As I played “Mini Metro,” a new puzzle/strategy game by Dinosaur Polo Club for Windows, Max, and Linux PCs, I became conscious of the cliched descriptors rattling around in my head: “austere,” “minimalist,” “meditative.”
Video games with relaxed, chilled-out vibes constitute their own subgenre at this point, after all, and reviewers often describe them in these terms. But “Mini Metro” is indeed an austere, minimalist, meditative game. It’s also a great deal of fun, and an impressive exercise in a certain style of no-wasted-motion game design.
Little is explained in the game itself, but it quickly becomes apparent that you’re playing the role of a subway-system architect, viewing the map of that system from on high. At the start of each game, you’re presented with a few shapes — say, a triangle, a circle, and a square. These shapes are highly abstracted subway stations. Eventually, a smaller shape will pop up next to one of the bigger ones, like a little circle next to the triangle station, for example. These small shapes represent passengers who want to go to a station with the same shape that they have. That sounds confusing, but all it means is that if a little circle pops up at a station, it’s your job to get that circle (him? her? it?) to a circle station.
You do so by drawing lines between the shapes — lines that, like real-world subway systems, come in different colors. So once you connect a red line between the triangle station and the circle station, your little circle can travel to the circle station aboard a small rectangle that represents a subway car. That rectangle will then travel up and down the line, picking up passengers and dropping them off either at the station they’re looking for, or a transfer point that can get them there.
As the game progresses, new shapes pop up at random around the map — new stations you’ll have to service. Local geography complicates things, since sometimes there are rivers you have to tunnel under, but you only have a limited number of tunnels. Many of the maps are based on real-world cities, so on the Berlin map the River Spree is a major concern.
Things progress calmly in this manner, with the player building an increasingly tangled network of lines between different stations. Despite the lack of any explicit explanation of what you’re supposed to do (a feature, not a bug), certain strategic truths quickly become apparent: Your best bet is short, efficient routes that include multiple shapes on them, for one thing. The fact that you can cancel existing lines and reroute them allows you to adapt your layout on the fly.
Things don’t stay calm. Lurking underneath the game’s . . . well, meditative surface is a fairly frantic core. Because as your city’s population grows, the queues at the stations start to fill with lines of those little shapes, which start to shudder nervously (impatiently?) when they’ve been sitting there for a while waiting for their trains. When enough of them grow impatient, a little graphic pops up indicating how much time you have left to get at least some of the shapes where they want to go. When time runs out, you lose.
I haven’t even started to scratch the surface of the complexities in “Mini Metro,” and there’s a paucity of good strategic information online. As someone whose spatial reasoning skills are not particularly impressive, I’ve found myself a slow study. I want to experiment more with giant loops around the outskirts of the city, and then lines that jut inward from there. If my past efforts are any indication, the strategy will fail completely.
But regardless of my own failure to excel at it, “Mini Metro” is a very, very smart and satisfying game, and I’ll definitely be devoting some time to becoming a less incompetent subway planner.Jesse Singal can be reached at email@example.com.