No, this isn't about Business Simulators played in the cold dark vastness of the stars (though it can be sometimes). The idea behind a Space Management Game is for the player to figure out how to make the most out of as little space as possible.
"Space Management Games" is the collective name for a respectable number of Simulation Games which all follow very similar core gameplay. They usually share the same premise: The player is the head of some organization or business, and receives a set amount of resources (sometimes abstracted to money or generic points) with which to construct a facility. This can be a business place, a secret lair of evil, an amusement park, or even a city - depending on the genre of the specific game involved. The player is allotted a limited amount of space for construction of this facility, as well as access to the various "pieces" that must be placed down in order to make the facility work. These pieces (which are usually called "Rooms", "Buildings" or "Zones", depending on the scope of the game) are often oddly-shaped, and some must be placed in close proximity to specific other pieces in order for the facility to achieve peak efficiency. Deciding what to put where is the whole point of the game, and it is often necessary to make compromises in order to fit everything in.
In nearly all Space Management Games the facility itself is not just for show - it will quickly become populated by a large number of characters (often referred to as "Denizens"). The Denizens may be your staff, coming to operate the facility, or they may just be visiting it - but they will invariably spend much of their time traveling from one zone to another to carry out all sorts of activities. The further they have to travel to reach their desired destinations within your facility, the less efficient the entire facility will be. If the denizens are your customers, then you need to make sure that they spend as much money as possible in the facility before they leave, ensure that they don't have to wait long in queues, and keep them generally happy. If the denizens are your minions or employees, you'll have to make sure that every area is easily accessible so that they don't have to travel long distances as they work. The patterns of Denizen movement must be studied and understood in order to build any successful facility.
Though they can be very different from one another overall, most Space Management Games share many common characteristics. Most of these games give you the ability to examine copious statistics about each Denizen, to determine whether they are happy and/or efficient. Other common traits include a grid-like environment that assists players in calculating how large each room should be, where passageways for the denizens will go, and how far one room is and should be from the others. A grid design also makes it easier for the AI to figure out routes between the rooms and corridors - it is going to have to calculate routes for dozens, possibly hundreds of characters simultaneously. Real Time with Pause functionality is virtually always included, and the ability to pick up stray denizens who happen to be in the wrong place and drop them elsewhere is common as well.
Expect the game to be split into "missions" or "levels", where the first missions give you ample amount of space and money to work with, and later ones requiring you to cram more rooms into smaller areas. Often, missions also set a certain monetary goal, so the facility needs to generate a certain amount of something within a limited amount of time in order to complete the mission, thus requiring it to run as efficiently as possible.
Some companies have specialized in creating such games, and whole series of Space Management Games have come and gone over the years as a result. This created several "branches" of the genre, with each branch having its own special rules within the genre. Other games quickly followed suit, placing themselves neatly into one or more of these sub-genres:
- Mayor Games are essentially Business Simulators that use Space Management as their primary gameplay mechanism. They usually put you in the shoes of the mayor of a more-or-less realistic, modern city, where you'll have to place down residential zones, provide employment in industrial and commercial areas, connect areas with roads and electricity, provide services like water and education, and generally make sure that the city is attractive to new immigrants. The ultimate objective is to make money, and it's important to stay in the black at all times. Mayor Games have a more laid-back nature, usually supported by open-ended gameplay, although "scenario"-type missions are also sometimes included. Mayor Games tend to treat Denizens as a statistic rather than as individuals. SimCity is the progenitor of this category.
- In Commodity Games you'll be constructing a city or other bustling living area from the ground up. However unlike in Mayor Games (above), the focus here is less about money and more about the production of material goods. The denizens who come to live in your city will need to extract raw materials from the surrounding area, deliver it to craftsmen, and eventually process it into consumption goods (required to keep the denizens alive) and into trade goods (to be sold for money). Expect having to conduct diplomacy with other cities, and possibly even raise an army to defend your city from them. The first game in this genre was probably Caesar, set in the Roman Empire, which launched a long series of sequels set in various periods throughout human history.
- In these games, you are constructing a fortress or lair for yourself and your minions. Unlike other Space Management Games, while money is still required for construction (and possibly to pay your minions' wages), the main objective of most missions is warfare: destroying a nearby enemy lair, or defending your lair from enemies that arrive periodically to destroy it. This requires hiring combat units, creating guard posts in strategic locations, setting up training rooms for your troops, and constructing elaborate traps to serve as your first line of defense. Traps, of course, take up valuable space - so placing them properly makes part of the challenge. Dungeon Keeper is widely considered the common ancestor for this sub-genre.
