Sunday, September 6, 2015

Big Pharma: Review

Version Reviewed: 1.00.04 (steam)
What I like: Setting up complex production lines within the space allocated. Having multiple ways to deal with some problems. Some tense moments provided by the AI competitors.
Not So Much: At times some clicks don't want to select an item. Ingredient discovery was a little bland.
Other Stuff You May Like: Free build mode and custom game setups.
The Verdict: Seems like a good choice for anyone interested in setting up and tweaking production lines in a confined area.
About my reviews

Official site: Big Pharma

Disclaimer: A review copy was provided by Positech Games and Twice Circled.


As a child, didn't you dream of finding the right natural products in forests and deserts and developing them into effective treatments for the world's maladies? Well, neither did I - but that doesn't mean it can't make for a good game! The main draw of Big Pharma is solving logistical and spatial problems, slightly similar to SpaceChem. Big Pharma requires the player to layout machinery and conveyor belts within a limited space to transform a drug's ingredients into a profitable (and hopefully effective) drug. Layered on top of this is managing a simple research tree, finding new drug ingredients, protecting your products with patents and managing cash flow. The game is presented as individual scenarios with varying goals, separated by difficulty, which can be played in any order. Additionally you can create a customized game, adjusting many parameters, including setting multiple victory conditions. For those who like to build without worrying about managing their money, Free Build is probably for you.

Each scenario has 3 victory levels to give the player different goals that they can shoot for. Since the scenarios aren't locked, there isn't a penalty for failing other than hurting your pride. Certain aspects of the game are randomized, so replaying a scenario isn't the same exact experience even if the overall structure is the same. This could make a given replay more or less difficult than others, but I never found it to be unfair. Big Pharma could use an online leaderboard for score chasers like myself.

Getting Started!

Big Pharma's tutorial does a good job illustrating most of the game's mechanics. I felt prepared to tackle the game's first scenario, finishing with an expert victory. The tutorials don't cover the more advanced equipment, but it isn't difficult to figure out how to use them. Even though the game's rules aren't that complex, it could use a manual or in game help so the player could refer back to the concepts covered in the tutorial without replaying it. Most items do have the relevant information within the game, but a manual would still be helpful.

Let's Play

Deciding what disease to treat can be based on different factors and the goals of the scenario. Available cures are determined by what ingredients your company has discovered. Simple cures only require one ingredient, while more complex cures can require multiple ingredients and more advanced instruments. Complex cures require more work, but can offer greater monetary rewards.
At the beginning of this game I have the ingredients to treats coughs or diabetes.

How to decide where to start? Well, each of those treatments have some values associated with them. It appears that treating coughs will bring in more revenue since its value is higher, driven by the demand for the treatment. It's not quite as simple as that because your revenue will also depend on how effective the treatment is. Profits will also be affected by how efficiently the ingredients can be processed into the drug, because each instrument in the assembly line increases the product's cost. It isn't always obvious what the stumbling blocks might be before trying to discover a new cure, kind of like real life I guess. Pharmaceutical companies have to go through a lot of drug discovery before finding one they can bring to market. The game captures that a bit.

Ingredients also have side effects which can hopefully be mitigated. An ingredient that soothes coughing may also cause nausea. Side effects can be avoided, or at least mitigated by adjusting the concentration with instruments, or combining ingredients in different ways. More advanced techs in the research tree open up more ways to overcome obstacles.

This drug didn't take too much processing because its concentration only needed to be slightly reduced so it would treat coughs. The result was put into pill form and shipped out of the factory. Ingredients and products can only enter and leave the factory at particular locations, and space is a precious commodity. How the equipment is laid out really matters. The game probably won't appeal to those who don't enjoy solving these logistical and spatial puzzles. I find them interesting. Ultra efficiency isn't required, at least to achieve the easier victory conditions.

When the game isn't paused, time ticks by in daily increments. Ingredients are imported and move along the conveyor belts and processed by the different equipment installed on that product line. Each of those actions costs money, which is deducted from your company's cash. When the product leaves the factory the company collects the income. Keeping an eye on your cash balance is necessary because you don't want to run out in the middle of creating a production line. Loans provide a quick influx of cash in a pinch.

Things get more interesting when cures require adding multiple ingredients.Ingredients can have up to 4 different effects. When two ingredients are combined and have an effect in the same position, one effect will be preserved and the other thrown away. The player can choose which ingredient is the base and have its effects preserved. This is one way negative traits can be removed from a drug. One of the instruments even lets a drug's effects be shifted one position to another to help engineer the desirable traits into the drug. More powerful options exist too.

Getting Some Feedback

Once a drug is in production, some time is needed before determining how effectively the ailment is treated or how prevalent any side effects are. Crikey! A little less than half of the customers using the product below get any cough relief and more than 20% are nauseated. This adversely affects the cure rating which results in less money collected for each unit shipped. Adjusting the concentration can affect how much our drug helps the ailment, or how frequently our customers get nauseous. At this point the best concentration isn't known, but we can find out with some research!

Over time with more data collected, the cough suppressant was even worse than initially feared. It only helped about 33% of the people who took it while still making just as many nauseous. It earned an E rating cutting into its profitability even further.

Expanding Your Knowledge

Hiring scientists costs money and keeping them on payroll drains profits, but they are necessary to get access to better equipment. They can also reduce your operating costs. In the early game it's easy to overextend yourself by hiring too many people. As CEO, you decide when it's time to pursue more advanced technologies. The analyzer tech helps solve the problem with the cough suppressant above and maybe find a concentration where coughs are better suppressed while making the customers less nauseous. 

