Whomst among us loves the debilitating, oppressive nature of the pharmaceutical industry? Have you ever wanted to be a big pharmaceutical titan yourself, exploiting the needs of sick people to reap millions out of their dying hands? Well buddy, I have a game for you.
Big Pharma is a management tycoon game by Twice Circled where you try to run a successful pharmaceutical company. For clarity, this write-up is about the base game and does not include content added by the “Marketing and Malpractice” DLC.
The core experience of Big Pharma has you setting up chains of conveyor belts and machines to process raw materials into medicine. Materials pass through machines that change their concentrations, and entering a certain range can activate positive and negative effects; of course, you’ll be wanting to manipulate the concentration to prioritize the positive effects. As you expand your factory and the machines you can use, Big Pharma becomes a bit of a puzzle game where you try to figure out how to optimally set up supply chains to be space and cost efficient. Building a successful chain of machines that gives the medicine you want feels great and seeing that chain in motion on fast forward is just satisfying.
As you handle factory operations, you can hire explorers and scientists to research new ingredients and technologies. When explorers aren’t (hopefully ethically – probably not) getting new ingredients, they passively build up points that lets you upgrade ingredients for discounts. The same is true with scientists, who can make machine processes cost less. Obviously, they don’t work for free – though you can research Outsourcing to exploit international workers to pay them less. You can be slow with upgrading and moving up the tech tree to keep your finances in the green, or you can take the risk of paying a lot of salaries to better yourself in the long run.
Past the Beginner mode, the list of things you can research and discover expands and the patent mechanic gets introduced. From a gameplay perspective? I kinda hate it. When you patent a medicine, your opponents can’t make a medicine of the same type with the same effects, keeping market saturation low and letting you make more profit. However, opponent companies can do the same thing. You know how in Civilization when a country researches the same Great Wonder as you, wasting all your effort and forcing you to scramble to work around that? It’s kind of like that.
The problem is that the patent system just seems to exist to screw you over exclusively. Sure, you can make patents to prevent oversaturation, but it never seems to affect your opponents very much. If anything, patenting things yourself feels like a shield to prevent others from doing so before you. As the cheapest patent is also a hefty $20,000, you’re probably not going to take advantage of this mechanic yourself until you’re already rich.
Thematically however, the patent system works as part of the criticism of pharma companies that lies underneath the bright colors. Pharma companies that hold patents for life-saving medicine screws everyone else over by holding a monopoly, keeping a stranglehold on the industry to enrich themselves. And, well, it’s certainly the people who are already rich and powerful benefiting from this kind of patent system. Furthermore, global events occasionally occur, crisises making certain medications more valuable, allowing you to profit off of tragedy. And as previously mentioned, bettering yourself means casually exploiting resources and overseas workers. To get to the top, you’re encouraged to be cartoonishly evil.
However, even then, you can never be as cartoonishly evil as companies that pushed the use of opioids and companies that take advantage of a one dollar patent intended to make insulin an easily accessible good to sell it for thousands.
Anyway. I played enough of Beginner and thought, “alright, I feel that I’m set,” so I hopped into a level of Advanced, which bills itself as the way the game’s intended to be play. I then remembered a big reason why I’m not into tycoon games very much outside of sandbox mode – I am a huge idiot. The Jenny Death industry is run by a dumbass, folks.This is not a knock against the game, it makes its rules and risks pretty clear (even if I’m not into the patent stuff), I’m just really bad at long-term planning, which is a general problem I have.
Aside from Advanced, there are a few gimmicky modes to spice up your game. One mode starts you out with a large sum of money – but also a larger loan – which forces you to quickly figure out how to get your finances in the green. In another mode, you automatically start out with all machines unlocked – but so does everyone else. The game is also open to modding, though from what I’ve seen, there isn’t a lot out there.
Big Pharma is a pretty alright tycoon game about one of the worst industries that exists. It’s not going to be as creatively fulfilling as some city management or amusement park game, but it’s an enjoyable time. It’s one of those games where you can listen to something in the background as you play, and in my increasingly busy life, it’s the kind of game I value greatly.
Patent trolls are very real and extremely annoying.