Base-building is de rigueur these days, what with all those survival games, Minecraft, Fallout 4 and now Fortnite, but before all that we had tiny top-down or isometric worlds in which we diligently built cities and dungeons and theme parks and rail networks. The central appeal of management games was and is that they give us an idealised sense of what it is like to create a game – to weave new worlds upon our screens, guided only by our imaginations, ingenuity and the limitations of the in-game taxation system. Magic, right there: the birth of your own universe.
For a while there, it looked as though the management flame was fading, choked by the low-grade tycoon games that littered supermarkets’ dusty games shelves. But this is The New Age Of PC Games, which means every near-abandoned idea of yesteryear has been revisited in thoughtful and ambitious new ways. Town sims and theme sims are now healthier and more vibrant than they’ve ever been, expanding. This round-up comprises the very best of the past and the very best of today: the twenty management games which are, by 2018 standards, most guaranteed to to consume your every waking thought.
These aren’t in any particular order, by-the-by: they are, simply, the 20 best management games.
You can change pages using the arrows beneath or below the image at the top of each page, or using your arrow keys:
20. Transport Tycoon Deluxe (1994)
Developer: Chris Sawyer
The pleasures of Transport Tycoon are many. The isometric countryside and urban landscapes are still beautifully tranquil – despite the game’s industrial core, settlements resemble picture-postcard villages and towns rather than smoggy iterations of Dickens’ Coketown. Watching the landscape develop in sync with your ambitions is as rewarding as watching a level 1 Squire become a level 50 Demigod.
Business management games come in many flavours, but few offer the same kind of gentle challenges and immediately recognisable environments as Chris Sawyer’s masterpiece. Transporting goods and passengers might seem like a banal occupation, especially appearing alongside future wars and theme parks, but it’s the familiarity of the systems that makes the game so engaging.
Notes: The soundtrack, composed by John Broomhall, is a bluesy, jazzy delight, including excerpts from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island.
The World Editor for the original Transport Tycoon included a Martian tileset.
Where can I buy it: OpenTTD is a free, open source remake. A non-freemium mobile port of the original is also available on iOS and Android.
What else should I be playing if I like this: Cities in Motion and its sequel, from Cities: Skyline developers Colossal Order, present a more detailed (and occasionally fussy) simulation of public transport. Railroad Tycoon and its most recent reinvention Sid Meier’s Railroads is superficially similar, but doesn’t have the dynamic world of Transport Tycoon, and Ticket to Ride, available in physical form or as a digital adaptation, is a very different take on similar themes.
Read more: Memories of a teenage Transport Tycoon.
19. The Settlers II (1996)
Developer: Blue Byte Software
Publisher: Blue Byte Software
The Settlers has one foot in the world of management and the other in real-time strategy – making it quite possibly the most relaxing, meditative RTS in existence. Although there have been many entries in the series since, the second game, “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, is the strongest example of the design’s best qualities. Tasked with transforming a nascent settlement into a thriving economy, you’ll spend most of your time watching transportation and production loops – the engines of industry – in the form of serene, rural endeavour.
Blue Byte’s approach to what might be called base-building elsewhere is completely at odds with the games that would come to dominate the RTS space. From the distant thwok of a woodcutter’s axe to the deliberately slow-paced movement of raw materials and goods, The Settlers encourages contemplation and observation rather than demanding that players rush toward the finish line. It’s a pastoral game that conjures up images of lazy ruminations by a riverbank in the warm haze of an everlasting summer.
Miscellaneous Notes: Blue Byte co-founder Thomas Hertzler was ahead of his time – from a 1998 interview: “In the long run, I want to convert Blue Byte into a pure content provider. We call it BlueByte.Net. BB.Net will be it’s own entertainment value, by offering a lobby with chat, fan club, world ranking lists and tournaments. Instead of launching our games from the Windows Start menu, you’ll visit the BB.Net home page.
What else should I be playing: Widelands is a free, open source game with many similarities to The Settlers series.
Read More: Eurogamer’s Retrospective.
18. Prison Architect (2015)
Developer: Introversion Software
Publisher: Introversion Software
Theme Hospital might be the first popular management game to dwell on the dark side of profiteering. Sure, you could add salt to snacks to ensure kids nagged their parents for more soda in Theme Park, but that was benign compared to the intro to Hospital, which showed privatised healthcare at its most ruthless. To a backing orchestra of sickly bottoms and bilious upheavals, you were tasked with finding the best way to cash in on the cure.
