Mini Metro is a game that I have come to love to hate. That’s not to say the game is bad, it absolutely isn’t, it’s just infuriating in the best possible way. This is an effect that many of its transport simulation siblings have on me; Cities in Motion drives me absolutely insane but I still come back to it time after time.
While I think it’s Cities in Motion’s complexity that draws me in, it’s Mini Metro’s simplicity that makes it so appealing. This is a game that takes minimalism seriously, being based entirely around the concept of a subway/metro map that anyone who’s visited a major city will be familiar with.
Each of the Mini Metro’s levels is based on a real city’s subway system, with the Thames and the associated colours of lines being accurately depicted if you play in London. The fact it matches colours does tend to have a somewhat subconscious effect on me though, as I find my yellow line becomes distinctly circular, while my red line tends to cut through the center of the city.
At its core this is about creating your own transport map by drawing lines between stations, a mechanic that starts out exactly as simple as it sounds. When you begin to create your network you have just three stations to connect together in a pretty small section of the city, with each station represented by a different shape. You don’t get to place new stations as the game progresses, they’re simply placed for you by the game, no matter how disruptive they are to your current layout.
Disruptive is the operative word there, as the game’s layout algorithm seems to want to annoy you as much as possible. You see, passengers never want to catch a train to the same shaped station as they left from, which means clumps of the same shaped station are very bad. Unfortunately, I always seem to get the top of my map completely dominated by circles, a trait that means I now all hate all circles with a passion. I think perhaps different shapes are meant to represent different things, so I’ve explained the districts of circles away as residential areas in my head, although the game never makes this point explicit to you.
In fact the game never really makes much explicit at all. The control system is so simple and the general vibe so minimalist that there’s not really much need for the game to communicate with you directly, you can grasp everything with a quick bit of experimentation. The game is still in the Early Access phase on Steam so a tutorial may be coming down the line, but I’m not sure one is needed.
Of course while the game’s core ideas are simple enough, the game itself really isn’t. You’ll scale up from your initial three stations pretty quickly, suddenly finding yourself with dozens of stations to manage across multiple lines and wondering what the best way to connect that new system on the other side of the river is.
Ah yes rivers, the other thing I’ve grown to hate. Rivers are tricky. While the game doesn’t practice resource management to anything like the same level as many transport games, it’s still present to an extent, particularly when you’re looking to cross a river. Obviously you can’t just float your rails on the water, so you’ll need either a bridge or a tunnel (which one is used is determined by the city you’re in). However, you only have a limited number of bridges/tunnels so selecting just which lines cross the river and which can get access by interconnecting to another line requires some thought.
Locomotives and carriages are limited resources too, as is the number of lines you have available. Fortunately you can top up each of these quantities by reaching milestones, objectives that are determined by the mode you’re playing. Scenic mode is simple, move enough people and you’ll reach your milestone, earning a locomotive and a choice between two of the other three resources.
Milestone rewards stay the same in Commuter mode, but your goal is a little different. In Scenic mode there’s no fail condition, so your network will continue pretty much indefinitely. However, Commuter mode features overcrowding which, if left unchecked, will force your once beautiful transport system to collapse. Survive another week without it all falling apart and you’ve reached a milestone, but if just one of your stations can’t get passengers away quickly enough then you’re done.and it’s game over.
While Scenic mode is good, Commuter is where the game really shines. The tension it brings to proceedings really adds another dimension, forcing you to tweak and refine your network constantly. Fortunately you can pause the game while you redesign it, but even this breathing space doesn’t do much to relieve the tension. There’s also a Rush Hour mode that’s locked away in the current Early Access build, although developers Dinosaur Polo Club describe it as “the ultimate challenge”, which makes me nervous considering how tough Commuter mode can get.
Mini Metro is a wonderful change from the complexity of your average transport simulation title. While there’s a lot to be said for games like Transport Tycoon or Cities in Motion, there’s so many competing mechanics that it can be tricky to even remember how to play. Mini Metro strips all of this away, focusing on a few simple ideas that build out to create a game that quickly becomes far tougher and more enjoyable than it feels like it should have any right to be.