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I Learned A Lesson About Toronto Transit From Mini Metro

Smartly, after a few maps, the game mutates from a game that prioritizes speedy decision-making to one about the difficult decisions of allocating capacity.
December 30, 2018

Like many people, I was traveling home for the holidays. While I rake in the PS4 games from friends and family on Christmas (Far Cry 5! Spiderman!), I like to keep myself entertained on the train with a game on my phone.

I had heard of Mini Metro before (it's been around for years), so I decided to give it a shot. I wasn't prepared for the game to become my obsession for downtime between events over the break.

You can probably guess why this game appealed to me. As a transit user and advocate, I think I could whip up an outstanding alternative subway plan for Toronto in a few days thankyouverymuch. The game uses real city layouts for its maps. Sadly, Toronto isn't one of them.

An early-game map with more stations popping up.

At first, you think Mini Metro is a game about connecting the dots. If you could just find the best way to connect the lines so that the subway cars could move fast enough through your chosen city, then you would win.

Smartly, after a few maps, the game mutates from a game that prioritizes speedy decision-making to one about the difficult decisions of allocating capacity. You're given a limited number of lines to draw on the map and a limited number of train cars to use on your various routes.

As you build your routes, riders (let's call them) pile up at your stations represented by the circle, square, triangle, cross, diamond, etc that is their destination.

Like any great game, the game is easy to pick up but difficult to master. You can draw the routes in any way you like, but the effectively addressing the destination of your riders is the key.

A valiant effort on the red line, soon to collapse.

Unlike real-would transit planning, you can pause the game and redo all your lines at once if you like. You could change your whole strategy at any time and as your stations crowd, you will find yourself looking at your beautiful tightly connected or wide-reaching network wondering how your plans could have gone so wrong.

As in transit planning, the city is purposely uneven in how it disperses the shapes that represent your stations/destinations.

It's Not About The Journey

A bunch of circles can appear in one area of the map (imagine the suburbs) and the desination of the riders at that station will be a square or diamond across the map. If you were to simply connect your circles together, your riders will continue to pile up because they just came from a circle -- they want to get to their destination. Circles appear to be the most common station, while you may have maps with only one square in the early game.

So you attempt to connect a route that utilizes all sorts of shapes, so that your common circle or triangle riders can hop off (creating capacity on your car) while your other riders can stay on to reach their less common destination across the map, perhaps after a couple transfers.

You lose the game if a station piles up too many riders (imagine Bloor/Yonge in January 2018).

To combat a piling station, you can shorten the route so that cars hit the end of their line and turn back to pass a station more frequently, or add another connection so that, hopefully, riders will at least move closer to their destination and hop on a new route or wait at a station with excess capacity.

You could, I suppose, create a line that simply connects one central hub with one station and quickly and effectively clear out one particular type of rider. But that would be downright silly.

A perfect game would have routes that perfectly reflect the destinations of riders in terms of both frequency and capacity.

A large map in free play mode.

Echoing Difficult Transit Truths

And that's the beauty of the game: it echoes the truth that we experience every weekday rush hour. A network of routes with only one major connection will  quickly pile up riders while they wait for the connecting car to arrive.

Attempting to create alternate connecting points can have unexpected consequences because your riders will naturally take the fastest route to their destination.

In real-world transit terms, a person who takes a bus down the street to grocery shop doesn't take up a space for very long; their burden on the system is low. A rider who is doing a long commute takes up a space for a long time and might prevent a quick-trip rider from getting on.

Waterways force you to utilize a limited number of bridges so a singule route may have to stretch much further across the map than you intended when you built it minutes earlier. God help you if you have to connect three or four circles along a long route. A car full of squares might bypass quickly filling stations.

It's just not fair.

In a perfect world -- as in the game -- each route would have a variety of destinations to serve common rider destinations (homes, workplaces, recreation) and appropriate connections for those going across the city for the rare trip to the airport or museum.

In Mini Metro, you also don't deal with taxes, political forces or machiavellian voter manipulation during an election. I mean, this isn't Civilization.

Still, the game has lessons to teach about how people use transit, the complexity of the  systems and the tools in play for correcting them. I got it for $1.75 and that's about the cost of half a seat on the TTC during rush hour.

You can get Mini Metro on iOS, Android and more.

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