When Apple launched the Apple Arcade program in 2019, there was a lot of coverage about the individual games on the service as players went through all of the offerings with a fine-toothed comb. Among the small pile of puzzle and arcade titles, one that stood out was Mini Motorways from Dinosaur Polo Club. A stylish and minimalistic city-building simulator, perfectly executed on your phone. But for those of us who don’t wish to stare at our phones all day, Mini Motorways is being released on PC via Steam, and the move to a larger screen has highlighted the care and quality of the title.
In this procedural sim, players are tasked with laying road and traffic obstacle tiles across the expanding map in order to connect houses with their matching workplaces. If all of the red houses can make it to the red office, you’re golden. But if blue or green cars are causing a traffic jam, you might need to lay some alternate routes between neighborhoods.
STORY – NO PARKING
Let’s get this out of the way: this game doesn’t have a story. The simple narrative framing that does exist is implied, in the way that one understands that people leave their homes to go to work (something that has changed during the COVID-19 pandemic). As discussed above, houses, cars, and businesses are color-coded, providing an easy-to-understand objective for players. The little cars follow their little routes and stop in their little parking spaces, doing their best.
During moments of traffic congestion, the tiny cars will honk aggressively at each other, just like in real life. However, there aren’t any instances of road rage; the worst that can happen is that cars may be late for work. Each office space has a timer mechanic that will alert you when there’s a problem with a certain color getting across the city.
Mini Motorways is a simple puzzle game, so it’s fine that there isn’t a deep storyline. But, I was impressed to discover the well-designed world-building. Each level is modeled after a real-world city, each with its own milieu and methodology. For example, the Zürich map will require running tunnels through the mountains and bridges over the Limmat river in order to keep the traffic moving. Manila, “the most densely populated city in the world”, will see homes spawning closer together, resulting in much more neighborhood management.
The way that the developers decided to base scenarios on offline cities was a really great addition, and one they definitely didn’t need to include. But the Los Angeles level really does get riddled with traffic jams, just as it does in the real world. By showcasing the differences in cities around the globe, Dinosaur Polo Club has managed to make things easier for themselves when it came to level design.
In addition, the team was able to showcase the challenges of transportation that we encounter with different population densities across geographical locations. None of this was something that I expected to find in such a straight-laced puzzle title. If the gameplay is solid, storylines rarely mean much, especially when it comes to titles designed originally for mobile platforms.
After a decade of will they/won’t they, it seems like mobile games have finally become successful and accepted enough. No longer are extensive mobile narratives a constant news item; it’s now commonly understood that story isn’t always what pushes a title along. Mini Motorways does a fantastic job of avoiding the need for a plot while giving us the framework of the real world, and I think that’s more effective than spending time on a storyline. We understand our role as city planners, and the tension of failing our citizens is just as real as it would be if they had names and faces.
GAMEPLAY – SLEEK AND SMOOTH
Due to its history as a mobile title, the actual moment-to-moment gameplay is clean and uncomplicated. You’re initially presented with a small map with one house and one business. By dragging roads from the houses to the offices, cars are able to commute to work, and more buildings spawn every few minutes. The game runs on an accelerated weekly schedule, with an option to increase the speed if you want something a bit faster-paced.
Each in-game week, you’re presented with a few options of tile options that give you more control over the city. These can be tiles such as bridges, tunnels for boring through mountains, roundabouts, traffic lights, or even highways. In a way, the method of acquiring new tiles makes Mini Motorways remarkably similar to a rogue-like card game, such as Slay the Spire. You’re only given a couple of options each week, so ensuring that you have the right tiles to overcome an obstacle (or even have enough roads) is a key part of the strategy.
There aren’t a ton of levels to complete – it’s an arcade game, after all – but the eleven cities that you are tasked with managing are each unique enough to warrant different maneuvering, but similar enough to maintain the level of involvement and entertainment. Los Angeles will offer more highway tiles, forcing players to build a crisscrossing web of roads over the city to ensure success. On the other hand, Zürich offers up both mountains and the Limmat river as obstacles, which will both require different tactics to overcome.
Keeping an eye on the hustle and bustle of the city is also important because eventually, you will fail. The goal is to see how many days your city can successfully run without any loss of work, which becomes harder the more distance your vehicles need to travel to get to the office. Ensuring that there are alternate routes out of neighborhoods and carefully using tiles like streetlights are going to be important to obtaining the highest score possible. As time goes on and the map gets more chaotic, patience drops, and tiles become much more precious.
The simplicity of touch screen controls has transferred incredibly well from mobile to PC. Strategy games, with their lack of real-time action and general emphasis on grids, are possibly more apt to port better than some other types of games to survive the platform shift. Controllers are supported, but I had a better experience with a keyboard and mouse. Your experience, of course, may vary.
GRAPHICS/AUDIO – A LITTLE LOVELY LAYOUT
The art style is, in one word, stunning. High-contrast pastels with light and dark modes, Mini Motorways looks beautiful even on a large, stretched-out monitor. With simple graphics and a low level of detail, it would have been easy to write the game off as a simple arcade title and call it a day. But fortunately, the dev team delivered a unique visual experience that scales with the difficulty.
As your time in levels progresses, the game still looks great, even with a ton of resources covering the map. There weren’t any instances of frame drops or anything debilitating, just a colorful spread of cars and office buildings that look way better than they should. I will say that at times, it seems as though highways hurt more than they help, as houses spawn underneath them and are easy to miss. Aside from that, everything looks great.
The extremely excellent music from Disasterpeace (Hyper Light Drifter, FEZ) is mellow and perfectly suited for the visual style of the game. “Mellow electronica” is a rightfully great genre all on its own, but when done by extremely talented musicians, the soundtrack just raises the quality of the entire project. Even away from the game, the music is great background for anything else in your life.
Mini Motorways was reviewed on PC. A key was provided by Stride PR.