This past weekend, while riding the train from Toronto’s Union Station to my suburban house, I found myself transfixed by a map. I look at transit maps all the time, but it’s always just a fleeting glance; I see where I am and where I need to go, then I’m done. But this time was different. I was struck by how clean and orderly the map looked, and analyzed it for tips on how I could make mine the same. Clearly I’ve been playing too much Mini Metro on my iPad.
Mini Metro is a game about making subway maps. You start with just a few stations, which connect with a bright and colorful track, and then more pop up over time. The goal is to keep things running smoothly even as the transit system balloons to dozens of stops and multiple lines. The game started out as a browser-based prototype in 2014, before eventually being fleshed out into a full-fledged PC game last year. But last week the game launched on its ideal platform: mobile.
Most of what you’re doing in Mini Metro is manipulating tracks. You have no control over the location of the various stations — they simply pop up every so often, and you need to adjust and expand the tracks to keep up with the demand, adding new trains or carriages when you can. This makes it an ideal game for touch. It feels natural pulling the lines with your finger, and you can pinch to zoom in and out when the map starts to get really huge. If you want to move a train to a different line, simply drag it where you want. It’s incredibly satisfying when you fix things with a quick drag of your finger.
Outside of the touch controls, mobile also fits really well with the type of game that Mini Metro is. It’s not a particularly taxing experience — often you’re simply watching passengers go from one place to the next, making slight tweaks along the way — so it’s an ideal pairing for activities like listening to a podcast or keeping one eye on a baseball game. (When things get really hectic, though, you’ll likely want to give the game your full attention — if a station gets too overcrowded it’s game over.)
Mini Metro is a fairly simple concept, but the game does a good job of keeping things interesting by offering 13 different maps to play through, each with its own distinct feel. If you play the Cairo map, for instance, you’ll have to deal with trains that can hold fewer passengers, while Osaka offers high-speed bullet trains to deal with lots of riders. They also have different layouts; you have to build over rivers in New York, and connect tightly packed stations in Paris. “Making each city feel unique while still fitting inside the Mini Metro gameplay framework is a challenge,” says designer Peter Curry, from developer Dinosaur Polo Club. “We research into the city and the metro network and try to find something that makes it stand out.” (In addition to real-world metros, the game also features a fictional one set in Auckland.)
The team is looking to expand the experience further by offering a sort of sandbox mode, where you can build subway maps without having to worry about the challenge, making things much more relaxing. They’re also looking at potentially making new levels, and they’d love to add new gameplay tweaks like forked lines — so long as it doesn’t ruin the slick minimalist visual style that is a large part of the game’s charm. Mini Metro has gone through many iterations over the years, starting out as a small prototype before becoming something much bigger. Curry says that the current version largely achieves what the team originally set out to do. It’s a feeling he describes as “this strange blend of zen and manic.”
And much like me, it’s also given many players an incentive to look at the systems that they ride on every day. “One thing that we do hear often is that by playing Mini Metro people have gained an appreciation for the difficulties that their own city’s metro planners have, and they don’t mind the odd delay to their commute as much as they used to,” says Curry. “It’s a pretty good feeling to have added a little empathy to the world.”