The 8 Best City Building Games
City building games are the best.
You can conjure a metropolis with your fingers and watch your citizens come and go. Or build a village and help your villagers survive the dark winter months, or even just knock down buildings in the middle of an endless ocean just for fun.
It’s a genre rooted in construction and management, but it spans many different types of games. So here are the eight best city building games that you absolutely must play.
1. City skylines
The current zenith of the city-building genre is Cities Skylines, the wondrous, infuriating and sprawling title developed by Colossal Order.
Although Cities Skylines first launched in 2015, it still tops the list more than seven years later. Much of this success and longevity is due to its vast army of modders, thousands of individuals dedicated to bringing new perks, styles, maps, lighting schemes, and more to the game.
In this, the game at the time of writing, 2022, is very different from when it was released in 2015. Many would argue that, at least on PC (there is no modding on the console version), playing vanilla Cities Skylines is a silly race when so many quality of life improvements exist in the Steam Workshop.
But modders don’t go it alone. In 2022, Colossal Order released Airports DLC, the title’s ninth major DLC among a host of other packs from smaller content creators, radio stations, and more.
From transit and sprawling cities to quaint and artistic towns, Townscaper is more of a zen city-building experience than anything you’ve played before.
Oskar Stålberg’s Townscaper has “No objectives. No real gameplay. Just lots of building and lots of beauty.” The developer nails the description, and you can have a good little time knocking down buildings to get out of the watery starting scene.
The lack of direction puts off some people. But the joy of Townscaper is figuring out how different buildings work together, changing their colors and creating ridiculously cute towns one block at a time.
From the developers of this critically acclaimed This War of Mine came Frostpunk, a sometimes brutal city-building and survival game where your survivors plod through life in the midst of a devastating volcanic winter.
The cold sets in and is constant. You’ll have to balance the need to keep your survivors warm, and you know, alive, with your civilization’s need to expand and grow. Insulation and storage, you’ll quickly discover, are key to keeping your generator in good working order. Without it, you’re going to have a bad time.
Throughout Frostpunk, you’ll also have to make tough decisions about politics, working conditions, and even child labor laws. It’s not a joyous city-building experience. It’s filled with sickness, death, and worry, and it’s a great experience overall.
Want to know the best thing of all? 11 bit studios developers are working on Frostpunk 2!
4. SimCity 2000/3000/4
Before Cities Skylines, there was only one name in city building games: SimCity. The original SimCity was great, but it wasn’t until SimCity 2000 launched in 1993 that the series really caught on.
The 1999 follow-up, SimCity 3000, was critically acclaimed, receiving outstanding reviews across the board, and you can still find new User Content releases for modern buildings over 20 years after the game launched.
Then, with SimCity 4, the game adopted an all-regional design, where you build several different types of cities, combining sprawling metropolises with regional industry, agricultural areas, power generation, and more. SimCity 4 still holds up today.
The latest version of SimCity, the titular SimCity in 2013, was universally anticipated at launch, despite the general excitement beforehand. EA chose to launch SimCity as an online-only game, where you couldn’t play or access your single-player cities without an internet connection and connection to an EA server. At launch, the servers were overwhelmed with users, meaning hundreds of thousands of people couldn’t play. Then there were huge issues with game pathing and routing, delays in patches to address those issues, and much more.
Its poor overall performance killed the SimCity franchise, with EA shutting down the Maxis studio, only releasing a free-to-play mobile game ever since. Still, you can’t have a better list of city-building games without SimCity, and if you can get your hands on the old titles or find a way to play SimCity online, it’s definitely worth it.
When Banished launched in 2014, it was notable for several reasons.
Firstly, despite its scale, the development was the sole responsibility of one man, Luke Hodorowicz, who started the development of Banished in 2011. Secondly, regarding the first point, the mechanics of building the city of Banished are sufficiently complex to keep you playing for hours. as you attempt to turn your fledgling village into a thriving community.
The focus of Banished shifts as you earn resources, moving away from the harsh survival mode required in your colony’s early days to resource management, trade, and expansion as your world becomes safer.
Either way, it’s a great city-building game, and the fact that it’s still getting great reviews on Steam years after its launch is a testament to the game’s depth and replayability. Besides, there are many mods and overhauls available on the Steam Workshop that can breathe new life into the original game once you give it a few tries.
Islanders is different from other city building games on this list. Instead of just planting areas and managing your infrastructure budget, Islanders requires precise placement of specific structures to create a high enough score to unlock your next set of buildings.
Each round becomes a delicate balance between creating something eye-catching and placing buildings that trigger a specific point tally next to each other.
Like Townscaper, it’s surprisingly addictive and really has that “just one more ride” vibe that will keep you coming back for more, and it’s no wonder it’s also on our list of best base building games and of kingdom building.
7. Caesar III
Caesar III is the best title in the ancient Roman city-building series and the latest developed by legendary studio Sierra Entertainment.
In Caesar III, you assume the role of a Roman governor, building your newly founded Roman city into grandeur and improving the lives of your subjects with it. You work through missions, progress towards goals, attempt to solve problems, and bring prosperity to your people.
It’s fun trying to find the best combinations to help your town grow. You’ll need to carry water around your town for drinking and bathing, as well as building markets to enable trade, barracks for defense, and while keeping an eye out for gods, who also need to be kept sweet.
There’s a decent amount of micro-management, tax adjustments, building returns, etc., but you don’t necessarily have to get involved, but it helps. Caesar III is available on major gaming platforms, but you may need to understand how to play older games and software first.
8. Tropic 6
The original Tropico was launched in 2001, just two years after Caesar III. The graphical leap between the two games is really night and day. For many, Tropico was an exciting and exotic 3D city builder with the added twist that you don’t just build the island, you are “El Presidente”, and your word is absolute.
Although Tropico 6 was launched almost 20 years after the original, your goal remains unchanged: to stay in power, at all costs.
Tropico 6 expanded the game world to include multiple buildable islands, a greater focus on infrastructure, and better individual citizen simulation than ever before. It’s a lavish city simulator that ticks a different box than most, building a tropical paradise is a nice change from the trash of Frostpunk or the blank canvas of Cities Skylines.
What are the best city building games?
The eight games above are some of the best city building games you can play, old and new. But this list is far from exhaustive. There are many other city building games you should check out, including the ANNO series, The Settlers, Caesar, Foundation, and Surviving Mars.
In short, the city-building genre is vast, and since we’ve been playing we’ve tried to simulate the world around us so we can control it however we see fit.