Itch.io is truly a place for the weird and offbeat to flourish. No matter what genre you’re into, there’s always an astonishing selection of titles that challenge established convention and reinvent the boundaries of what a game should be. Taking a look at the many management sims on the platform, the range of creativity on display is impressive. From maintaining a chicken farm to preserving the corpse of your dead daughter, there’s a wide variety of experiences to be had here, each enjoyable in their own macabre or meaningful way.
Clichés aside, it’s fun to see what happens when management sims are divorced from some of the well-worn formats and premises comprising the most popular titles. If you’re looking for a more “traditional” management sim, there’s always Autonauts, Factory Town or Odd Realm. But our favorites are the ones that are quirky and thought provoking while still exhibiting that incremental growth that makes the genre so satisfying. Here are the management sims we love.
This adorable management sim explores the simple pleasures of the chicken farming life. In it you can purchase “chooks,” build the various necessities to keep them well fed and happy, and oversee the growth of your farm bit by bit as you make incremental upgrades to maximize its efficiency. It’s not a terribly complicated game, but it’s still an immensely fun one; what started out as a “just a quick test run” session for me quickly turned into an obsession. I spent several hours just hatching birds and improving their environments with little perches and haystacks and other avian amusements. It was one of the most pleasant afternoons I’ve had in a long time.
This one is more of a brief experience rather than the long term play of a typical management sim but nonetheless it’s a good one. Signed by ‘89 is the short story of a band that is trying to get signed to a record label to save their friend Johnny from the perils of a future spent at military school. The goal is to reach 200 fans by writing songs and practicing with bandmates, upgrading equipment and posting fliers until the band’s shows net them enough followers to win the scouting exec’s attention. And as a bonus, there are some sweet little chiptune samples to enjoy from the band’s catalogue.
Treeology, like many Itch.io games on this list and others, is still a work-in-progress, so some features are a little underdeveloped. But what it does with the themes of nurturing and incremental growth inherent to management sims is extremely thought provoking. At the start of the game you are given a globe with several different growing environments to choose a spot to plant a seed, with difficulty determined by the weather and conditions of that region. Once the seed is planted, the water and energy it generates through its roots and branches create Sap, a reserve that can be accumulated and then used to grow more roots and branches, with the roots gathering water and the branches generating energy. Climate effects like luminosity and humidity, as well as parasites, also present hazards to strategize around as the plant is cultivated to full maturation.
A simple but charming management sim, Kahi centers on a small village where only the firebearer, Kahi, may hold the flame that keeps the tribe warm. The objective is to maintain the central bonfire by feeding it wood cut down from nearby trees, while also distributing the fire to the other smaller bonfires in front of each home. It sounds easy, but it is surprisingly challenging; I really had to hustle to keep the fires lit and the villagers unfrozen. If you can keep up, you can warm enough villagers to keep the bonfire roaring—but snowstorms can wipe out your progress quickly. Most management sims are for the long play, but this one will be short. See how long you can last before the fires go out.
Imagine if Wasteland 2 and This War of Mine were combined—that’s Orphan Age. It has the party and character building system and the isometric view of the former, with the danger, resource scarcity and survival themes of the latter (as well as a heavy reliance on scavenging). As the player you control a group of orphans fending for themselves in a dystopian, war-torn city as they rely on each other’s strengths in order to get by. It’s bleak, but also thorough and well balanced; the levels are randomly generated, so the experience of recovering materials and repurposing them for supplies is constantly fresh, with no one room alike. You’ll be overseeing the well-being of the group’s health, their skill development and the management of your base, and even better: there’s a sandbox mode so you can continue engaging with the systems even after you’ve finished the story campaign. The game is still in alpha but is definitely already worth playing.
The Shrouded Isle is one of the darkest and most bizarre games I’ve ever played. Described by its developers as a “human sacrifice cult simulator,” the game centers on a small coastal village ruled by sadistic ritual in service of a dark god. As you choose representatives from each family each yearly cycle, the goal is to root out the worst sinner and sacrifice them in order to purge in preparation for the god’s return. Each have a positive and a negative trait, from a total of five possible characteristics—Ignorance, Penitence, Obedience, Discipline, and Fervor—each representing one of the noble houses. They must be kept in balance over the seasons as each citizen is put to the religious test, and each house must be continually appeased as their beloved family members are put to death (fairly, or unfairly). The game doesn’t explain itself a lot, and either way it’s a tough play. But it’s perfect if you really want something different.
If you’re looking for a more relaxing play, the low stakes achievement and pleasant cross-country ambling of Rusty’s Rail is for you. The game mostly consists of riding from stop to stop, picking up passengers and accumulating funds, and upgrading your train in perpetuity. Each ride is peppered with humorous little asides describing the events of each run, and the game has no end goal or final destination (in fact, I’m not convinced the upgrades even do anything); the objective is just to enjoy the journey. And its idyllic landscape, neatly dotted with the textures of classic black and white comics, all but ensures you will.
St.Orchint’s Orphanage is what you would call a stone cold bummer. As the headmaster of an orphanage, you must make the day-to-day operational decisions that keep the facility generating money and pumping out future soldiers for the ongoing war. Food, medicine and incoming revenue are all ongoing considerations, as are the demands of the military, who need both military school-trained children to replenish their army, and tons of cash. Choose which children will go to school, and which will be forced to work—with a list outlining the five jobs they can have and the associated risk of disease and death, from paperboy to coal miner. The orphans die constantly, medicine is always running out, and the demands on your resources only grow higher as every day passes. It is grim, cheerless (and appropriately minimalist), and if you like a challenge, you should play it.
Unlike a lot of cooking games, Cook, Serve, Delicious! 2!! lets you get into the nitty gritty of managing a restaurant kitchen, from putting out stove fires to setting rodent traps, and of course, preparing and serving food in an efficient manner. Each dish takes a set of steps to prepare, and a task window keeps you informed of doneness and other factors to inform your timing, including garnishes and holding. The goal is to manage the orders while keeping the holding foods stocked, at the same time making sure to take care of maintenance, like washing dishes and spraying pests, as you go along.The grind is stressful but satisfying; once you get the hang of it, you’ll be getting the customers in and out the door in record time.
My Lovely Daughter is such a surprising but satisfying take on the management sim. In it, you play as an alchemist who has just come back from the dead to discover his daughter has also passed away and, in his grief, becomes determined to resurrect her. Using his powers of summoning and alchemy, you must create homunculi for sacrifice, carefully building up their affinities in certain human emotions, then use their souls to calibrate the stone holding your daughter’s life essence. Meanwhile you must also routinely preserve the body and take on odd jobs to obtain the gold and ingredients needed for the rituals, while keeping your otherworldly creations (golems and mummies and other assorted monsters) well maintained and happy. The game is macabre, quirky and beautifully illustrated, and dare I say, my favorite on this list.
Holly Green is the assistant editor of Paste Games and a reporter and semiprofessional photographer. She is also the author of Fry Scores: An Unofficial Guide To Video Game Grub. You can find her work at Gamasutra, Polygon, Unwinnable, and other videogame news publications.