Transport Tycoon Deluxe remains one of our favourite transport management sims, even if the original is no longer available to buy on today’s PC storefronts. Thankfully, we’ve got OpenTTD instead, a fan-made remake of Transport Tycoon Deluxe that expands on Chris Sawyer’s 1994 original by adding more map sizes as well as LAN and online multiplayer that supports up to 255 players.
The isometric countryside and urban landscapes are still beautifully tranquil in OpenTTD – 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 this. 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.
Where can I buy it: OpenTTD
14. Surviving Mars
This red planet colonisation sim has come along way since it first came out in March 2018. Back then, it felt a little bit barebones and kept tripping over its own user interface. Today, it’s a different story. With a greater variety of domes and buildings, a more coherent UI, and the ability to link up your various fragile settlements, Surviving Mars is extremely hard to put down.
The slow growth from a handful of drones laying cables in the dust up to a thriving society of colonists 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.
Most management games are about indulging yourself as opposed to providing a real challenge. 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 where you’re frequently making some absolutely crushing decisions about what you have to 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, and anyone who does not live close to the life-giving heat generators won’t 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.
12. Prison Architect
Theme Hospital might be the first popular management game to dwell on the dark side of profiteering, but 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.
11. Tropico 6
Honestly, throw a rock in the air and just play whichever Tropico game it lands on – they’re all a solid good time 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.
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 toy box 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.
Tropico 6 also finally adds some much-needed spice to this most conservative of management series by stretching out your latest empire across an entire archipelago of islands, switching your traditional goal of expansion for expansion’s sake to something you’re actively striving towards. It’s a small change, sure, but as that old saying goes, even the smallest change can make a profound difference.
Where can I buy it: Steam