We’ve all be there: Standing on the subway platform, watching as express trains go by, feeling sure that the entire system is being operated maliciously just to make us late. But subsume one’s sense of one’s own importance for a moment and think of the collective whole, and the poor people trying to operate all the trains to keep everyone just a little bit unhappy. To help you gain that empathy, try playing Mini Metro, a deceptively simple new game that asks you to design a subway system and make sure you keep citizens moving.
The game, which was built in three days at Ludum Dare, a “worldwide game jam,” isn’t really about subways at all, says Peter Curry, a New Zealand game developer who created Mini Metro with his twin brother: “I think [from playing the game] you can learn a lot about networks in general. You can see how the latency and bandwidth affect efficiency. … It’s easy to identify any problems (you can see the congestion) but determining what to do to fix or avoid it is difficult.”
The game is deceptively simple. Stations represented by different shapes slowly pop up on your screen. You must connect them with colored subway lines. Passengers indicate which shape they want to travel to, and your trains take them there. Lucky for you, at any point, you can dig up your tracks and redraw them.
“You build the network and it runs itself,” says Curry. “You can just sit and watch the trains and commuters go about their business, it’s a little hypnotic. It’s neat to build things.” But don’t get to hypnotized: If too many passengers wait at a station too long, you lose.
The game doesn’t deal with the massive cost and difficulty in actually building a subway (“A slavish attention to realism is the #1 enemy of game design,” says Curry). And urban planners would surely kill for the ability to shift subway lines mid-commute. But the game does give a sense of the trade-offs subway systems must manage to get everyone where they want to go.
It’s done that for Curry, who wasn’t a transit geek before he started the game. Now, he looks at the transportation network in his hometown of Wellington differently: “There’s endless talk about extending the rail network all the way through town to the airport, he says. “The game does get me thinking about the more complex demands of a real-world city.”
What’s the best way to win? Curry says that most of the high-scoring lines involve circles, not a common feature of most American subway systems. Another unique design was a “matrix layout,” he says. “That was designed by someone on a public transit forum who obviously knew a thing or two about the subject.”
Either way, at the moment, your circles won’t last too long: The game hits an “extreme difficulty curve” at around 600 commuters delivered, though the high score currently tops 1,100.
Fixing that is one of the updates the Mini-Metro team is currently working on (in the week I’ve been playing, the game has seen updates giving you unlimited tunnels, but also slowing your trains when they run underwater). The brothers are also working to add a mode where you don’t lose so you can keep a system going forever, as well as real-life maps so players can improve on trains that they actually ride, such as the New York City system. If you want to see even more versions, you can vote for the game to get a much wider audience by getting included on game distribution platform Steam.
Hopefully, the game will still continue to attract regular people to the delights of transit planning: “It’s based on a real-world idea that almost everyone is familiar with has given it a wide appeal we never anticipated. There are very few esoteric facets of knowledge that we expect the player to have. If you’ve seen a subway map, you’ll likely recognize it in Mini Metro.”