Most games hang their hats on their stories or feats of button-dancing reflexes, but the humble simulation has always had a place at the table. And there are a number of weirdly specific and joyfully banal simulation games out there.
The early days of PC gaming were littered with a string of Sim and Tycoon titles, which let you control some complicated system or organization from a macro level. Zoo Tycoon, for example, tasked you with creating a financially solvent zoological park. Rollercoaster Tycoon was similar; just replace “dangerously weak fences on the tiger enclosure” with “untested high-speed roller coaster.”
Will Wright, creator of SimCity and The Sims, tackled the micro scale with SimAnt. The game delivered exactly what it said on the tin: control of an ant colony competing against another ant colony for supremacy of the garden. This was just one of Wright’s and publisher Maxis’ unusual simulation titles from the early 1990s, which eventually encompassed SimFarm (more on that below), SimHealth (a model of the US healthcare system, circa 1994), and SimRefinery (used to explain the complex inner workings of Chevron oil refineries to the company’s managers).
The genre is still kicking; these titles persist even in an age of sprawling, graphics-intensive blockbuster releases.
Even when created to critique or raise awareness, entertainment is escapism, allowing us to explore new worlds and experiences. Video games are no different, letting us take the roles of soldiers, fantasy warriors, and goats.
That’s just one kind of escapism, however. Games like Flight Simulator are grounded (pun intended) in their realism as much as their spectacle. The thrill comes from accessing a world that is true to life, but out of reach for the average person. How many people can claim they have flown the Concorde on a transatlantic run? Even SimCity taps into a fundamental human desire to create and to see our efforts bear fruit.
There’s also a lot to be said about the flow of simulator games. When playing Stardew Valley, for example, it’s easy to fall into a soothing rhythm of caring for your crops: harvest, sleep, repeat. Far from being boring, this kind of repetition creates opportunities to think creatively about efficiency and strategy. The same kind of obsessiveness that drives a person to, say, complete a challenging platformer can easily be turned to managing a soccer team through the financial and social uncertainties of Brexit.
Beyond that, there’s something sweet about an extreme hobbyist who spends months perfecting a model train diorama or guiding trucks safely from Lindz to Berlin. It’s lovely to remember that while bang-bang shoot-shoot titles like Destiny 2 might grab the spotlight, the humble Football Manager is also enormously popular.
With that in mind, we present a (far from complete) list of our favorite extremely niche simulator games. Some we’ve played, some we just marvel at from afar. If your favorite exacting digital recreation isn’t on the list, let us know in the comments.
1 Cities: Skylines
SimCity may be the landmark franchise for the city-building genre, but the blunders of the 2013 SimCity release opened the door for new challengers to the throne. Cities: Skylines can’t quite unseat SimCity’s legacy out of the gate, but it’s a fantastic addition to the genre that has become the de facto city-builder in the years since its release.
The idea is to grow your small town to a buzzing metropolis, monitoring population, happiness, and income. Plan and build roads and neighborhoods with residences, and live the hectic life of a god-like city planner.
The basics for setting up a functional town aren’t difficult to learn, but there are so many different buildings and amenities to master that making a truly efficient city takes time. And that’s before you take aesthetics into account—building a visually stunning city is half the fun. Balancing optimal functionality with visual appeal is an absorbing challenge, as you’ll want to make those sweeping highways that move traffic more effectively look grand, too. The blank canvas of a new file is oddly invigorating, a chance to plan for mistakes that caused problems in your last city.
If you stick with Cities: Skylines and learn to be flexible with the tools, you’ll eventually look back on your first attempts as archaic, and the only limit for your next design is your imagination. Just don’t forget to connect the plumbing.
2 Cultist Simulator
Listen, we all want to bring about the end of days by learning the arcane mysteries of the forgotten powers that live beyond the veil. But who among us is willing to follow the tentacle-drenched edicts, and pay the horrible price for that knowledge? In Cultist Simulator, you will.
This narrative-driven roguelike card game comes from the mind of Alexis Kennedy, whose previous games Sunless Sea and Fallen London mixed humor and horror into enthralling and atmospheric games. Cultist Simulator is more stripped-down than those efforts, but has a similar depth and wit.
The roguelike elements will be familiar to any Sunless Sea players, so be ready to submit to madness. Probably several times.
3 Dog Sled Saga
The frozen wastes near Mount St. Somewhere call to your simulacrum and your digital dog sled team in Dog Sled Saga. The goal of the game is to manage your team of mushers and dogs, learning their unique working styles and growing to become a legendary dog sledder.
Most importantly, you can pet your simulated dogs. This is really the most important part, and makes it the most significant piece of dog-sled related media since the Cuba Gooding Jr. classic Snow Dogs.
4 Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress (or, rather, “Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress”) is a labor of love spanning nearly two decades. You take command of a generational colony of fantasy miners living in a mountain. Construct new mines, dig new tunnels, and keep your dwarves whistling while they work with cats and a healthy family life. And then wait for it to all go wrong.
