I’ve been a fan of theme park management simulators since the original Theme Park back in the 1990s. I would spend hours building a bustling park, watch all of the little 2D sprites of visitors queuing up for rides and get a lot of satisfaction out of seeing their happiness stats rise.
Fast forward to this millennium, and we have the current generation spiritual successor to the theme park simulator crown, Planet Coaster. The game was released back in 2016, and I watched streamers on Twitch giving it a try with interest. I was tempted by it, but at full price and with my taste in genres having switched from simulation games to MMOs, I instead just added it to my wish list.
With the game going on sale with a large discount during the Steam Winter Sale, I finally added it to my games library and became hooked.
Learn to play
After creating my avatar for the online aspect of the game, where you can share any of your creations with your Steam friends and the public, I decided to start up an easy challenge mode game.
From the description, it seemed like the best way to learn how to play. There is a sandbox mode, where you get unlimited money to go nuts building, but I wanted to be sure I could also handle the management side of the gameplay, where you must make a functional and profitable business.
I was surprised that there seemed to be no tutorial. Not even a starter scenario which takes you through the first steps of plopping down a ride and building a queue. I found that I didn’t really need one though, as the user interface felt familiar enough and intuitive enough for me to find everything I needed and to just experiment.
I don’t know if it’s because they’ve stuck with similar concepts and UI elements from other games in the past such as Theme Park and Rollercoaster Tycoon, but I managed to learn the basics quite quickly. I can imagine totally new players who’ve never played a game like this before being stumped though.
After a day or two playing around my starter park, which I dubbed “Adventure Land”, I found that I had made a nice functional theme park which had started to make a profit. It wasn’t the prettiest park though – it was basically just a flat grid of rides and paths that were barely decorated. I decided that I’d learnt enough of what I needed for an actual proper shot at building the park of my dreams and started up a new challenge mode game.
Building a Dream World
For my new park, which I set in a medium challenge savannah terrain, I decided to call it “Dream World” and had some specific goals in mind. I wanted the park to look aesthetically pleasing with a realistic layout. I spent a really long time staring at the paused blank slate, visualising what I needed.
I also wanted themed zones, and with the limited starter rides available, I ended up designating a fairytale themed area and a pirate themed area, which I would decorate accordingly.
From my experimentation in the starter park, I learned that tactical placement of the ride exits was key to directing people where I wanted. So I made sure that every ride exited into a central area of the park where I placed all the facilities like toilets and first aid, and also all the shops.
After a couple of days, adding more rides and expanding the park with a sci-fi zone, I decided to build a new Old West themed area to host some rides which didn’t seem to fit thematically into the other zones. This was going to be a big construction project, as this area was far enough away from the central facilities that it needed its own hub, with toilets, shops and staff rest building.
While there are pre-made blueprints available, these are quite limited and might not fit into your park’s layout the way to want them to. So I’ve found that custom building everything is my preferred plan of action.
The building tools in the game are quite fiddly to learn, but allow you to use a basic set of construction parts and put them together to make intricate structures. I can spend hours just working on adjusting the fine details of a single building. I was very glad when I took some time to check out some of the advanced controls, which let me quickly select objects and clone them to save time, which worked particularly well on symmetrical buildings. I’d just build one half, clone it and flip it around to make the other half.
Gradually, the town (which I called Ironwood), took shape. It was very satisfying to see it come to life with my park visitors taking photos around the town square, visiting the Mexican food stall and buying cowboy hats from the hat shop.
Spending a day at the park
Aside from building and business management, the other aspect of gameplay is just sitting back and watching what you’ve built. You can zoom right in alongside park visitors and roam around the park at ground level. You can pick a visitor and go into first person perspective, to see what the park looks like through their eyes.
You can view the recent thoughts of your park guests and staff to identify problems, or see if you’re doing a great job. I’d like to think that what I’ve built is making people happy and that they’re having a great day out.
One day, while I was randomly selecting guests to get their thoughts, I happened to select a pickpocket that was wandering the park. Intending to catch the criminal in the act, I was surprised to see that their next action was to pickpocket a particular target – me!
Just by chance, the pickpocket had found my own avatar roaming the park. I didn’t even know that was possible. I’d heard that one of the cool features is that your guests will sometimes take the forms of avatars created by other players, but I didn’t consider that my own player avatar would also be a valid option to visit my own park.
It suddenly made me wonder – does my avatar visit often? Or is this just a really rare event? In any case, I switched target and started following my avatar around the park for his entire visit. Who better to experience the park vicariously through than yourself?
First, he got pickpocketed and I watched my avatar discover he was missing a wad of cash. I tried to intervene by manually throwing my security staff at the criminal, but they would walk away in the opposite direction. Eventually, the thief was caught without my help, as a guard on regular patrol spotted and apprehended her. It’s nice to know my park security is doing their job effectively.
Back to my avatar, I watched as he visited a conveniently placed ATM machine to replenish his wallet, and then head off to some rides. Apparently he was okay with queuing normally and didn’t opt for a priority pass. But I thought I’d made those so cheap and great value!
It was interesting queuing for rides with my avatar in real-time, and made me appreciate where I’d decorated the queue paths to look interesting. After following him for a while, I was also relieved to see him visit all the major areas of the park and go on a variety of different rides, rather than get stuck just in one area, riding the same ride over and over again with faulty AI.
I was very pleased to see him visit food and drink stalls, and pick up gifts and souvenirs at gift shops. I’m pretty sure the retail businesses in the park are what keep my bank balance in the black.
By the end of the day when he went home, I was very satisfied that my avatar had an awesome day out, and hopefully his experience was typical for the majority of my park visitors.
World of possibilities
So, after a week playing Planet Coaster, I found that I’d had a great time. There’s so much more space available to expand the park and a bunch of rides I’ve yet to even research. There’s more to discover about game mechanics.
What I like about Planet Coaster is the deep level of detail you can delve into in the management tools. You can tweak prices for rides and park entry. You can even choose to charge people money for using toilets. You can change the menus of your food stalls to add extras such as ketchup on fries, which all have different effects on your guests, such as making them more hungry or thirsty.
While experimenting with signage, I discovered that you can set signs to advertise particular shops and rides. They weren’t just decorative – they were functional. I’d watch the thoughts of a guest walking past a sign for burgers and then suddenly they’d want to go grab a burger. I love it.
With so many games I have competing for my attention, I’m glad Planet Coaster gave me a great experience and I hope to keep visiting my park again and again.