Out of all of humankind’s many inventions, the automobile is the grandest. The absolute pinnacle of engineering that you can actually afford. A carriage of comfort superior to the conveyance of even the richest kings of yore.
And unlike other technologies, that spectacular statliness and privacy will likely decrease in the future because cars are ridiculous and inefficient and at some point humans will stop owning 4000 lbs hunks of metal that sit dormant 95% of the time.
With such marvelous variety, competition and constant refinement you’d think there would be hundreds of games exploring the rich possibilities. But the nearly 20 year drought since Detroit seems to be ending. Enjoy our list, ranked in order of how close they come to achieving the dream of letting you roleplay Lee Iacocca.
If instead you’re just looking to build vehicles, without the business, this reddit list is a bit old but has tons to choose from.
July-7-2018 Update: I moved Automation up a spot from #8 to #7 because the recent update lets you export your cars into BeamNG.Drive which is pretty cool and significant.
#14 Car Mechanic Manager
Description: By far the most casual game on the list, Car Mechanic Manager turns running a repair shop into a simple clicker game. Its mobile roots are rather obvious and it’s extremely manual, with every action requiring a click.
Much like Diner Dash, you choose the client, match them up with a service and try to keep it all moving without running out of time and losing money. Once you earn a bit you upgrade facilities so you can do more expensive repairs.
You see all there is in a few hours, and it gets repetitive long before that.
Focus: Running a tiny car repair shop all by yourself, forever
Best Feature: Super easy to learn
Steam Rating: 60%
If this game was a car it would be the: The 1985 Yugo, obviously. Is it rude to compare this game to a Yugo? Is it rude to compare a Yugo to this game? Time magazine reviewed it and concluded that for $3995 you’re better off with a used car and mused whether it was the worst car ever.
#13 Epic Car Factory
The problem with Epic Car Factory is that it’s neither epic nor about a car factory. You don’t produce cars, you prototype single models and then send them off to be sold, somehow, somewhere. Using a tiny staff you design cars along four basic stats. It’s shallow bordering on casual and so full of RNG that your cars often fail to match your expectations.
Research is sparse and the whole thing plays like a Game Developer Tycoon clone with a car skin. Whatever charm the cute pixel graphics provide is soon washed away by a tide of tedium.
Focus: Designing single models
Best Feature: Charming car bodies
Developer: Epic Devs LLC Released: 2018
Available from: Steam
If this game was a car it would be: essentially small and cute but utterly useless for its purpose. It also had to be a prototype because that’s all this game deals with. Finally it has to have a name that is possibly a bad google translation. Only the Tang Hua Book of Songs would do.
#12 Cars Incorporated
Cars Incorporated made it to version 0.36 before stalling out in 2015. Like many other one-man game attempts, it sounds like real life intruded. What remains is a surprisingly playable little tycoon game focused on the frame of the car more than internal design.
You don’t choose from pre-made bodies, instead you use an intuitive little editor to actually pull and stretch vertices to create your cars. Make the back flat and add a bed and you have a pickup. Take the roof off and you have a convertible. I usually prefer designing using toggles and sliders but this makes charming, unique vehicles that are nevertheless reminiscent of era-appropriate real models.
Aside from the body designer the rest is fairly light, but you do design individual engines and chassis’ as well and produce the car in a simple factory on a component level. The business side is both abstracted and more realistic – you set a price and dealers order cars instead of you selling them directly to the consumer. It’s a bit too forgiving and once you get going money pours in too freely.
The demo version is available, letting you play from 1900-1905. Another $10 gets you 45 more years.
Best Feature: Flexible body designer
Developer: David Klande Released: 2014 (Early Beta)
Available from: Developer
If this game was a car it would be the: L’oeuf or The Electric Egg – Paul Arzen’s solution to dwindling supplies of conventional materials and fuel in France during WW2. The result is a hand made, oddly shaped little 3-wheeled electric vehicle that sadly never saw mass production.The whole thing weighs 60KG (90KG with the motor and 350KG with the battery packs) with a range of 100Km at about 65Km/h.
#11 Car Tycoon
Description: Coming during a glut of “me too” tycoon games cashing in on Roller Coaster Tycoon‘s success, Car Tycoon is fairly generic. Of the many levels of the car business you can choose to model, from the nuts and bolts to running a multinational corporation, focusing on a city/individual building level is the most boring.
Most of your time is spent in a Simcity like view, choosing which dealerships get which models and hunting for big contracts. The documentation and interface were bad even by early 2000s standards and the car designer is boring with few options and customization slots.