Dwarf Fortress is known for its incredible complexity and difficulty, where a single mistake can lead to tragedy. Tunneling too greedily and too deep can, for example, accidentally flood your dwarves’ home when you hit some groundwater. Famously unfinished and without an actual winning condition, each game is guaranteed to eventually collapse into spectacular failure.
Dwarf Fortress recently had a Steam release, opening a new chapter for this storied fan favorite. The Steam version ships with a custom tile set, in case you were sick of starring at an ASCII, but appears to stick close to its roots.
5 Euro Truck Simulator 2
Ever wanted to just kick back, relax, and hit the (virtual) road? Euro Truck Simulator 2 offers exactly that, charging you with driving cargo from point A to point B across the European continent. You can customize your vehicle, and even run a business for which you can purchase garages, trucks, and hire drivers. You’ll earn less for picking up scratches and other damage along the way, so try not to get distracted by the beautiful scenery.
Despite those features and goals, it’s really all about the driving, a vehicle sim in the truest sense. Euro Truck Simulator 2 is not a game for high-speed thrill seekers—you’re meant to follow the rules of the road in your huge cargo vehicle—but something to zone out to at the end of a long day. It may sound dull on paper, but its peaceful vibe and the ability to put on some tunes as you cruise the highway make for a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
Finally, a game that delivers on the promise of the masterful Desert Bus.
6 Farming Simulator 19
If you enjoyed Stardew Valley but didn’t like all that pesky relationship and story crap, and you also really love Euro Truck, then consider Farming Simulator 19. Proving that it really does take all kinds, this game lets you tackle a variety of crops (from sunflowers to soybeans to lumber) and bring them to market.
If animal husbandry is more your thing, try raising cows, chickens, pigs, or sheep. You can even tackle the difficulties of modern agrarian life with up to 16 other players in the online co-op mode. This entry in the series offers improved graphics, new locations in the US and Europe, and hundreds of authentic farming vehicles. Farming Simulator also finally lets you keep horses—at last.
If you really love this title, consider dropping an additional $ 250 on Logitech’s custom hardware controllers for the game. If there’s one thing we love more than tediously precise simulators, its tediously precise hardware for those simulators. You may have to wait, a bit though…it’s on backorder!
7 Football Manager 2018
While an interest in football (or, yes, soccer) will go a long way toward enhancing your understanding and enjoyment of Football Manager, it’s one of the most complex simulations of any kind in its own right. An enormous database of players and statistics is the foundation for managing a football club to glory in this text-heavy simulation. You don’t control the players yourself during games, but watch (relatively simple) 3D actions play out from above and issue instructions from the touchline as your players attempt to execute your intricate tactical directions.
Whether you’re managing one of Europe’s elite clubs or attempting to take a minnow to the top division, Football Manager requires meticulous instructions and planning. There’s an almost overwhelming amount of information and data available to you, so it can be intimidating for new players, but there are plenty of satisfying hooks.
As you fight to achieve long-term goals, you’ll seal blow-out transfer deals for stars, snap up young prospects you’ve carefully scouted, claw your way into European competition qualification on a budget, and watch your team score dramatic wins (or concede crushing late goals). You may not play the matches yourself, but with all the planning, hiring, buying, and tactical tweaking you’ll do over the course of many seasons, you’ll feel even more invested than if you were on the pitch. All of these factors combine to build emergent narratives that vary wildly from file to file, giving you limitless ways to experience the world’s most popular sport.
Calling it niche may technically be a stretch, as it consistently ranks among the most played games on Steam, but the barrier for entry (an interest in the sport and learning curve) mean Football Manager is certainly not for everyone.
8 House Flipper
The Great Recession really did a number on all of us, and this House Flipper simulator certainly seems to be a byproduct of that cultural experience. Start by purchasing a dilapidated house (in what appears to be an otherwise nice neighborhood), and then turn it into a dream home for big bucks.
Like the PC building simulator we explore elsewhere, House Flipper seems to put a lot of its stock into agonizing realism. You’ll have to rewire those sockets, change the fuses, and clean the windows before you can hand over the keys to a buyer. But the game also features a dollhouse-like interior design mode. If you’ve ever played The Sims just so you could build a cool house, this will certainly appeal.
If you’re a fan of house flipping and also a fan of Football Simulator, consider the forthcoming Stadium Renovator. It’s just like house flipping, but with way more chairs and AstroTurf.
9 Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes
Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes depicts that tense, Hollywood moment where the hero must defuse a bomb based on instructions provided over radio. Several players have different sets of (lengthy) instructions for bomb defusal that may, or may not, relate to the bomb the defuser sees. The defuser needs to not only defuse the bomb, but describe it adequately so the rest of the players can tell him what to do.