Prison Architect is an even darker proposition. Can you keep your inmates happy? Can you make a profit? How important is it to process death row residents efficiently? What happens when a riot breaks out?
The brilliance of Introversion’s game is in its recognition that a prison is a series of systems – of housing and treatment, of security and recreation – and then in its application of sturdy simulations to each of those systems. Like the best management games, it allows you to create a smoothly running machine, but it also embraces chaos and roleplaying.
During the most intricate planning, you can forget what the theme implies about the resources you’re processing, but Prison Architect is only ever a moment away from reminding you of the humanity within the machine.
Notes: Before Prison Architect, Introversion had been working on Subversion, a game of espionage and infiltration in procedurally generated cities, but it was indefinitely postponed in late 2011.
Where can I buy it: Direct from the developer.
What else should I be playing: RimWorld looks similar, on the surface, but is a much broader exploration of simulated people and the stories they can create.
17. Cities: Skylines (2015)
Developer: Colossal Order
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Not so long ago, we’d have picked SimCity 4 to represent modern-but-traditional citybuilders, but now that it’s had a couple of years to bed in, with copious DLC and the mammoth impact of its modding community, there’s no doubt that Colossal Order’s triumphant revival of the genre picks up Maxis’ battered baton.
A session with Skylines is reminiscent of the golden age of gaming. That’s not any particular year; it’s related to your own relationship with games. Remember when you’d spend hours playing without worrying about the outside world, or even feeling any pressure from within the game itself? Hours of comfortable, calming bliss, laying roads and watching a city grow before your eyes. Skylines creates those long holidays from reality. Relaxation in game form.
That’s not to say the actual simulation isn’t complex though. If you want a challenge, Skylines can deliver, though you’ll often have to set your own parameters. The brilliance of the game is in the variety of cities it can host though, from perfect geometrical machines to wonderful recreations of real life locations. It’s like the biggest box of building blocks in the world.
Notes: Developers Colossal Order had previously worked on public transport management games, and a full city builder had long been a dream project.
What else should I be playing: SimCity 4 is still worth a look, and keep an eye on Urban Empire.
16. Evil Genius (2004)
Developer: Elixir Studios
Publisher: Vivendi / Rebellion
Released a few years too late on two fronts: 1) missing peak management game mania 2) missing peak Austin Powers mania. As such, Elixir’s design-Blofeld’s-lair game wasn’t the runaway success it could have been, and as such there have been no expansions or sequels (well… see notes) in the 14 years that followed. Which is a great shame, as you probably couldn’t ask for a better combination of theme and genre.
Evil Genius ploughs the same furrow as Dungeon Keeper, that being that you’re the bad guy construction a secret base filled with henchmen, dastardly schemes and untold riches. It is basically the origin story of every ridiculous James Bond baddies’ high-concept lair. As you build, you send your best henches out on cash-grabbing international missions, and juggle raising your criminal notoriety with your increasing visibility to do-gooder agents, who must be defeated and/or tortured with assorted sadistic devices when they come a-calling.
Its interface and building mechanics perhaps lack the near-timeless elegance of the best of Bullfrog (this was one of several new studios founded by the former staff of said Theme Park/Dungeon Keeper developer), but it’s bursting with new ideas for the genre, particularly in terms of how it makes your insular building project feel connected to the wider world, and exudes lovely comic touches to raise the spirits of anyone raised on 60s-80s Bond movies. You’ve gotta love a yellow boilersuit.
Notes: There is another Evil Genius game. It is a Facebook game. There was another Evil Genius game after that. It was also a Facebook game. We would warn you to steer clear, because they are exactly the abominations you would expect them to be, but both are dead these days anyway. More promisingly, IP owners Rebellion announced in 2017 that a proper, PC sequel was in the works.
Where can I buy it: Steam or GOG.
What else should I be playing: Dungeon Keeper does a slicker job of evil base-building, but the comic-fantasy theme isn’t for everyone. If it’s Bond-satire you’re after, look to the excellent No-One Lives Forever shooters.
Developer: Sports Interactive
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
The Championship/Football Manager series occupies an odd space in PC gaming. Sometimes dismissed as the epitome of best-selling, mainstream, annually resold tosh, it’s also one of the deepest and most rewarding management/strategy series in existence. The Americans understand – true devotion to a sport, and the numbers behind the sport, is the domain of the nerdiest of nerds. Behind the tribalism and Sky Sports laddishness of football, there’s an intricate interplay of tactics and talent.
