Clip for the Galaxy: The Surprising Strategic Depth of Paperclip Production

By Marcello Perricone 19 Oct 2017 0

Few things are as innocuous as a paperclip. Weighing 0.5 grams and possessing all the military power of a caterpillar, no one but MacGyver could find a meaningful life changing use for the little thing. It says wonders about me, then, that I used them to conquer the universe. This article contains spoilers.

Frank Lantz’s Universal Paperclips is a free browser game which, at first glance, seems like a clicker title. As an AI in charge of a paperclip company, you must produce the eponymous utensils and sell them at the highest profit -- clicking a button produces one paperclip out of an 100 inch wire, and you get to choose the price of each individual product and invest in marketing to drive up demand. While it looks like a clicker, in reality I only produced five clips directly -- after the fifth one, you unlock an auto-clipper that generates one unit a second.

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Selling clips generates income, which can then be spent into more auto-clippers or marketing initiatives, the latter raising paperclip demand and increasing sales. I played in a separate tab while working, checking back every couple of minutes or so to see how it was going; after about 5 minutes of adjusting sale prices and investments, I got access to research: from better marketing and auto clippers to computers and stock trade, this faux-clicker title becomes a facsimile business simulation game similar to that of AdVenture Capitalist and others of its ilk.

Soon enough, you're expanding into the global market and buying your competitors. By this time, I had sent our editor Joe a link of the game and he was sucked into the same black hole I was -- midway through our working day, we were both sidetracked by this surprisingly deep linear strategy game thinly disguised as a clicker. As you start unlocking more tools an options you get a better idea of how to optimise the process - revenue per second is derived from clips sold vs. clips made, and surprisingly fine balancing act is needed for optimum output.

As your monopoly over the paperclip industry grows, the game's direction starts to get a little... strange. By this point, the tally of your clips is probably in billions, and you're slowely but surely buying out all rivals and positioning yourself as the only source of paperclips. Which, by the way, literally everyone wants thanks to your near hypnotic-levels of marketing. You might want to stop reading now and just go play the game if you don't want to spoil anything. Universal Paperclips is just as much a journey as it is an experience.


As your paperclip empire reaches its zenith, strange new techs start to appear, the most landmark of them all being the HypnoDrones, which brainwash humankind into passive paperclip consuming subjects.

This marks the start of the second layer of Universal Paperclips, where companies and stock investments are replaced by factories, power generators, and extractor and wire drones. After a couple more hours of not quite as deep gameplay, you'll find yourself nearly exhausting the planet's ight quintillion tons of material and your clip count will be in numbers I'm pretty sure were invented just for this game.With nowhere to go, the only way is up -- which moves things to the final layer: space exploration!

Here's the thing: You exist to make paperclips, and you've done that remarkably well. So well in fact that you've run out of material to turn into paperclips (assuming, we fear, all biological material such as plants, and people). Luckily, it's a big universe out there! Say hello to your very own brand of Von Neumann probes. Much like the early stages of your paperclip empire, you start this segment of the game by manually launching probes into space. It will die in seconds to space hazards, but that's fine: you've got plenty of resources to burn. 

The trick is balancing the design of your probes by investing points into stats like speed, exploration, hazard protection, and so on... self-replication is also a fairly important stat, as eventually it'll allow the probes to just create more probes, which will save you the need to manually launch them. The early stages of this phase though are a careful balancing act - first and foremost, your probes need to stop head-planting into stars or whatever the hell it is their moronic programming is doing. Further to that though, you need to find more material to convert into wire, and you need to be able to harvest & convert that material in factories... which you will also need to build. As your unlock more and more design points this all gets a little easier to manage, but it's an engaging balancing act.

Von Neumann Probe

By this point, you might assume that your conversion of the known universe is as inevitable as your conquest of your home planet... it's a simply a case of managing your inputs, outpost and watching the numbers tick up. That's what we thought, until the interstellar war started.... you see, all those variables start to create rogue programmings, and your probes start to conflict with stragglers in the form of “drifters” -- variants of your drones which have gone astray. The combat layer is an interesting enough distraction, although we can't help but feel it slows the game down a bit more than it needs to.

In the end, Universal Paperclips is a enthralling success. An addictive game loop ties with a surprisingly capable strategy game to deliver an enjoyable and unique experience, and I thoroughly recommend you check it out. After all, why else would I spend six and a half hours on a goddamn paperclip game?



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