There is no doubt that the game of urban construction is fascinating.
You can conjure up a metropolis out of your fingers and watch your citizens run back and forth. Or build a village to help your villagers get through the bleak winter, or even just drop buildings in the endless ocean, just for fun.
It’s a genre rooted in architecture and management, but it covers many different types of games. So, here are eight of the best city-building games you should definitely try.
1. Cities Skylines
Currently, the pinnacle of the urban-building genre is Cities Skylines, a magical, crazy, massive title developed by Colossal Order.
Although Cities Skylines first launched in 2015, it remains a leader in this space more than seven years later. Much of this success and longevity is due to its vast army of modifiers, with thousands of people working to bring new assets, styles, maps, lighting schemes, and more to the game.
In that, the game at the time of writing, in 2022, is vastly different from its 2015 release. Many would argue that at least on PC (there is no modding on the console version), playing vanilla Cities Skylines is a fool’s errand when so many quality of life upgrades exist in the Steam Workshop.
But the modders aren’t going it alone. In 2022, Colossal Order released the Airports DLC, the ninth major DLC for the title among a host of other smaller content creator packs, radio stations, and more.
2. Caesar III
Caesar III is the best work in the Ancient Roman City Construction series and the last to be developed by legendary studio Sierra Entertainment.
In Caesar III, you will play the role of a Roman governor, building your newly established Roman city to greater grandeur and using it to improve the lives of your subjects. You work through tasks, progress through goals, try to solve problems, and bring prosperity to your people.
It’s fun to try to figure out the best combinations to help your city grow. You need to transplant water around your city for drinking and bathing while building markets for trade and barracks for defense, while also paying attention to the gods, who must also keep sweet.
There’s quite a bit of micromanagement, fine-tuning taxes, building output, and so on, but you don’t have to be involved — but it does help.
From mass traffic and endless cities to quaint art, Townscaper is more of a Zen city-building experience than any game you’ve ever played before.
Oskar Stålberg’s Townscaper has “no goals. There is no real gameplay. Only plenty of buildings and lots of great views”. The developers are very accurate about this description, and you can spend a short and cute time building buildings to appear in the water-like starting scene.
The lack of direction does disappoint some. But the joy of Townscaper is figuring out how different buildings work together, changing their colors, and creating ridiculously cute towns at once.
Islanders is different from the other city-building games on this list. It requires precise placement of specific structures to create scores large enough to unlock your next set of buildings, rather than just filling up the area and managing your infrastructure budget.
Each round is a delicate balance between creating something eye-catching and placing buildings that trigger specific scores near each other.
Like Townscaper, this game is unexpectedly addictive, and it really has that “just one more spin” feel that will keep you coming back to play, which is why it’s on our list of the best infrastructure and kingdom-building games.
From the developers of critically acclaimed This War of Mine came survival-cum-city-builder Frostpunk, an at times brutal game where your survivors trudge through life in the midst of a devastating volcanic winter.
The cold swept in, and it was persistent. You must strike a balance between keeping your survivors warm, you know, alive, and the need for your civilization to expand and evolve. You’ll soon discover that keeping warm and storing is key to keeping your generator running. Without it, you will have a bad time.
Throughout Frostpunk, you also have to make tough decisions related to politics, working conditions, and even child labor laws. It’s not a joyful city-building experience. It’s full of sickness, death, and worry, and overall it’s a great experience.
And one of the great things, developer 11 studios are working on Frostpunk 2!
When Banished launched in 2014, it quickly caught people’s attention.
First of all, despite its size, the development was led by one person, Luke Hodorowicz, who started developing Banished in 2011. Second, relating to the first point, Banished’s city-building mechanics are complex enough to keep you playing for hours as you attempt to guide your fledgling village into a thriving community.
Banished’s focus did change as you tapped into resources, shifting from the harsh survival patterns needed in the early days of settlement to resource management, trade, and expansion as your world became safer.
7. SimCity 2000/3000/4
Prior to Cities Skylines, there was only one name in the city-building game: SimCity. The original SimCity was nice, but it wasn’t until the launch of the SimCity 2000 in 1993 that the series really caught people’s attention.
After the release of the 1999 follow-up, SimCity 3000, it received rave reviews and overall excellence ratings, and more than 20 years after the game was first launched, you can still find new user content published in modern architecture.
Then, in SimCity 4, the game features a complete regional design where you can build many different types of cities, combining vast metropolises with regional industries, farming areas, power generation, and more. SimCity 4 is still going on today.
The previous version of SimCity, SimCity in 2013, was widely attacked at launch, albeit with general excitement before. EA chose to launch SimCity as an online game, and you won’t be able to play or access your single-player city without an internet connection and a connection to the EA’s servers. At launch, the server was overwhelmed by users, which meant hundreds of thousands of people could not play. Then there were huge problems with the game’s paths and routing, patches to fix those issues were delayed, and much more.
Its poor overall performance killed the SimCity series of games, and EA shut down Maxis Studios, and since then has only launched one free mobile game. However, without SimCity, there would be no leaderboard of the best city-building games, and if you can buy an older version of a game or find a way to play SimCity online, it’s definitely worth checking out.
8. Tropico 6
The original Tropico launched in 2001—just two years after Caesar III. The graphical jump between the two games really is night and day. For many, Tropico was an exciting, exotic 3D city builder with the added twist that you’re not just building out the island, you are “El Presidente,” and your word is absolute.
Although Tropico 6 was launched nearly 20 years after the release of the original, your goal remains the same: to stay in power at all costs.
Tropico 6 expands the game world to include multiple buildable islands, a greater focus on infrastructure, and better personal simulations of citizens than ever before.
Which are the best city-building games?
The above eight games are some of the best city-building games you can play, both old and new. But this list is far from comprehensive. There are plenty of other city-building games, including the ANNO series, The Settlers, Caesar, Foundation, and Surviving Mars, which you should check out.
In short, the types of urban building are very broad, and as long as we have a game, we try to simulate the world around us so that we can control it as we see fit.