A screenshot of Death and Taxes on day three, with cawker open and your instructions from Fate.

You know the saying: “Nothing is more certain than Death and Taxes,” right? Well, in Death and Taxes, you play as the Grim Reaper, assigned the job as the arbiter of death for humans in peril. It’s up to you to choose if they live or die.

Dialogue with Fate, your boss, in Death and Taxes. Your actions will have consequences.

It's a boring office job, with perilous consequences

Fate, your boss and keeper of world order, assigns you a new batch of humans each day from your assigned region of Cosmopolis City in Sun County. Your instructions might be to mark one or two people with the Marker of Death, or—more sinisterly—to mark anyone with an engineering or medical background. You could mark Charlie Gocq, the CEO who practices insider trading, or David Garver, an IT architect that builds digital assistants. Or you could ruin the life of a sweet grandma who collects porcelain.

You keep track of the news on your phone—using Cawker—that shows tweet-like news reports, like threats of fire in Sun County, or an announcement that a social media star has fallen off a cliff will taking a selfie. Following Cawker helps you keep in touch with the world, and measure the impact of your actions: take out too many people in the medical field, and you’ll see tweets (cawks?) about an epidemic.

Yeah, it’s another tinderlike game—you’re given a stack of humans in peril and mark those for death based on your instructions. Like in Animal Inspector—you don’t get free rein over your choices. Instead, you do have to report to your supervisor who assigns you different work. There’s still something so compelling about the presence of choice in these games, even if the gameplay isn’t super shaken up from it. You can still disobey, and it has a bit of an impact on the world.

Deciding whether an AI reseracher makes the cut in Death and Taxes.

Does death matter?

The introspectiveness is what makes this game interesting. It trades away some potential silliness, and instead, you face some philosophical conversations with your boss at the end of each day. There are some tough questions for you to think about, like if it’s even ethical for you to be making these choices at all. Some responses could be silly or flippant, but there’s a lot of meaty answers like “you’re the one that gives me the rules,” or “I’m not happy about the situation.”

And for that, Death and Taxes is an engaging game for all the questions it poses—who really should get the thumbs up or down compared against someone else. It’s a free demo available on itch.io.

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A screenshot of Mini Motorways, showing editing strategies and tips for building roads.

Do you know those moments when you’re sitting in deep stop-and-go traffic that goes on for miles? The traffic that makes you lazily slouch down in your seat and turn up the volume to your podcast, to distract you from the boredom? Perhaps you wonder to yourself, who designed these roads? Well, now it can be you.

Mini Motorways is a city simulation game by Dinosaur Polo Club. Your task is to build a road network that can support a growing, sprawling city. It’s a follow up to Dinosaur Polo Club’s earlier game, Mini Metro.

A screenshot of Los Angeles in Mini Motorways, showing the early development of a city, with multiple colors of buildings.

Los Angeles

I first take on the task of planning roads for Los Angeles, a city notorious for dense and never-ending traffic. Something makes me think I can do better. (It’s a game, right? How hard can it be?)

Specifically, Los Angeles is vast and open, with only the Los Angeles River (and later, the San Gabriel River) to get in the way of your planning. As the game starts and time passes, colored houses and factories pop up. The houses provide a few cars of traffic, and the cars leave home to a store or factory of the same color, and then turn around and return home.

Since LA is my first experience with the game, I’m soon caught out by learning the systems yet. I don’t yet know how to foresee the problems here, so my road development is just blindly connecting new houses and buildings to my road network without much rhyme or reason. I don’t know how to anticipate where buildings will grow, and this gets me caught in awkward corners. My first (and expected) loss comes because I never expected how to grow across the Los Angeles River. Next time, I’ll build across the river in advance of things popping up there, and start to preestablish a grid.

An early screenshot of Tokyo in Mini Motorways, showing a road along the Sumida river.

Tokyo

My next contract is in a new city: Tokyo. This city presents a slightly different challenge from Los Angeles. The Sumida River (隅田川) is my first foe—It doesn’t take too long for the game to start throwing stores and houses on the other side of it.

