pushing the price down. You may want to look around for a group of planets you have not visited in some time. The prices will be much higher and the growth rates will be low. You can take advantage of this and make a nice profit. The low growth rates might mean the populations are low, so you can not buy or sell that much. Pushing the growth rate up is good for your investments, as well as you ability to trade a lot of goods.. At the same time, some planets have low prices, but their population is huge. You can sell millions of unit here, which means a big profit, even if the price is moderate to low.

The Missions.

I will admit that in my first few games, I did not worry about these very much. However, in one game, I tried to do every single one. The amount your earn rapidly gets big, very big. Investing in the early ones pays off, give it a try. That said, I am not sure it is worth it in the short game, as every month is critical, but in the longer games, it is very worth it. Over a billion reward for making trades you already wanted to make, it is worth it.

Multi Player.

I have not got to play a lot of this, as I mentioned, my girlfriend likes Diablo. In any case, here are a few hints that might help you out. First, the person who bring the final unit of goods for a mission is the one who gets the cash. If you see your opponent did half the work, you may be able to do the other half, but get all the money. Always check the mission each time your turn starts. It might have been finished or you might be able to finish it more easily than you expected.

The election of the governor is different in multi player. As soon as someone builds the first investment on a planet, they get to be the governor. This gives a quick and substantial discount, so do it before you trade. It also makes the Hydro Farm a more attractive buy, as it is cheap and you gain from the governorship much sooner than in single player. However, if someone else builds more than you, they get to be the governor. Watch for this, as you might be able to steal the governorship from you opponent. Turn their strength into yours.

You are the Boss

Well, maybe in real life you are not the boss, but in the game you are. The prices of goods will pretty much stay the same, unless you change them. Sure, special events will push the price of a single commodity up or down, but once the event is over, the price will settle back down to the usual price. When you buy and sell, you are going to push the price up or down. If you watch this carefully, you can control it and maximize your profits.

But wait, there is more. I ran a game with no trading, just watching what happened. Well, almost every planet dropped to 500 population and only one planet grew. The planet which grew produced medicine. So, what does this tell us? The population is driven by the economy. The economy is driven by trade. You are the only trader. Therefore, you are the economy and you are the population. I told you that you were the boss!

Well Boss, all you need to do now is to figure out how to run the show and make money. I hope this guide helps you make some money. A lot of money! And, while you do it, you will drive the economy and the population growth rate. The more you trade, the more things get better for everyone. You get rich, they get happy. Remember that next time you head out to vote, put a X next to the free market candidate. Then go buy Diodor's other games, you are making the world a better place!

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