In some ways, Championship Manager is the archetypal management game. There’s a strategic level of club management that incorporates long-term coordination and diplomacy, and an operational level below that, which kicks in during weekly, monthly or seasonal planning. And then there’s a tactical level, during the matches themselves, when formations and individual abilities come to the fore.
Why Season 01/02 specifically? Partly because of the aforementioned Sky Sports – Sports Interactive’s games have improved in many ways but in England and elsewhere, the powers-that-be have consolidated their strengths through sponsorship and TV rights. It’s still possible to take an English League Two club to European glory in Football Manager 15 but given the structures of the real game, it seems improbable and deep down, you know you’re fudging the system rather than enjoying the simulation.
Notes: The series was renamed following a split from Eidos. When seeking a new publisher, one of Sports Interactive’s terms involved a set amount of sales going to a chosen charity.
What else should I be playing: The Football Manager series is still excellent and fans of Other Sports will enjoy Out of the Park Baseball’s intricate simulation. If you prefer dice and Skaven, Blood Bowl is your best bet.
Read more: Our review of the latest in the series
14. Surviving Mars (2018)
Developer: Haemimont Games
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
This red planet colonisation sim wouldn’t have made it into this list back when it launched (in March 2018) – though it successfully transplanted base-building into a potentially lethal new setting, it felt a little bit barebones and kept tripping over its own user interface. Half a year on and it’s a different story – more variety of domes and buildings, a more coherent UI, and best of all you can really link up your various fragile settlements now, where before they were these isolated islands peppered across the surface of Mars.
Nowadays, Surviving Mars is extremely hard to put down – the slow growth from a handful of drones laying cables in the dust, to your first, tiny dome full of colonists, and eventually to a thriving society is immensely satisfying, and the hostile environment and starkly limited resources means it feels like so much more an achievement than simply ordering some serfs to go build you a mansion by the river. By twinning management sim tradition with a survival mentality – your colonists need air, water and heat as well as food, and woe betide you if you fail to provide them – what could have been an old-fashioned building game becomes a thoroughly modern one.
Best of all, if it’s anything like other Paradox-published games such as Cities XL and Stellaris, it should continue to improve further as the years wear on.
Notes: There’s a secondary side to Surviving Mars worth dabbling in once you’ve made your first colony thrive – some low-key ‘quests’ that reveal more openly sci-fi mysteries, with big visual – and potentially massively destructive – pay-offs. These are an option rather than a requirement, but can totally change the nature of the game if you do explore them.
What else should I be playing: For more city-building life at extremes, you could try to survive the rigours of Banished.
13. Frostpunk (2018)
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Most management games are more about indulging yourself than challenge, as such. They’re about an ever-widening circle of building possibility – the more hours you put in, the more things open up. Frostpunk is different. Frostpunk’s interest is in starkly limiting what options are available to you, to the point that there are frequently some absolutely crushing decisions to be made about what you sacrifice in order to gain or fix something else.
Set during a sort of steampunk post-apocalypse, you’re tasked with keeping a handful of shivering, starving refugees of a new ice age alive. There are barely any resources, while anyone who does not live close to the life-giving heat generators will not last long. Sickness is inevitable. But you need the workers, to bring in fuel and food to keep everyone else alive. Do you let the ill heal – or do you amputate? What about children – more hands on deck, or is having a childhood more important?
Frostpunk is management on the edge, where almost every decision you take – almost every building you erect – is a huge risk. It can be mastered, in time, but until then, it is desperate, harrowing and a deft inversion of the usual race-to-riches approach.
Also, your body temperature will drop ten degrees while playing, or your money back. (Er, don’t hold to us that).
Notes: If you really don’t want to be helped in any way, Frostpunk recently saw a new ‘Survival’ mode, which effectively introduces Iron Man mode to a management game. Single save, no pause-time, good luck.
What else should I be playing: If you prefer a little survival mixed in with your management, take your pick from the challenges of Rimworld, Banished or Surviving Mars – but Frostpunk’s closest cousin is its wartime survival predecessor, This War Of Mine.
12. The Sims 2 (2004)
Developer: EA Maxis
The strangest thing about Maxis’ world-straddling life management series is how few other games ripped it off. Maybe it was too complex to clone without an EA budget, maybe it was deemed too esoteric, too singular, even despite its massive crossover success, or maybe the games industry is just a big bunch of dumb-dumbs. In any case, it leaves The Sims effectively peerless within its honking great niche: undisputed heavyweight champion of the human needs, drives and desires simulation world.
