Most games hang their hats on their stories or feats of button-dancing reflexes, but the humble simulation will always have a place at the table. Sure, you can enjoy the most realistic flight simulator ever created, or you can relax and (perhaps) enjoy some far more unusual offerings.
Complex simulations and PC gaming go together like bread and butter. People of a certain age will no doubt recall the many Sim and Tycoon titles that let you control a complicated system or an 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.”
But this genre has always had a streak of the bizarre. Will Wright, creator of simulation genre defining titles like SimCity and The Sims, also tackled the microscale with SimAnt, the agrarian with SimFarm; the state of the US healthcare system in 1994 with SimHealth; and the complexities of Chevron oil refineries with SimRefinery.
Even when created to critique or raise awareness, entertainment is escapism that lets us explore new worlds and experiences. In video games, we can explore the roles of soldiers, fantasy warriors, and goats.
That’s just one kind of escapism, however. Games like Microsoft 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. While not everyone has aspired to pontifhood, the forthcoming Pope Simulator is sure to find some kind of audience.
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 Fortnite 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, most we just marvel at from afar. All of them are weird and beautiful in their own way.
Billed as “the most realistic flight simulation ever created,” Airplane Mode promises all the thrills of a long-haul flight. You can look out the window, work on a crossword puzzle, read the book you brought, and even watch movies on the screen in front of you. The only unrealistic part is that the seat directly next to you isn’t taken.
Of course, no game is complete without some kind of adversarial threat. The developer promises randomized events each time you play. You’ll have to endure the agony of bad Wi-Fi, the mild inconvenience of delays, and the annoyance/empathy of listening to a crying baby.
Given that COVID-19 has made the already stressful flying experience an actively dangerous one, this game seems almost pleasantly nostalgic. It might even be useful as a quarantined population prepares to reintegrate into society.
The Bee Simulator trailer opens with a powerful promise: Become a bee. What more could you ask for? Bees are great! They pollinate, they make honey, they live in cool hives. In Bee Simulator, you’ll do all that and help your extended bee family grow. Plus, you get to look at a cute, fuzzy, lil’ insect for the whole game.
You can become a bee on most major platforms. PC players can purchase this swarming adventure from the Epic Games store.
The name says it all. In The Bus, you take to the streets of Berlin aboard a hulking omnibus, retrieving and depositing passengers around the city. In addition to driving, you also manage routes and timetables for a bit of a Football Manager vibe. Except instead of soccer games, you’re driving a bus through AI-traffic amidst changing weather and seasons.
The game boasts of its incredible bus detail, down to the ticket taking, but the developers seem just as proud of the virtual Berlin they’ve created. The game’s trailer features lovingly rendered shots of famous buildings and landmarks, bathed in digital magic-hour sun. If you’re tired of being quarantined, perhaps you should get on The Bus.
This game is currently available via Steam Early Access. Or, if you’re more historically minded, explore SimBus‘ classic models.
SimCity is the landmark franchise for the city-building genre, but the blunders of its 2013 SimCity release opened the door for new challengers to the throne. Cities: Skylines will probably never unseat SimCity’s legacy, 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. Recent expansions have added more mass transit options, the world of industry, and harbors.
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.
The frozen wastes near Mount St. Somewhere call to your simulacrum and your digital dog sled team in Dog Sled Saga. The game’s goal 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 Cuba Gooding Jr.’s classic Snow Dogs.
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. 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. Fortunately, the game seems to embrace its own glorious absurdity. With a release date of “time is subjective” and features like “Now with graphics!” the game’s Steam page seems to know exactly what it’s doing. Especially intriguing are two new game modes that may give a little more shape to this endless experience.
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.
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 indulge in the pleasures of agriculture from the comfort of your gaming chair. .
While the game is built around raising crops and the equipment for doing so, you can also dabble in animal husbandry and try raising cows, chickens, pigs, sheep, and (at long last) horses. You can even tackle the difficulties of modern agrarian life with up to 16 other players in the online co-op mode.
If you really love the experience of piloting authentic farm vehicles across locations spanning the US and Europe, consider dropping an additional $250 on Logitech’s custom hardware controllers for the game. Yes, it’s finally back in stock! If there’s one thing we love more than tediously precise simulators, it’s tediously precise hardware for those simulators.
Keeping fish is an enormously rewarding experience. Under your care, your fishy friends can frolic in their watery abode, but they can also die in some unexpectedly horrific ways, such as (but not limited to) being consumed by fungus, or leaping from the tank and being mistaken as a discarded banana by an innocent child.
