City-building games have evoked a positive response among the simulation community for decades now. The first city-building game was The Sumerian Game from 1964. It was nothing like the city-building games that dominate the market today. It was more like a text-based mainframe game, written by a single coder, Mabel Addis. In the 1980s, the SimCity franchise took the market by storm. Back-to-back great 2D city-building games set EA as a market dominator. The legacy continued until the mid-2010s when SimCity 2013 finally ended the long-running series’ reign. Paradox, who initially feared launching a city-building game due to the market dominance of SimCity, launched Cities: Skylines in 2015. That game was an instant success. Players have never been given so much freedom in a sandbox simulator before. With constant updates, a very active modding community, and several asset packs later, Cities: Skylines is the dominating city builder today, and it will be for quite some time to come.
1. Cities: Skylines
Today, Paradox is known for pulling off massive sandboxes and simulators that give players’ imaginations the final flight. But, Cities: Skylines is a project that wouldn’t have had seen the light of the day if Simcity from 2013 had been a commercial success. After SimCity lost the city-building sim battle, Paradox saw an opportunity to intervene and create what would become the most complex city-building simulator the market has ever seen. Cities: Skylines has dozens of DLCs, tons of mods that range from visual improvements to adding new features that the Vanilla version does not come with, and a great AI that backs it all. It has everything: loans, careful road planning, district policies, and so much more. Cities: Skylines is the most accurate and the largest sandbox where you, the Mayor, will spend hundreds of hours creating your sprawling city and win the elections every time.
2. Anno 1800
Anno is a long-running series in the city-building sub-genre. The latest entry in this series, Anno 1800 is set in the 19th century and focuses on the Industrialization era. Although the time portrayed in the game is the 19th century, the game focuses on Victorian architecture and is based on a two-world system. An old world exists, where the central gameplay occurs. This world focuses more on the needs of the citizens, the workers, and the artisans. Simultaneously, a new world exists that focuses on manufacturing stuff the old world is ready to buy. Anno 1800 is a classic city-building game, and the overall AI and core elements are extremely polished. The game also comes with probably the most refined combat system in any city-building sim.
Banished is pretty much what the name suggests. You have to take care of a banished community and help them grow a sprawling settlement that will keep them happy. The game has a lot to offer from stunning visuals to some game elements like assigning jobs to individual citizens of the community. However, it does not feel polished as the game does not react to player decisions as expected, and at times it feels like a survival simulation. All you need to do is keep the community well-fed, keep basic amenities available, and have enough jobs for the entire population. So, it does not feel like the real world where the citizens search for their job, and the Mayor has little to no part in it, but for someone looking for a survival challenge, this game is it.
4. SimCity 4
SimCity 4 is already 18-year old at this point. But, if we put the visual fidelity factor aside, this game still comes with aspects that are rarely seen in most modern city-building sims. SimCity 4 was released by EA in 2003, and it can be defined as the Cities: Skylines of the 2000s decade. The game was the first 3D game in the SimCity series, and Maxis exploited every technology to its limits. SimCity 4 allows players to sculpt the landscapes as they wish before founding a city. The game also focuses heavily on the concept of neighboring cities. Neighboring cities can exchange services like power, water, and garbage disposal for money, which the game calls Simoleons. Other than that, it is mostly the standard SimCity formula with grouping tracts of land into residential, commercial, or industrial zones. Extreme third-party customization tools make the game more enjoyable. A single expansion called SimCity 4: Rush Hour was released in September 2003.
5. Surviving Mars
Surviving Mars is pretty much what the name suggests. Players are required to colonize the red planet in this game. At the beginning of the game, players can choose from a list of sponsoring countries, each with different benefits. Occasional rockets from Planet Earth does little to no help to the colonization process as the resources that they carry are too few. This forces players to focus on producing things on Mars itself. Players can choose resources to export. So, exporting prefab components, and industrial materials might help in setting up in-house production facilities. However, this means that the colony will have to be self-sufficient in farm produce. The game requires extensive management and balancing industries with basic amenities like oxygen and food materials. It also has a few story elements called mysteries. These add several events to the colony ranging from plagues, wars, AI revolts, alien contact, etc. Overall, the game is an extremely enjoyable experience, and it is also a one-of-a-kind extraterrestrial city-building sim experience.
