History of City Building Games

Have you ever wanted to be in charge of your own city? If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic on a long commute, the thought has probably passed through your mind.

While getting to the point at which you can actually make plans for a large city takes decades of work, you can do all the fun stuff with the right software. City life simulators are a well-regarded part of the PC gaming landscape, and thus continue to release through this day.

While probably not the most popular genre, city simulators are common enough that there’s some real divisions in the fandom. Some players prefer games that prioritize building and management, while others look for design and aesthetics. There’s a huge divide between those who want more realistic sims and those that just want something that’s fun to play. No matter where you stand, though, there’s probably a great simulator out there for you.

Below are some of the most popular games in the city life simulator genre, including both the originators of the genre and some of the newest hits. While these games share a basic premise, there is a huge difference in play style and presentation between some of these games. The only way to figure out which best suits your own personal play style is to give one of the games a try.

SimCity (1989)

Widely considered to be the founder of the genre, SimCity took the idea of running a city and put the systems in place to allow a player to do so. There’s not really a goal in this game besides keeping one’s city solvent, so players were free to experiment with the game as they liked. The fact that it had no win or loss conditions was a real oddity at the time, and it made the game very hard to publish.

SimCity came pre-loaded with a set of scenarios that gave players a bit of guidance. They might work with a city after a nuclear disaster or try to build up a failing city after its economy was ruined. These scenarios were reasonably popular among new players, but the real thrill of the game was centered in building a city from the ground up. It wasn’t necessary to provide much more to players – the game’s systems were usually enough of a challenge.

This game opened up an entirely new world for gamers. Not only would it be possible to give players more control over a world, but it would be possible to create games in which win states were only in the mind of the players. Many games outside of the city life simulation genre have a great deal to owe SimCity for the latter fact.

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SimCity 2000 (1993)

If SimCity created the city life simulation genre, it was SimCity 2000 that really codified the tropes. An improved version of the former game, it took all of the ideas of SimCity and refined them into a product that anyone could love. A huge hit among gamers and a perennial teaching tool, this was the first SimCity game to cross all the way into the mainstream.

If there’s a word that can be used to describe SimCity 2000, it should be “more”. It added more building types, more layers, and overall more complexity to the core game of SimCity. Elevation could now become an issue for a city, and players could take care of issues like plumbing underground. Cities were becoming more complex, and thus players were given more management tools.

SimCity 3000 (1999)

As SimCity 2000 improved upon the original, so too did SimCity 3000 improve upon the sequel. Graphics and interfaces were improved for a new generation of PCs, and the complexity of the game would skyrocket with the addition of waste management and with the ability to make deals with neighboring cities. Most of the concepts in SimCity 3000 would be picked up by other games in the genre and improved in time.

This version of the game also introduced rudimentary missions with the help of petitioners. Different citizens (or outside interest groups) would ask the player to do certain things with the city. Some could provide long-term benefits for a cost, while others might harm the city despite a short-term gain. This, combined with the introduction of property values, would change the way that most following city games would work.

Tropico (2001)

A game of dictatorship, Tropico took the city life simulator and placed it on an unnamed Caribbean island. The player was no longer a mayor, but rather an island dictator. He or she was no longer just trying to build a perfect city, but trying to retain power in the face of a possibly revolutionary population. It added an antagonist and a great deal of guidance to the city life simulation genre, creating a branch in which there would be very real conditions of failure.

Tropico also invited players to think about the big picture, placing the island squarely in the middle of the Cold War between two superpowers. Players could align themselves with either side or attempt to play both against the middle. This additional change in game play lead for a great strategy element and made every decision count just a bit more than it had in other games.

Tropico never quite reached the heights that the SimCity series reached, but it remains popular to this day. Something about a dictatorship simulator draws in players, even if it won’t guarantee the series a place in school computer labs. As far as simulators go, though, this one is a great step off of the beaten path.

SimCity 4 (2003)

SimCity came back in 2003 with a fourth edition, this time focusing expanding the experience of the player. Rather than just allowing players to play around with city building mechanics, players could now control the world at a much larger – and much smaller – scale. While there was still much of what made SimCity so beloved attached to this game, it was easy to see that EA wanted to go in a new direction.

The big addition to SimCity 4 was God Mode. Players would be able to go into the overall region and change around the terrain, making it easier – or harder – to create a city. Players could also create natural disasters in the God Mode which would go on to devastate cities. While disasters had long been a part of the game, players could use this mode to gain a little more control over the chaos they caused.

On the smaller side of things, players could create or import characters from The Sims in MySim mode. Though relatively limited, this was a highly touted feature at the time. Players would insert their characters into the game and allow them to live and work in that city. The mode wasn’t particularly revolutionary, though, and it wouldn’t make its way into future versions of the game.