- With Service Games your facility is expected to give services and/or care to customers, who begin arriving as soon as you open the doors. Your customers will wander around the facility, paying money for the various services you provide. Generally, each customer will require different services and behave differently while visiting. Each has a certain amount of money they can spend, and will react differently to problems they encounter during their visit. Keeping everyone happy, and keeping the cash coming in, is your main objective. This is similar to Tower Defense games, except you're trying to avoid anyone suffering damage. Theme Park is probably the Trope Codifier for this sub-genre.
Examples of Mayor Games:
- SimCity and its sequels. The first game was the Ur-Example for the entire Space Management genre.
- SimTower is somewhere between this and Service Game.
- Transport Tycoon and its many counterparts. Although most tracks and roads will easily run uninterrupted for miles over open fields, Space Management is crucial when constructing stations and intersections, in what can occasionally be a very tight space.
- Cities XL and its sequels.
- Cities In Motion and its sequels.
- Cities: Skylines, made by the same developer as Cities in Motion.
- Citystate, an indie game that also give you complete control over the government.
- Urban Empire, made by the developers of Tropico.
Examples of Commodity Games:
- City-Building Series:
- The Settlers (AKA Serf City) and its first three sequels. After that it becomes... different.
- Anno Domini (AKA The Anno Series) features islands which are for the most part fixed in size and shape. It's up to the player to build and manage the logistics of cities and colonies on those islands.
- Banished is a rare game of this genre produced after 2010.
- Factorio forgoes the use of Denizens altogether, replacing them with self-operating machines. Commodities (and fuel) must be brought to the machines by means of elaborate conveyor belt systems.
- Oxygen Not Included
- Many Programming Games are conceptual members of this genre, whenever they impose a strict limit on the number of lines you can write. note Of course, they are significantly different from any of the other games listed here (enough to warrant being members of their own separate genre).
Examples of Lair Games:
- Dungeon Keeper and its sequel.
- Evil Genius
- Kaiju A Gogo
- They Are Billions
- War for the Overworld as the Spiritual Successor to the Dungeon Keeper
- Dungeons, similar to the above is also a spiritual successor to Dungeon Keeper.
- X-COM features elements of Lair design during base construction. Space is at a premium, and the specific layout you use will likely influence how defensible a base will be if invaded. However, the series as a whole is a Turn-Based Tactics franchise with very different gameplay from the others listed here, and base defense is (relatively) rare.
- Tower Defense games are related to this genre, although they tend to be much more simplistic in nature, and tend to place more emphasis on managing your resources than on spatial considerations.
Examples of Service Games:
- Theme Park, the original Service Game.
- Theme Hospital
- Theme Park World
- Space Colony
- Zoo Tycoon
- Jurassic Park: Operation Genesis
- RollerCoaster Tycoon the most popular Service Game. Popularized the subgenre as "Tycoon Games".
- Planet Coaster
- Prison Architect
- Prison Tycoon
- Sid Meier's SimGolf
- Sea World Tycoon
- Spacebase DF-9
Examples of Multiple Types:
- Dwarf Fortress is both a Commodity and Lair game, and has attempted unsuccessfully to involve Service gameplay.
- Commodity: Acquire and process raw materials for weapons, armor, trade goods, housing fixtures and, most importantly, booze. The 'Merchant Arc' currently in development will expand the role of commodities and economic power over the wider world. And the bigger a fortress becomes, the more stockpile management becomes crucial for all other aspects.
- Lair: It's called 'Fortress' for a reason. Sophisticated defense systems can be installed, with a mixture of combat personnel, guard critters, and mechanical counter-measures. Currently defensive only, but the 'Army Arc' scheduled for development will enable raiding, offensive sorties, and ranged conquest.
- Service: Currently most (all?) Fortresses are communist; booze and food are the only essential services, provided free by the state, so long as there are raws available. Earlier implementation of capitalist economies have been aborted; though a revamp may make Service relevant again, it'll likely remain an option most players won't choose.
- SimCity (2013) has slightly branched from the Mayor genre into the Commodity genre, with the introduction of resources that can be extracted from the ground, traded to other cities, and potentially processed into other, more-expensive resources. Furthermore, the interplay between cities in a region (which are often controlled by different players) also brings this a step closer to Commodity games - but not fully (still no warfare...).
- The Sims, believe it or not, is a Space Management Game. Although it bears little resemblance to any of the other games listed here, it heavily involves construction and/or interior design of a limited living space (at least, during the early portion of the game). With tons of different objects available (and many of them very useful), it is virtually impossible to build a house containing everything - especially when your Sim starts out in some tiny apartment and has no chance of moving out anytime soon.
