I remember my very first city builder game like it was yesterday… or 19 years ago, oh my god. SimCity 3000 was my first city builder and in all honesty, I didn’t understand it, I just wanted to build a city.
I loved building roads and highway and just watching the cars appear and disappear in between the building. This made the city feel alive and the pure satisfaction that you built something that is functioning… sort of.
If you look past the fact that you built too many roads, and too many parks and services that drove your city into unforgivable amount of debt, then you couldn’t get power and water around this great city you built, it was functioning.
The franchise was born in 1989, their last game, SimCity, which came out in 2013. Did Maxis know that this could very well be their last rodeo? Start and finish the franchise with a SimCity? They had a good run.
The best SimCity was SimCity 4, the worst was Societies. For the most part, I feel like all my fellow city erecters would agree with these two. SimCity 4 was everything we wanted, an immense region to construct a country (that is how I viewed it), each plot in the region were large enough to keep you there for days, and visually appealing. With city builders… size matters. SimCity 4 gave us everything we had been thirsting for in a city builder, and when the last one came out, it was underwhelming to say the least.
They had executed true map co-dependence; every city played a part in the region
SimCity 2013 was a letdown overall, but it implemented wonderful mechanics, not only this title, but for the future of city builders. They had executed true map co-dependence; every city played a part in the region. Some cities would have more natural resources like coal, oil, metal, or water. So those resources would be extracted, used to progress the appropriate type of industry (or the regional project), and provide something to its neighbors. A resource like water is important, some plots would have a large water source, so then that city would end up supplying a few towns that had little to no access to water. You could use a plot of land to build a gamblers paradise with casinos, hotels, and other various forms of entertainment. What if you want to have an education hub for the region? You can build a town of intellectuals by constructing a university for the people of your region to flock to and expand their brains.
You have this unique specialization feature that we, as city erectors, have never seen before. And while everyone and their cats were going nuts about the needing internet and how small the cities were and all the other hoopla, I decided to just play the game.
Remember when I was talking about how SimCity 3000 FELT alive to me when the cars were driving in the totally functioning cities that I built? SimCity 2013 WAS alive. They made the map small, but they maximized the capability of that space. Every citizen was alive in the city, they drove to work early in the morning, they went out to lunch, and came home from their day job to either stay in or hit the town. You could watch your citizens do this, which was not only amazing, but you felt more connected to your people that you ever have before. All services and industries functioned in this way as well, if you had a coal power plant in a city that didn’t produce coal, then you received it from the outside. There were several occasions where I would run out of power because my coal plants ran out of coal, when I searched for my coal through inbound traffic, I found it. Turns out my power was stuck in traffic.
Every little thing in your city and your region was functioning with purpose, whether it cause morning traffic, or sent garbage trucks to a neighbor who was lacking a garbage collecting service.
I have gone on about SimCity quite enough, but the point I wanted to make was that this changed the genre forever. Maxis went down in a blaze of glory in my books, they were the cornerstone franchise of city builders, until a company by the name of Colossal Order decided to hop into the octagon and rain down the peoples elbow on an injured company to ultimately end them.
Before I move onto Cities: Skylines, I am well aware of the Cities XL franchise. They had big maps and could have had something cool, but the execution was abysmal. It was an awful game. But when your only competition is SimCity, in hindsight, it’s understandable.
If you are a city erector, you own Cities: Skylines. It is by far the greatest city building game every to be sold to anyone on anything. Paradox and Colossal Order made their nut on this game. Cities has a huge map, everything has an objective in the city (no empty driving/walking) like SimCity, and an abundance of structures and functions to make the city building experience truly gratifying. And that is just with the base game and the expansions. When you go into the Steam workshop to add mods and assets, nothing compares. You can influence and manipulate this game to make you truly in control of how you want your city to be run. The only element that has yet to be solved by any Modder or asset creator is the traffic issue. I think CO purposely made this so. Because no matter what you do, the traffic is so bad, you would rather sit in LA traffic then try to fix your problem on the screen. Because it is impossible. It becomes a traffic simulator, but a little part of me likes to build these monstrosities of road system to fix problems only for them to emerge elsewhere.
Since Cities: Skylines release in 2015, we haven’t seen another pure city builder, or even caught wind of one. What we have been seeing a lot of are city building management games which are rising in popularity.
Cities is a great game, but it is a casual, lay back, do what you want kind of game, which can get a bit boring. The appeal of these city management games is that they are challenging, they keep you on your toes. One of my favorites is Banished, which is set in a medievalesque time. Your people are casted out by society, you must survive the elements and thrive as an isolated people. This is an indie game that is popular on Steam, it is also very workshop friendly. The “Mega Mod” is basically Banished times 10. It adds a plethora of new assets, resources, craftables, livestock, crops, etc. It is the mod to have once you get a good grasp on how the game works.
An emerging favorite of mine is FrostPunk but I will do my own review on that one as I get more time with it.
So, are pure city builders dead? Or are we in the city building management era?
As I am writing this I realized I basically reviewed SimCity and almost Cities: Skylines…
SimCity 2013: 7
Cities: Skylines: 9.8