Mini Motorways is all about the pursuit of the sublime. The gradual, iterative growth of a city’s transport infrastructure, to create something that aims for perfection or falls apart in trying.
Of course, there’s no real perfection to reach. Mini Motorways is a score based arcade-puzzler, like Tetris, where the only way to win is to improve over previous attempts. Eventually, your infrastructural achievements will succumb to the unrelenting growth of your city. Whether it’s a lack of roads, insurmountable gridlock, or one citizen too many, something will go wrong and it’ll all come crashing down. What keeps Mini Motorways compelling, then, is the constant draw to come back for more.
How can a game that only results in failure be so addictive? There’s no endgame, no fade to black, no credits, just traffic – and yet Mini Motorways is one of the more fulfilling gaming experiences I’ve had this year. My time with Mini Motorways thus far has been relatively brief, but it’s got that magic staying power that’ll keep me returning periodically for years to come.
Mini Motorways, much like its precursor Mini Metro, is a management simulator squeezed into the shape of an action-puzzler. You won’t find the same level of depth as Cities: Skylines, but an authentic real-world simulation isn’t what Dinosaur Polo Club is going for. Instead, your job is to connect red houses with red offices, and blue houses with blue offices. It’s an extraordinarily simple premise, but that goal is constantly challenged by new and unexpected complications.
Your ability to connect the randomly expanding neighbourhoods of your city is dependent on your access to certain resources: roads, bridges, tunnels and highways, with further depth added by traffic management tools like roundabouts and stop-lights.
Whatever tools you have access to at any given time is determined by a tetrisian combination of dumb luck and careful planning. The end of each in-game week presents you with a choice between two randomly selected resources and, as luck demands, neither of them will be what you need.
This is where my primary gripe with Mini Motorways flares up. I’ve praised Mini Motorways’ adherence to the Tetris design philosophy thus far, but the higher number of variables at play makes its randomized elements act in bizarre ways. In Tetris, the randomization is limited to the seven tetrominoes that can appear in your hand, but Mini Motorways expands this across an entire cityscape.
Houses and offices spawn wherever they damn well please, across a grid that can amass hundreds of possible squares during the later stages of a game. In the worst case scenario, a group of houses can spawn in a configuration that no roads can possibly reach. In one instance, a bunch of houses became completely isolated after they spawned along the edges of a small island. Since the game doesn’t allow bridges to connect directly to a house, the entire city became a lost cause, which was a frustrating end to that particular run.
In that sense, Mini Motorways can sometimes feel like it’s been compromised by its own ambition. Dinosaur Polo Club is really pushing the boundaries of what this genre can handle, and you can feel it bending under the pressure. But that ambition pays off despite the quirks, largely because it’s supported by such a brilliant presentation.
While Mini Metro played off the aesthetic of a London Underground diagram, Mini Motorways instead borrows the visual quirks of Google Maps. It’s a striking and immediately readable visual style, one that’ll be immediately familiar to anybody with a smartphone – which is, judging by the game’s original release on Apple Arcade, exactly who the game was designed for.
A visual feature that I welcomed was the option to play the game in a “dark mode,” something that made the game immensely more comfortable during longer sessions. That comfort was doubled by the game’s lovely dynamic soundtrack, which grows in complexity alongside your city. The entire presentation made Mini Motorways a great game to wind down with after a long day, despite how chaotic the game can get towards the end of a run.
Mini Motorways is a surprisingly ambitious game for its scope. It executes a simple yet remarkably thoughtful premise and largely achieves great results. In everything from its visual style to its gameplay, Mini Motorways is broadly accessible, and smartly introduces the player to increasingly complex scenarios. Even though it doesn’t quite match the design perfection of something like Tetris, that’s still a pretty remarkable comparison to inspire.
I might not tell my grandchildren about Mini Motorways, but it’s definitely left an impression on me as an individual – and that’s pretty high praise.
Title: Mini Motorways
Developer: Dinosaur Polo Club
Publisher: Dinosaur Polo Club
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Apple Arcade
Release date: 20 July 2021 (PC), 20 July 2020 (Apple Arcade)
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.