So, I've got two computers at my disposal. One is a desktop of roughly 2014 make, with an i5 (3.2ghz, 2 real and 2 virtual cores afaik), asus R9 280 gpu and 8gb of ram. The other is a laptop with i7 4core (+4 virtual) 2.6ghz cpu, gt960m and 8gb of ram. As far as my limited knowledge regarding computers goes, shouldn't the laptop be at least as capable of running the game as the desktop (which is 2 years older)? Because in practice, the laptop suffers frame drops, while the desktop runs the game consistently over 60fps.
Definitely. There's no mention of the generation of the core processors being used, but even Nehalem or Westmere(which seems to be the case as newer i5s use 4 physical cores but have hyperthreading disabled) should be able to run the game. I can't exactly tell but it seems like you're running an i5-650 here?
Also, desktops tend to be more powerful than a laptop can, simply because they have so much power available to them. The 960M, for example, only has about half the performance the 280 can achieve assuming the game you're trying to run isn't gimped by gameworks(i'm pretty sure this game isn't).
I assume the laptop has a 6700HQ as Intel loves locking down non-S series processors.
In any case, assuming you're asking about the subleties of comparing the performance of these two computers, they excel at different tasks. Earlier intel CPUs are limited by IPC(though this isn't a massive problem for SISD-based programs from Sandy Bridge and later) and memory throughput(the 6700HQ is usually paired with DDR4@2133MHz whereas the 650 is limited to 1333MHz DDR3). The desktop still has a superior GPU though - Nvidia only stepped up their mobile GPU game with Pascal and the cheapest laptops with it at this point are at the $1350+ range. The lowest tier Pascal mobile GPU Nvidia has released so far, the GTX 1060, utterly destroys the 960M and manages to trade blows with a desktop-based 980.
Overall, this is mostly a CPU-intensive game, and the 6700HQ should be winning here due to better IPC - even in single-threaded performance. The only reason i can see for a possible slowdown is having the game run on integrated graphics.
Excuse my stupidity, I hadn't even considered that the game might be defaulting to the integrated gpu - haven't had issues with this on steam before. Which as it happens was exactly the problem. Now it runs smooth as a baby's bottom, thank you.
There are two reasons the desktop is running the game better.
1: The game is CPU limited, so the laptop's graphics card is irrelevant.
2: The game only utilizes a single core, so the extra cores don't make up for the lower clock speed. They do allow you to keep using the computer while the game chugs through a tough simulation though.
It's an unusual situation as far as games go, but it's just a consequence of the game being very sim-heavy and single-threaded. Supreme Commander had a similar problem with high-end computers when it launched, because like this game it was CPU limited and even though it was advertised as multi-threaded (a very new thing back then), its load-balancing algorithm was broken so it ran all its threads on a single core anyway. People with multi-core CPUs ended up using a third-party load balancing tool to get better core utilization (though that wouldn't work for this game, because it's single-threaded to begin with).
So basically, when it comes to running this game you ignore conventional video-game specs and focus on giving it the strongest single core with the highest clock speed you can.