I build on what I’ve learned from LA and decide to establish a grid layout. If you’re thinking about a grid, when a new building appears, try to extend the roads well past the building with your extra road tiles long enough so intersections can naturally form. Also, since you can connect houses to a path from any of their sides, flipping houses seems to be a more critical strategy, so I can start reducing their pressure along main roads.

A well formed city of Beijing in Mini Motorways, with an advanced grid established.

Beijing

Beijing is the next map I sunk my teeth into, and honestly, it took me a few attempts to get right. There are a small river and lake here, and both manage to get in the way. I feel like Beijing is more big-building dense than the other cities I’ve played too.

I’ve refined my grid strategy a bit here, and also picked up a few other strategies. For example, to reduce the number of intersections, I’ve started to focus on tertiary roads that connect to major arterial grid roads—these tertiary roads focus more on dead-end home traffic, and the grids hold more store/factory traffic.

I’ve also picked up the habit of pausing when a new factory drops. I’ve quite often found that the large buildings drop in awkward spots, and as I’m going to paint down new roads, a house will pop into my planned path unexpectedly.

A close zoom of Moscow in Mini Motorways, showing traffic and two buildings about to fail.

Russian to download it

Overall, Mini Motorways is a more zen-like experience than Mini Metro. Once you start to pick up skills that help you better understand the game and its traffic flow—like pre-planning a grid, tertiary roads, etc.—it feels like you have much better control over the game. When I fail, it’s mostly due to shortcomings in anticipating traffic, not from a bout of randomness—like fifteen people decided to stack up at a metro station that I suddenly have to account for (like in the previous game). You also usually have a bit of time to recover from these misses, or can plonk down a motorway as an exhaust path.

Mini Motorways is available now for Apple Arcade. Each game can last from just a few minutes to a max of about 20 minutes (all depending on how well you do), but you can undoubtedly get hours of playtime out of this game.

A newspaper from Animal Inspector, proclaiming that there are too many animals.

Welcome to another worldwide crisis: too many animals. Shocking, I know.

In Tom Astle’s Animal Inspector, you’ve been hired to help solve this crisis by sifting through scores of animals to decide which animals survive another day. That’s not it, though. You’ve got skin in the game too: you have an adorable dog that you want to save from the culling.

From Animal Inspector, a rejected cat that kills mice and disappears.

We Rate Dogs, the game?

Day by day, the game foists a new batch of animals upon you to approve or reject.

In the WeRateDogs era of the internet, a game like this is strangely cute—you just want to tell every lazy dog that, yes, they are the most adorable (13/10). But, don’t be distracted by your impulse to or the game’s cute and cushy MS Paint Aesthetic. It’s all a distraction from the fact that some animals won’t pass muster.

Each day (and a new stack of animals) throws something different at you to switch it up and inject unique flavor. There’s the day where Martha—a bonafide cat lady—begs for you not to reject any cats, and the game dumps on you a stack of five cats. Or the day a documentary crew arrives, and you have to be on your best behavior for them—yes, you can imagine exactly how that goes.

You also have to inject your own opinion into your evaluations. Not only is there a binary approve/reject, but you need to give a reason. And the game tracks your reasons, and scolds you if you’re not good enough. You can’t swear, you can’t be repetitive, you can’t stamp multiple times—you know, the rules and procedure any proper bureaucrat should know.

Martha in Animal Inspector asks if you really rejected a kitty—she loves cats.

Tinderlike games

This game is a good jumping-off point for a developing genre of games that I find to be pretty compelling: Tinderlike games.

These tinderlike games feature repetitive player-initiated approval/rejection as a core mechanic. It could be several binary factors: yes/no, true/false, approve/reject, or a swipe right/left. There’s something about this type of mechanic—game or not—that answers to a primal thing going on in our brains. When Animal Inspector was first out, it was one of just a few of these “tinderlike” games, but now the genre is a bit more established.