6. Tropico 6
The Tropico series and its legacy of “El Presidente” is well known. All of their games are based in the tropical Caribbean island of Tropico. But, Tropico 6 has something more to offer. Instead of restricting your creativity to a single tropical island, Tropico 6 presents players with an archipelago to customize and build their empire. Players can fully customize their President, from male or female to their looks. They also can customize their Presidential palace. Just like any other Tropico game, Tropico 6 is based across four eras: the Colonial era, the World Wars era, the Cold War era, and the Modern era. The newest installment also allows players to build bridges across the archipelago in the World Wars era or later. However, the game does not feel polished, and parts of the gameplay feel extremely repetitive. The opening cinematic might set you in a good mood, but the gameplay is thoroughly disappointing. For the first time, Tropico 6 has an AI built into the citizens, and your decisions might reflect on the overall produce, citizen happiness, and it might trigger a revolt. But, this AI is nowhere near perfect. It feels like Tropico 6 could have had enjoyed more time in the oven.
7. Dawn of Man
Dawn of Man is a survival simulator where players are required to take over the needs of pre-historic men. The game ranges from the Paleolithic to the Iron age. In the game, players must build a settlement to keep the pre-historic civilization safe. This also requires ensuring a steady supply of food, water, and clothing items. In simple words, players have to create a self-sufficient civilization that is sustainable. The citizens must be able to meet their needs by hunting and there must be freshwater bodies nearby. Challenges come in the form of predators and natural disasters like storms and blizzards. You must fight these challenges as required, and have weapons ready to ward off animals. Overall, Dawn of Man is not a satisfying experience as it oversimplifies things. But, it is almost a one-of-a-kind prehistoric city-building sim, so it demands a position on this list.
8. SimCity (2013)
SimCity from 2013 was a very disappointing entry in this great long-running series. A part of the failure can be accredited to the overhype that EA created around this launch. Upon launch, SimCity turned out to be a mix of ideas between the developers, Maxis, and the publishers, EA. Maxis wanted to create the best 3D city-building sim with a focus on sandbox experience, while EA wanted to create a city-builder with a focus on the multiplayer gaming experience. While both of these had their own set of pros and cons, the resultant game followed neither of time. It was the worst of the two worlds, which resulted in a limited block-based city-builder with a poor scope of collaboration among any two cities. There wasn’t much to develop or explore. Thus, players got easily bored with the game, and it turned out to be a disaster. The many DLCs that were launched did nothing to improve the game. They mainly were building packs, which coupled with the less area to develop cities, crammed things up more. As a result, cities looked like pieces of downtown scattered throughout a set of pre-determined landscapes.
Frostpunk is an indie steampunk sci-fi city-building sim. In the late-19th century, a volcanic winter has spread across the world. This has led to humanity’s struggle for existence. The player, which the game calls “The Captain” finds an area suitable for habitation, and the game requires you to create a settlement that keeps the people warm and gets the wheel of life rolling. The game heavily focuses on temperature regulations and citizen happiness. Players can introduce policies like temporary 24-hour shifts or child labor to get more work done, but that will increase the discontent counter. The entire settlement is set around a heat-generating generator. With technological advancements, this generator can be upgraded to produce more heat and keep the temperatures up. Important buildings like medical dispensaries and homes must be placed close to the generator to keep them warm. Overall, the game is extremely challenging as if the discontent meter drives up, the Captain will be driven out of the settlement, and you have to start over again. However, with a recent patch, 11 Bit studios added a sandbox mode that enables you to build as much as possible without any quests or a story.
10. Aven Colony
Aven Colony is a sci-fi city-building simulator built using Unreal Engine 4. The game is set on Aven Prime, an extraterrestrial planet several light-years away from Planet Earth. The game focuses on colonizing this planet. It has a campaign mode as well as a sandbox mode. While the Campaign mode has objective-based missions for the player to complete, the Sandbox mode enables players to set some initial conditions and then build an open-ended world colony with no set of objectives. The game also includes fighting aliens, building sub-colonies, fighting cultists, and enemy aircraft. But, the game does not feel polished at all. Despite being from an indie developer, the game is way too ambitious, and thus it fails to deliver.