Something strange happened on the way to the local Cineplex this morning. Not only had the theater been given a 5-star makeover, but it was the direct result of our hard work. Moreover, juggling budgets, managing snack inventory and picking which films to screen unexpectedly proved a thrilling reward unto itself. Thank the recent debut of Cinema Tycoon 2: Movie Mania, one of the finest business simulations we’ve ever seen.

At first blush, it seems like every other money-managing challenge out there, dressed in a dizzying array of menu screens, virtual pulltabs and balance sheets. But the real beauty here shockingly lies in the title’s simplicity, as even novices can quickly understand the direct correlations between their actions and resulting consequences.

Rather than overwhelm with detail, as so many rivals do, the title instead offers graphical feedback in the form of colored meters, smiley faces and even real-time animated sequences where miniaturized patrons visit your screens. It’s therefore easy to tell when boosting the price of pretzels leaves hungry patrons cold, increasing ticket costs on seniors manages proves a wise decision or extra radio promotions bring in hundreds of happy new customers.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves – half the thrill’s in the game’s catchy storyline, ample personality and, most crucially, attention to small details. As conveyed via a colorful intro, you’re a new employee charged with helping movie mogul Mr. Pickwick revive his ailing theater chain, brought to the brink of bankruptcy by ruthless mega-conglomerates. Meeting this goal requires being assigned to a range of theaters from rundown claptraps to slick suburban multiplexes, all frequented by varying types of kids, octogenarians and adults.

Every locale comes with its own goal (earn X many dollars, build Y number of ticket windows, work your way up to Z amount of screens), each town a different temperament. So while Pickwick himself occasionally offers helpful tips on what type of concessions or promos to emphasize and cartoon soccer moms and cops periodically pop up to offer occasional advice on the neighbors’ temperaments, hey… Most of the day-to-day managerial duties and guesswork are left to you.

Although heavy on the handholding at first, newcomers especially will appreciate the ease with which one manages to pick up the basic play systems, and get into a comfortable groove. At its core, play truthfully consists of only two phases. For starters, planning, where you decide which films to screen based on genre, quality and mass-market potential, as well as whether to hire new staff, make upgrades (adding more seats, say, or a better projector) and distribute flyers or take out TV ads.

After tweaking prices and settling on a lineup of movies (hilarious write-ups and faux posters advertise flicks like the hair-raising “Paws” or groundbreaking documentary “Yellow Snow”), the day’s business can begin.  

During working hours, a series of viewpanels essentially show you customers arriving at ticket windows, hitting the snack bar, and settling into seats, with thought bubbles conveying their mood. Happily, these sequences can be sped up or skipped entirely, with instant feedback on performance offered in the form of daily news updates; arrows which indicate if ticket sales and film revenues are declining or skyrocketing; and trend overviews showing how well business is picking up, and with which groups of citizens. In other words, thanks to a superb user interface and elegant on-screen feedback, you’ll know right away if strategies are coming together as planned, or, sadly, falling apart.

Certainly, expect to encounter a sizable number of random pitfalls, such as competitors putting the squeeze on, impatient loan sharks or soda fountains suddenly breaking on you. There are also a substantial number of tabbed browser windows you can access to check in on employees or balance sheets. But in truth, this lemonade stand-like business simulation remains relatively straightforward and simplistic at its core.

Bearing this in mind, veterans of more complex offerings such as Industry Giant or RollerCoaster Tycoon may scoff. Still, a breezily casual spin on what’s inherently a tough subject to simulate, let alone wrap one’s head around, Cinema Tycoon 2 more than delivers on its promise of blockbuster entertainment. As such, while not the most robust or instantly addicting desktop diversion out there, we remain proud to give it a standing ovation.