Names are important when it comes to Mini Motorways. That’s in part because names are important when it comes to cities. This is a game that tasks you with drawing the highway infrastructure for a series of famous cities around the world, but the whole thing is cleanly abstracted. I can recognise the abstracted Los Angeles from Mini Motorways because I’ve played it for so long – actually I can see it in my sleep – but it’s still nice to play this map and think of the name. I’m not anywhere. I’m not nowhere. I’m back in LA.
And names are important when it comes to modes, maybe? Mini Motorways’ latest update adds two new modes to the game. The first is Endless, which is pretty self-explanatory. The second is Expert, which is absolutely brutal and brilliant. Excellent stuff, but for a while early on I kind of wondered if Expert might be the wrong name for it. Or, to put it another way, it’s made me ponder what being really good at Mini Motorways might actually look like.
Expert mode is certainly a real challenge. The idea is quietly alarming. The first wrinkle? You get more upgrade options at the end of each week to start with, but then after eight weeks it’s just road tiles. Got that? Get your roundabouts and motorways in fast. The other wrinkle is so terrifying I feel like I should whisper it: decisions are permanent. There’s a touch of the exam board chill to that one. What it means is that after a short period of time – very short – every tile you place down is fixed in place forever.
Yes, this makes the game incredibly tough, and in a rather brilliant way. So much of Mini Motorways is fretting about where future parts of the city are going to turn up. You don’t decide that, after all. You just have to connect it with roads once it’s arrived. But now, every road you place down? Well, you really think about it. This works for me now, you tell yourself, but how will it work for me five minutes from now, when this district has really not taken off, perhaps, and I now need a straight line through it to connect the real action?
Difficult! Wonderfully maddening? Expert? In some ways, certainly. You need to understand the map, and you need to understand the way Mini Motorways likes to think – or at least you need to be able to tell yourself you understand. To play this mode well, you need to guess correctly about things that are not yet there, and are out of your control. One side of that is coming up with best practices – which you do, I guess, by becoming an expert. The other side of that, though, is luck. I love luck in games, and yes, dealing with luck or the lack of it is the kind of thing that also marks out an expert, I reckon.
What I love about this is how much of a surprise it is to me. Previously, when I’ve been think about expert Mini Motorways players, when I’ve been thinking about the kind of player I want to be, I think about someone quite different to this imaginary expert player. When I’ve been thinking about how I want to play, I’m decisive about laying roads, but I’m also decisive about rewriting roads.
This has been expertise as I’ve seen it up until now in my Mini Motorways education. It’s realising, five minutes in, that an entire town centre needs to be erased and restructured. Knowing when your city should move from one kind of shape to another. In a way, this kind of play reminds me of StarCraft, say, where your strategy for the first few minutes is very different to your strategy for the mid-section. This has been a lot of what I’ve loved about Mini Motorways – it has seemed to encourage you to ditch stuff you’ve put so much time into because it just isn’t working anymore. It’s been a game, in other words, where the sunk cost fallacy will actually kill you.
I should say, the only reason I have been thinking about any of this stuff regarding modes and their names is because, years ago, meeting with the Drop7 designers, one of them admitted that they slowly came to realise that Hard mode, which is hard, is actually not quite as hard as Normal mode, which is secretly much harder. I thought this was brilliant. A sign of strength rather than weakness, really: you make the game, you name the modes, and the game shows you otherwise.
Is that the case here, or is it something different? I’m deep into Expert mode now, and it’s completely changed the way I see the game. With this mode on, I tend to think of Mini Motorways almost like a roguelike. In roguelikes you make the most of the life you have. You move forward, commit to decisions, and you accept the perks and buffs and items you find on that single run. It’s hard, and actually it can be quite inflexible, and you have to stick with your mistakes and choices and ride them to the end.
Expert mode? Roguelike mode? I love that I will spend the next six months working out what I feel about all this, and feeling the ripples of new learning moving through the way I play. Mini Motorways! What a game. What. A. Game.