The simulation game genre is one of the oldest in the industry, and it’s expanded massively since its beginnings as a PC-centric style.
We’re now seeing more simulation games on consoles, and there’s also a great deal of nuance and originality in how the classic formula is utilized in modern titles. This ingenuity has been seen most prevalently in the indie scene, and as an avid fan of the genre since early childhood, I’ve played a lot of them over the years.
In this article, I’ll be giving a rundown of what I believe to be the top 14 best indie simulation games.
Bottom Line Up Front
I’ve covered a lot of different types of games on this list, and even though they all come under the simulation genre, many are vastly different from one another.
If you’re looking to start your journey into the world of simulation games, then check out the FAQ at the bottom of this article for my recommendations. Above the FAQ, you’ll also find my ultimate top 3 out of the 14 titles, so head there if you’re in a rush!
Must be from an indie studio: While a lot of the biggest names in the simulation genre are AAA titles, I’ll only be covering titles from independent studios.
- Can be on PC or console: Devs are finding new and improved ways to bring the complexities of the genre to console controls, so these days, there are a ton of great titles on consoles. Both platforms will feature in this list.
- Entries will be distinct from strategy games: There’s certainly some crossover between the simulation and strategy genres, but I’ll be making that distinction clear for the games included in this list. That means no turn-based or real-time strategy games that have sim elements.
- Entries must simulate something: I’m not going to try and box all sim games into being sprawling and complex managing games, so my criteria here is that the driving element of each game is to simulate some aspect of a system, society, activity, or person.
- No particular order: Being such a varied genre, it didn’t make much sense to rank the games in this list in order, so 1 isn’t the best and 14 isn’t the worst. Instead, you’ll find my top three titles from the list at the end of the article.
Factorio | Wube Software | 2013
- Platforms: Linux, Mac OS, and Windows
Where most simulation games like Sim City or The Sims look at things from a macro perspective, Factorio simulates the micro. The game’s premise revolves around building a fully functioning automatic factory, and you’ll also need to protect it from enemy robots trying to tear it down.
A huge part of the satisfaction of playing a sim game comes from essentially watching the gameplay itself after hours of work, and Factorio totally delivers in that regard. It feels great to watch your sprawling assembly lines speedily building and packaging, and as any good simulation title should do, it makes you feel super clever having managed to get everything working in harmony.
I also love the art style of this game: the pixel-art aesthetic makes everything seem more cohesive and easy to follow.
Kerbal Space Program | Squad | 2015
- Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4, and PS5
Kerbal Space Program is definitely one of the most unique titles on this list. In this game, your goal is to build a fully functioning rocket, and it’s not as simple as it may seem.
You may not be multitasking and micromanaging a ton of different aspects at once, but KSP will absolutely test your mind: you’ll need to apply real-world scientific principles to your design if you hope to succeed, and I assure you, you’ll go through many, many failed attempts before reaching your destination.
It’s a game that rewards both failures and successes. As much as I loved seeing my creation blast off into space unhindered, it’s always funny to see how a creation you thought would be a masterpiece go up in flames!
Power Wash Simulator | FuturLAb | 2021
- Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4, PS5, and Nintendo Switch
While most simulation games offer an exponentially increasing challenge with many moving parts, not all are that complicated. Power Wash Simulator, the game where you spend your time cleaning different items with a high-pressure water gun, is actually quite relaxing.
It’s therapeutic in a way most titles like this are not, and although it has a very simple premise, this is the perfect game to relieve some stress. It’s not going to satisfy in the same way planning a sprawling automated behemoth in Factorio is, but there’s just something inherently appealing about blasting dirt for hours at a time. Pick this one up if you’re looking for some straightforward, simulated satisfaction!
Stardew Valley | ConcernedApe | 2016
- Platform: PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4, PS5, IOS, and Android
Without knowing otherwise, it’s easy to pass Stardew Valley off as an Animal Crossing clone, but it’s far more than that. In many ways, it takes its life simulation much further than that series.
Your playable character embarks on their journey having inherited a plot of land from your Grandfather. Alongside deep and robust farming simulation and beautiful pixel art, you’ll have fun fighting, fishing, crafting, exploring, making friends, and a heap more.
I was impressed with the degree to which I found myself caring for these virtual characters, and with how each of the huge cast was unique and charming in their own way. There’s a comfort to be found here that isn’t expressed in the calculated, mathematical settings of most sim titles, making the game a superb choice for just about anyone.
VRK Shop | Wooden Robot | 2020
- Platforms: PC VR and Quest 1/2
As a platform, VR is perfect for simulation games, but there aren’t that many available. This title puts you in the shoes of a carpenter and simulates every aspect associated with that profession. I’m still in awe at how the developer was able to make such a precise craft work in a game; the physics engine is excellent allowing you to saw, hammer, and join any piece of wood together, and there’s no real limit to the size of your builds, either.