CivCity: Rome (2006)

Civilization is one of the founders of the 4X genre and its success allowed the makers of the game to stretch out into new genres. While it didn’t stay in the city simulation field for long, it did leave a lasting mark with CivCity: Rome. A game that put players in charge of the great city itself, it was a unique chance to maintain a city without most of the modern conveniences. It was a complex game to be sure, but the real selling point was the time period.

Unlike most city simulation games, this one also had a combat element. This element certainly threw off many players who were used to the more sedate pace offered by city builders, but it was appreciated by fans of Civilization. It helped to capture the feel of a more primitive society, one that was always on the edge of being overrun.

CivCity also featured a number of real-world people and historical landmarks. This made the game great for students who were in the midst of learning about Rome. While far from perfect, this was a great example of another growing subgenre within the world of city life simulations.

Grand Ages: Rome (2009)

Providing much more structure than the average city simulation, Grand Ages: Rome put players in charge of a series of Roman colonies during the end of the Roman Republic. There was a great deal of emphasis on managing how the colony worked, as well as being able to defend the colony from outside threats. This was another combat-heavy sim, one that worked towards melding the elements of strategy and city simulations.

Players would create a character in this game, one who would be affiliated with the great houses of Rome. Characters would grow in wealth and prestige, eventually having to decide between declaring allegiance to Julius Caesar or Pompey Magnus.

Unlike most city life simulations, there was a real beginning and end to this game. It was a far cry from where the genre started and definitely constituted a major break from how these games worked. If anything, Grand Ages was a sign that strategy games were beginning to incorporate a great deal from city sims.

The game wasn’t particularly well-received, and did help to spell the end for historical city builders. It was one of the last major games released in this sub-genre, and it doesn’t look like any sequels are on their way. Still, if you want to know what it was like to rule an ancient city by any means necessary, this is a good city life simulator.

Cities XL 2012 (2011)

While SimCity held the throne of city simulators for many years, it wasn’t without some serious competition. While SimCity had arguably been getting friendlier for new players since the beginning, some players wanted more depth. They looked at SimCity 2000 and thought that it needed more depth, more options, and above all else, more going on. That’s where the Cities XL series jumped into the fray, catering to hardcore fans of the genre.

CitiesXL started as a persistent city simulation MMO, one in which players could interact with one another and trade between cities. The systems were relatively complex, especially compared to what was being used by games like SimCity 4 or the Tropico series. While the MMO aspect failed rather spectacularly, the single player version of the game managed to hang on through several iterations.

The 2012 iteration of the game allowed for a full stand-alone play experience, several more building types, and a great deal of player freedom. It was a real throwback to SimCity 2000, and it earned a special place in the hearts of old-school city sim gamers. While there would be a great deal of development yet to come, Cities XL helped to breathe new life into the field of city life simulators.

SimCity (2013)

2013’s reboot of the SimCity franchise was incredibly divisive, to say the least. The goal of the game was to bring it into the future, and for EA that meant enabling a number of functions that needed online connectivity. While players of this genre are usually used to single player experiences, things didn’t turn sour until players realized they’d have to be online to play the game at all. This caused a mass exodus away from the SimCity brand and caused a significant drop in the player base.

Online connectivity aside, SimCity introduced a few new elements. The first was the concept of an interconnected region. It was impossible for one city to do everything for itself, so players would be encouraged to work together to form a region that could support all the improvements. This would mean that one city would generate most of the power, for example, while another might be the transport hub. It was a more realistic take on how cities in the real world work.

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This version of SimCity also drastically cut down on the amount of space a city could take up. Density would continue to be important, and building would not be guided through missions. It gave players a bit more direction in building cities, something that was hit or miss among players.

Tropico 5 (2014)

This fifth entry in the Tropico series is a little different than most city life simulators. Instead of just dealing with how a city works, the player is put in the role of a dictator and given control of a small island nation. The job of the player is to determine how their small nation will function in a world with major superpowers, all the while trying to hang on to power and crush dissent. Despite the heavy themes, it’s a fairly silly game and presents city simulations in a much softer than most in this genre.

Tropico 5 changed the formula of its series a bit by having players control the island through a series of distinct ages. This allows for more change in the overall story and more decisions points for those who really like to live through the history of their island. Getting through the story is fairly easy, though, and much of the real fun to be found in the game will be done in the sandbox. Running a city as a dictator is an interesting new theme, as is the amount of control one can take – and lose – throughout any given game.

