The 20 best management games on PC

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best-management

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:

89 Comments

  1. monkeybars says:

    Is Zeus really better than Pharaoh was?

    • Archonsod says:

      I think you could pick any of the classic city builders and still argue about which was best (although anyone who didn’t pick Emperor is clearly wrong :P)

      Although I’d also claim Children of the Nile deserves a spot on that list. Possibly the one occupied by Banished …

    • Someoldguy says:

      I’d say it depends which one appeals to you more. I loved building the monuments in Pharaoh (and successor Children of the Nile) but I can see why a case can be made for Zeus or Emperor. They were all excellent. Their style of having crafted maps with mission objectives but a variety of ways of completing them really works for me. Much more so than the games in this list with lots of sandbox freedom but little in the way of management challenge.

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      As I recall, Zeus is like a poor version of the Anno series, which themselves are deeply flawed and not very good games. The basic mechanics feel so unnatural and arbitrary.

      Banished is not a perfect game, but it does the agent-based resource distribution thing in a way that makes sense.

      • Archonsod says:

        They’re only broadly similar in that they both focus on logistics. I don’t think Anno ever did agent based distribution; buildings had an area of effect rather than using agents as such. Anno is more about settling or trading for the right resources and distributing them across your islands (I also wouldn’t say it’s a bad game, though the series has become somewhat marmite-like since they went all futuristic). Conversely I don’t think you could say Impression’s method was arbitrary – there’s something intuitive about building a building then watching it send a worker out on the transport network to do deliveries. It could be a bit contrived at times (presumably the entire economy in classical times was based on door to door sales, given citizens living right next door to a theatre require an actor to pass by and let them know it’s there) but there’s something kind of obvious around ‘if I put the well here then the people carrying water will go down this road’. The earlier games (Caesar I & II) could be a bit puzzling since they lacked a lot of the information overlays added in the later games, but by Zeus that had been fixed (IIRC it’s also the first one that provided road blocks that allowed you to select the type of worker permitted to pass through them).

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      calcifer says:

      It should have at least been mentioned under “what else should I play if I like this?” but yeah, I think Pharaoh (and the Cleopatra expansion) was better.

    • airmikee99 says:

      No, no it wasn’t.

    • Jimbo says:

      Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom is the best one.

      • jigpig says:

        Yes Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom is the last, and best, one.

        Anyone who liked the earlier games should definitely have a go on Emperor — for a long time it was lost and forgotten, but just recently has finally become available on steam.

    • Shushununu says:

      I prefer Emperor: RotMK over the others, but I played through all of Pharaoh before Emperor and did not regret it. There’s something quite serene about the monument construction process.

      Emperor is definitely the most polished game, and it has the all important residential gate/walker access options. For veterans of the earlier games, that may feel like cheating, but I never liked the “either you build with one snake road for walkers or a ton of redundant distribution buildings” from the previous titles.

    • Carra says:

      I prefer Pharaoh. Building the great pyramids and farming at the Nile is awesome. Played it a few years ago and it still is an amazing game.

  2. Fleko81 says:

    Bit confused, the first page says “not in any particular order” but the dwarf fortress entry (at least) is fairly clear about a specific ranking
    Interesting list anyway!

  3. Ludux says:

    ‘You can change pages using the arrows beneath or below the image at the top of each page, or using your arrow keys:’

    What’s wrong with good old fashioned vertical scrolling?

  4. Umama says:

    The Surviving Mars entry refers to Cities XL, which I assume is meant to be Cities Skylines. It also links to “Paradix” (heh heh).

    The Cities Skylines entry suggests keeping an eye on Urban Empire. That game was released a while back, and it was a bit of a disaster FYI.

  5. Aetylus says:

    Is it just me, or does the list seem a bit vanilla? Kind of “20 quite popular building games, plus Championship Manager and the Sims”. Where are the odd-ball choices.

    For instance:
    – Democracy 3
    – Football, tactics and glory
    – Gnomoria
    – Front Office Football 8
    – Ports of Call

  6. Viral Frog says:

    Genuinely surprised that Surviving Mars not only made it to the list, but was rated at a better position than Prison Architect, and that Oxygen Not Included didn’t make the list. I would have put Prison Architect in place of Surviving Mars and put ONI at Prison Architect’s #18 slot.