The Sims heads in several different directions away from what we would conventionally call “management”, most specifically in that it characters are the central focus, as opposed to a resource or marker of success. But a critical truth remains: this is a game about making people happy by building them a world. It just so happens that “world” entails much more than a well-provisioned home and neighbourhood: it also entails companions, relationships, life goals, family, death, learning how to cook without setting their houses on fire and remembering to go to the toilet before they mess themselves in front of that guy they fancy.
The Sims is a rabbit hole of tinkering – building, decorating and book-balancing on the one hand, and then the fundaments of live, love and work on the other. It was and remains one of PC gaming’s true masterpieces, a vibrant and cheerful (if more than a little sinister with it) exploration of a place all this technology we have at our disposal so often seems unwilling or unable to look towards.
As for the best Sims? Our vote is 2004’s 2, which expands upon the focused but limited first game in all kinds of ways, particularly in terms of the relationships and life-cycles of its computerfolk, without the arguable extremes of comedy and add-on-flogging of subsequent games. Its enormous modding scene is part and parcel of The Sims 2’s enduring appeal too: there is so much you can add to your houses or your people, a bottomless well of tinkering. But there’s a strong argument to be made too that 4 is a solid and expansive entry after the more forgettable 3, and being the most modern it too has a sizeable and industrious community who continue to take it to new places.
Notes: There are approximately 9 million expansion packs for The Sims 2. You really don’t need all of them. In fact, despite our lingering fondness for The Sims 2, at the time there was some extremely violent dead-horse-flogging. Tenner for a few dozen H&M-inspired pieces of pretend clothing, anyone?
Where can I buy it: SADFACE. It never came to Steam, and EA withdrew it from their Origin service a few years ago (after making it free for a while). There are a squillion copies available for very little on the second-hand market, however, and according to NeoGaf EA support will to this day dole out a digital ‘Ultimate Collection’ code to folk who provide an original CD key or proof of physical purchase.
What else should I be playing: There are very few Sims rivals, but if you want increasingly complex life-simulation, you could throw yourself into the fires of Dwarf Fortress, or as a bleak alternative there’s wartime needs-management sim This War of Mine.
11. Tropico 5 (2014)
Developer: Haemimont Games
Honestly, throw a rock in the air and just play whichever Tropico game it lands on – they’re all a solid good time, there’s rarely that much to distinguish between them (graphics aside), and they’re all based around the exact same concept: you’re the comedy dictator of an initially poor island nation, attempting to transform it into a land of tourist’n’trade riches while ruling with an at least partially iron fist. In the harsh light of 2018’s unending horror-news, the theme is currently more discomforting than it was ever (good-naturedly) intended to be, but if you’re able to drown out reality and look beyond that to relatively pressure-free building in a pretty landscape, you’ll quickly discover exactly why Tropico has lasted five games and counting.
A great many of the complextities of, say, a Sim City are discarded – there’s no real worrying about powerlines or water supplies, and instead you get on with the business of plopping down buildings, with the twin goals of making it all look lively and attractive and generating ever-more filthy lucre. This is more of a toybox to rummage in than it is a strategic puzzle: comfort food, but mostly-slickly done, and it totally understands why we all fell for this sort of game in the first place.
The extra layer on top of that is some mild moral dilemmas about how you deal with trouble – for instance, the exile or death of troublemakers, bribing protesters, ignoring environmental concerns, rigging elections or cramming people into dangerous housing. Or you could stay the course, do the right thing and hope that it will all come good in the end. It probably will, because Tropico 5 wants to please you, more than anything.
Again, there’s not too much to separate it from the proceeding couple of games in the series, but it has a slightly stronger campaign than 4, plus a multiplayer mode – but most all, given this is all about indulgence, you might as well play the prettiest one, right?
Notes: Bloody hell, there’s another one due out soon.
What else should I be playing: Dungeon Keeper or Evil Genius if you want to be dastardly, Anno 1404 or Zeus if you’re all about genteel construction with gorgeous scenery.
