Some games make you feel like a powerful warrior. Some make you feel like an authoritative commander. And some games make you feel like an ingenious master of all things mechanical, economical, and strategical. Sound good? Here are the best.
Specifically, we’re talking about “management” games that are more about careful planning and application of resources, rather than direct combat (real-time strategy games like Command and Conquer) or straight-up construction (Minecraft and a million imitators). In these games you’ll have to make constant decisions about how to apply time, money, space, and dozens of other factors to best achieve your goals. SimCity is the classic example, though that game has been surpassed by more complex (and less exploitative) entries in the city building genre.
If you prefer games where you solve problems more complicated than the usual “put bullet in bad guy” or “slide blocks around to move forward,” you’ll love the deep complexity and wide-open freedom of the choices below. Most are for PC, where the indie-friendly environment and keyboard controls are conducive to more complex games, but we’ve included a few console picks as well.
Stardew Valley (PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, iOS, Android)
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then the makers of Stardew Valley must love Harvest Moon to an almost creepy degree. The indie PC game started off as more or less a complete copy of the original farming simulator from back in the SNES days, but has been constantly expanded to add new elements and improvements.
Your simple life as a farmer is mostly about gathering resources to expand your crops, but you can also engage in some light dating sim fun and expanding your animal empire. This game has come out for every major platform, including mobile, and recent expansions gave it support for multiplayer and user mods.
Frostpunk is one of the most original real-time strategy games to come out in years, mostly because the enemy isn’t faceless armies, but a cold and dark landscape filled with humans who aren’t always at their best. The bleak setup is that you’re managing a series of cities in an alternate history England, where coal reserves and massive heat generators are the only things keeping your Victorian-era citizens alive in an unexpected ice age.
You’ll have to manage resources but also deal with real civic problems, like keeping people hopeful during an apparently never-ending ecological disaster and deciding whether you can accept refugees in your already-crowded towns. The game is split up into multiple scenarios that play out as satisfying story chapters. Just don’t play this game hoping for a happy ending.
Offworld Trading Company (PC)
You’ve perhaps heard the term “captain of industry?” Never was it more appropriately applied than in Offworld Trading Company. As the owner of a huge manufacturing corporation on Mars, you’re tasked with both running the company successfully and outperforming your industrial rivals. There are more than a dozen resources to manage and refine as you build products and expand your company, but the real genius of the game is using unconventional tactics to undermine your competition.
You can simply beat them on price by carefully reacting to supply and demand, undercut them on price to take a careful loss while they go out of business, or launch a nuke or two to wipe out their harvesting efforts. You can even foment a worker uprising in their ranks. But be careful: your opponents may have the same tactics available to them. Create a Martian monopoly on manufacturing to win, or lose the confidence of your shareholders to be booted out.
FTL: Faster Than Light (PC, iOS)
A cult hit on the PC and later iPads, FTL tells the story of a spaceship crew running for their lives from a wave of angry rebels. The game uses a roguelike setup: each hour-long playthrough has only a handful of encounters with enemy ships, after which you’ll reach Earth or get your butt blown into the vacuum of space. The management element comes from ordering your crew to keep your ship running during battle and upgrading both ship and crew at each port of call.
You’re always on a desperate budget, so you’ll have to make careful decisions about what you’ll need. Oh, and you’ll inevitably mess that up several times and die. But expanding your access to ship designs and tools opens up all sorts of interesting solutions. Shoot for the enemy’s weapons to disable them, temporarily take down their engines to beat a hasty retreat, or let them board your ship and then open all the airlocks while your crew sips Mai Tais on the sealed bridge? Decisions, decisions.
Prison Architect (PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch, iOS, Android)
If you have fantasies of being a ruthless warden in charge of hundreds of criminals desperately trying to get through an uncaring system… well, then you’re kind of weird. But you’ll also probably like Prison Architect.
As the title implies, you get to design the layout and floorplan of your (ahem) detention center, but once you’re done you also get to run and manage it. You’ll have to hire staff and keep a close eye on the goings-on in order to quell riots and prevent break-outs, even as you’re expanding to add more capacity. You’ll decide everything, from where each prisoner goes to the specific pixel spots for toilets. The main game has a grim but often funny story, while sandbox and multiplayer modes flesh out the replay runs.
Two Point Hospital (PC)
Both a management simulator and a bitterly funny commentary on America’s for-profit healthcare system, Two Point Hospital asks players to keep both the patients and the money flowing. The setup is similar to Prison Architect above, but you’d really prefer your patients to leave eventually, preferably without first being stuffed into a body bag.
Players can build, improve, and expand their hospitals, managing staff and earning money to improve facilities so they can access better amenities and more types of advanced care. It’s a spiritual sequel to Theme Hospital from the 90s, including some of the original development team. A recent release, this one is still adding new features and expansions.
Tropico 5 (PC, Xbox One, PS4)
Tears for Fears says “everybody wants to rule the world.” And in the Tropico series, you can do it—so long as you define “the world” as a tiny banana republic and convince your loving/happy/content/disappointed/rioting subjects that’s true, too. Tropico 5 expands on over a decade of sequels with a new Age of Empires-style time progression mechanic from colonial independence to the information age, new options for diplomacy and trade, and a multiplayer mode that lets you compete with your friends.
And of course, you can send out your guards to murder anyone who dares run against you in the next election. A dynamic series of conflicting interest groups will keep you on your toes—you can’t shoot everyone, after all. You’ll need to keep your population at least somewhat happy if you hope to be able to make that President For Life job last longer than a few years.
Parkasaurus takes the idealized prehistoric zoo of Jurassic Park, subtracts Ian Malcolm’s chaos theory, and adds cutesy googly eyes a la Dinosaur Train. You’ll build a zoo full of exotic prehistoric habitats, fill ’em up with abducted dinos from a time portal, then charge people to see them and make most of your money from concession sales.
You need to keep both the people and the dinosaurs happy, and since this is a game about a dinosaur zoo, of course, you’ll have to deal with the occasional breakout. Gotta keep that visitor-to-victim ratio high! Parkasaurus is available in early access on Steam, so don’t be surprised if it gets some major upgrades before a full release.
Anno 2070 (PC)
Ubisoft’s Anno series started off as city management with a dash of historical fiction, but this entry shifted the setting to the future. In Anno 2070, humans have managed to melt the polar ice caps, so everyone’s pushed into a smaller and smaller amount of land bickering over dwindling resources. You control the tech, environmental, or business faction, all of which jockey for control of the world government in (mostly) non-violent political disputes.
Your management of your mobile base and its occupants will drive world events and determine what new buildings and tools you have access to. The graphics are beautiful for a management game—you’ll need a beefy PC to play—and thoughtful decisions will be rewarded in multiplayer mode. The sequel Anno 2205 expands this system to space travel.
Cities Skylines (PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch)
The 2013 version of SimCity was a pretty huge let-down for fans, with a graphical update but a more restrictive setup focused on online play rather than careful building. Paradox was happy to fill the void with Cities: Skylines, which builds on the formula with even more complex tools and incredibly detailed management. It’s truly a next-gen take on the genre.
Players need to juggle the power grid, sewage, traffic, and all manner of other infrastructure while their city expands from a podunk town to an international metropolis. The building tools, in particular, have gained high praise, allowing players to be disciplined civil engineers or nigh-insane managers who want their city grid to look like a Jackson Pollock painting. You can even add player-built mods on the PC version. Despite these advanced tools, Skylines has been successfully ported to all three major consoles.