Keep Talking reminds me of Spaceteam, in that it requires participants to communicate in real time outside the game. Also like Spaceteam, the crux of the game is as much about reflexes as it is about communication; each player has some piece of information another one needs. It’s very clever, and worth your time if you’re interested in adding some hilarious stress to your next dinner party.
10 Offworld Trading Company
Dubbed an “economic RTS” by its creators, Offworld Trading Company challenges you to build a Martian colony whose survival depends on its economic success. Buy and sell your way to victory while a real-time commodities market ticks away in the background. This setting makes the forces of unchecked capitalism as deadly as the cold vacuum of space.
Offworld might be one of the more fantastical simulations in our list. As such, it would be easy to discount. But consider that players have to play a StarCraft-style RTS while also watching the price of 13 different resources constantly fluctuate on their screens. If that doesn’t pass the wonkiness threshold for our brand of niche game, we don’t know what does.
11 Papers, Please
The glorious republic of Arstotzka is having a bit of an immigration problem, and it’s up to you, a border agent, to quickly and accurately assess the validity of each visa request in the darkly comedic Papers, Please.
As the political situation changes, so do the requirements at the border crossing. You’ll have to quickly peruse all the documents and decide whether to allow each person to pass. All the while, you need to bring in enough money to feed and house your family, and choose between counterrevolutionary behavior and starvation.
This game will not only challenge your abilities as a player, but also force you to make terrible choices between your personal morals and playing by the rules of the game. Have fun!
12 PC Building Simulator
In PC Building Simulator you build simulated PCs. Hence the name. Choose your components, pick your case, and power on your dream battle station. You want lights? You got it. You want liquid cooling and brand tie-ins from major names in the industry? It’s all here. You want simulated 3D benchmark tests and a repair mode where you run virtual antivirus? That’s here, but why you’re asking about it makes us a little worried.
There’s more than just high-end product-placement wish fulfillment in PC Building Simulator, though. The developer claims that part of the game is to learn about the components and how to actually put them together. It’s edu-tainment!
What we find so intriguing about this particular title is its bewildering reflection-of-a-reflection-of-a-reflection sensibility. The idea of using a gaming PC to build another gaming PC and then boot up that gaming PC to use a simulation of an operating system approaches Philip K. Dick-level absurdity.
RimWorld is a sci-fi colony-building sim, where you must make a hostile planet home for your colonists. Managing a host of eccentric pioneers in an environment trying to kill them may not be everyone’s idea of a good time, but the combination of base building, survival, and emergent narrative elements can prove highly addicting and rewarding. From colonists losing their minds to native creatures destroying all of your hard work, RimWorld will throw a stream of obstacles at you to manage on the fly. Your colonists are not professionals, either, merely stranded and often ill-equipped for what lies ahead.
Deal with relationships, trade, combat, weather, pirates, and more as you create your own (often tragic) story among the stars.
14 Stardew Valley
Following in the tradition of Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley is less a farming simulation and more a soap opera that unfolds as a series of vignettes between your character and the townsfolk of the Valley. The main goals of the game are getting to know your neighbors, and learning their stories. Oh, and getting them to fall in love with you.
Of course, your farm will need tending, too. Plant, water, and harvest, and then change over your crops as the seasons change. Raise chickens, cows, dinosaurs, and ducks. Build pickling barrels and beer barrels to turn raw goods into artisanal products, and try to do as much as you can before the long winter freezes the ground. It’s surprisingly fun, and even more charming.
15 Tech Support: Error Unknown
If you’re intrigued by the meta nature of PC Building Simulator, you’re sure to be thrilled by Tech Support: Error Unknown. This early release title on Steam puts you in the hardest, most dangerous, most high-pressure job in the world: that of IT technician.
Boot up your computer into the fictional SpectrumOS and start your work day of triaging emails, completing request tickets, and being the unsung hero of the office. Or just tell people to try turning it off and turning it back on again.
The developer of this early access game promises the addition of some kind of moral choice architecture where you can join a hacktivist group. Somehow, we find that less enticing than enduring the perils of trying to carry out an email system migration after hours.
16 Trainz: A New Era
If you’re intrigued by Euro Truck, but not interested in the freedom of the open road, then perhaps you’d rather ride the rails with Trainz: A New Era. This title boasts 10,000 routes to traverse, and elaborate real-time physics to model every aspect of the train conducting experience, right down to the “realistic cab sway and external train motion.” Be still, our hearts!
With over 120 locomotives and 600 different types of rolling stock, you can explore many different locations and time periods from steam to modern high-speed rail. Do note that while Trainz includes a garage model mode for Lionel enthusiasts (looking at you, Neil Young!), there are a few games dedicated to simulating model trains. Model Train Simulator 2011 is one such title, although Model Railway Deluxe is billed as “the UK’s best selling model railway simulator.” If you’re intrigued by these train titles, jump the rails and go open-source with the free Open Rails.