Updated [May 2nd, 2014]: We've updated this list of games with the inclusion of Tropico 4, which is bound for both the PC and PlayStation 4 in 2014. If it's anything at all like its predecessors, we expect it to be very, very good.
There aren't many games that include themselves in the city builder genre. It's a simple premise: you take on the role of planner, and mayor of a city. You look down upon your creation from above, and you are entirely responsible for its growth and management. City building games are exceptionally time consuming, and each game can go on forever—or at least until the city you are working on gets stale and you make a new one for different challenges.
Despite originally established in 1989 with the release of Will Wright's SimCity, city builders haven't had all that many releases in their 24 years of existence. In addition, they aren't all that similar to each other in gameplay style.
Because it's a genre full of duds and great titles are few and far between, we've compiled a list of the seven best city building games.
Upcoming game: Tropico 5
The banana republic simulator (not to be confused with the clothing brand) goes into the fifth iteration, progressing into the direction of a full-on SimCity-style city building simulation. For the first time in the series, Tropico 5 will also feature competitive and cooperative online multiplayer features where the players can compete or cooperate with other, potentially rival dictators. It’ll be out for both the PC and PlayStation 4.
We’ve opted to add the new SimCity to this list.
Latest Release: SimCity 2013
SimCity might be regarded by many as a dud for its smaller environments, restrictive DRM, and host of limitations, but it is by no means a bad city builder, or even a bad game. It’s a good game that’s only getting better with the passage of time and the release of more and more updates based on suggestions and feedback from the community.
What SimCity brings to the table in terms of improvements is expansion. Previously the games focused more on controlling the game at-large. The new game incorporates some degree of micromanagement as well. While it’s not Sims level of control, we are able to interact with the citizens. Basically, there’s multiple things to keep in mind whenever you’re building something, regardless of what it is.
Also in the new SimCity are interconnected cities, which are called regions. This allows you to use friends to better manage your own city. For instance, you can build a city where your citizens work, another friend builds a city where they live, and another friend can have a city where they go to have fun. All parties involved would benefit and this would allow players to focus their efforts in specific ways—should that be of interest. Unfortunately, the region system is tied into the game’s online DRM, which makes it impossible to play offline and forces players into a pseudo-online mode.
The game is certainly a step forward for the genre in some ways and a step backward in others.
#7 Cities XL 2012
Made by Focus Home Interactive, Cities XL 2012 is the third and latest game in the Cities XL franchise.
Unlike SimCity and its strong focus on multiplayer, Cities XL 2012 places a singular emphasis on single-player mode and includes new structures, maps, and a starter guide to ease players into the game. Earlier versions were considered very difficult to get into due to their complexity.
As of this writing, the game's a couple years old, but it remains one of the better city building sims out there.
#6 The Settlers 7: Paths to a Kingdom
The Settlers 7 is the latest title in the kingdom building strategy series that began in 1993. The game puts you in the role of a king or queen who's with the challenge to build up a colony into a mighty kingdom. As your kingdom expands, you'll face opposition from rival monarchs whom you must fight for both territory and natural resources.
The Settlers 7 returns the series to its origins from the real-time strategy oriented 5th and 6th installments, which many fans considered too divergent from the Settlers formula.
The latest game also offers a new element to the typical Settlers formula of building a kingdom, enriching your civilians and securing your borders with the addition of the Victory Points system. You'll earn more Victory Points as you conquer sectors across the map, and increase the productivity of your followers by plying them with food, drink, and gold.
#5 Anno 2070
Anno 2070 is a lot like previous games in the series, including Dawn of Discovery, but with the crucial difference in that it's set in the future. The game plays upon the looming catastrophe of the sea level rise and the melting polar ice caps, as humanity continues to grow and expand well beyond sustainable levels.
It's your job as a manager to build a sustainable island city while currying favor with each of the game's three factions—industrialists, environmentalists, and technologists. In return for your support, each faction provides you access with unique technologies and advancements for your city.
In addition to the game's single player campaign and freeplay modes, Anno 2070 comes with an online component which adds weekly challenges for players and a live voting system for passive bonuses to your city, which can change the dynamic of how you build, and manage your city.
#4 Tropico 4
Tropico 4 allows you to fill the shoes of the dictator of a small banana republic called Tropico, which is not unlike Cuba. You're the El Presidente, and it's up to you to play the role of a tyrant or that of a benevolent dictator.
The power to develop your city is at your fingertips as you manage an economy and handle dozens of projects to ensure the happiness and prosperity of your citizens. You can rely upon a multitude of sources to generate wealth, including plantations, factories, or even tourism. If you want, you can even play the game like Kim Jong Il and turn your city into a dystopia.
#3 Dwarf Fortress
Dwarf Fortress takes the city building genre to task with all that it offers. In spite of offering little more than ASCII characters to represent an underground city of dwarves, Dwarf Fortress is a game capable of telling a story, where every failure feels rewarding, and every event seems epic on an abstract scale.
As the master and keeper of a subterranean dwarf fortress, you're tasked with building a city underground, training its inhabitants, and keeping those dwarves alive as your city goes from being a one-room hole into a thriving fortress besieged by beasts from the depths.
Despite its steep learning curve, complicated interface and nonexistent graphics, Dwarf Fortress is one of the finest city building simulations ever made.
#2 SimCity 2000
SimCity may have been the foundation of the city building genre, but it was SimCity 2000 that brought the genre to my attention. The game, as it was, was sophisticated but not too complicated for a twelve year old to grasp—nor did it ever give me the impression that it was "made for children." If there was one thing I hated about games when I was younger, it was being pandered to with a game clearly made for kids—like the SimTown, also from Maxis, which came out a year or two after SimCity 2000.
SimCity 2000 is a game which allowed me to pretend at being a civil engineer. It let me construct a city which I'd have been proud to live in, made up of neat little grids with buildings placed in an ideal donut shape—not unlike the layout of Barcelona. It's a game that taught me the broader impacts of pollution, traffic congestion, and what happens to a city when you reduce the subsidies to your police force and fire stations.
In other words, the game gave me a pretty decent understanding of how the world works, at least on a localized level—a topic that The Wire, a HBO series, took to an even more personal level.
I'll be the first to admit that the game is an abstract simulation, but it's one which encouraged me to think while other games only encouraged me to jump when instructed or shoot at the target in my crosshairs.
#1 SimCity 4
After the somewhat disappointing SimCity 3, Maxis's release of SimCity 4 was a true return to form for both the company and the city building sim. More than just a city builder, the game is an architectural playground for those of us who wish to have the power of god—and Daniel H. Burnham—at our fingertips.
SimCity 4 provides an impressive level of detail to a game where detail is absolutely essential, ranging from street traffic to large scale urban planning.
The amount of time I spent playing SimCity 4 couldn't be measured in hours, or even days—but in months and years. It is without a doubt the best SimCity game and city builder in existence.