Read more: Tropico 5 review
10. Banished (2014)
Developer: Shining Rock Software
Publisher: Shining Rock Software
Banished is a different sort of a management game. At first glance, it looks a lot like a Settlers or Anno – good-natured, brakes-on building and tree-chopping, enjoying the gradual and all-but-inevitable expansion from scruffy one-horse town to bustling old world metropolis. But no. Banished is about scratching out a rudimentary life in the dirt and cold, and most of all maintaining that life even as the elements turn against you – striving to subsist rather than to explode into glory.
As such, you get out what you put in. If approached wanting a cheery city-builder, you’re going to have a horrible time. If approached as a sterling test of planning and resource management, in which failing to get it right means great suffering and even death for the handful of people in your charge, it’s going to keep you very busy, challenged and, ultimately, feeling far prouder of yourself than most anything else in this list could hope to manage.
Banished is cruel indeed, but Banished makes the things we take for granted in other management games feel like titanic accomplishments. This is not to say that you cannot find your way to smooth-running civic bliss: Banished absolutely does that too, it’s just that it makes you work hard for it.
Notes: Impressively, Banished is more-or-less a one-man project (thus joining the esteemed company of Dwarf Fortress, in that respect).
What else should I be playing: Frostpunk is another good option for management vs survival, or there’s Stardew Valley if you want farming-centric management without the punishment
Read more: Have you played Banished, my (Alec’s) Banished review, in which I played it in completely the wrong headspace and didn’t like it much, but nonetheless managed to convince a whole lot of people in the right headspace that they would enjoy it. Funny old world, etc.
9. Factorio (2012)
Developer: Wube Software
Publisher: Wube Software
Most management games are secretly puzzle games too: figuring out how to fit all these pieces into this finite space, and how to get x resource to y place as efficiently as possible. Factorio takes this idea and runs it to what turns out to be a natural extreme: impossibly dense, maze-like conveyor belt constructions shuffling massive networks of production back and forth between endless auto-factories, making this to make that to make this to make that, loop upon loop upon loop upon loop.
To gaze upon a late-game Factorio screenshot without ever having played the game yourself is to gaze into the face of madness itself. But Factorio’s greatest accomplishment is how quickly that obscene mountain of mechanised noodles makes sense once you’ve put a couple of hours in. From the humble starting point of a single conveyor belt forlornly shifting resources to the next machine, a portal of possibilities opens up – if I do that, then this, but I’ll need to link it to that, but oh that will need one of those and then, well, bang goes your life. Factorio is an achievement as frightening as it is remarkable: the mind that was able to design this game surely transcends humanity as we know it.
Notes: It didn’t score anything like as many headlines, but, like Minecraft, Factorio can be adapted to higher callings than merely building everything. Take, for example, the guy who managed to make it ‘play’ Darude’s Sandstorm video in game. Which maybe doesn’t sound terribly impressive, until you realise that he built a whole in-game computer, complete with pixel display, to do it.
What else should I be playing: On a smaller/saner scale, Big Pharma’s another management game focused on using factories and production lines, rather than communities of people, to expand and profit.
8. RimWorld (2013)
Developer: Ludeon Studios
Publisher: Ludeon Studios
There are management games about buildings, and then there are management games about people. Rimworld, for all the bird’s-eye perspective and homespun wooden structures, is very much about people. The survivors of a crash-landing on an unknown world, to be specific, trying to survive and then thrive in a hostile place. But the heart of the game is their AI-driven personalities, their preferences and limitations and specialties and fears and hobbies and relationships with each other. If you don’t pay heed to these, the beasts outside are the least of your problems. Each colonist has their own mind, and you will have to learn it well.
Personality even comes into play with your choice of ‘storyteller’, a sort of AI dungeon master who controls the pace and nature of the disasters you face – you might pick Phoebe if you want to be given some breathing room, or you might pick Randy if you want the game to sadistically saddle you with crisis after crisis.
And those crises do extend to building and farming too – look out for exploding power cells, crop blights and vomiting chickens amongst the many, many ways your colony might be laid suddenly low. There is an ultimate objective – escape – but Rimworld’s genius is in how free-rolling it is, how wildly unpredictable and how it quietly writes a new story for you every time you play.
Notes: Almost five years on from its first alpha release, Rimworld is still in early access – but this is more of marker of how much stuff is still being added to what’s already a feature-packed world of possibilities than it is of being ‘unfinished.’
What else should I be playing: Prison Architect explores some similar territory, as well as also exploring the butterfly effect when it comes to disaster.
