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City-building games have been with us since the conception of video games. Through the years, a number of titles have built the foundations that most modern game makers still use as a guide. Games like these offer up a unique form of challenge that lets us unleash our inner architects and problem solvers.
They enable us to solve problems more creatively instead of the straightforward “kill the bad guy” or “save the damsel in distress” that a lot of games entail. They let us live our dreams of having god-like powers that control the whole land and its inhabitants, essentially acting as our private form of power trip.
The best titles within this incredibly addicting and time-consuming genre will keep you busy and entertained for months on end, rewarding you with satisfaction every time you make some progress. With a little bit of patience, your once small settlement has now become a sprawling metropolis that’s filled with life. From the standard city building to making a space colony, there’s plenty to see an do in the world of city-building games, with developers thinking up new ways to spice up an age-old genre.
We have compiled our top favorites of the best city-building games in the current market. All the games were extensively tested for their gameplay, replay value, graphical quality, and immersion. Before we get into our review, though, let’s see what makes the best city building games tick.
The Building Aspect
The general starting points of most city builders are a simple, relatively empty space that’s waiting to be molded and transformed by the player. Over the course of your playthrough, what was once a bleak and blank canvas is turned into a massive complex bustling with life.
It’s this creative form of creation that sparks excitement within us, and this spark tends to last or a long time. If you look at creation-focused games like Minecraft, you’ll see that they still have a large, active player base despite being released for many years now. If you’ve found yourself wondering why it’s because games like these don’t have a limit. Our creativity is their limit. As long as we have ideas to test out and blueprints to build, we won’t really run out of things to do or eventually get bored.
The building is the core feature of city-building games (hence, the name), and this is the main source of enjoyment where other gameplay features are built upon. If players don’t really enjoy the building-aspect of these games, then they won’t enjoy the rest of the gameplay. By having a solid building system in place, a game already setting itself up for success.
Zoning The Land
By zoning the land, we mean placing a specific feature to a designated location. This is the act of meticulously planning out the lay of your land, which buildings go where, where is the industrial zone, the suburban zone, the rural zone, etc. Some games will have structures that will suddenly appear without your consent, and you have to work your way around this slight inconvenience.
Instead of going as planned, your initial layout might change depending on the environment. As your population grows, your industries start to develop, and businesses start popping up, the gameplay can get more and more complex or automated depending on what game you’re playing. Seeing your city grow on its own is a satisfying endeavor, and you start feeling some form of accomplishment as you see the fruits of your labors positively affecting a once barren world.
Learning From Failure
The best city building games rarely coddle their players. These games encourage you to think creatively to solve your problems. The plans that you thought were fool-proof might go down a different path from what you expected.
You might have intended to build a large number of farms to satiate the needs of a growing population, but you ended up bankrupting the whole city instead. You may have cut the budget when it came to law enforcement, assuming that they don’t have much of an effect. It turns out that you were wrong, and your whole city is now high in crime and chaos.
Regardless of the outcome, learning from your mistakes is a key aspect of the city-building genre. By accumulating the knowledge you’ve gained in past runs, you essentially get better and better until you build the city of your dreams.
While there is a recent decline in the difficulty of these types of games, most gamers who want the challenge may find them lacking. One good side-effect of this, though, is that a bigger number of players can enjoy this genre. Luckily, there are a few titles that still retain their “hardcore” aspect for the more veteran players who’ve been playing city builder for many years.
Optimizing Your Build
Everyone who’s played a city builder knows the feeling of making a small error and seeing it snowball into an even bigger disaster. Going back to the “learning from your mistakes” portion, after you see the weakness of your past plans, you can now patch things up and make things better over time.
There’s always room for improvement when it comes to city building. Thinking outside the box and trying unorthodox ideas can end in potential disaster or triumph. Whichever the outcome, a good city building game will have you enjoy every second of it and leave you wanting for more.
In a lot of ways, this is a key aspect that speaks to many gamers. The capacity for min-maxing in these games is astounding, leaving players plenty of room to test new combinations and values to create the best result. Players need to plan ahead and think of the future. Otherwise, they might be set back by a variety of problems that they didn’t prepare for. In the best city-building games, optimization and planning aren’t just rewarded; it’s also desired. This is one of the aspects of this genre that’s become the main source of enjoyment for many players.