Focus: Midlevel management focused on sales and simple dealership fulfillment.
Developer: Vectorcom Development Released: 2004
Available from: Myabandonware
If this game was a car it would be the: most generic, flavorless car from the same year as the game. Behold the bland majesty of a white, 2004 Ford Taurus. It technically does what a car should do while slowly crushing your soul. It’s like they didn’t want to waste polygons when designing it and forgot rendering speed isn’t an issue in real life. And who is the spoiler fooling?
#10 Dream Car Builder
Like a few other games on this list of car design games, if this was just about which game was the most fun, Dream Car Builder would rank higher. But it’s too narrow to give you the full Iacocca roleplaying experience, focusing just on building and then racing.
But even that is not traditional – you build the car out of basic components like you do in physics based games. So the resulting vehicles are extremely personal, unique and variable but don’t really look or feel like real cars.
If you’re more engineer than CEO, and you like actually racing your contraptions, this is a blast. If you want to deal with unions and production flows pick something else.
Focus: Making a vehicle out of tubes and struts and parts and racing it in a jumpy, physics engine
Best Feature: Designing anything you imagine and competing online
Developer: RoKo0 (Roman Konyukhov) Released: 2016 (Early Access)
Steam Rating: 92%
If this game was a car: It would have to be a car you build yourself. And the results should only sort of look like a car. And you should drive it on sand. The Meyer’s Manx kit dune buggy starts with a VW bug frame and goes nuts from there. Here’s how you build it.
#9 Motor City
Description: Primarily concerned with the business side of things, Motor City is quite hard and simulates the European market from the turn of the 19th century. There’s a lot happening under the hood, from modeling real world events based on your starting country to having a full, built in racing simulator for testing your prototypes for the races.
While it does a nice job of Lee Iaccoca’ing, it would be far higher on this list if it wasn’t so old and therefore annoying to run, ugly and sporting a ridiculous mid-90’s interface.
Focus: Running a full business, from manufacturing to sales
Best Feature: Touches all aspects of running a car company
Developer: Max Designs Released: 1994
If this game was a car: First it has to be European and it has to be a pain in the ass to use nowadays. The Alfa Romeo Alfasud was a great little 70’s hatchback.
Unfortunately the early versions were produced through an Italian government labor redistribution experiment, built in a new factory in Naples with no skilled labor. Italians were also completely unused to rust and failed to protect the car in any way. Salty North American winters literally ate them much like the game’s low resolution and dialogue based UI eats my eyes.
#8 Automation – The Car Company Tycoon Game
July-7-2018 Update: You can now export your cars to BeamNG.Drive (an early access car physics engine).
At the time of writing (and for many years before that) Automation is a very promising, very early access game. It was actually closer to a full game in previous versions, with a lite campaign included, but the engine has been upgraded to the Unreal 4 engine causing two steps back before hopefully taking three steps forward.
What is there right now is the most complex vehicle designer on the list. I have a mental line for these games – can you just pick how many cylinders in your engines or do you get to mess around with their bore diameter and compression ratios? Only Automation and Gearcity get to this level of design depth and as mind-bendingly complex and inscrutable as it all looks initially, eventually it all starts to make sense and you start really learning about cars.
I’ll keep an eye on it and move it up as the rest of the game (which promises the entire suite of activities from sales to research) actually gets made.
Focus: Currently just an extremely detailed vehicle designer
Best Feature: Level of detail
Developer: Camshaft Software Released: 2015 (Early Access)
Available from: Steam
Steam Rating: 78%
If this game was a car: the 2004 Ford Bronco concept car could have been a Jeep killer. It’s not conventionally pretty or super fast but the Bronco had tons of fans who loved its ruggedness and despite people being really excited about it, and now being on its second attempt, a new Bronco still hasn’t made it to production.
The original Bronco was discontinued shortly after OJ Simpson held America captive with the most boring car chase ever recorded on film. Theories blame the chase for the Bronco’s demise although Ford says it actually helped sales.
#7 My Summer Car
My Summer Car combines two unlikely simulations – the first is an incredibly realistic, accurate, and therefore difficult mechanic simulator. When you build a car, you’re placing every screw and part in the correct order. The second is a permadeath Finnish existential sadness simulator in the form of a mostly functional small town and its surroundings. Linking the two is an excellent driving simulation that takes every little tweak you made to your shitbox into account.
You’re a young person, your parents are gone for the summer so you spend your days doing odd jobs to buy parts to assemble something you can drive and race. Or you can drink beer and chop some wood. I’ve rarely seen a game that’s engendered as rabid a fanbase as this game.