In this case, utilizing the analyzer revealed that the concentration the cough suppressant works best also makes the most people nauseous! There are ways to mitigate this after researching the proper tech, but it's not always wise to increase the cost of making a drug since it's not always profitable. The resources can probably be better utilized for pursuing other treatments.

Some cures are more financially rewarding than others. Higher tier cures require more processing to bring to market and may require some equipment that must be unlocked with research. Researching an agglomerator enables me to transform my cough remedy into a more profitable asthma treatment.

You Are Not Alone

We're not talking about aliens here, but other companies. While you're busy developing your own products, they are too. They'll fulfill the demand for treatments and buy ingredients (which affects their price). Hey! They're also producing a cough remedy. I'm not sure if the other companies are actually playing out the game with the same rules as the player or if they're more of an abstraction since they operate in the dark. With some espionage tech more information is revealed about what they're doing.

Placement Does Matter

Most of the challenge resides in processing the ingredients efficiently to produce the desired effects and then getting the instruments' inputs and outputs lining up in such a way the ingredients can be moved along the production line from the points of import to the place the product is exported from the factory. Conveyor belts can't cross over or under one another so it's quite possible to paint yourself into a corner. The instruments can be rotated, but they can't be flipped, so it can be difficult to align the inputs and outputs in a way that keep your design neat. These situations may be able to be fixed by adjusting the instrument layout, or researching equipment so fewer instruments are needed to process the drug. Instruments can be moved around at will, but the conveyor belts must be sold off for a loss. It's a small amount of money in the grand scheme of things, but it would be nice if the player could lay out their plans to experiment before committing to them and paying the money. Sometimes these situations can be frustrating, but it's just part of the difficulty and the rules of how Big Pharma works. It may just be that I'm spatially challenged.

After researching more powerful instruments to adjust drug concentration I was able to bring an asthma medication to market. Unfortunately my competition beat me to it. Using the analyzer I was able to determine the concentration the drug will be most effective, without any side effects! Without researching the new instruments, I don't think I could have fit the asthma product line within my current building. Now it's time to expand my factory.

Decisions, Decisions

One of the things I like about the game is that I always seem to be considering something - the next cure to pursue, how to improve the cure grade of an existing product, when should I research the analyzer so I have more insight into the products I'm creating. Should I borrow money so I can afford another product line or some researchers. 

For the most part the interface supports the decision making process, but there are a couple places it falls short. Scientists can reduce the cost of running a particular type of instrument. To make that choice, it is helpful to know how many of each machine is in use so it can be determined what will save the most money. The only way to do this is to count them manually. Ingredients are handled a little better because that screen shows how many units your company purchases, but there isn't a screen that aggregates that information, so you need to do quite a bit of clicking.  

Even on a beginner scenario things can get pretty involved. I think my slow starts are preventing me from getting the Master ranking, so even the beginner levels can provide a challenge when going for the harder victory conditions.

The game really shines when playing the advanced scenarios. The higher tech equipment leads to more interesting ways to combine and process the ingredients.

Some Other Minor Complaints

In the beginning and middle of the game, the play speed isn't much of an issue because I'm usually involved managing the business in some way, but there are times I wish I could make the game run faster. It can run in the background, so it's possible to take a break and do some web surfing, but having the possibility of a faster game speed would be nice. Big Pharma should take a cue from a game like Europa Universalis that have very speedy fast forward levels.

The game also pops up some world events, which seem to just increase or decrease the demand for particular cures. Sometimes they don't really last long enough to make product line adjustments based on them, so they more or less just feel like random perks or penalties to a company.

The music is upbeat and perky, but either the tracks sound similar or there aren't a lot of them. Each time I pay attention to the music it feels kind of samey. It's not a big deal since the music can be muted once you get tired of it.

Technical Performance

I didn't encounter any major issues, even with frequent alt-tabbing out of the game. The game does seem to have problems registering clicks on items sometimes, such as it I'm trying to select an item on the conveyor belt. The icons at factory import and export points also get it the way at times and make it difficult to select what's near them.

My specs: Windows 7 64-bit. Intel Core i& 860 @ 2.80 GHz. 8 Gig RAM. ATI Radeon HD 7870.


I went into Big Pharma expecting to enjoy the game and I wasn't disappointed. The game focuses on setting up the production lines - it really isn't a business sim, but I don't think the game suffers because of it. There is plenty to think about. It can be very satisfying to tweak a production line to operate more efficiently, or to engineer out one of the pesky side effects. Probably do to my inability to think ahead, I'd have to re engineer my plans to overcome an obstacle I didn't anticipate.

On the first advanced scenario, money was much tighter and the game provided a tense challenge. Sometimes competing against the AI feels arbitrary, maybe because they're mostly just messages that pop up. I don't feel like they're going through the same process as me. They are effective though - I would curse them when they patented a cure that was on my production line and they provide for some interesting moments.

My two main wishes are more fast forward levels and an online leaderboards so I can chase my friends' scores. Another nice touch would be to have a 'random' setting for each parameter when setting up a custom game. Many times games are more enjoyable if the player doesn't know quite what to expect and have to adjust their play once they discover what's going on.

I've read some people's complaints about the amount of content included in Big Parma and I don't get where they're coming from. There are many scenarios, taking hours to complete. Setting up a custom game offers more play for those who want it too.

So, if you enjoy setting up and tinkering with production lines, my guess is that you'll like Big Pharma.

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