A good old dog approved in Animal Inspector

Approve them all

Well, wait, no, you can’t actually approve them all, sorry. (That’s also the point.) But, the game takes a quick thirty minutes, and you’ll hit an even faster failure route if you do try to approve them all.

Animal Inspector is a chill game that exists in a world of established Indies, with games like Sort the Court and Papers, Please as distant related cousins. It also features a soundtrack by Ben Esposito, notable now for Donut County.

You can approve and reject different pets in Animal Inspector for free on itch.io, for Mac and Windows.

A horde of shoppers in Eat The Rich, furiously shopping for the best deals. (Screenshot)

Eat The Rich is a…satirical capitalist shopping simulator? Yeah, that’s probably a good way to describe it.

You take indirect control of a mob of puffy pink eraser people who are stampeding a department store on Black Friday, grabbing and buying everything you can find. Fetch all the TVs, shopping carts, and toilets you can, and run out with the sweet, sweet savings.

This game had me giggling like a fool. It feels like a perfect juxtaposition of Octodad and Happy Wheels in all the best, silly ways. The blobby eraser people flail around with such absurdity that, when you take control, you can’t help but just laugh as they stumble about the world, falling over themselves trying to navigate around the store.

It's Black Friday: Enter the shop, grab items, buy items, score sweet savings.

And how can I forget Jeff Bezos! You’re literally running around a store named Bezos. Literally taking all the money and extra savings to be had from the capitalist-king himself. It doesn't get better than this, folks.

Truthfully, this game is closer to a short prototype, but the content that’s here is just so silly and compelling that it’s absolutely worth it to spend ten minutes and go through the content that’s here. There’s no failure condition as far as I can tell, just pure silliness.

You’ll spend ten minutes crying with laughter while playing Eat The Rich, and it’s available on itch.io for Windows.

The title card of Speak Easy, showing the characters, and art deco style.

Speak Easy, by Shots on Sunday, is a prohibition-era bartending game set in a 1920s-era Chicago.

You take the role of Ruth Moran, bartender, and proprietor of an illicit speakeasy, named “The Straight and Narrow.” Set over three nights, you serve drinks to a revolving cast of characters dropping into your speakeasy. You prepare them a spread of drinks, at their request, from your elegantly drawn and well-used recipe book.

“The Straight and Narrow,” your speakeasy, is set in a smoky Art Deco style as you’d find in the world of BioShock. Inter-day story exposition in Speak Easy is told through slides depicting a vignette of Ruth’s world and inner thoughts, but the biggest story beats come through your interactions with patrons.

Ruth’s Recipe Book in Speak Easy, featuring elegant hand-drawn art

You see unrequited love between two patrons—a doctor and his patient. Sapphire Riviera, another patron, is far too drunk and is claiming to be a star that you should already know. Pearl is an intoxicated police officer, and realistically, a patron you’re perhaps too friendly with—considering the prohibition, y’know. Of course, you also have the occasional drop-ins of the heavy fist of the mob supplying your speakeasy.

The interactivity of the bartending in Speak Easy is well considered, and is easily the best part of the game. Yes, Speak Easy certainly shares mechanical similarities with VA-11 HALL-A, the highly acclaimed cyberpunk visual novel, but the bartending in VA-11 HALL-A is more “click to mix.” Speak Easy’s bartending feels more real—you’re grabbing bottles from the shelves, picking up and squeezing the fruit, and shaking up drinks (with your mouse!) while preparing drinks for customers.

The Art Deco atmosphere of Speak Easy, as Ruth prepares a drink for a patron.

In terms of polish, I’d like for the ability to increase dialogue print speed. Also, even though it’s not necessarily a “choices-matter” style game, I felt like there was inflexibility to some dialogue—I wound up sternly kicking out a customer, where I’d have preferred an option to ask them to leave more politely.

This is an excellent showing from a student team of ten. It’s worth dropping in to chat with a few patrons, make a few drinks, and learn a bit about Ruth’s story. My playtime in Speak Easy was about an hour, and the game is available for Windows on itch.io.

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