Aside from the fidelity and sheer charm, the game is quite difficult. Jobs earn little so every part you save and scrape for is cherished. And few gaming achievements are as sweet as when you finally assemble something driveable. Then you hit a tree causing realistic damage to all those cherished components and it’s back to emptying septic tanks until you can afford repairs.
Best Feature: Wrenching accuracy
Developer: Amistech Games(worth a visit just for the early internet vibe) Released: 2016 (Early Access)
Available from: Steam
Steam Rating: 90%
If this game was a car: To properly portray this game, the chosen car has to do a lot of things. First and foremost, it has to be a classic shitbox. But it also has to have the wrenching potential to be a kickass sleeper. I was going to go with the AMC Gremlin, but the fact that My Summer Car features permadeath (in a wrenching game!) left only one choice – the Ford Pinto. A car that may or may not turn into a fireball during low speed collisions from behind.
#6 Car Mechanic Simulator 2018
There are previous versions in the series, and 2018 launched with a lot of issues, but that’s been sorted out now and the core game is $20 so you might as well grab the latest.
This game requires dedication for two reasons. First, it’s the most detailed and exacting when it comes to making repairs and installing components. Forget bolts or do things in the slightly wrong order and parts get damaged, ruining your already slim profits. Second, it’s a roleplaying game using roleplaying mechanics. You’ll do a lot of oil changes before you skill up enough for cooler jobs and you’ll have to save before you can start turning a rusty barn-find into the car of your dreams.
The only reason it’s not higher on the list of car design games is that it’s so focused on the wrenching aspect of the business that the bulk of the joy comes from physically installing components and working on the guts. There’s a nice, if small scale business sim wrapped around it but wrenching is still required for revenue – you don’t offload the work to AI employees. It’s also a resource hog and won’t look like the shiny screenshots without a nice system.
Best Feature: How much you learn about real cars.
Developer: Red Dot Games Released: 2017
If this game was a car: This was hard. I wanted a car that looked great but was horribly, unreasonably complex. Usually that would be some sort of fast supercar but that doesn’t really match the pace of this game.
I give you the monstrously obscene Mercedes Benz 600 which used a ridiculously complicated hydraulic system for every moving part including the trunk and windows. When pressing the button all the way, the closing window action was so powerful it could allegedly remove a limb. That sounds like an urban legend but it is a fact that evil dictators absolutely love it.
#5 Automobile Tycoon
I liked Automobile Tycoon when I previewed it, but it runs out of gas because it’s just too light. Production for example is just a single “factory” with a control over number of lines and employees but little else. So it touches all aspects of the business but very lightly and after a while the game loop becomes repetitive.
The car designer, like Detroit, isn’t vast or complex but does a good job of letting you produce cars with character that match what you intend. It is just a series of menus and sliders, there’s nothing visual about it. The business model is quite complex under the hood but your interaction with it (and dealer network) is minimal.
It’s playable and stable but early access. I hope they add a lot more but am not sure the existing framework will support it.
Best Feature: Easy to get into
Developer: Silver Lemur Games
Released: 2017 (Early Access)
Available from: Steam
If this game was a car: The 2018 Mitsubishi Mirage is a brand new car. It does car things. It’s smallish and looks ok. You’ll probably get bored driving it.
#4 Motorsport Manager
Motorsport manager is a great game that’s hard to place on a list of Iaccoca-ness. It does everything you want these games to do. The car designer is super detailed, you work on individual components, balance and tune, there’s a robust business layer with sponsors and cash flows. Research is detailed and you even have to deal with things like driver personalities.
On top of all that it looks amazing and when you’re done building there are full, detailed races that you influence. And that’s the “issue” for the purpose of this list. It’s purely an F1 management simulation, the cars you work on are always F1 cars and the business world you inhabit is that of motor racing.
So it’s a terrible Lee Iacocca simulator while being a fantastic car game.
Best Feature: Seeing your car race
Developer: Playsport Games
Available from: Steam
If this game was a car: The McLaren MCL33, Formula 1 car. I can appreciate that it’s absolutely gorgeous and capable of insane speeds of over 350km/h but it has no room for a date, let alone kid seats and groceries and even if it did, it’s illegal to drive it on a road.
Detroit is the reason this list exists. I grew up in Windsor, Ontario. A small city across the river from Detroit. Back then the big-3 American car makers were still rocking it and producing cars in the Motor City. That meant yearly field trips to the Ford Museum and constant exposure to news about the car business.