    • MisterFurious says:

      “These aren’t in any particular order, by-the-by: they are, simply, the 20 best management games. “

    • TillEulenspiegel says:

      Oh yeah, ONI is pretty great and does plenty of unique things. I’ve seen people call it a RimWorld clone, and I can only assume that they never made it past the initial selection of randomized characters, which is about where the nontrivial similarities end.

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        Graham Smith says:

        When I last played ONI it was still crushingly difficult, in the way all Klei games are during their early access phase. Has it been balanced yet?

        • Viral Frog says:

          I’ve just barely started playing it myself, so I can’t honestly attest to how it used to be. But I wouldn’t say it’s crushingly difficult, and I am not at all “good” at management games (I primarily play FPS/Action and turn-based strategy). It could do a bit more to relay information in-game, though. I don’t mind having the wiki open and tabbing over, but a lot of people do mind that sort of thing.

      • MiniMatt says:

        Yep ONI is one of my all time favourites. Definitely ready for contention on all manner of best -of lists.

    • ulix says:

      Still, putting Surviving Mars on the list is seriously strange. It was a huge letdown, just not a good management game on so many levels. They are slowly fixing it, which is good, however it’s still not nearly on a level with any of the other games on this list.

  7. kabill says:

    The “What else should I be playing” section for Dwarf Fortress needs updating – Clockwork Empires was released/abandoned at the end of 2016 and, in the state it was left in, is “disappointing” rather than “promising”.

    • Mr Bismarck says:

      “Clockwork Empires, currently in Early Access, is promising”

      Sadly, the best thing about this game is still the Dev’s blog updates.

  8. Kyle700 says:

    Factorio blows all of the games ahead of it out of the water, completely and utterly. It’s by far the best resource management game ever released, bar none.

    • Kala says:

      /folds arms and looks cross

      Stardew Valley blows all other games out of the water, completely and utterly. It’s by far the best game ever released, bar none.

      • GeoX says:

        [insert game here] blows all other games out of the water, completely and utterly. It’s by far the greatest product of human civilization ever created, bar none.

        • Landiss says:

          Geox blows all other commentators out of the water, completely and utterly. He’s by far the greatest product of Internet ever created, bar lolcats.

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      Aerothorn says:

      You realize the list isn’t ranked, right?

    • Evan_ says:

      Factorio is my 2nd most played game from the decade. The first is KSP, and that’s no management game. Therefore I conclude, that Factorio is the best management game for me.

      Q.E.D.

  9. Crafter says:

    Honestly, I don’t even want a Dungeon Keeper remake, the game is almost perfect as is.
    All I want is :

    – a drag to draw way to create a room .. UI has come such a long way since the game’s release.

    – maybe a new campaign ? but just fixing the UI would be more than enough for me to plunge again.

  10. Premium User Badge

    calcifer says:

    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

    Yeah, well that’s just, like, your opinion, man. I’d say Sim Theme Park / Theme Park World still holds up well given its age.

    • Raoul Duke says:

      Ew. Theme Park World was utterly godawful. The original, however, should be on the list for its beautiful (pixellated) graphics, its great audio, basically defining most of the concepts we still have in these games today, and because IMHO it is the most perfect of the Bullfrog games.

  11. LewdPenguin says:

    Whilst it doesn’t stand quite well enough on its own to merit an entry to itself, I think Transport Fever could do with being added to the ‘What Else’ section for Transport Tycoon Deluxe, simply because it’s elevator pitch would pretty much just be “TTD but in a 3d engine” and it whilst I could write a few pages on all the things it does wrong or could have improved about it, overall TpF fixes enough of the flaws evident in its rather rushed and half-done predecessor that it really does work for filling the same spot as TTD in giving you a world of stuff that needs moving, then leaving you to figure out how you want to try and do it.

    • onodera says:

      And Mashinky. I found TF to be too German to be fun. Mashinky uses a grid like TTD, so the building process is less tedious and error-prone.

  12. DodoSandvich says:

    Does game dev tycoon belong on this list? It’s quite unique, though very much a game of hitting what the creator is thinking is good.

