5. The Sims 4
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, or maybe it was deemed too esoteric, too singular, even despite its massive crossover success. Alex Massé’s upcoming Paralives might change all this, but until then, The Sims remains effectively peerless within its honking great niche: undisputed heavyweight champion of the human needs, drives and desires simulation world.
Of course, The Sims might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of traditional management games, but look a little closer and you’ll see it everywhere you look. From managing actual Sims – making sure they get to work on time, don’t get lonely, don’t lose all their friends, don’t run out of money to pay the bills and (most importantly) don’t end up dying – to building homes they can properly navigate, there’s a lot to keep you busy. And don’t accidentally walk away from your PC with the game unpaused. Just don’t do it. Nothing good will come of it.
Life-long Simmers will probably tell you that The Sims 2 is the best in the series, but our resident Sims Queen Alice L swears by The Sims 4. You can buy it, for starters (The Sims 2 never came to Steam and EA have long since withdrawn it from their Origin store), and it’s also got one of the most robust and thriving modding communities around. Plus, it gives you the scope to play The Sims exactly how you want.
One person might make it their personal quest to find all the best ways to kill your Sims, while another’s preferred management style might be creating the most successful lineage in your Sims town. Others might try to run the best restaurant in the biz, or maybe lay claim to the hippest, most happening club in town. There are so many expansions, games, and stuff packs for The Sims 4 that you really can play it any way you want. Is it sometimes too easy? Yes. But that’s where the mods come in, allowing you to make it that much more interesting. There are absolutely loads of them, ranging from mods that add more personality, give more meaningful stories, all the way to adding ultra violence and weird, sexy things. Whoo hoo, indeed.
4. Cities: Skylines
Not so long ago, we’d have picked SimCity 4 to represent modern-but-traditional city builders, but now that Cities: Skylines has 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. It’s 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, from perfect geometrical machines to wonderful recreations of real life locations. It’s like the biggest box of building blocks in the world.
3. Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress is so much more than a management game, 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 3rd best management game of all time is known only to a select few. Whether you’re allergic to the number three 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.
Where can I buy it: It’s free
2. Stardew Valley
All the best management games bring something extra to the core gather/build/grow flow. With Stardew Valley, it’s role-playing. Mostly, you’re diligently plating, tending and harvesting crops, then selling or trading them on, and this gently productive loop is why almost anyone who hears the words “Stardew Valley” will look simultaneously misty-eyed (because it’s such a warm game to be in) and guilty (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 / grow. 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.
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, limitations, specialities, fears, 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 the genius of RimWorld’s genius is how free-rolling and wildly unpredictable it is, and how it quietly writes a new story for you every time you play. Together, they cement its place as the best management game you can play today on PC.
Where can I buy it: Steam