If you do want the extra challenge of working to a deadline, though, the game does that. There’s a game mode that has you completing tasks for various clients and sending them out, and it’s cool to see your efficiency skyrocket as you complete more and more projects.
It’s one of the few games that fully embrace the tactical elements of physics that are so fun and immersive in VR, and I can’t wait to see how the game evolves.
Prison Architect | Introversion Software | 2015
- Platforms: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, IOS, and Android
While many played Prison Architect first on PC, I got addicted to the Nintendo Switch version. It was always my go-to for long train journeys, and it was easy to get engrossed and have the tedium of the ride melt away.
As the name implies, the game has you managing every aspect of building and running a prison — and I do mean every aspect. You’ll need to employ workers to build the foundation and set up the electricity, plumbing, and security. Of course, you also need a well-oiled team to run the place, so you’ll have to employ a governor, guards, cooks, cleaners, and so on, after which the real challenge starts.
Once they’ve arrived on site, you’ll notice every prisoner has their own unique identity and personality, and the degree to which inmates interact and play off each other to cause riots, smuggle drugs, and form gangs is astounding.
It’s one of the best simulation games to release in years and is a great choice for beginners.
ZERO Sievert | CABO Studios | 2022
- Platforms: PC
I was thoroughly impressed by what I played of ZERO Siviet earlier this month.
This game went all in on the actual survival aspects you’d expect to come with exploring a nuclear wasteland.
It’s a brutally difficult experience, and you’ll need to keep a close eye on your food, water, and radiation meters as you creep through the environment. Enemy encounters must be chosen carefully as getting shot means rapidly losing blood, and every item has a unique utility for you to discover and craft your own brand of survival with.
You’ll also build out an extensive base during your time. The game’s procedurally generated worlds do an excellent job at concealing mystery, and its systems are built around the tantalizing premise of what lurks around the corner.
It’s definitely one to check out if you’re up for a challenge!
Papers Please | 3909 LLC | 2013
- Platforms: Windows, Mac OS, Linux, IOS, Android, and PS Vita
Papers Please is one of the best indie games I’ve played, not just in this genre but in general. Where most simulation games shy away from narrative elements, this game cleverly merges traditional environmental storytelling with its sim routes and I haven’t seen anything else like it.
You play a clerk at an immigration office, and your job is to reject or deny applicants as they arrive at your desk. You’ll be required to sift through the information to determine who’s legitimate and who isn’t, but as you pour over the papers revealing each individual’s situation, the game plays with your moral compass. I love games that put you in a difficult position as a unique protagonist, and the game engrosses you completely despite spending the entirety of the time sitting at a desk.
To say any more would spoil the experience, but if you’re looking for a novel take on the simulation genre, Papers Please is a fantastic choice.
Spiritfarer | Thunder Lotus Games | 2020
- Platforms: Windows, Linux, Mac OS, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, IOS, Android, and Google Stadia
At first glance, Spiritfarer seems like a pretty straightforward resource management game, but it’s so much more than that.
You play as Stella — a recently deceased girl tasked with guiding lost souls to the afterlife. You go from area to area collecting resources to upgrade your boat, but being a sailing simulator isn’t the game’s only trick. Above all, this is a people simulator: every character is complex in a way that goes beyond the standard tropes, and listening to their stories had me hooked.
Simulation games often make you feel like a God without much concern for morality or ethics, and while I enjoy sending a dinosaur into one of my Sim City creations as much as the next person, I appreciate Spiritfarer’s ability to make you feel like a good person. It’s a sim whose aim ultimately revolves around helping people, and it’s easily the most wholesome and touching game in the genre I’ve played.
Bee Simulator | Varsav Games Studios | 2019
- Platforms: Windows, Xbox One, Xbox Series S/X, PS4, PS5, and Nintendo Switch
No points for guessing what you do in this game. While its title may have prompted an eye-roll or two, Bee Simulator is surprisingly well done.
We assume the role of a humble worker bee and navigate a small but rather beautiful open world. The developers have done a great job gamifying all aspects of a bee’s life, from gathering pollen, to hive politics, and even engaging in battle.
There’s a ton to do and see here, but I think the nicest touch was the story. Our protagonist is trying to elevate himself through the colony, and the dialogue and conversations between you and your fellow bees are as comedic as it is cute.
The game is also educational in that it offers interesting facts about bee colonies, and it has a strong overarching message. This is something really different that I was pleasantly surprised by.
Dwarf Fortress | Bay 12 Games | 2022
- Platforms: Windows
While the excellent Dwarf Fortress may only have just had its Steam release, the original game was actually released as freeware way back in 2002. The original has steadily become a classic in the colony simulator subgenre over the years, but the latest Steam release truly takes the concept to new heights.
Dwarf Fortress puts the player in charge of building their own intricate dwarven society, and while the map and characters are procedurally generated, you wouldn’t think they were. It’s frankly amazing how each playthrough generates its own fully fleshed-out characters with personalities, thoughts, and feelings.