When Detroit the game came out I was in heaven. The combination of management game with the most exciting business possible annihilated dozens and dozens of hours. It’s over 20 years old but we still haven’t gotten the exact mix of car company components that make this such a nostalgic favorite.
It’s on office game, in the sense that you mostly sit in an office and look at reports and adjust parameters. Open distributors in Europe, assign more researchers to study engines, increase factory production, etc. It’s broad but not shallow.
The car designer is of middling complexity but superb at nailing the flavor of the car you’re trying to build. It also has wonderful touches like a huge variety of body types that change as designs modernize, or a little testing component that shows an animation of your car going through its paces. There’s also a lot to do on the business side, something tycoon games of the era did much better than today’s more streamlined, abstracted markets.
The problem is it’s a DOS game, so expect big chunky menus, digitized sound, general sluggishness and everything else that comes with both the era and playing old games on modern computers. At least it’s free.
Focus: Running the whole show, in true Iaccoca fashion.
Best Feature: Putting out cool model after cool model
Developer: Impressions Games Released: 1993
If this game was a car: I wanted an oldie car that looked great. I wanted something that a core of fans loved but that did not sell enough to keep going and spawn sequels and I wanted something cool, with character and versatility. Something you could take to the track and then load with groceries. Finally, it had to be made in Detroit of course, leaving just one choice – the 1951 Hudson Hornet made by the Hudson Motor Company, a plucky underdog just like the one you play in the game.
#2 Production Line: Car Factory Simulator
If you read my review you know I love this game. It’s squarely focused on creating a flow from station to station to slowly build up components until you make a car. Research is focused more on production improvements than cool car technologies.
It’s actually got a very decent external market model, so you constantly fiddle with your cars’ prices and features to keep them selleable. But the vehicle designer is very light, more like an options customizer where you choose things like sunroofs and power windows instead of whether your engine is a straight inline or a V.
Despite how much I like it, it’s so focused on production that it sacrifices a lot in design and flavor. It also doesn’t deal with automotive history in any way. Your cars get more advanced but it feels like it’s contained within the last few decades and body styles do not change at all. All other facets of the business (sales, marketing, etc.) are heavily abstracted but reactive.
Best Feature: Addictiveness
Developer: Positech Games Released: 2017
If this game was a car: The Ford F-150. Ford because of the Model T, the first mass produced automobile and the amazing River Rouge complex – an entirely self contained factory where raw materials come in one end and cars come out the other. The F-150 because they make more F-series trucks than any other vehicle in the world (which is crazy considering 80% of sales are in the US) and pickups are so singular and purpose built like this game.
I admit that I bounced off GearCity the first time I tried it. It was deep in Early Access, unfriendly (despite adequate documentation) and the car designer was overwhelming since I don’t really know about the insides of cars. But I wanted to learn and I could tell there was maybe a good game in there somewhere. So after playing something turn-based with swords as a palate cleanser I tried again and promptly lost 75 hours of my life.
Where it really shines is in the car designer and feeling that you’re running a company over a 100-year period. Second only to Automation in detail and complexity, you can design nearly infinite car varieties. What makes it so satisfying is the excellent research layer and all the flavor. During the world wars, consumer demand drops, but savvy designers who make rugged little trucks and utility vehicles can make a killing in government war contracts.
The business layer is by far the most complex of any on the list. There’s a world map with all major cities, country tax rates and even regional skill levels for the labor pool. Your dealerships are physical locations as are your factories and transportation costs are accurate and expensive, especially in the early 1900’s. There are warranties and contracts, government lobbying and even the financial time bomb of underfunding your pensions.
GearCity wins the top spot by being the most all around complete, having the best car company flavor and an excellent designer that lets you roleplay the company executive and resulting company the way you want to, from everyman Ford to elitist McLaren. It tries to help you climb the difficulty curve with design helpers and tutorials and tooltips but despite its best intentions it is remarkably difficult to get going in.
On day one you have to design an engine, chassis and gearbox. Nearly a year later you’ll get to design your first car and if you don’t know what you’re doing you could already lose the game since money has been pouring into R&D with no sales in sight.
Focus: Designing cars that react to real world events
Developer: Visual Entertainment and Technologies
Released: 2014 (Early Access)
Steam Rating: 81%
If this game was a car: It should look good, and be a ton of fun once you get going. But it should also be very, very difficult to drive. As every worst driving car list ever attests, the Dodge Viper is as bad as it gets with vastly more power than the hastily designed sports car can handle. This video is a perfect example, not because it’s spectacular, but because it shows just how easily a tap on the gas can turn into a broken wheel.