7. Planet Coaster (2016)
Developer: Frontier Developments
Publisher: Frontier Developments
The true heir to the Rollercoaster Tycoon series, Planet Coaster is game of theme park management, with a particular focus on building (and, most importantly, riding) increasingly elaborate and/or impossible rollercoasters. The true star of the show, though, is Steam Workshop support, from where you can import or upload remarkable and terrible constructions. People have built some jaw-dropping stuff in Planet Coaster, and this age of massive monitors means that riding them is a genuine thrill.
Even if you’re not into sharing with or borrowing from the wider world, Planet Coaster’s focus is much more on building stuff yourself than it is plopping down prefabs. This is the designer’s management game, not the accountant’s management game. As Fraser noted in our review, “it is also a game that inspired me to spend an entire hour constructing a toilet, which inexplicably left me very satisfied. Its construction tools are delightfully accessible, and you’ll be able to coax meaningful results out of ’em very quickly indeed.
But keep your guests happy and the coffers overflowing is a fundamental part of the game nonetheless, and you’ll need all the ancillary theme park money-rinsers, such as cafes and gift shops too. After all, if you build it, they will come.
Notes: Developers Frontier recently followed-up Planet Coaster with Jurassic World: Evolution, which on paper is a dream game – Theme Park with dinosaurs. Sadly, it’s not great, but it has been a big success and as such may blossom into something better over time.
What else should I be playing: If you want more traditional plop’n’place theme park management & construction, Roller Coaster Tycoon 2 remains the series highlight.
6. Stardew Valley (2016)
All the best management games bring something extra to the core gather/build/grow flow. With Stardew Valley, it’s roleplaying. Mostly, you’re diligently plating, tending and harvesting crops, then selling or trading them on, and this gently productive loop is why most anyone you say the words “Stardew Valley” to will look simultaneously misty-eyed (because it’s such a warm game to be in) and guiltly (because it effortlessly consumes any spare time you can give it). But just as you tend your fields, so too do you tend relationships with the NPC townsfolk, slowly coaxing their stories out of them, slowly opening up new possibilities in what you can do – i.e. what you can grow. This is a (admittedly massively idealised) simulation of farming life, which is to say also the life outside the farming.
Context is something that’s so often lacking in other management games: you exist in some void, building and spending, with no sense of connection to anything or anyone else outside of it. You only care about people in terms of numbers: here, you care about them as people. And so managing your farm, the core acts of collection, growth and expansion, has meaning: it is connected to the town, it brings good things to the town. You bring good things to the town.
But, mostly, waking up and rushing to see if today’s the day your potatoes have finished growing never stops being as thrilling as it is charming. This is management through a microscope, instead of the usual city-scale view. Stardew Valley is an enduring, crossover success, and rightfully so.
Notes: For most of its life, Stardew Valley has been a strictly singleplayer game, but this year sees the introduction of a multiplayer mode, in which two to four people collaborate on the same farm. Stardew Valley is very much a game about getting into the zone, and it’s going to fascinating to see if that can happen across multiple minds at once.
What else should I be playing: Banished is Stardew Valley’s dark opposite – subsistence farming in a world that is quite happy to let all your people die.
5. Startopia (2001)
Developer: Mucky Foot Productions
Publisher: Eidos Interactive
Space. Cold, quiet and lacking character, isn’t it? All that void? It’s basically a cavernous meeting hall and we’re the only saps who’ve shown up. Startopia drops a dollop of comedy and colour into the inky vastness, and manages to bring the best of Bullfrog’s management games to mind while reaching for a more ambitious end-goal.
It’s a space station management game, enlivened by a superb sense of scale and the personalities of your station’s inhabitants. The stations in Startopia don’t focus their energies on military or scientific pursuits – instead, they’re essentially the grandest holiday resorts in the galaxy. Your goal is to create rather than destroy and, as with the best management games, Startopia allows you to build a world that you’d gladly visit yourself, even if it is full of litterbugs.
Notes: Short-lived studio Mucky Foot Productions was founded by three veterans of Bullfrog. The studio opened in 1997 and closed six years later – Startopia was the last of three games released.
What else should I be playing: Go back to the glory days of Bullfrog with Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital. Or try the ambitious confusion of Republic: The Revolution, another game from a short-lived studio headed by an ex-Bullfrogger. That studio, Elixir, also created RTS management game Evil Genius.
