In addition to our main Game of the Year Awards 2021, each member of the PC Gamer team is shining a spotlight on a game they loved this year. We'll post new staff picks, alongside our main awards, throughout the rest of the month.
Mini Motorways is the deceptively manic traffic management minigame of my dreams. Imagine Cities: Skylines condensed to its most basic road-related challenges, except it's based in real-life municipalities, with heaps of smart randomisation and a cutesy, minimal, multicolour aesthetic. That's Mini Motorways.
The game's developer, Dinosaur Polo Club, is constantly adding features and it's seen several great updates since its 2021 Steam debut—just under two years after its initial (frankly criminal) exclusive Mac OS, and IOS release.
As of now, it's jam-packed with functionality and frolics, thanks in no small part to the devs seeming to really listen to their audience—a rare and precious thing in and of itself.
The aim of Mini Motorways, as you may have guessed by the name, is to manage traffic. You start only with Los Angeles, but as you accumulate points, you unlock other cities and move on to more challenging maps. Not only does each map have immense replay value, the devs will issue weekly, even daily, challenge maps to test your skills, with leaderboards to measure your motor-mingling mettle.
When you first jump into a Mini Motorways map, you're met with simple controls and an overwhelming sense of calm. It seems like you're in for a very Zen experience, backed by entrancingly twinkly, musical feedback you get when your citizens reach their destination. Through these soothing sounds and initially gentle pacing, it lulls you into a false sense of security. "I just love drawing little windy roads; this is my happy place... oh look, another cute little house has popped up. Hello, little house," you gush.
But as your city gradually grows from a sparse cluster of homes and businesses into a raging metropolis, prepare to have your brain muscles worked to their problem-solving limits. Without warning, it plonks a building somewhere utterly inaccessible, and now your perfectly considered routes need a rehash—but it all hangs on which feature you rolled the dice on during the last interlude. Your choice of a roundabout over a traffic light, bypass or bridge can be the difference between order and absolute mayhem.
Your salvation? Pausing and night mode... for when you're inevitably losing sleep over the unfathomable routes it tasks you with unravelling. This game has honestly given me a profound respect for people who manage traffic flow for a living.
It's a game that truly tests you, requiring deep levels of planning, resourcefulness, and no small amount of clairvoyance. Outsmarting it feels great, but slip up and your playthrough is entirely crippled. One wrong decision, and you either have to deal with intersections akin to that of the infamous Hanoi, or send your poor commuters on an hour-long diversion through the wilderness—sure, you can rip up the roads and re-lay them more efficiently, but they have to be clear first... and that evil timer ticks ever-faster.
As frantic and stressed as this game makes me, it also makes me feel accomplished. It's like Mini Motorways is actually teaching me important life skills or something, which I was not expecting from a traffic sim. I feel genuinely challenged in my ability to anticipate bottlenecks and plan ahead, and to use limited resources to solve really tricky spatial problems under pressure [frantically scribbles down CV notes]. I also feel empowered to get up and start again when I fail—thanks to every playthrough ending abruptly, in utter bedlam, I always find myself raring to chip away at the problem again; it's not like each game is very long anyway.
"Just one more 10 minute challenge," she says, three hours in, sporting a bloodshot gaze.
For me, Mini Motorways has turned into a safe (and fast-loading) Cities: Skylines practice arena, and my go-to lunch break pastime. Now all I have to do is figure out how to apply my newfound skill set to big-boy city builder games, and I'm onto a winner.
Despite being the weirdly educational game it is, Mini Motorways is the most thrilling traffic manager I've ever played. That's why I've chosen it as my personal pick.