City building games are a genre of simulation games where players become the overall planner and leader of a city or town. They become responsible for its growth and manage its policies. The players choose where to build and how the city will develop. These games cover a wide variety of settings, inspired by history, fantasy, and science fiction. They offer a welcome break from micromanagement due to the automation present in the games, allowing the player to focus on the macro level decisions. Combat is secondary in these games as the emphasis is on growth and development. City-building is one of the oldest game genres on offer and it’s a genre that continues to thrive so here we’ve compiled a list of some of the classics on offer for you to play.
13 Best City-Building Games
In Banished the player takes control of a small band of outcasts, exiled to a remote wilderness. The game focus is on the town as a whole and the citizens of the town are themselves treated as a resource which the player must carefully manage. Citizens are assigned jobs by the player but their needs such as food or housing must be met in order to keep them happy and healthy.
The player must balance their resources with the growth of the town as expanding too fast will result in failure. They must also overcome hazards such as fires, harsh weather, and famine. Players will also see their citizens grow old and die. If they don’t replenish their population through new births and nomads, their town will rapidly become abandoned.
Best known as a rival to SimCity, Cities: Skylines is another successful title from Paradox Interactive. It has the reputation of being one of the best city-building games on PC. The player takes charge of urban planning by controlling zoning, taxation, public transport, road placement, and public services.
Players begin with 2km by 2km plot of land just off an exit from a motorway. Residents are attracted to the city as buildings and services are built. As the city increases in population, the player gains access to more city improvements and they can buy adjacent plots of land to expand the city. The game increases in complexity as it expands, giving every player a worthy challenge. Players can expand to fill a full 10km by 10km map while mods have expanded this further to even a full 324 square kilometers!
The Tropico series has you take charge of a corrupt banana republic in the Caribbean during the Cold War era. Players become “El Presidente”, the despotic overlord. Despite being the dictator, players must walk a fine line to balance the demands of factions such as communists, capitalists, intellectualists, environmentalists, militarists, as well as the superpowers of the Soviet Union and the USA. They also run the risk of rebellion, coup d’etat, foreign invasion, and even free elections!
Tropico is unique as not only does the player have to worry about city building and management but they also are endeavoring to do their best to embezzle as much money as they can for a retirement fund in a Swiss bank account. It is the player’s choice whether the island becomes a tourist’s dream destination, a socialist paradise, or a militarised dictatorship.
SimCity (2013) is a reboot of the popular series, updating the game with modern 3D graphics. It presents the player with the standard challenges common to the genre such as zoning, resource management, population happiness, and expansion. The initial release was plagued by bugs but the patches and fixes have restored this game to a level of standing that befits its status.
The Anno series is a collection of thematically real-time strategy games that add elements from business simulations and city building games. They cover a period of time from 1405 to 2205. The games challenge the player with managing their resources and building a colony on a series of small islands. They are noted for their combination of combat, exploration, diplomacy, and trade.
Empire Architect is an ancient city building real-time strategy game. The game is set during the Roman empire. The player has limited control over their subjects but they must successfully manage the growth of the city. Careful management of resources, appeasement of the gods, population happiness, and random events will all tax the player to achieve their task.
Custom levels take place on beautiful procedurally generated maps. The game challenges the player’s economic and military skills as they strive to make their city the supreme power. Failure to educate your workers or research the tech tree will result in a low level of civilization. Failure to keep the people happy will lead to riots and revolts. Even the weather is out to get you in this game!
Pharaoh + Cleopatra
The first on our list from Sierra’s City Building series, Pharaoh and Cleopatra is set in ancient Egypt from the construction of the Pyramids until the Hellenistic period. Players can play the campaign or free build. The former has them work their way up from managing nomad settlements to constructing massive monuments to becoming pharaoh themselves.
The games require careful management of water and health, representing their historical setting. Land and naval combat are offered as is paying tribute to the gods and entertaining your populace. The unique flooding of the Nile requires a careful balance between farming and hunting. Similarly, careful management of health is needed to prevent the spread of disease. They remain undisputed classics of the city-building genre, codifiers of what was to come.
Our second entry from Sierra on this list, Caesar III has the player take charge of a Roman city, entrusted with its growth, trade with fellow cities, and warding off barbarian invasions. Every aspect of the game is interlinked. Buildings require workers who require homes and food. Players must carefully manage resources and trade for anything unavailable locally.
As well as the challenges of city building and management, players must also deal with native uprisings, wild animals, natural disasters, and emigration. It remains one of the best city building games for PC.
Zeus + Poseidon
The last on our list from Sierra’s City Building series, these two games are city builders set in the mythic days of ancient Greece. Players strive to create a successful city-state by the shores of the Aegean. They must build roads, monuments, set taxes, control trade, and raise mighty armies and fleets.
The games offer an excellent balance between diplomacy, economics, war, and logistics. A combination of all the above factors is needed to ensure victory.
The real fun is in the mythic aspect of the game. In addition to the city building aspect, players must also pay tribute and appease the gods for protection. They must summon heroes to protect their settlement from rampaging monsters.
Kingdoms and Castles
Kingdoms and Castles stands out amongst our list as it’s not designed to be complex or even particularly challenging. It prides itself on being fun, first and foremost. Starting off with a few settlers and resources, you take charge and begin to develop a randomly generated plot of land.
The game cleverly restricts growth by using the settlement’s population as an energy meter. The greater number of settlers, the greater number of buildings and services that can be provided. The game stops players from getting complacent by tossing random events like dragons, plague, and viking attacks, at the player.
Beyond building it offers some limited combat and city management but the real joy of Kingdoms and Castles is in building.
Forge of Empires
Forge of Empires is a browser-based strategy game, differing from the others on our list. Players begin in the stone age and must expand their city. They can progress through the ages by researching technology. Players can expand their empire through trade with foreign rulers or by military conquest. A balanced army is essential as each unit has its strengths and weaknesses.
Cities in Motion
Cities in Motion is the second title by Paradox Interactive on our list. It is a business simulator. The goal of the game is to implement and improve a public transport system in Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki, and Vienna. Expansions have added Tokyo, Cologne, Leipzig, New York, and San Francisco. The transport options on offer include metro trains, boats, buses, trams, and helicopter. The games are noted for their incredible attention to detail.
Prison Architect is a top down 2D construction and management simulation. Players must build and then successfully run a prison. As well as placing new structures and rooms, players must also hire a warden and guards. Recruiting staff unlocks further games aspects.
The influence from Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital runs throughout the game. The player can also adjust the difficulty by adding in variables such as temperature and gangs. The game also offers an escape mode that puts the player on the other side of the bars with the intent of escape and wreaking as much havoc as possible.