Read More: Our Startopia retrospective
4. Anno 1404 (aka Dawn of Discovery) (2009)
Developer: Blue Byte
The Anno series – from the same stable as the Settlers – has kept the flame alive at a major publisher, even as it guttered and threatened to die elsewhere. A historical building and trade game, it’s unashamedly both dorky and flowery, with zero pretensions at zeitgeist-chasing. That is exactly what makes this 2009 game feel so oddly refreshing now: it gets on with the job of counting coins and erecting farms, marketplaces and cathedrals at what eventually becomes a massive scale. So much so, in fact, that you need boats to cross between various settlements. A lovely warm bath of town-planning to sink into for an improbably long time, this is a game that knows exactly what it’s doing. Cranked up to high resolutions, it’s astonishingly pretty almost a decade on, too.
The Anno series is generally strong, but 1404 stands out because the 15th century setting offers an ideal combination of splendour and pre-tech elegance, while the game is just modern enough to mean there’s nothing to roll your eyes at in terms of interface and controls. Simply, it’s a delight: as with Zeus, it’s very quietly the pinnacle of the form in a great many ways.
Notes: If historical doesn’t float your boat, the Anno series has also experimented with sci-fi, in 2011’s Anno 2070. It’s solid, and a treat to explore these mechanics in a very different setting, but the presentation is weirdly dour, which takes the shine off things.
What else should I be playing: Any other Anno game, obviously. But Impressions Studios games such as Zeus also do delightfully-presented historical town sim, though they ease off the economic clutch in favour of resource-management.
Read more: Anno 1404 review, in which Old Jim claimed “It’s likely that most people won’t remember this game in a few years time.” YOU’RE DEAD WRONG, ROSSIGNOL.
3. Dungeon Keeper (1997)
Not every horse in Bullfrog’s legendary stable of genre-defining 90s management games stands up entirely well by today’s standards, particularly in terms of interface, and that’s why Themes Park or Hospital aren’t here (though, if all goes well with the upcoming Two Point Hospital, hopefully that will resolve that particular poke in the eye the next time we update this piece). Dungeon Keeper in 2018 sails close to the wind too – oh, for mouse wheel zoom and drag-to-draw room-building – but it remains fiendishly playable. Believe me (that being Alec, hello!), I just spent half a day playing it when I should have been writing this feature.
This game about building a monster lair, keeping said beasties happy and ultimately hurling them at invading ‘heroes’ has, in the collective memory, morphed into something openly silly, with all the wincing that the phrase ’90s comedy videogame’ justly inspires now, but frankly we’re spilling a little Dungeon Keeper 2 into DK1’s finer wine when we do that. It does have gags, most especially in the sneering narration of Richard ‘Daddy Pig’ Ridings, but this is just flavour over something much moodier. There’s a palpable loneliness to Dungeon Keeper, these ill-tempered creatures shuffling through dark, rocky tunnels, angrily trying to sleep in their filthy lairs, shuffling to collect daily pay they have no apparent use for, tinkering away to build traps and spells that only benefit a distant employer and… oh God, the metaphors. Am I… am I a Bile Demon?
But that’s the thing: where so many management games in the Bullfrog idiom were built around a core of pleasing people, this is built around a core of, frankly, abusing them. Be it the monsters who toil and fight endlessly for your gain, or the humans you murder, imprison or torture to further swell your ranks, Dungeon Keeper is a deliciously dark game in a far more profound way than a snickering voice-over.
I should say, too, that this is the rare management game where the oft-arbitrary rules of where you can and can’t built, that game of architectural Tetris, are totally justified, because you’re limited by the layouts of the living rock, underground lakes and massive gold deposits. You’re carving out a dark little world of your own, and that, most of all, is why I keep returning to Dungeon Keeper. It also fuses management and strategy in an entirely natural way – you carve out your world, and then you fight to either defend or expand it. For that reason, DK can be a slightly harder sell to someone who just wants to buy and build, but this stuff never feels like an abrupt or unnatural shift.
Dungeon Keeper is our eternal number one management game, even though it isn’t number one here. That’s just the way it is.
Notes: If you have any intention of playing Dungeon Keeper now, you’ll need KeeperFX. This requires a copy of the original game, and then cheerfully unlocks all sorts of high resolutions, as well as building in assorted third-party fixes and maps. I couldn’t get it to run at 4K, but DK looks glorious at 2560×1440.
What else should I be playing: Evil Genius was the spiritual successor in terms of theme, though it’s not quite so elegant a building game. Dwarf Fortress or Rimworld are where to go if you want to dive deeper into the mentalities and relationships of your denizens. Alternatively, you’ve your pick of Dungeons II or War For The Overworld in terms of latter-day quasi-remakes; the former tries to remix the lair-building side of things, whereas the latter is broadly more interested in the RTS element.
