I’m not sure why city builder games are even a thing, but for me, there’s something very satisfying about building my own little Utopia and having tiny computer people live there. It’s a different sort of satisfaction to the kind you’d get with nearly every other game, a satisfaction that comes from seeing the world grow before your eyes, all thanks to your careful planning, skill and patience.
Knowing this, we took a look back at all the city builders from history, and compiled a list of the very best. Be aware, this list of the best city builder games is not in any particular order, only one entry per franchise is allowed and it is also based on my own preference, so if you disagree, let’s hear about it in the comments.
The Best City Builder Games
1. SimCity 3000
Developer: Maxis Publisher: EA
This one was a difficult choice, as the SimCity series is one of the most well regarded series of all time. All the numbered titles in the series have found critical acclaim, aside from the 2013 reboot. If the whole series were allowed on this list, they would most likely take up nearly half the top 10. The original is a dated title, but still engrossing and very playable.
SimCity 2000 took what the original game did and built upon it, also adding a beautiful fresh coat of paint, isometric view and a couple of fantastic spin offs (Streets of SimCity and SimCopter), which allowed you to traverse your creation. But for me, it was SimCity 3000 where the series peaked, and it is a game I spent many hours with over the years.
SimCity 3000 took everything 2000 did and improved it tenfold. It was the first game in the series to ‘look’ like a city. While the first two games did manage this, they looked a little basic. SimCity 3000 actually came across like a ‘real’ city, or at least as real as a city builder had managed to do so to date. It also added a number of improvements to the game, such as deals with neighbours or external parties, city advisors and even protesters. Also, it had an amazing jazz soundtrack.
While SimCity 4 arguably improved on the series once again in terms of graphics and gameplay, it was 3000 that solidified my love of the genre, and is why I still love it today.
2. Cities: Skylines
Developer: Colossal Order Ltd. Publisher: Paradox Interactive
In 2013, EA released a long awaited, and much hyped, reboot of the SimCity series and fans were excited. I was excited. For me, SimCity was possibly the most disappointing title of all time. Limited build space mixed with save game corruption and downed servers made it a chore to play. SimCity fans expected more.
An unexpected savior would come in the form of Colossal Order’s Cities: Skylines. A spin off from the transport title Cities in Motion, Cities: Skylines was the SimCity sequel we all wanted all along. Skylines took what SimCity started and ran with it, using their expertise of transport systems on Cities in Motion to their advantage.
Skylines had an in depth and and detailed traffic system, with citizens travelling from their homes in residential areas, to the shops, schools, parks and, of course, commuting to work each day. There’s nothing quite like solving a tricky traffic issue, I remember being so happy when I solved my freeway tailback situation by adding a one way system in the commercial zones. It sounds dull, actually no, it is dull, but it is also very satisfying indeed.
Developer: Impressions Games Publisher: Sierra Studios
So, building a modern city not to your tastes? How about a trip to ancient Egypt with Impressions Games? Impressions Games was a studio that developed a ton of fantastic management and tycoon games in the 90s — I actually preferred their Ultimate Soccer Manager series to Championship Manager. Pharaoh felt like a successor to Impressions’ Caesar series, but more on that later.
I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, but Pharaoh tasks you with building an Egyptian city. Players are scored on various points, including population, prosperity and culture. Other goals are also there to be met, and players are also scored on their ability to hit targets, and that falls under the stat named ‘Kingdom’.
You’re tasked with building paths and bridges and ferries to move people around your city, and the usual jobs such as hunting and mining have to be accomplished by placing the correct building. There are also various gods that players need to appease, and doing so gives you gifts, but angering them has the opposite effect, and your city could suffer from disasters if you do so.
Pharaoh was very well received, and remains popular to this day. A sequel called Children of the Nile would be released in 2004, but didn’t capture people’s imagination in the same way Pharaoh did.
