In his 1924 book The Inns of the Middle Ages, W.C. Firebaugh wrote that “the taverns and inns of the fifth century were generally mere hovels, poorly roofed, and, thanks to that, perhaps less smoky than would otherwise have been the case.” He holds that these places had the worst wine, the poorest-quality vegetables, beef that was “tubercular” and pork that was “leprous.” In the words of Saint Ausuin, they were places that made patrons “pay ransom for the privilege of being poisoned.” By all accounts, the medieval inn sucked.
And yet there is obviously something alluring about running one, as evidenced by the (mostly) recent video games that are entirely focused on simulating that experience. Tavern Tycoon, Crossroads Inn, Tavernier, and Epic Tavern all share some basic qualities in common. Each puts you in the position of a tavern owner who oversees the construction and management of a tavern. They task you with making choices about how to handle customers, and each gives you some form of direct interaction, from Tavernier’s almost-visual-novel vibe to Epic Tavern’s robust system for recruiting and managing adventurers.
For all the meaningful difference between them, everything these games do is fundamentally in service to a shared fantasy.. They all take place in worlds of high adventure. Some of them have magic. They’re all populated with heroes and rogues, peasants and pike-wielders, and they ask the player to act as the backdrop for those actions. You’re the place that makes the adventures happen. You’re the person who gets them a stout drink when they emerge from the Tomb of NecroSnakes. You’re the friendly face who takes their coin and transforms it into temporary happiness.
Epic Tavern also places you in the position of being the person who tells these adventurers where to go. While you manage supplies and menus, it is one of the most hands-off games in the genre when it comes to the day-to-day operations of running a tavern. Instead, being in the tavern is mostly an excuse to play serving mini games where you attempt to rack up the highest possible service combos for serving drinks and food. After the patrons of your bar have spent all their coin, you can hire them and send them out on adventures in dangerous places, where they will earn more coin that they can spend in your tavern. It’s a vicious circle simulator that has you performing the work of the craven greed creature.
This is markedly different from Tavern Tycoon and Crossroads Inn, two games that sit somewhere closer to the builder game genre. Where Epic Tavern’s building and setup is largely pre-packaged to free you up for adventure management, these two games demand that you plan and operate your inn in exacting detail. Both have you building specific functional rooms like kitchens and rooms for your patrons to stay. You have to hire staff. You have to design seating areas and position serving areas and make sure that you can manage storage options. While Crossroads Inn is certainly the most specific of these two (asking you to do things like manage trade routes for specific supplies), they both have an ethic that goes beyond something like Rollercoaster Tycoon and instead starts looking a lot more like Crusader Kings II. While playing each of them, I found myself looking at the stats of individual servers and wishing they were higher so that they could cover more tables. They’re those kinds of games.
And finally, Tavernier takes the furthest approach from any of these. The player is less a god’s-eye manager (although you can buy items to decorate and food to supply) and more a person just trying to talk their way through their job. Various people come into the tavern, and you need to chat with them, building your reputation with groups like Guards and Rogues while increasing stats like “cool.” In this game, the fantasy is less based on building your own adventuring teams or specific tavern structures and instead it hinges on how good you are at managing patrons themselves.
Again, though, we have to ask what unifies all of these approaches? Video games are very comfortable in the realm of the power fantasy, and builder games like Rollercoaster Tycoon and social games about decorating spaces like The Sims have plugged into those fantasies as Mario or Batman games do. The power fantasy in those latter experiences is that you can design and build a profitable, working machine. In that way, these tavern management games fit into a comfortable framework.
But there’s still something more to it. While there’s obvious builder DNA in all of these to greater and lesser extents, with their planning and stat management and literal building, there’s also a distinct flavor of games that simulate labor. Tavern games have more in common with Spintires or Farm Simulator than they do with Rollercoaster Tycoon at the end of the day, but instead of simulating the manual labor of tractoring or harvesting sweet potatoes, they’re about acting as a small-business owner with a heart of gold.
You operate on a shoestring budget. You make something artisanal and special, unique to you as a player. You make micro decisions that really do make or break your business in the short term. In real life, you’d have to invest thousands of dollars to watch your restaurant or speciality donut shop or bookshop rise and then fall. Tavern games allow you to get the thrill of running at the edge of solvency in the same way that Euro Truck Simulator lets you stress about how many miles you can cover over night. The crucial addendum here is that heart of gold that I mentioned. Your employees have no recourse when you fire them. Your patrons are constantly annoyed with bad service, but they’re always there to dine or drink once you have the right facilities. The conversations you can have (in the games with conversations) are always spoken with a twinkle and a smile, as if everyone knows that you’re the jolly cornerstone of every town. These games provide the double fantasy of running a small business and being sincerely wanted and loved by the people who might use your services.
Sure, you might sell terrible food. It might take several in-game hours to get that food out of the kitchen. The wine might be trash, and the rooms might be gross. You could be a failure in every sense of the word, but redemption is always around the corner because adventurers and peasants and nobles and merchants all need you to help facilitate their stories. You’re the glue that holds entire genres together, and these games use that as their own kind of adhesive to draw players in. The power fantasy here is based entirely around the player getting to be the warm, comforting fire that’s at least better than the dripping sewers that everyone hacks around in or the border skirmishes for territory that bleed the land of life. As a tavern keeper, you’re needed in the world, and who wouldn’t want that?