Dwarf Fortress is a very complex game that’s perfect for sim veterans to sink their teeth into. The game has an encyclopedic level of detail to discover for every ore, currency, and societal hierarchy, and there’s so much to do and learn about the rules, systems, and game mechanics in this world that you could write a thesis on it by the end. It’s a long road, but seeing your underground metropolis teeming with life after cracking the game’s learning curve is totally worth it.
PC Building Simulator | The Irregular Corporation | 2019
- Platforms: Windows. Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch
I was surprised I found enjoyment in PC Building Simulator, as the idea itself didn’t sound that enticing. What enjoyment could I get from building a virtual PC? I thought. Yet somehow, the game manages to encapsulate most of what I enjoy about doing it in real life.
It harnesses similar satisfying gameplay as something like Powerwash Simulator, but this is much more involved than you might think. The developers thought of everything with this game.
Alongside intricately managing all aspects of hardware assembly, the game’s campaign tasks you with jobs to build other people’s custom PCs where you have to actually order parts from an online store from your own in-game computer.
Not only is it a unique entry in the simulator genre, but it’s also a great teaching tool. Building a PC for the first time can be really daunting, but this game is actually a great way to learn the ins and outs before you do it for yourself in real life!
Buddy Simulator | Not A Sailor Studios | 2021
- Platforms: Windows and Nintendo Switch
Buddy Simulator ended up being a surprising game through its attempts to break the fourth wall. The protagonist here is us as we boot up an old-school, text-based game that attempts to learn about the player with primitive A.I. to function as a simulated friend.
To say too much would be to spoil the shock value the game has, but as the A.I. learns, the graphics slowly start to improve and the situation gets more sinister. Most sim games aren’t story-driven, and I can’t think of one that verges on horror, but Buddy Simulator successfully blurs those lines.
Your new A.I. friend uses immersive mechanisms such as appearing to wait for you to come back to the game and voluntarily crashing the software. This is a weird one, but it was one of the coolest indie titles I played in 2020.
House Flipper | Frozen District | 2018
- Platforms: Windows, Mac OS, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, PS5, Nintendo Switch, IOS, and Android
If you fancy a bit of DIY from your video games and want to branch out from your wooden creations from Vrk Shop, give House Flipper a try.
In this game, your goal is to renovate homes to sell for maximum profit, and the developers have painstakingly added every detail involved. You’ll be smashing down walls, painting ceilings, wiring sockets, and installing plumbing, but with non of the associated mess and back-breaking work that’s involved in doing it in real life.
There’s a vast selection of different types of accommodation and an even greater array of furnishings and household items to decorate each room with. When you sit back and look at your work, you’ll no doubt be tempted to knock another wall down for an open-plan kitchen! It’s a great game for exercising your creative side.
My Personal Top 3
- Prison Architect: For me, Prison Architect is the ultimate indie simulation game. There’s so much to see and do here, and with such intricate layers of simulation, you’ll find it difficult to pull yourself away. Add the extensive modding features of the PC version, and you’ve got something infinitely repayable.
- Papers Please: A novel, poignant, and thought-provoking take on a classic genre. Papers Please is exactly what I’ve come to expect from the talent in the indie scene, and it’s easily one of my favorite indie titles of all time.
- Stardew Valley: Few sims have kept me so invested in their virtual world as Stardew Valley, and beyond the intricate systems and relaxing gameplay, it’s the characters and relationships you build that set it apart. It’s easy for simulation games to feel somewhat sterile, but Stardew Valley overcomes that hurdle with ease.
Frequently Asked Questions
Question: I’m new to simulation games and they seem quite daunting. Which out of those on the list would you recommend for a beginner?
Answer: Simulation titles can indeed ask a lot from the player, so if you’re wanting to ease yourself in, I’d personally go for Stardew Vally. It’s got a lot of depth and gives a flavor of the simulation genre, but it doesn’t ask a lot from the player so far as figuring out complex game mechanics and rules.
Question: I see games on this list for both console and PC. If I have access to both platforms, which should I go for?
Answer: In my mind, the answer to this question depends on what platform the game was intended for. For example, although I enjoyed Prison Architect on Switch, the game was made for the PC platform: on PC, the game is more expansive and includes fantastic mod support, so that’s objectively the most feature-rich version of the game and also the easiest to control. That said, there are a lot of perks to having a game be portable.
Question: Having played this type of game before, I’m not certain I have the patience for titles like Factorio or Prison Architect. However, I do enjoy the simulatory aspects. What would you recommend from the list?
Answer: If you’re just after something with a high satisfaction rate but relatively low effort, I’d go with Power Wash Simulator or PC Building Simulator. Both games are light on logistical management but offer some of the same rewards that come with more complex games in the genre.
I hope this list has enlightened you about the world of independently developed simulation games. The rebirth of this genre is one of many great aspects to come out of the indie game boom of the last decade, and it only continues to grow each year. We look forward to what 2023 brings and hope you enjoy the games above!
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