4. Tropico 4
Developer: Haemimont Games Publisher: Kalypso Media Digital
Tropico, much like SimCity, is another city building series that is lucky enough not to have a bad entry in its series. While the series does evolve and change, the core concept of building your own banana republic never changes. While the first game in the series has the highest Metacritic score, I feel that Tropico 4, with full 3D graphics and control system, is the most accessible of the series.
The main goal of Tropico is to build your republic and stay in power. In city building games, there is usually only one way to lose: go bankrupt. But in Tropico, staying in power is also a huge part of the game. Players can be voted out of office, be overrun by rebels or even suffer a coup at the hands of the military — being El Presidente isn’t easy. To steer the country in the correct way, there are a number of edicts that you can choose, however some require certain conditions or buildings to activate.
Developer: Blue Byte/Related Designs Publisher: Ubisoft
Anno is a long running series of city building titles with a focus on trade and diplomacy. While the series has been alive since 1998, there seems to only be a pocket of dedicated fans that truly know the wonders of the series, and celebrate it. I didn’t even first play the series until around 2012, 14 years after its initial release.
There are currently seven games in the Anno series, with many of them actually having a historical setting, but it was the futuristic Anno 2070 that really got my attention. Anno 2070 is set during a time when the polar ice caps have melted due to global warming, turning the world into a series of islands.
The Anno games are all about trading and resource management, but as the world is now flooded, that issue becomes a bigger one. Taking advantage of any resource you can lay your hands on, as well as setting up important trade routes, is vital in Anno 2070. There are two factions, the Ecos and the Tycoons. The Ecos are slower to develop, but take better care of the world around them. The Tycoons can expand quickly, but suffer from pollution and the destruction of natural resources.
For me, Anno 2070 is the most balanced game of the series, and its futuristic aesthetic really appealed to me. It’s the highest rated game of the series too, just behind the most recent addition to the series, Anno 1800.
Developer: Shining Rock Software LLC Publisher: Shining Rock Software LLC
One of the more recent additions to this list, and unlike other titles, Banished is just a sequel-less, stand alone village builder. Developer alone by Luke Hodorowicz, Banished tasks you with establishing a remote settlement in the wilderness. Initially, I did not enjoy the steep learning curve that Banished offered, and I ended up dubbing the game as ‘The Dark Souls of city builders’.
Yes, Banished is hard when you come into it expecting a standard city building affair. Surviving in the wilderness is hard, especially when winter rolls round. Don’t store enough food? Death. Don’t have enough clothing? Death. Think the community is going well, and you’ve not overlooked anythi–no wait, death. It’s so disheartening when your well crafted town is all taken out by the cold, starvation or some terrible disease.
You have to choose your actions carefully, and picking the wrong ones at the start often makes even loading a save redundant. This game didn’t receive overwhelmingly positive reviews at release, and it is easy to understand why. But, just like Dark Souls, finally defeating that monster is so very satisfying. In Banished, that monster is the very world you live in.
It’s certainly not to everyone’s tastes, but if you can master the world of Banished, you’re going to have a good time.
7. Surviving Mars
Developer: Haemimont Games Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Many years ago, on the same disk as SimCity 3000 came two trailers. One of these trailers was for a fascinating looking Mars colonisation game called SimMars. Very few details were ever released, but we can assume it’d be a colonisation and city building game. The other trailer was for The Sims. One of these games became a multi-million dollar franchise and the other was cancelled and forgotten about.
However, there were a few fans who never forgot about SimMars, and even mods for SimCity 4 were released. Surviving Mars is probably the closest we’ll see to Maxis’ SimMars. Humans have arrived on Mars and it is your job to make the planet habitable for them. Drones do all the footwork before the human can arrive, which means building power, water and oxygen units, as well as collecting resources to do so.
To allow humans to come to Mars, you have to build your cities. These take the form of giant domes, and are placed on the surface of the planet. Within each dome you can place homes, schools, shops and anything else your city of the future needs. There’s also storylines called mysteries that affect your city, such as war tensions on Earth or contact from the Metatron, as well as various natural disasters that can affect your colony.
