[Note: Patches have been released since this review was written addressing the performance issues.]
Describing itself as “Cute Management Simulation”, Little Big Workshop from Handy Games is all about running your own production business from your desktop… literally. It’s a small scale presentation with large scale ideas, and it really appeals to the lapsed engineer in me with a focus on planning and process oriented assembly. With a successful launch on PC in 2019 it’s now been ported over to consoles to fill a gap in the strategy market. Can it make the repetitive nature of manufacturing interesting in a gaming context? Will it be able to provide flexibility in approach without overwhelming those who don’t know their wood and metal processing techniques? Will it keep getting confused with Media Molecule’s excellent game series? Possibly, on the latter.
As with all good management sims it starts with a tutorial. You’re given an overview of a section of desk that looks like it’s got miniature buildings on it. There’s more than that though – there’s a loading dock, some grass, and tiny people running around waiting for you to get involved. This is where you’re going to build your production empire and watch it grow. Guided through the early stages by helpful tips, you’ll learn all about how to buy equipment, hire staff, manufacture small items out of wood, sell them on the open market, and complete orders for various characters that phone in with requests. It’s well guided and comprehensive… or at least you think it is until it’s gone. The intro packs a lot in, but also manages to leave an awful lot unsaid too, and that’s where Little Big Workshop first lets you know that it’s a bit more serious than its exterior lets on.
Running on a day/night cycle and a (mostly) free market economy, your goal is simply to make money and build your factory into the envy of the competition. With a refreshed marketplace every few in-game days, it’s up to your savvy in tracking demand and price to work out what the ideal products are to turn the best profit. Once they’ve been picked then it’s off to create a blueprint to make them. Little Big Workshop implements a system that gives a top level view of the various process stages for creating the finished goods, and depending on what materials are selected for each part, it’ll drill down to the manufacturing process and let you select how it’s going to be put together. If the equipment needed is in the workshop already then it can be assigned to complete the job, if it’s not then either try a different material to change the operation, or buy the kit. It looks complicated to begin with, but after a couple of attempts it becomes pretty easy to work with. As products become more advanced, the processes and stages increase so there are additional steps to be aware of, and time taken vs staffing will start to be a factor, as will random events that annoy and disrupt the staff, like gnome invasions or mold outbreaks.
Items needing multiple processing steps can all be done on the same equipment, and that usually starts with a workbench and gets better as technology comes into play, though only having one in place means eventually there’ll be a bottleneck and, in the case of customer orders, the deadline can be missed. Having more stations, the ability to schedule work, and even batch process items can really help in the delivery, as long as the workers are happy and able to rest every now and then. The attention to detail is impressive, especially in the options for assigning tasks and saving the blueprints for later use. There’s a flexibility in this approach that means it’s possible to setup for different scenarios and equipment available, and this leads to making the most effective use of resource at all times. Much like a real factory then. Likewise, there’s a lot of depth to the market and predicting what’s going to sell well and avoiding those items that will be left on the warehouse shelves when they’re no longer wanted. It also includes specialising the staff, building more space, defining inbound and outbound routes, and managing the budgets and relationships through a skill tree too.
With a lot to keep your attention on it does the right thing and keeps the displays uncluttered, once again the simple presentation belying the depth. It would be fair to say that some experience with the logic of this style of game is needed with Little Big Workshop, though fortunately there’s no need to read up on engineering manufacturing and technology (though that might actually help to understand some of the terminology). It’s also fair to say that unfortunately there are a few bugs with the build, on the PS4 at least. Two key ones crop up regularly – the notification icon disappearing and a full system lock up. The first sounds innocuous, but it’s that icon that’s linked to the triangle button and opens up notifications. It’s the key way of communicating jobs, issues and generally everything that’s happening. Not being able to see it or the corresponding info can result in everyone downing tools until you manage to work out what’s wrong… if you can. Exiting and reloading is the only way it seems to get fixed, and then it’s not usually for long. Obviously for the second issue, a game crash is going to be problematic, and this happens too often with too much progress lost in corrupt saves that it really does spoil the game.
It’s a real shame on the issues in the port, and hopefully they’ll be patched because there really is a lot to enjoy in Little Big Workshop. The charming game presentation, the amusing characters, and the amazingly deep production process offer something that’s distinct and individual. When it’s all ticking along nicely there’s a satisfaction in beating the deadline by a decent margin, or getting a jump on the market and producing items that are going up in price. Keep an eye out for updates and if they come along then anyone that’s ever been inclined to pick up a lump of wood and a saw might find this a really satisfying way to spend some time.
A PS4 review code of Little Big Workshop was provided by Handy Games PR team, and the game is available now on PS4, Xbox One, PC and Switch for around £20 depending on platform.