  13. BlacKHeaDSg1 says:

    Planet Coaster is not a management game, it is mostly sandbox creation thing which bugs me a lot (kinda thinking refunding it). It does have some basic stuff but not as much as RCT 1, 2 and 3. It is bare bones as Jurassic World Evolution. Also you kinda forgot about Cesar, Pharaoh, RCT (1,2,3), Chris Sayer Locomotion, Industry Giant, Stronghold, Theme Hospital …..

    • Vinraith says:

      Yeah, the lack of management depth is a great source of disappointment for me too. I was really hoping that with time some more development would take place there, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely.

    • Landiss says:

      Main reason why I didn’t get it. Somehow people seem all obsessed with the visual customization part, in the new rollercoaster-like games, while the management is mostly ignored.

    • Carra says:

      Yeah, roller coaster tycoon 3 or 3 are better games. Real games.

      And no need to put Caesar in it if you add Zeus. They’re all quite similar.

  14. Vinraith says:

    This is a genre I love, so it’s kind of a shame that two of the top games here (Prison Architect due to its subject matter, and RimWorld due to its author being a horrible person) are things I would never, ever play.

    In case anyone’s forgotten about RimWorld’s author, by the way, their response to this article(far more than the article itself, mind) put me off Ludeon Studios forever.

    • GeoX says:

      Sylvester and his fan base violently overreacted to that article, but declaring him, therefore, “a horrible person” is its own species of violent overreaction.

    • Lumière says:

      It seens we have similar views about ethics in games, I too didn’t play Rimworld for the same reason and were very concerned about Prision Architect because of its subject. But after reading a lot about the game, watching the developers logs and some let’s plays, I bought the game, played about 80 hours of it and enjoyed every minute, without concerns. The dark part of the game isn’t there for the players enjoyement, it critizes the prision model that treats people as money source. The game give you the choice to be evil, sure, but you’ll acomplish a lot more doing the right things. Even so, I still refused to create death row in the prisions I constructed, and the game also gave you this choise without punishing the player in any way.

      • Vinraith says:

        Yeah, I’ve gotten that sense from others as well, and I appreciate the elaboration. Honestly though? Even if it’s handled well, it’s just not something I want to spend my gaming time engaging with. The real world is depressing enough (especially lately).

    • Crafter says:

      That seems like a gross over-reaction (but hey to each their own).

      As I see it, Tynan did not give much thought about how to modelize romantic relationship and wrote the first thing that worked well enough for the purpose of an alpha.

      By doing so he coded his own biases and got called for it in this article. His initial reaction was pretty much one of the worst responses he could have given and I think we would have avoided this whole thing if he has just sat down, admitted this system was a bit shit, and spent a day or two improving it (he ended doing it anyway).

      But I don’t see how that makes him an horrible person. You are over reacting even more than him :/

      • Vinraith says:

        As I said, it’s not the content of the article, it’s the comment he made below it.

        • Cinek says:

          From his comment:

          Also, this system is just something slammed together to get the game working in a basic way. It’s just barely functional enough to fill its role. It’s never been intended as any kind of accurate or even reasonable simulation of the real thing.

          Oh, the horror. Looks like the “guilty” one is not the Rim World dev, but rather Claudia trying to paint a picture of something out of nothing. Yea, yea, there are some biases there based on author’s personal experiences or what not, but it doesn’t matter, it’s just shit placeholder that had less time spent on it that Claudia did writing the article.

          It’s silly affair that never should have happened. A non-topic, really.

      • modzero says:

        Tynan did not give much thought about how to modelize romantic relationship and wrote the first thing that worked well enough for the purpose of an alpha.

        He pretty much said it was a result of his “research.” He also supported certain movements in the past, with public comments in favour of them. He might have realised it’s bad publicity, but that code was not some random blip. It also wasn’t “hastily thrown together,” he actually made effort to add the bigoted details.

    • Evan_ says:

      I think you are snobbish. Hope the British chaps will correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that’s the word for praising or condemning things based on properties that only very loosely effect the enjoyment value.

      If I found such boundaries in myself, separating me from any great content, I’d make it a priority to demolish those. We don’t benefit from the barriers we erect in our minds.

      • Highlandcoo says:

        *british voice* You rang sir?

        Snobbish usually means looking down on others for enjoying or taking part in something you dont enjoy or like. For example:
        “I dont like football, and anyone who does is a fool”
        .. the important distinction is that it has an element of class or wealth about it, ie: you only like or dislike it based on how you percieve yourself or your relative wealth.

