Nothing beats the joys of open-ended virtual city planning. From finding the right balance of municipal infrastructure, transport networks, and servicing a growing population to streamlining garbage disposal routes. City builders have had a firm footing in the world of gaming for the better part of three decades with developers striving to this day to recreate the rigors of constructing the most efficient and visually pleasing metropolis. We’ve scoured through the dozens of titles available and narrowed it down to the 8 best city building game your hard-earned money can buy.
Cities: Skylines is city building at its unrestricted best with an inbuilt capacity to build anything you can dream up. Limits are virtually non existent and if there’s land, you can build on it. The detail, rewarding progression system, and the in-depth management (traffic, resources, farming, garbage, transport networks, education, entertainment, business…the list goes on and on) aspect means hours whittle away as playing becomes somewhat of an obsession. The numerous expansions and vibrant modding community have expanded the game to include natural disasters, eco-friendly cities, nightlife, and even mass transit systems i.e. ferries and cable cars. Cities: Skylines is compelling because the game does well to offer facilities commensurate to the current size of your project, but always hints at exponentially more possibilities as you grow in size. There’s a sense you could keep on building forever and the game would still offer up new avenues for development. In our opinion, Cities: Skylines is the definitive city building experience.
In a similar fashion to the SimCity series, Tropico has been about perfecting a concept through successive releases, culminating in Tropico 5. Take on the role of a dictator of questionable moral standing on a fictional island loosely based on similar real-life historical totalitarian regimes in Central and South America. Carry a subsistence economy to a raging economic powerhouse while controlling a hot-tempered population through edicts, bribes, and even assassinations. The stand-out campaign mixes in multiple periods from the era of colonial expansion to modern times with a rich story covering outlandish topics such as time travel among others. The beauty of Tropico 5 is down to how fun it is to play as well as the tropical, tongue in cheek, sunny vibes that permeate the game.
If a game is still as fun 20 years later then you’re on to something. That’s exactly the case with Caesar III, which forms part of the aptly titled ‘city building series’ published by Sierra in the 1990s and 2000s to critical and commercial acclaim. Empowered by Caesar himself with the tools to develop an uninhabited province, you must build a city that is not only capable of sustaining itself, but also trade goods to the wider Roman empire. Caesar III shines in the challenge of ensuring building placements fit in with the status of the surrounding housing, while ensuring markets are well sourced with goods, and no undesirable facilities are within proximity. Uncharacteristically for a city builder, Caesar III also introduces a combat mechanic, which though hands off when it comes to actual battles, requires careful planning to supply troops with necessary equipment. Religion plays its part as well as you must satisfy needy gods with regular festivals and shrines in their honor. Equally, natural disasters pop up to throw off your grand plans. Caesar III is a classic and is well worth revisiting or enjoying for the first time.
The Anno series is another stalwart of the city building genre defined by an injection a discovery, diplomacy, and combat elements as well as the central city building. Historically, Anno 1404 veers somewhat from the history books, yet retains enough significance to be an enjoyable portrayal of the time period. The occidental and oriental civilization make for good counterparts and offer up very different playing experiences with unique technologies and facilities. Cities can evolve from tiny hovels to bustling metropolises rather rapidly, but ensuring needs are met becomes a balancing act of epic proportions, though extremely enjoyable. Anno 1404 is also among the more gorgeous city builders and sports a great campaign to boot.
SimCity started it all, as a humble take on what building a city from scratch could be, spawning a succession of spin-offs and of course The Sims, which we all know and love. However, it wasn’t until SimCity 2000 that Will Wright and Co truly hit the proverbial nail on the head. Taking what worked from the original game, SimCity 2000 introduced mouldable terrain, underground networks for energy provision and transport, a new diagonal isometric view, and an arsenal of new facilities and power sources. The nitty-gritty metrics linked to budget, demographics, taxation, and zoning were also revamped for a far deeper experience. SimCity 2000 set the tone for what successors had to live up to. The game remains very playable, though the graphics show its age.
Developed by the team behind Caesar III, and released only a year afterwards, Pharaoh borrows essentially the same game play mechanics as its Roman counterpart, yet adapted to Ancient Egypt, with appropriate deities, resources, monuments, and a story to match. If you liked Caesar III, Pharaoh offers similar content and is seen by many adepts of the series as an extension. If ain’t broke, don’t fix as they say
The most recent entry on our list, Frostpunk is interesting in that it limits the potential for city building to heat producing furnaces nestled in a frozen wasteland. The needs and requirements of survivors are the prime focus as they represent the last stand in humanity’s battle against an icy apocalypse, but once these are satisfied things move towards more long term objectives such as fostering hope among inhabitants. Frostpunk isn’t so much about expanding as surviving and with this every decision has long lasting consequences for your freezing colony. The law mechanic infuses the game with an interesting dynamic whereby you must balance public sentiment with the constraints of limited resources. It’s political, packed with a gripping narrative, and uses the steampunk aesthetic to stunning effect.
Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
Another game from the city building series, Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom turns towards Ancient China. Just as good as Caesar III and Pharoah.