- Though money is a big factor in the game, time is really the primary currency: your Sims need to fulfill their lifetime goals before they die of old age. With a badly-designed house, Sims can waste a lot of time walking needlessly from one side of the house to the other for some simple task. The importance of happiness and time puts "The Sims" closer to a Service Game than any of the other categories. However, many possible avenues for making money (or even getting more time!) involve meticulous collection of special objects and processing them to create new objects - resulting in something that vaguely resembles a Commodity Game.
- Startopia, a Space Management Game IN SPACE!, mixes Service with Lair gameplay.
- Service: Your goal is to develop a recreational facility on a derelict space station, catering to a wide variety of alien life forms. These aliens show up, require certain facilities, and spend their heard-earned cash while you strive to keep them happy enough to spend it all.
- Lair: It turns into a very difficult combat game whenever part of the space station is occupied by one or more other companies attempting to do build their own facilities. Massive doors separating the station's torus design can be hacked open, initiating combat between the workers of one facility against it neighbour; essentially hostile takeovers.
- Stronghold, while more of a Real-Time Strategy game, fits both the Commodity and Lair categories.
- The MMO version, Stronghold Kingdoms, also fits the niche.
- Tropico, a Banana Republic simulator, is a mixture of Commodity and Services; foreign tourists arrive on the player's island and make use of dedicated facilities built to cater for their special needs. Also since the player has to periodically revalidate his power through elections or at least be able defend his regime against armed opposition or coups, the player has to service and care for his own citizens and/or military forces or they will turn against the government.
- RimWorld takes a great deal of mechanical inspiration from Dwarf Fortress, listed above, being a mix of Commodity and Lair games. Your job is to help a group of survivors stranded on an undeveloped planet survive by building a makeshift colony to provide for basic needs such as food, shelter, clothing, and defense against hostile threats. Even though the colony has a lot of space to potentially expand into, getting the materials to build on a larger scale can take a very long time, and the high frequency of threats and disasters makes dense construction and plenty of forethought the only viable way to survive. Furthermore, the game's complex "storyteller" system will actually make life much harder if the colony expands too rapidly or too early.
- The Movies is a unique combination of Commodity and Service games, though it bears little resemblance to any other game in those categories. Most of your denizens are actors, directors, screenwriters and researchers, who work on your movie lot to create movies (the game's Commodity) through a long process of refinement - from inventing new sets and movie-making technology, to writing new scripts, to filming scenes and editing, and finally releasing the finished product to the theaters. At the same time, the actors and directors on your movie lot require proper accommodation, facilities, beautiful surroundings and lots of attention, in order to prevent them from having psychological breakdowns, thus filling essentially the same role as customers would in a Service game.
- Big Pharma can be seen either as a very pure form of Commodity Game, or a service game where the customers are also your commodities. All you do in the game is refine the basic resources that flow into your factory (the raw ingredients) into the pharmaceutical drugs you sell. This is done by building an elaborate production line from a growing array of set-pieces. Space is at a premium, and you are constantly racing to develop less space-consuming machinery to reduce your production costs, while manipulating and combining materials to make ever-more-effective and ever-more-profitable drugs. There is no combat, although you are competing against several other companies over a constantly-fluctuating market.
- Planetbase is mostly a Commodity Game, with an optional Service Game side, since you can allow tourists inside your spacebase, who then will use your complex and earn you money from their visit.
- The further the player gets into Ever Oasis, the more it becomes a mixture of Mayor and Commodity. At first, the player will have no issue placing down just about every shop they get, and if anything, running out of money to place them. You have to have a variety of shops to attract more residents, which itself allows you to build a wider variety of shops. But later on, the Oasis level-ups that increase the amount of space you have become fewer and far in between, resulting in the player being forced to try and decide whether or not they want to use that space for more plants that boost sales of nearby booths, where to place them for maximum effect, whether to place them period (as placing them in any spot but the end forces the player to essentially give up a shop that a new resident might want), which shops to keep (since shops become more profitable as they level up), and whether to keep the new shop you just built once the interested resident has moved in. Players must also get stock for their shops, since keeping your shops well stocked will keep your Oasis Morale high. Naturally, since shops require different items that can be obtained in-game through different ways, a player will be forced to decide whether or not it's even worth keeping the shop, since shops that are out of stock will lower the morale and your potential day-to-day earnings. While you are able to make seedlings who are not tending a shop work on the garden, your space in the garden is also limited as well. Oh, and finally, Morale - you absolutely must keep your morale high, as a higher morale translates to more health your characters have in the field. Festivals are also a great way to boost sales and morale (even allowing it to persist), but they will absolutely wipe out your stock, meaning you have to keep a steady flow of even basic early-game supplies at hand.