While not exactly a unique trait in city building, the level of detail that goes into the progression aspect of city builders need to be very high. Seeing yourself climb slowly up the ladder until you reach your goal is one the most primal essences of fun.
City builders will show your progress through a variety of aspects: the rise of your population, the improved lifestyle of your citizens, technological advancement, and so on. New building capabilities become available to you, and a string of new options are opened up as you progress. You might have started out with humble beginnings, but with a little bit of effort, you’ll manage to go through the next phases without any hitches.
The sense of progression is an incredibly satisfying experience. If players don’t feel this when playing a game, there’s little to no chances of them picking up that game and playing it again. These consistent feelings of achievement that the best city building games impart will keep players hooked on a game.
The Best City Building Games Of 2019
And now, on to the main event! Our list features a variety of city builders that will fit different playstyles and preferences:
It’s the coming of a shiny new era, where you’re the leader tasked with building a city that can either thrive in the presence of new technology or fall into disrepair for failing to move with the times.
Will you change your city to meet with the future, or will you fail your people? Anno 1800 is set in the era of the industrial revolution, and your people demand a city that’s built upon technological advancement and innovation.
You can build trade routes or go on different expeditions to expand your knowledge and discover precious resources that will help your city prosper. As your city grows, though, its problems grow along with it. You need to juggle a variety of complications and figure out what’s the best course of action to solve them. Competing rulers will seek to undermine your work, and you’ll have to appease them or engage in political warfare.
This game enables different playstyles that lets you experiment with what suits you best, offering plenty of options to enable varying outcomes.
Can Be Played On PC
For those who want to play the role of a mayor, Cities: Skylines tasks you to serve you people and build the best city you. As mayor of your town, you have the power to construct your city and expand its reach, managing the economy and the welfare of your beloved citizens along the way.
This game offers a good amount of challenge, and it’s perfect for those who want a game with depth to their systems and keen attention to detail. Mastering this game might take some time, but doing so will make you feel like a planning expert. With a little bit of effort, the empty and remote land you’ve been tasked to guide has the potential to become a flourishing city that people all over the world are flocking towards.
Your ultimate goal will come with a few hiccups along the way, though. You and your people will have to endure the onslaught of natural disasters, accidents, pollution, and a lot of real-life incidents you don’t expect to see in a video game. Cities: Skylines also has quite a number of DLCs that further deepen its already well-implemented gameplay systems. Overall, this is an excellent city building game for beginners and experts of the genre alike.
Can Be Played On Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox, One, PC
Mars has always been the hotspot for potential colony management. In Surviving Mars, you’re set in a world where the Earth has collapsed, and the last remaining people have to live on Mars to survive.
This unfamiliar landscape is fraught with a variety of issues that can potentially end human life as we know it. The lack of oxygen and resources, colder temperatures, and desolate landscapes presents plenty of challenges that make keeps the game interesting all throughout progression.
By taking residence on this empty planet, you have to work hard to create a sustainable colony and ensure the survival of your species. Explore the unknown reaches of Mars and see if your expeditions bear any fruition. Invest in developing new technologies to improve your odds of surviving in an unforgiving environment. Each colonist comes with their special set of quirks that can either help or hinder your colony’s progress.
With a little bit of luck and careful planning, you’ll be able to create a prosperous home for your colony despite the disadvantages of living in an alien world.
Can Be Played On PS4, Xbox One, PC
You’re the leader of the last surviving city, set in a post-apocalyptic environment that suffers from a never-ending winter. If that doesn’t seem like a challenge, I don’t know what will. This game is not for the faint of heart, where it seeks to mix up a congested genre by adding an interesting survival element that will put your planning skills to the test.
Extinction is the steep price you will have to pay for any big mistakes that you make. Your citizens are calling to you for help, and you need to maintain a liveable temperature while managing other challenges suddenly thrown at you. You start off with a few shelters that barely do the job, but if you survive long enough, you’ll see your city start to thrive with the help of technology.
This game is excellent, especially if you consider the potential paths you can take, with a deep level of customization that allows you to set the laws of your land and manage your people’s routines. As cheesy as it might sound, humanity is depending on you for its survival.