Developer: 11 bit studios Publisher: 11 bit studios
The survival city builder is a genre that has grown in popularity over the past decade. While you could argue that all city builders are technically games of survival, having to balance resources to grow the town, there are games that specifically task you to keep their citizens alive against the odds. The aforementioned Banished is one of these games, and so is Frostpunk.
Frostpunk tasks you with taking on a band of survivors in a hostile, frostbitten environment, and helping them to thrive. The game gives you a group of civilians, as well as supplies and building materials and it is up to you to build a city. Must like other games of this ilk, players are required to source coal, wood and wood, amongst other things, to survive.
Frostpunk is a little different to similar survival city builders as you are able to implement laws, similar in style to the likes of SimCity. Laws can help to make your society a success, but can also be controversial. To survive, you may consider forced child labour, or maybe even 24 hour long shifts, however, this will end up making your populous unhappy.
The game also has an awesome steampunk style aesthetic, thus the name, Frostpunk.
9. Cliff Empire
Developer: Lion’s Shade Publisher: Lion’s Shade
Cliff Empire is the most modern game on this list, having only come out in summer 2019. While it has flown under the radar for many, those that have played it have generally praised it, and as of February 2020, it has over 2000 reviews on Steam at a rating of ‘Very Positive’.
Nuclear war has ravaged Earth, leaving the planet near uninhabitable. The only choice is to build cities in the mountainous regions of the planet, high above the radioactive pollution down below. Giant cliffs are carved out, and these are where you’ll build your city. This game is hard, very hard in fact, in a similar fashion to Banished. However, Cliff Empire isn’t just about finding resources, it also has a heavy focus on trading.
The game will see you managing a number of smaller cliff-based cities, and tasks you with providing transport and trade between them to ensure that everyone survives. The game is all tied together with a sleek and clean sci-fi style which looks fantastic — you’d never have thought that this game came from a small indie. Cliff Empire is definitely worth checking out.
10. The Settlers 4
Developer: Blue Byte Publisher: Ubisoft
The Settlers is one of those PC games that feel like they’ve been around forever. When I first started getting into PC gaming, The Settlers was already a thing, and a well known thing at that. First released in 1993, every single game in the series has been developed by the same developer, a German company called Blue Byte.
While I can’t say there’s a ‘bad’ game in the series, The Settlers 4 feels like the pinnacle of the original experience. They refined the game with each sequel, and while the original Settlers game is still very playable today, The Settlers 4 is an all round more intuitive and better game. The Settlers 4 tasks players with taking on one of three races, either Romans, Vikings or Mayans.
As well as building up a society, you’ll need to build up a military to take on the ‘Dark Tribe’. Destroying the temples of the Dark Tribe will win you the level. While The Settlers 4 received mixed reviews upon release, many fans now view it as being one of the best in the series. There have been good games following The Settlers 4 (I quite liked Rise of an Empire), but 4 remains a solid fan favorite.
The Settlers is set to have a major reboot in 2020.
– I genuinely think that indie game Folk Tale could’ve been huge with its mix of RPG and city building. Sadly Folk Tale was cancelled and it remains permanently in early access.
– Dawn of Man is a 2019 title that sees you take the role of cavemen, and has received great reviews.
– Cities XL was a popular city builder, due to EA’s reluctance to produce any more SimCity games following the fourth entry. It isn’t good.
– Zeus: Master of Olympus and Caesar 3 are fantastic, but they use the same engine as Pharaoh, and are rather similar in gameplay.
– Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic is a city builder about transforming a struggling Soviet Republic into an international superpower.
– Construtor is a 1997 city builder which was also available on PlayStation. Despite the love for the game, it has not aged well.
– Stonehearth is a great little voxel style town builder that seems to have flown under the radar for many.
– Foundation is currently in early access and has a slightly high cost at £25+, but once you see the quality of the game, even at this early stage, it may be worth your cash.
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