You say you're just going to take a break from the school or work day to play "just one level" or "just one hour" of a favorite game. But before you know it, you've lost way more than just an hour.
Fortunately, not every game is designed to grab and hold your attention. These games won't keep you away from your homework—at least, not for long. These idle and management games are perfect to leave running in the background while you write a report or have up on your monitor while you hit the books. Even more handy, several of them are free!
Fallout Shelter puts you in the Overseer's chair to construct a vault room by room, organize expeditions into the Wasteland, and oversee the growth of your population. Vault dwellers have all the standard Fallout S.P.E.C.I.A.L stats, some of which make them better at producing resources like food and water and others that help them defend against rad roach and raider attacks.
Fallout Shelter is great for playing on the side while you work because it only requires a bit of attention every few minutes. In the early stages, you'll need to manually click on rooms that have finished producing food, water, and power to collect them. After completing a few achievements, you'll likely be able to earn a Mr. Handy unit, which will collect those resources automatically. Vaults do occasionally face emergencies like fires and deathclaw attacks, but the sirens are hard to ignore. If you've got your sound on or headphones in, you'll know when to look up and help your dwellers defend themselves.
When you really need a break, treat yourself to one of Fallout Shelter's quests, which are more hands-on than managing the vault. Most quests take a few hours for your dwellers to arrive at, but if you send them off early in the day, you'll be able to start one when you're ready and take a few minutes to guide them through several floors of enemies and loot.
Realm Grinder has as much theorycrafting as some MMOs I've played. If you want to get into that side of it, check out our Realm Grinder guide to get started and learn the lingo. There's plenty of number crunching if you want it, but don't let it scare you off. Like any clicker game, it's easy to get started. In Realm Grinder you start as the ruler in one of six factions each aligned with good or evil. The evil factions (goblins, demons, and undead) are most oriented towards an idle play style where you earn coins based on upgrades that you've bought instead of increasing the coins you earn per click.
Realm Grinder is a great studying game. Not only does it flex your arithmetic skills in calculating upgrades (if you want to get that deep) but it really doesn't require too much of your attention. The endgame for Realm Grinder can get pretty complex if you allow it, but if you just want to mess about and earn a few trophies, you don't need to read up on all the meta strats. The only danger is if you get too into it, you may end up doing speed runs instead of studying.
$2.99 USD | Clicker | Steam
Spaceplan has what few other clicker games do: an ending. A great ending, even. You're lost in space on a potato-powered ship and the only way to find your way back to Earth is to make lots and lots of potatoes. With the help of your onboard AI, a GladOS and HAL 9000 lovechild called the Word Outputter, you'll make starchy creations to power your potato ship as you hop planets and universes on your way back home.
Like most clicker games, you'll spend a bit of time getting set up but Spaceplan quickly becomes a self-propelled machine that generates joules of potato power. Oh, and make sure to turn on the "scientifically accurate mode" which displays your power in joules instead of watts. You were paying attention in physics, right?
Have your sound on while playing Spaceplan because the low-key space soundtrack by Logan Gabriel is absolutely stellar. It's still my go-to concentration music even years later. It will probably take you about a week of casual check-ins to complete and if you enjoy the soundtrack along the way you'll likely love the groovy, cinematic ending.
A Dark Room
Free | Management | Browser
A Dark Room almost defies explanation and demands to be played firsthand. You start off by a dwindling fire and your only option is to stoke it so you won't freeze to death. Before long you run out of wood and need to gather more. Next you wind up building a hut, and then another, attracting more wanderers to your small, budding village. You don't know why you're tending this fire in what seems to be the apocalypse, but you keep taking care of your people, assigning them jobs, and building the village's resources. The story is sparse and vague, but I've been playing for weeks just to see what new vagabonds I can attract and technologies I can find.
Eventually, A Dark Room opens up after you obtain a compass and can leave the small village you've constructed. Like Fallout Shelter, you can go on expeditions in a Dwarf Fortress-like ascii art environment. Venturing further from the village, killing monsters, and finding new resources like iron mines and abandoned suburbs leads to further progress. After finding the right spread of villagers per job to stabilize the resources of wood, meat, and other necessities, it's easy to leave A Dark Room running for hours and come back later to investigate what new mysteries await.
Free | Clicker | Browser
Cookie Clicker is THE classic clicker game. It's still a browser game to this day even though it has developed a lot of pizzazz since 2013. There are animations and screen effects and lots of display options. At its heart though, Cookie Clicker is just about making cookies with milk. You recruit sweet grandmas, build cookie farms, cookie mines, and temples of cookie production.
The first upgrade you can spend cookies on is an automated clicker that does the cookie clicking for you, meaning you can go hands-off very quickly. Although Cookie Clicker has some of the same deep strategy elements as Realm Grinder by storing progress across multiple runs, it isn't nearly as intense. You can pull up Cookie Clicker in a browser while you write a paper and check in on it whenever you remember.
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Lauren started writing for PC Gamer as a freelancer in 2017 while chasing the Dark Souls fashion police and accepted her role as Associate Editor in 2021, now serving as the self-appointed chief cozy games enjoyer. She originally started her career in game development and is still fascinated by how games tick in the modding and speedrunning scenes. She likes long books, longer RPGs, has strong feelings about farmlife sims, and can't stop playing co-op crafting games.