2. Dwarf Fortress (2006)
Developer: Tarn Adams
Publisher: Bay 12 Games
Dwarf Fortress is so much more than a management game, of course, but where else could we file it? The question should really be – if Dwarf Fortress is a management game, by what standard is it not THE BEST management game?
Because it’s unfinished? Because it’s too broad and baggy to allow for definite managerial approaches to emerge? Because learning the obtuse interface is Actual Work? Because it’s about dwarves and we all know that management games are all about taxes? Admittedly, Dwarven Tax Tycoon would be a fine proposition, but the actual reasoning behind Dwarf Fortress’ position as the 2nd best management game of all time is known only to a select few. Whether you’re allergic to the number 2 or not, you should play Dwarf Fortress right now – it’s one of the most remarkable, complex and unpredictable games ever made, and probably always will be.
Even over a decade on, nothing else drills as deep into the mantle of community-simulation as Dwarf Fortress. Yes, it’s a bear to learn, but the rewards for doing so are off the chart.
Notes: Development began in 2002 and Adams reckons version 1.0 will be ready sometime in the 2030s.
The full name is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, as Dwarf Fortress is a sequel of sorts to a 3d isometric RPG that you can find here.
Where can I buy it: It’s free.
What else should I be playing: “Dwarf Fortress with better graphics” and “Dwarf Fortress with a better UI” are almost genres in and of themselves. Clockwork Empires, currently in Early Access, is promising, while Space Station 13 offers something entirely different but the free-form complexity is reminiscent of the best of Dwarf Fortress. Dungeon Keeper and its sequel might also satisfy your desires.
Read more: Procedural poetry discussion
1. Zeus: Master Of Olympus (2000)
Developer: Impressions Games
By the mid-noughties, most of the perceived 90s wisdom about what constituted a PC game had collapsed – point and click adventures and flight sims had scuttled into niches, the C&C-derived RTS had begun its decline, and KOTOR kicked off a rewrite in what RPGs could be. The Bullfrog-led management heyday was over too: SimCity was all-conquering in terms of traditional city sims, while Black & White was seemingly dragging things in a new, action-hybrid direction, and the bargain shelves were filled with awful, cynical Tycoon games. All of those things have returned in fresher and more ambitious ways now, including management, but there’s a good argument to be made that the first wave reached its apex with Zeus.
Long-term historical city sim devs Impressions had made more games before it and went on to make more games after it, but the 2D, ancient Greece-set Zeus really hits the sweet spot of complexity, accessibly, prettiness and sheer charm. There is war, if war you do want, but really this is a game about making cheese. Also wool, olive oil and theatre. An artisanal colony all of your own. Just watch out for wolves.
Sure, it’s free of the strife and toil of ancient life, in favour of a colourfully genteel take on the pre-tech era, making it a far cry from the psychological exploration and survivalist elements of modern-day management such as Rimworld or Surviving Mars. But it just gets on with being the very best pure town-builder it can, those nerve-calming loops of gentle expansion and efficiency-pursuit. Complex (but approachable) rather than difficult per se, designed fully to be something you lose yourself in rather than dash yourself against the rocks thereof, with a nice line in silly-but-not-too-silly humour too. Management games have nobly struck off in so many new directions now, but Zeus’ take on their economy’n’craft core might just have never been bettered.
Notes: You’ll want the player-made resolution and widescreen fix, available here. It only goes up to 1440p, but still looks great on a 4K screen. (Note that you switch to your custom res in-game by selecting ‘1024×768’ from its options).
What else should I be playing: 2015’s Lethis: Path of Progress was a mostly-noble attempt to make a modern Impressions-type game.
Read more: We have somehow never written about Zeus before, and as such RPS will be deleting itself from the internet in 3…2…1…
The Complete List
20. Transport Tycoon Deluxe
19. The Settlers II
18. Prison Architect
17. Cities: Skylines
16. Evil Genius
15. Championship Manager: Season 01/02
14. Surviving Mars
12. The Sims 2
11. Tropico 5
7. Planet Coaster
6. Stardew Valley
4. Anno 1404 (aka Dawn of Discovery)
3. Dungeon Keeper
2. Dwarf Fortress
1. Zeus: Master Of Olympus
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