2020 was a pretty good year for management games, but nothing released in the past 12 months has impressed us enough to squeeze its way into our best management games list. Don’t worry, though – it’s only because there are already so many classics to choose from. If you’re looking for something to sink into over the holidays, check out our picks below.
We’ve selected all different kinds of management games below, with something to satisfy you whether you want to run a household, keep colonists sane, process poisonous gases, or obsess over conveyor belt efficiency. The only rule is that it needs to be fun to play right now. That means we’ve excluded some formative classics that feel less easily recommended in 2020 – although you’ll still find a handful of games here that are old enough to drink.
If you’re concerned about the health of the genre given we didn’t elevate anything released this year, watch this video instead. It’s all the management games we were looking forward to at the start of the year, and many of those that came out were as good as we’d hoped. I’m fairly certain some of these are going to be fighting for places on this list as they advance further through early access, or as we spend more time playing them:
Best management games
The list below contains our picks for the 20 best management games to play on PC, split across two pages. You can hit the links to go direct to the write-up of the game in question. If you don’t see your favourite on the list, it must be at number 21. You can write your own entry for the game in the comments, and we’ll consider it for inclusion in a future revision to this list.
Oxygen Not Included | Anno 1800 | Megaquarium | Slime Rancher | Dungeon Keeper | Open TTD | Surviving Mars | Frostpunk | Prison Architect | Tropico 6 | Banished | Zeus: Master Of Olympus | Planet Coaster | Factorio | Two Point Hospital | The Sims 4 | Cities: Skylines | Dwarf Fortress | Stardew Valley | RimWorld
20. Oxygen Not Included
Oxygen Not Included is one of a handful of Dwarf Fauxtress games in this list where you take charge of a small group of hapless people arriving in an inhospitable location, in this case the centre of an asteroid, and you must mine and construct the tools they need to survive. Where it differs from most of its peers is in the engineering rigour it requires from players.
You’ll start by growing crops and turning algae into breathable oxygen, but resources deplete and demands increase rapidly. Block by block you’ll expand to create more space, more resources, and before you know it your colony is a mess of inefficient pipes and wiring, your crops are withering from the heat, and your duplicants are urgently building life-saving machinery while holding their breath inside a toxic cloud. It’s brutal, but it’s also wonderfully engrossing. The challenges feel fair, too, because they all spill outwards from the game’s careful simulation of basic scientific principles.
19. Anno 1800
Anno 1800 is arguably one of the finest city builders ever made. Set in Western Europe during the nineteenth century, this is a game that starts out with idyllic rural farmsteads and ends with the hulking great railways and smoke-pumping factories of industrial commerce. Its early hours may feel overly familiar for Anno veterans, but once you’ve gone full industrial revolution, it really comes into its own. With one island up and running, it’s time to move onto the next, each one coming with its own population, resources and labour requirements. Soon, you’ve got colonies all over the world with ships going back and forth all across the globe.
It gets even better when played with a friend in its multiplayer co-op mode, too. Whether you want to split the load or just really get into the nitty gritty of one colony’s urban development while your partner keeps things ticking over everywhere else, Anno 1800 caters for dozens of different play styles. Or, you can test your world-conquering chops by going head to head with said friend in its competitive multiplayer mode. Whatever you’re after, Anno 1800 has it all.
Fish are magical beings aren’t they? Well, anything that lives underwater is pretty impressive – so obviously, the best thing to do with them is to keep them in tiny little fish prisons so you can gaze longingly at their sweet, gormless faces forever. Megaquariam is a game that’s all about managing an aquarium, from hiring the best staff members to making sure your tanks are the best they can be for your fishy friends. Some fish are bullies, while others are perfectly capable of living in harmony with one another. Others might like rocks, or plants, but mostly, they just want a bit of grub, kept at their optimal temperature, and for the glass to not be tapped.
The people you have coming to your aquarium must also be kept happy or else they’ll leave, get tired, need to pee, or get hungry. Plus, in the spirit of all those Bullfrog management games of yore, you’ll also need to make sure there are lots and lots of bins. People who come to these places don’t just take their rubbish home with them if there aren’t any bins knocking about. They’ll just drop it on the floor, the monsters. Benches, drink machines, toilets, and bins. The only things you need to keep people happy. And the fish, of course, let’s not forget the fish.
17. Slime Rancher
Slime Rancher might look cute on the surface, but beneath its gelatinous, googly-eyed exterior lies a heart of pure chaos. Unlike the beasts you’ll find in other animal management sims such as Planet Zoo or even Jurassic World Evolution, the smiling blobs of Monomi Park’s farming slime ’em up excel at getting themselves into scrapes while you’re off exploring and gathering resources, whether it’s bouncing out of their respective pens and escaping, or accidentally eating the “plorts” (or poop) of other slimes and turning into all-consuming tar monsters. If you’ve ever wanted to experience the anarchic world of rearing unpredictable livestock, then Slime Rancher is the management (or maybe that should be wrangling?) game for you.
Yes, the entire economy is based around the buying and selling of slime manure, but it sure puts a jolly old face on it. It’s this sunny take on the farming games that makes Slime Rancher one of more approachable management games on this list as well. It doesn’t get bogged down in the complexities of slime diets, pen conditions or anything else. All you need to do is make sure all that poop is scooped on a regular basis, because otherwise bad, bad things can happen while you’re away. Still, even if you do come home to find entire sections of your farm have gone up in smoke, one look at a slime’s jiggling grin is all it takes to make everything okay again. You might be starting over, but d’awww just look at their little faces.
16. Dungeon Keeper
Not every horse in Bullfrog’s legendary stable of genre-defining 90s management games stands up well by today’s standards, particularly in terms of interface, and that’s why Themes Park or Hospital of yore aren’t here. Dungeon Keeper sails close to the wind, too, but it remains fiendishly playable, especially if you install the free KeeperFX fan expansion pack which unlocks all sorts of high resolutions and assorted third-party fixes and maps. This game is about building a monster lair, keeping said beasties happy, and ultimately hurling them at invading ‘heroes’.
It might be a bit daft compared to more modern games on this list, but there’s a palpable loneliness to Dungeon Keeper. Its ill-tempered creatures shuffle through dark, rocky tunnels, angrily trying to sleep in their filthy lairs, collect daily pay they have no apparent use for, tinkering away to build traps and spells that only benefit a distant employer and… oh God, the metaphors. Am I… am I a bile demon? But that’s the thing: where so many management games in the Bullfrog idiom were built around a core of pleasing people, this is, frankly, built around abusing them. Be it the monsters who toil and fight endlessly for your gain, or the humans you murder, imprison or torture to further swell your ranks, Dungeon Keeper is a deliciously dark game in a far more profound way than its snickering voice-over.
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.
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 complexities 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, but it has an extra layer of mild moral dilemmas that keep you hooked. 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.