The 8 Best City Building Games To Test Your Urban Planning Skills
Do you sometimes look at the world and think “I could do this better”? I do, and if you do too, then why not dive into a city builder that puts you in control of developing and maintaining a functioning society and join us as we look at 8 of the best on the market.
December 11, 2019
In the early 90’s, when I was beginning my gaming ‘journey’, most of the games I played were top down games: Age of Empires, Command and Conquer and Caesar. There was something incredibly satisfying about Caesar – maybe it was building an aqueduct around my city or perhaps it was mustering an army to wipe out a barbarian horde.

The strength of a city builder sim is that it allows the player to realise their own personal design and give life to their own ideas of how the perfect city would be. There is no doubt that there is something magic and compelling about building your own city, which is why the genre has just gone from strength to strength.

Far from being a dated format of game, fans of the genre now have a wide variety of games that vary in style and graphical fidelity. A lot of these games are even playable on mobile devices, as the style of play makes it suitable for that medium.

So, grab your drawing board and your planning permissions as we measure up some of the grandest offerings in the city building genre. These are our 8 best city building games.

The Criteria that Defines a classic City Builder game:

• Is the building fun and satisfying?
• Are there any interesting obstacles to success?
• Is there satisfying progression?
• Are developed cities beautiful to behold?

8 Banished

Initial Release DateFebruary 18, 2014
PlatformMicrosoft Windows
DeveloperShining Rock Software
PublisherShining Rock Software
3/5
Building
2/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
5/5
Aesthetic

Banished is a great way to kick back and relax after a hard day. In Banished, you manage a growing town in the wilderness, and growing too fast can mean blood on your hands. In a lot of ways, Banished is simple in that the premise is straightforward: don’t let your people die and your society fail.

banished best city building games

Banished, Image Source: Shining Rock Software

To this end, you must temper your population boom, establish a good economy early on and stockpile enough that you can make it through the winter.

The early game issue that most will encounter is not accounting for how useful and hungry children are, but when you have this under control, watching your rustic community grow is satisfying. Why not chill and watch your people fish, cut wood and go to the tavern?

Part of the game’s charm lies in the aesthetic of the world and the way the vision of your community is entirely left up to you. There are no external conflicts beyond the elements, and this allows you to be surprisingly free in how you build up your town and this will ultimately give you satisfaction watching your townspeople go about their business.

7 Aven Colony

Initial Release DateJuly 25, 2017
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Xbox One and Playstation 4
DeveloperMothership Entertainment
PublisherTeam 17 Digital Limited
4/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
4/5
Aesthetic

A classic city builder but with a cool sci-fi edge, Aven Colony takes the city building genre to space and explores some new mechanics and ideas not shared by its brethren. As you develop Aven Prime, you will learn to juggle energy crisis, resource shortages and alien incursions.

aven colony best city building games

Aven Colony, Image Source: Mothership Entertainment

One of the main draws of Aven Colony is the aesthetics, as the wacky alien fauna and landscapes make a stark change from the more grounded entries on the list.

Instead of builders with hammers, you can expect drones to undertake your construction. Before long, you will need to build defence turrets and structures to blast strange floating aliens out of the sky.

Aside from these unique aspects, Aven Colony does the basics of city building well. The build controls and placement is straight forward and solid. The resource management and upgrades work as you would expect, although it doesn’t do much differently and could be criticised for not innovating as much as other entries on this list.

6 Kingdoms and Castles

Initial Release DateJuly 25, 2017
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Xbox One and Playstation 4
DeveloperMothership Entertainment
PublisherTeam 17 Digital Limited
3/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
4/5
Aesthetic

It’s a Dragon! Vikings! Cute Minecraft-like graphics! Yes, it’s the classic Kingdoms and Castles that brings a fun and quirky Medieval world into the city-building genre. Kingdoms and Castles gives a lot of customization options to the player. Among other things, you can generate your landscape and tinker your controls to govern how often your lands will be ravaged by enemy forces and dragons.

kingdoms and castles best city building games

Kingdoms and Castles, Image Source: Lion Shield

Watching your cute little blocky townsfolk go to work is a joy to behold, as are the building controls and placement constraints. Yet many of the problems and actions you take are generally quite reactive, instead of predicative, and the difficulty will often lie in if you have the resources available to build the structure that solves the problem.

Unlike many City Builders, Kingdoms and Castles has a pretty cool RTS system, in regard to its combat. Instead of attacks being automatically repelled (or not) by automated defence systems, you take direct control of your armies and direct them to deal with the threats. On hard mode, the Dragon’s and Vikings will hammer you repeatedly, but combating them in real time is one of the many joys of the games.

5 Anno 2205

Initial Release DateNovember 3, 2015
PlatformMicrosoft Windows
DeveloperUbisoft Blue Byte, Related Designs
PublisherUbisoft
3/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
4/5
Aesthetic
anno 2205 best city building games

Anno 2205, Image SOurce: Ubisoft Blue Byte

Whilst not without flaws, there is something special and unique about Anno 2205 that makes it worth going back to, time and time again. The game is set between Earth and Moon, where you can establish several “corporate” bases in order to trade between them, and ultimately, turn a profit.

One of the unique features that the game offers is that of “multi-sessions”; this is a system whereby you can establish many different “colonies” that represent different sessions.

As you enter a “session” and build up a new base, you can trade resources from that base to your other ‘sessions’. For example, on Earth, you will get to a stage where you need to trade for materials that can only be found on the moon and vice versa.

The variation in location goes a long way to keep the experience fresh. The stunning bleak landscapes of the moon contrast beautifully with the lush environments of Earth. With that said, beyond the multi-sessions, the game lacks some of the complexity of the other entries on the list.