The pleasure of Fishkeeper, available soon on Steam, is that you get all the fish with none of that heartache. Set up your dream aquarium, and stock it with the most fascinating of fishes. Entertain your aquatic comrades with plants, various trinkets, corals, shrimp, and much more besides. It’s a bit like a model railroad, except with fish instead of trains.
One innovation we’re excited about is a virtual RC submarine you can use to explore your aquarium in the first person.
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, you’ll find this game appealing.
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.
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 us 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 person 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.
Spend any amount of time in a major city and eventually you will find yourself staring at the train map and know, deep in your heart, that you could have done a better job designing this system. Friend, NIMBY Rails is for you.
In this game, which is currently available on Steam through its Early Access program, you redraw the rail system for any locale you desire. Reimagine Detroit as a utopia of public transit. Connect nations with high speed rail. Finally make a way to get from Astoria to Williamsburg without going all the way through Manhattan (the G train does not count, do not @ us). NIMBY rails will also put your creation to the test with virtual riders and simulated peaks and valleys of demand throughout the day.
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 you must play a StarCraft-style RTS while also watching the price of 13 different resources constantly fluctuate on your screen. If that doesn’t pass the wonkiness threshold for our brand of niche game, we don’t know what does.
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 must quickly peruse all the documents and decide whether to let each person pass. All the while, you must 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 game rules. Have fun!
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.
The forthcoming Pizza Simulator (available soon on Steam) starts with a pretty simple and familiar formula: you’re running a virtual restaurant, fulfilling orders for your virtual customers. We all remember how this works from the numerous restaurant games that graced the early days of mobile gaming. Pizza Simulator, to its credit, plans to go beyond the standard one-dollar cheese slice, however.
The trailer pauses briefly on the pleasures of customizing furniture and crafting the perfect made-to-order pie when your peace is disturbed by an act of apparent sabotage. What’s an aspiring pizza tycoon to do? Chuck a stink bomb into the kitchen of a rival, obviously. And somewhere between these acts of small business management and vengeance, you’re apparently going to deliver pizzas, as well. Of course, this title’s success will likely depend on whether or not it includes Chicago deep dish, the superior pizza format.
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 throws 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.
Like some kind of horrific mashup of QWOP and Octodad, Speaking Simulator challenges you to behave normally. That should be easy, because you definitely are not a robot trying to blend in with humanity. You definitely do not have a mechanical head that’s barely capable of producing speech. Everything is fine!
If you enjoy the challenge of hitting just the right button with your tongue, you can take Speaking Simulator mobile on the Nintendo Switch.
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.
If you’re intrigued by the meta nature of PC Building Simulator, you’re sure to be thrilled by Tech Support: Error Unknown. This simulation puts you in the hardest, most dangerous, most high-pressure job in the world: 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. There’s more to this than just keeping the network running. The developer says you can attempt to take down your employer from the inside, or expose a hacktivist group that has targeted your company. It’s an intriguing idea, one that can apparently yield one of 20 possible endings, but we really dig enduring the perils of trying to carry out an email system migration after hours.
If you’re not interested in Euro Truck’s open-world freedom, perhaps you’d rather ride the rails with Trainz Railroad Simulator 2019. This title contains 130 locomotives out of the box, six routes to traverse, and regional bundles for that local flair. Best of all, Trainz supports the $199 RailDriver Desktop Train Cab Controller. Be still, our hearts!
It probably will not surprise you to learn that there are several venerable train simulators out there. The aptly named Train Simulator 2021, for instance, bills itself as the “ultimate railway hobby.” If you’re intrigued by these train titles, jump the rails of capitalism and go open-source with the free Open Rails.
If other city-planning games feel too samey and dull, spice things up by nationalizing all private industries. Workers and Resources is a Steam Early Access title that lets you take control of a planned economy. Sure, you can construct buildings and roads and all the standard city sim stuff, but in Workers and Resources the developers say you can manage everything from agriculture to wiring to traffic. You want Brutalist architecture? Buddy, we got Brutalist architecture.
Its promotional materials have Dwarf Fortress levels of ambition. “Most complex and complicated city builder you’ve ever seen,” crows the game’s trailer. “An original theme that would be too risky for any other studio or publisher to develop,” it continues. We should note that while these statements may be true, they do not necessarily mean that the game is fun.
Just remember that in Soviet Russia, PC simulates you!