Cities: Skylines (2015)

If you ask fans of the city simulation genre about which game currently holds the top spot among hardcore players, you’ll quickly be introduced to Cities: Skylines. Taking everything that worked from the Cities franchise and the SimCity franchise, this new game upped the complexity and difficulty of managing a city to create a real simulation. From managing traffic to helping create new neighborhoods, players could do it all. This game is complex to the point of frustration for some, but it offers one of the best experiences in years.

It’s also important to note that this is one of the few city simulators to make it to a console release in the modern era. This means that the game has a much bigger potential audience than the last SimCity release, and it also has a great deal more hype behind it. There’s a good bit of work that has to be done to keep the name of this game in the spotlight, but it does seem like Skylines could be the real SimCity killer.

With continued support, this game is probably the king of the mountain when it comes to city life simulators. It is definitely meant for a hardcore player, but new players can read a good deal of material online to get into the game.

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Planetbase (2015)

2015’s Planetbase took the city simulation genre and put it in outer space. A game that’s more about survival than anything else, it certainly took the entire concept of city simulation in a new direction. Managing a space colony is a very different challenge than managing a city, but it’s amazing how some of the same systems have managed to carry over. While city simulations are often about making sure that the city thrives, this game is all about making sure that a colony can actually keep its people alive.

One of the more unique systems in place here is the ability to decide who will actually live in your space city. You’ll be on the constant lookout for colonists that can contribute to your society and wary for those who won’t actually help. You’ll want to build up a good base of people who are able to make sure your society can keep producing water, food and air. You won’t be able to take anything for granted in this new location.

The game may have failed to impress, but it was a step forward. City simulations don’t have to be bound by the rules of reality. With a little imagination, they can be carried over into almost any setting.

Anno 2205 (2015)

Anno 2205 is a game built on a solid foundation. The Anno games had been around for quite some time, but they had generally had historical settings. 2205 took everything from those games and boosted them into the future. Players would not only be tasked with building future metropolises, but they’d be tasked with building cities on the moon. While not necessarily the first game to put players in the future or in space, it was arguably one of the best.

The game also featured a unique function in which players could manage a terrestrial city alongside a lunar city at the same time. These modes allowed players to focus on trade between the two cities, helping to build up the two at the same time. This added another layer of difficulty to an already deep game, but it was a welcome addition for most fans.

Though harder than a SimCity game and not quite as visually impressive as Cities, Anno 2205 established itself as one of the major players in the city simulation game genre. It continues to captivate players who are just looking for something a bit different in how they choose to manage their cities.

Life is Feudal: Forest Village (2016)

Life is Feudal is an indie game franchise, one that puts players into a realistic feudal world with a great deal of control. Forest Village takes that concept and applies it to a city simulation, albeit on a small scale. Instead of dealing with a large city, players are given control of a group of settlers who must found a forest settlement. It does share some of the same systems as a regular city life simulator, but most of the game is really focused on survival.

The game represents a real change of pace. Instead of dealing with all of the big problems, the game instead shows players the small problems that a small village might have to deal with. This means dealing with disease, weather, and even hostile vegetation. There’s certainly a lot to like here, even if it’s not cut from quite the same cloth as most city life simulators.

Constructor HD (2017)

Constructor is a remake of a 1997 game, one that took a look at the dirty side of building a city. Players are in charge of construction, helping to build up a city while sabotaging their construction rivals. There’s plenty of dirty work to be done here, and plenty of fun to be had. It adds an antagonist and a real set of goals to building up your city.

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As an HD remake, this game both embraces the past and tries to shoot for a better future. The game systems still show their age, but it’s definitely a different kind of game than what’s easily found on the market today. If you’re looking for a game that lets you have a little more fun with how you take care of your city’s problems, this is probably a game at which you should look.

Love City Simulation Games?

City life simulators run the gamut from the silly to the truly complex. There are games out there that can allow you to build your ideal city of today, a vision of the future, or that will even take you back to the past. You can play a game that’s devilishly hard or deceptively simple.

You can control a huge city or a tiny settlement. What all of these games have in common, though, is that you will be the person in charge of making all of your city’s big decisions. Be sure to stop by the LitRPG Forum to find similar souls who love to build cities and empires!

Paul Bellow

LitRPG Author Paul Bellow

Paul Bellow is a LitRPG author, gamer, RPG game developer, and publisher of several online communities. In other words, an old school webmaster. He also developed and runs LitRPG Adventures, a set of advanced RPG generators powered by GPT-3 AI. Here at LitRPG Reads, he publishes articles about LitRPG books, tabletop RPG books, and all sorts of DND content that's free to use in your personal tabletop campaign - i.e. non-commercial use. Enjoy your stay and reach out on Twitter or Discord if you want to make contact.

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