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4 Tropico 6

Initial Release DateMarch 6, 2019
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Linux, Macintosh, Playstation 4 and Xbox One
DeveloperLimbic Entertainment
PublisherKalypso Media
4/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
4/5
Aesthetic
tropico 6 best city building games

Tropico 6, Image Source: Limbic Entertainment

Tropico puts you directly in control of a small island nation, ruled by a stereotypical South American dictator. Whether they are benign, or authoritarian is up to you and your style of rule will guide your emerging power through the tumultuous 20th century.

The game is laced with good humour and funny dialogues that very much add to the charm of what can be a pretty challenging city builder. Central to your nation is your Dictator, who comes with some nice aesthetic customization options – for example, he/she can sport a Pharaohs’ headdress and a cigar. However, more importantly, you can choose a starting attribute that can give you a nice little early boost.

Despite the name, the game actually doesn’t reward you for being an actual Dictator, and in fact you will run into difficulties if you go down the evil route. Ultimately, a lot of the game comes down to maintaining the happiness of the different factions and people. However, juggling happiness is certainly does add a nice societal obstacle to overcome that can’t necessarily be found in other games.

3 Surviving Mars

Initial Release DateMarch 15, 2018
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and Macintosh
DeveloperHaemimont Games
PublisherParadox Interactive
4/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
3/5
Progression
5/5
Aesthetic

Much like Frostpunk, Surviving Mars takes the genre into an inhospitable environment and throws in some challenging survival elements. The game blends difficulty settings naturally into the lore and themes of the game. Firstly, you can choose a mission sponsor that gives benefits to you in varying degrees, depending how challenging you want your experience. The difficulty of surviving essentially will come down to “can I keep everything running?”. If not, then you could end up with a colony-wide disaster on your hands.

surviving mars best city building games

Surviving Mars, Image Source: Haemimont Games

Unlike Frostpunk, the game does not benefit from having an interesting population- your worker bees are essentially numbers in determining how well or how poorly you are doing. The building and placement elements of the game more than make up for it, however.

There is also a nice element of combat and adversity when it comes to dealing with rival factions; this essentially boils down to a tower defence, but an enjoyable one.

Of course, one of the main attractions of Surviving Mars is the Martian aesthetic and the dome-like cities. The experience of building up a dome enclosed society, whilst watching the sun rise over Mars, is truly special.

2 Cities Skylines

Initial Release DateMarch 15, 2018
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Playstation 4, Xbox One, Microsoft Windows and Macintosh
DeveloperColossal Order
PublisherParadox Interactive
5/5
Building
3/5
Obstacles
5/5
Progression
5/5
Aesthetic

Cities Skyline is defined by what it says on the tin – develop a vast sprawling metropolis that dominates the skyline. The sky is the limit with this title, putting creativity and player agency at the forefront of its design. The game is very comparable to the Sim City series of yore but surpasses it in its scope and execution.

cities skylines best city building games

Cities Skylines, Image Source: Colossal Order

The progression of Cities Skyline is natural, as new technologies and buildings unlock as your population grows, so it is in your best interest to keep expanding. Your expansion can essentially be near unlimited as you can grab more tiles from the map as you progress. Part of your city management will come from managing the different zones and districts.

The challenge of the game is lacking compared to the more survival-focused games on the list, which does lessen the experience to some degree. The main challenge will come from managing your growing infrastructure and considering the placements of your transit hubs. Overall, Cities Skyline offers a freeing and unlimited experience that is the game of choice for those who want to build the city of their dreams.

1 Frostpunk

Initial Release Date24 April, 2018
PlatformMicrosoft Windows, Mac OS, Xbox One and Playstation 4
Developer11 bit studios
Publisher11 bit studios
5/5
Building
4/5
Obstacles
5/5
Progression
5/5
Aesthetic

For those who are familiar with the genre, it may not be too surprising that the stunning Frostpunk takes the top spot in our City Builder list. Frostpunk takes all the best of the genre and perfects it whilst boasting a beautiful setting and aesthetic. Topped off with some cool societal quirks and a living breathing community, Frostpunk towers above most others in the genre.

As the name suggests, the style is “Steam Punk in the Snow”, and boy, does it look amazing – watching the glow of your generator reflecting against the winter’s sky is nothing short of breath-taking. As you research new buildings and technology, you will watch your cityscape expand from a few tents huddled around a heat source, to moving, clanking, steampunk fantasy.

frostpunk best city building games

Frostpunk, Image Source: 11 bit Studios

The building and gathering mechanics of the game are just as satisfying. Your city grows in concentric circles around your generator, which will always remain the focal point of the city.

Your tech and upgrades are done in a fitting and lore-friendly way. Every day, you can sign a new “law”, which not only gives you access to new buildings etc., but also has benefits and consequences. You may save more lives with your “Radical Medicine” laws, but you will also need to cater for the amputees that result from it.

There is far more to the game that could easily be the subject of a full article, but with the winter aesthetic and the satisfying mechanics, it is the perfect game for your Christmas break.

City Limits

With that said and done, there we have some of the best city building games that have helped shape the genre into one with endless possibilities. Go on, grab your drawing board and start designing the perfect city, wherever you imagine that to be.
Geoff SmoughTown

Geoff SmoughTown

Contributor

My grandfather was a man way ahead of his generation, owning his first PC in the early ’90s. When I and my sister came to visit he would fire up ‘Rabbit Reader 2’, and I was transported to the world of ‘Wordsville’. Since then my tastes have developed finding myself attached to Lore rich games; the Souls series, Dead Space and any RPG with a good story. For me, Games can be forms of art to be dissected, analyzed and appreciated.

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