        Phew, there see? Easy!

  15. Lumière says:

    “What else should I be playing: SimCity 4 is still worth a look, and keep an eye on Urban Empire.”

    It appears this segment of the Cities Skylines text was wrote before Urban Empire was launch, as RPS has already reviewed the game and, overall, the opinions about it are most negative.

  16. mpk says:

    I heart Banished. I’ve always thought of it more as an ant-farm than a city builder, but at times it’s also like a proper, eye-in-the-sky god game, if God only had the gift of building two types of house.

    The people in your town decide what jobs they’re going to do, where they’re going to live and who they’re going to live with, and you can make stories from the names that appear in each home, but all you can do is watch.

    You can build paths, but you can’t make people use them. It’s very wossname. Metaphorical.

    • Archonsod says:

      I think the main issue I had with Banished is that it is too much of an ant farm. Once you’ve figured out how to build a working town there’s not much else to do, and there’s not really enough in there to make getting to that point interesting. I suspect it’s probably something the modding community has fixed by now, but I’ve never been a big fan of the ‘here’s the bare bones, let the modders sort the rest out’ school of design.

  17. Neurotic says:

    Startopia! Lovely. :)

    • Vinraith says:

      I love Startopia but realizing that none of the workers draw salaries kind of broke it for me – it’s basically impossible not to turn a profit.

      Easily the most charming simulator ever, though.

  18. JaminBob says:

    This is the genre that got me into pc gaming (well, and doom). Still dipping into open Transport Tycoon every year or so all these years later.

  19. Oasx says:

    Why is Dungeon Keeper on the list instead of Dungeon Keeper 2? Isn’t the sequel pretty much superior in every way?

    • Evan_ says:

      The first Dungeon Keeper’s later maps were -very- challenging, thus much fun to complete. It even had an expansion ‘Deeper Dungeons’ that was almost more like a puzzle-game – if you used wrong pieces, or wrong order, you lost.

      Dungeon Keeper 2’s campaign felt like a tutorial in comparison. I was waiting for the actual game to start when it ended.

  20. Vastial says:

    Surviving Mars higher than Cities Skylines?…

  21. skyturnedred says:

    You completely forgot Theme Hospital.

    • Themadcow says:

      Check the Dungeon Keeper page.

      In other news, well done RPS on picking CM01/02. Some odd people still think versions made after that one are worth playing…

  22. Veles says:

    Good to see some of the old classics on there.

    I think I can thank Settlers 2 for sparking my love of video games. Turning it from something I like to something I love.

    Anno is an essential series and I think 1404 is probably the best one out of the ones I’ve played.

    Surprising to see so many modern games on there. You’d think that the genre had kind of died a bit (from being on of the most popular genres in the 90s) but actually there’s quite a lot of great new management games coming out.

  23. Cinek says:

    Surviving Mars (14) before Cities Skylines (17)? What kind of absurdity is that? Hilarious. Surviving Mars doesn’t come remotely close to Cities Skylines, it’s a below-mediocre game. I’m surprised to even see it on this list in a first place.

    • N'Al says:

      Good on you for reading the article.

      • airmikee99 says:

        Hey, come on, give him a break. It’s one sentence at the very end of the article in a paragraph of it’s own. Why bother reading when we can have kneejerk emotional reactions to what boils down to our own ignorance.

  24. Avioto says:

    There’s plenty of arguments to be made why Planet Coaster is a really bad management game. That was the most disappointing thing about it for me and a lot of other people, especially coming from the creators of RCT3.

    • Cinek says:

      It’s coming from Frontier, at no point there were good in creating deep games. Very wide – yes. But next to no depth.

  25. airmikee99 says:

    I can’t trust a ‘Best Management Game’ list if the author still hasn’t played Sim City 4.

    I wish I could find the desire to try Cities:Skylines, but the absurd amount of DLC makes that unlikely to ever happen. $51.40 for the entire game after a 58% discount? It’s a shame that EA/Maxis fucked up Sim City 5 so hard, otherwise Paradox’s colossal wallet pilfering would have never existed.

    • Aetylus says:

      With zero DLC Cities Skylines is the best city builder ever.
      You can buy it sans DLC for about the price of a nice sandwich right now.
      And instead you lament a 15 year old game that isn’t as good as Skylines anyway?
      You do you. But you is missing the fun.

