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.
9. Zeus: Master of Olympus
Zeus: Master of Olympus might be as old as its Ancient Greek hills, but this 2D, historical city builder continues to hit the sweet spot of complexity, accessibly, prettiness and sheer charm. There is war if you want it, 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. And there are puns. Lots of Ancient Greek puns.
You’ll want the player-made resolution and widescreen fixes if you’re planning on playing it today, but it remains an absolute delight to play. Sure, it’s free of the strife and toil of ancient life, in favour of a colourfully genteel take on the pre-tech era, and it’s 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, Zeus is designed 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. Plus, these days it’s often bundled together with its Poseidon expansion pack, which adds in classic monsters to contend with, as well as mythological heroes you can send to dispatch them. What more could you possibly want?
8. Planet Coaster
The true heir to the Rollercoaster Tycoon series, Planet Coaster is a 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 its Steam Workshop support, 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. Its construction tools are delightfully accessible, and you’ll be able to coax meaningful results out of them very quickly indeed.
Keeping your guests happy and the coffers overflowing is still a fundamental part of the game, though, 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam
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 with it to its 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 into it. 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.
6. Two Point Hospital
Two Point Hospital is a hectic hospital management sim, but it’s immensely satisfying at the same time. When you finally get a brief window of respite, you expand, create new problems, compensate for those problems, and are able to enjoy watching the machine operate as smoothly as it’s ever going to. Then it will throw a helicopter full of patients convinced they’re Freddie Mercury at you, and suddenly the game’s jaunty radio jazz transforms into a mocking dirge that guffaws at your efforts to maintain control.
Two Point Hospital is a business sim first. It’s about staying afloat, whether that be through fleecing your patients or by building your reputation as the best hospital around. It can often be just as entertaining when you’re failing, though. Since it balances visual chaos with workable, informative interfaces, you can nearly always find out what the problem is with a few clicks. You can also choose to completely ignore those problems so patients die and you get to watch the little animation where your janitor chases their ghost around with a mini-vac.
It’s as colourful as it is compulsive. It celebrates the legacy of Bullfrog (creators of spiritual predecessor Theme Hospital) even as it vastly improves and expands on so many elements. Want some light social commentary on the machine-like nature of public services that prioritise efficiency over patient well-being? It’s got that! Want some toilets made out of solid gold and DLC that lets you save Christmas with a Yeti? It’s got that, too.
Where can I buy it: Steam