Can Be Played On PS4, Xbox One, PC
It’s true that being exiled might not be the best feeling in the world, but if you’ve got your trusty band of fellow exiles with you, rebuilding and flourishing is still possible. Banished does have a number of years on its belt compared to other titles we’ve mentioned, but this just shows how impressive this game is, managing to stand the test of time.
You start off with a bunch of travelers who are exiled much like you and only have a meager amount of resources to work with. This means that you need to strategize even at the start and allocate those resources properly. Otherwise, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
As your settlement improves, your settlers will age, form families, and eventually pass away. It’s your job to keep them happy and give them a fruitful life. There’s no skill tree or currency system to worry about because you’re mainly reliant on the resources you have, and you also have the option of trading them for other goods.
By allocating tasks like hunting, gathering, and mining properly, you will have a steady stream of the resources you need to improve your settlement.
Can Be Played On PC
If you’ve ever wanted to rule your own tropical island paradise, then Tropico 6 is your best bet. As the El Presidente, you’re tasked with being the peaceful ruler (or tyrannical dictator) of an island that’s filled to the brim with potential.
Tropico 6 introduces an even more immersive political system, where it includes a research tree dedicated to enhancing the player’s political savvy, which gives you a slight edge against your enemies.
Instead of managing a single island, you now have the capacity to manage many cities built across an archipelago, which presents a unique set of challenges that you need to conquer with wit and proper planning. Construct efficient forms of transport and bridge the gap between neighboring islands to improve the flow of goods in your growing empire.
Finally, one of the biggest parts of being a good ruler is giving speeches to your subjects (ahem, citizens) and making promises that you won’t really keep. This is one of the best city-building games for people who like a bit of humor injected in the gameplay.
Can Be Played On PS4, Xbox One, PC
If you want a city building game that can be played on the go, then the pocket city is a solid choice, being one of the best city-building games for mobile devices.
It sports a beautiful art style that’s easy on the eyes, and you can build your land from humble beginnings to a bustling town with a mere swipe of a finger. This hand-held game has two modes that offer different styles of play. The first one is much like other games where you gradually unlock new features, objectives, and quests, as you progress through the game, giving you a nice sense of accomplishment as you play through it. The other mode is a sandbox where you can try out your plans and see how they look like in-game without any repercussions.
Despite being on mobile, this game is incredibly detailed and doesn’t have any of those annoying app notifications, so you can enjoy it without any distraction.
Can Be Played On Mobile devices
An early access game with a lot of untapped potential, Factory Town is a game that lets you transform the terrain into a working factory town (hence, the name), complete with different chutes and conveyor belts to speed up the transportation processes.
You need to utilize the resources you have at hand, and at first, you only have a handful of workers and one building. After you start to get the hang of things and you collect your first crops and minerals, you can transform what once was a humble factory into a money-making center.
Research is a big must if you want to unlock better forms of machinery that will make resource processing much faster and more efficient. One aspect of this game that might surprise you is that it’s got magic. By powering up your machines magically, they’ll run at much higher speeds. While still in on-going development, Factory Town already offers a ton of fun gameplay that you can invest your time int.
Can Be Played On PC
If you’re looking for a more relaxed gaming experience with cute art designs, The Colonists offers decently-paced gameplay sporting adorable robot citizens. As the person in charge, you have to control your little robot group that just escaped Earth to search for a better home somewhere in the universe.
Your metal friends share a dream of becoming human, and while not really possible, you can give them a colony that’s similarly built like a human settlement. Nurture them in a way that makes them feel human, and your robot friends will be happy.
The colonists task you with resource harvesting for your robots who want to experience drinking and eating. And as you set up more farms, research advanced technologies, and explore the surrounding land, you’ll start to see some progress. Even if this game is a bit more relaxed than most, it still requires some degree of strategy.
Can Be Played On PC
We hope that you’ve enjoyed our list of the best city-building games. Here are a few general tips that can help make your gameplay a bit more manageable:
1. Take Some Time To Strategize
This is probably the most crucial thing you can do to ensure a successful city-building run. You need to think ahead and try to set up solutions to potential problems so you can breeze through them without a hitch.
2. Manage Your Resources
Because most of the best city-building games have a ton of detailed systems in place, you need to juggle in between resources and manage your resources properly. By prioritizing the most important ones, you sport a much higher chance of success.
3. Think Creatively
If you ever find yourself stuck in a rut, trying unorthodox ideas might just solve your current situation.