      • airmikee99 says:

        I’ve seen what the Cities:Skyline base game can do, and it’s nothing compared to Cities XXL in terms of city building. Even with some of the DLC’s the largest C:S metropolis is minuscule compared to the megalopolis’s I’ve built in XXL: 14,000,000 citizens in 110 square kilometers, the entire map border to border covered in urban sprawl. It would be the sixth largest city on the planet, and the #1 city in population density. Adding in the six trading cities connected to it would make it more populous than the Tokyo Metropolitan area.

        C:S is a better management game, but it’s a weak city builder in comparison to XXL.

    • Evan_ says:

      I was seriously surprised how can anyone mention Sim City since Cities: Skylines is a thing. Good that the second sentence explained it.

      Yeah, get only the base game. You’ll buy all the DLCs too. Not out of need, but out of respect.

      • airmikee99 says:

        I’ll pick up the GOTY or Complete edition when it’s on sale later, but I *DO NOT* respect Paradox, and I give them the barest minimal financial support in return.

  26. Bull0 says:

    Planet coaster is barely a management game. It’s barely a game to be honest. Neat set of tools, yes.

    • shrieki says:

      missing the old pizza syndicate. (aka fast food tycoon?)it was so awesome. i managed to play that without a tutorial and it took weeks to find out how it all works – a thing that nowadays would be a big no-no but back then it was part of the fun. apart from making awesome pizza you could put cockroaches into opponents restaurants, poison their food-supplies and even send out your thugs to rob banks and make prison-breaks etc. the game had so much going on and probably the craziest ui ever. totally loved it- sadly i hear the 3rd installment is a turd.

      and Pharao is for me still the best building game ever. nothing in the last 20 years came ever close to the satisfaction of building pyramids – stone by stone ! – in that game. never played Zeus or any other game of the series because i just kept playing Pharao.

      and dungeon keeper 2 was much more fun to me than the first.

      this lists always make me want to protest o much !! i get all triggered !! it´s good for morning exercise :D

      nice lists !

  27. Gibbonius says:

    This was my genre as a wee kid, and yet there are some titles here that I’ve never even dabbled in (Pharaoh/Zeus). I’m looking forward to trying OpenTTD as I loved the original. Stardew is a beautiful time-sink if anyone is still on the fence.
    Did anyone play Free Enterprise? Not sure it was much good but I definitely gave it a lot of my time.

  28. geldonyetich says:

    Having recently given Evil Genius another spin, it hasn’t aged particularly well. It has a unique flavor, and creativity counts for a lot, but it’s generally a very awkward to play game with balance issues galore.

    I don’t think there’s anything Sims 2 did that Sims 3 didn’t do better. (Wish I could say the same about Sims 4, which lost a lot of appeal to the emotions’ gimmicky implementation and the complete and regrettable lack of simulating the entire town. These poor choices were the end of Maxis, and EA/Origin management interference were probably at least partially responsible for them.)

    It’s kind of funny to see Transport Tycoon and Planet Coaster there without the superlative Roller Coaster Tycoon (especially 3) among their ranks.

    These sound frighteningly like opinions. Where’s the robotic complete objectivity we demand from our increasingly post-modern world?

  29. quasiotter says:

    I’ve never understood why anybody would see these games as anything other than chores… but then I realized that my personality type doesn’t fit management in general. Sounds weird but I’m grateful to find a bit more about myself through an article I have no interest in?

  30. dongsweep says:

    Wish they would make a Gangsters: Organized Crime type game in 2018.

  31. Carra says:

    Ah, a take at my favorite genre. Currently playing prison architect again. Plenty of new stuff to play around with since the last time I played it.

    I agree with most of the list. Youll have hundred of hours of fun playing these.

  32. Deathloaf says:

    I can’t believe that ‘Constructor’ wasn’t even mentioned on this list as it just received an HD re-release. Still a bit janky, but it’s yet another rare game that wants you to play as the seedy underground shyster you really are.

    Also funny story about Pharaohs.. One of my friends disapeared from school for around 3 weeks.. Getting worried, we all started knocking at his door. Only to find out he hadn’t left the house in that whole time or slept, he was determined to get those pyramids built!

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