City building games give you the opportunity to live out your dream of becoming an urban planner. City builders combine strategy, management, and simulation elements to create a unique, and oftentimes complex, subgenre that’s been quickly gaining popularity in recent years. Since it’s finally Summer and many people have more free time on their hands, we figured now would be the perfect opportunity to discuss some of these titles.
Similar to grand strategy games, city builders are notoriously time-consuming, to the point where you’ll end up spending countless hours simply trying to figure out all the gameplay mechanics. You shouldn’t let that discourage you from playing them, though, because there’s nothing more satisfying that building a sprawling megalopolis from scratch. Or a medieval village. Or a space colony. As you’ll see down below, city building games like to cover a wide variety of themes and time periods.
With all of that out of the way, and in no particular order, let’s take a look at the best city building games you can play right now.
Cities: Skylines (2015)
We’re kicking things off with one of the most popular city builder games out there. And arguably one of the best. Often considered a spiritual successor to SimCity, the game that established the genre back in the late 80s, Cities: Skylines is the title that revived and set a new gold standard for city builders.
City: Skylines is urban planning simulation at its finest. The game is a quintessential sandbox where you start off with a small plot of land and get to gradually develop it into a megacity. As the mayor of the city, you’ll be in charge of managing everything from districts and policies to the everyday needs of your citizens. Including healthcare, economy, education, police, and more. It’s basically just like running a real city. Possibly even harder in some ways since you have to administer everything all by yourself.
Cities: Skyline is a Paradox Interactive (published) game so be prepared to spend a good chunk of money on DLC packs if you want to get the full experience. We’re talking anywhere between $100 and $200 for the full package. Alternatively, you can just get the base game and spice things up with some mods. Much like Skyrim or Warhammer 3, Cities: Skylines has a fantastic modding community.
Simcity 4 (2003)
The original SimCity received numerous sequels and spin-offs over the years, some better than others. While there’s still some debate over this, many people would agree that SimCity 4 remains the best entry in the series almost two decades later. If you can get it to run properly, that is. Like most games of that era, SimCity 4 struggles to run on a lot of modern systems.
SimCity 4 is still somewhat unique among city building games thanks to the fact that it allows you to manage not just one but multiple large cities and link them all via a complex transportation network. While perhaps not quite as detailed as something like Cities: Skylines, SimCity 4 still features a very impressive number of things to build and manage. And I’m not just talking about infrastructure, though that’s obviously a big part of it.
SimCity 4 sort of doubles as a god game where you get to shape the very landscape to your liking. And, if you so choose, destroy everything with the help of volcanos, tornados, and meteors. You’re the absolute master of the worlds you create in SimCity 4, a city builder where the only limit is your imagination.
From modern urban landscapes we switch to one of the most interesting post-apocalyptic settings we’ve seen in quite a while. 11 bit studios’ Frostpunk puts you in charge of New London, the last city on Earth, and tasks you with making sure it survives the ongoing ice age. Under your brave leadership, the city can end up thriving even in this harsh world. Or you can end up being responsible for the end of the human race. No pressure.
Frostpunk focuses more on storytelling than a lot of other city building games. If you’re familiar with This War of Mine, one of 11 bit studios’ other highly successful titles, you already know that the developers like to present the player with a lot of difficult moral decisions. The stakes are even higher here since the entire fate of humanity rests on your shoulders. You’re going to lose a lot of people in the process, no doubt about it. The question is, how many are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good?
Moral quandaries aside, Frostpunk also manages to stand out from other city builders thanks to its visuals and theme. The steampunk city of New London is something truly special. The steam-powered automatons, airships and other technological marvels you can build coupled with the industrialized nature of the city create a beautiful juxtaposition with the frozen landscape surrounding it. Of course, it won’t be very impressive right off the bat. Building New London into an industrial juggernaut takes time.
Surviving Mars (2018)
These days a lot of people are eager to get off of this rock and start exploring other planets. The best candidate for that would be Mars, of course. But could human colonies even survive on the Red Planet? In the real world, who knows. But in Surviving Mars the answer is a definitive yes, provided you can get good at managing space colonies.
Surviving Mars is another Paradox Interactive (published) game so expect the complexity level to be up there with the likes of Cities: Skylines. Okay, maybe not quite that high, but there are still tons of things to manage and keep track of. Your colonists rely on you for oxygen, food, infrastructure, new technologies and everything else they need to build sustainable colonies on the Red Planet. It’s a lot of work but it’s also very rewarding.
In addition to being a fun survival city builder, Surviving Mars also features some neat exploration elements and gives you the opportunity to perform interesting research and experiments. But as is usually the case with Paradox titles, the base game barely scratches the surface. You’ll need at least some of the DLC packs to get the most out of Survival Mars. Either that, or you can jump into the wonderful world of mods.
Anno 1800 (2019)
One of the things that makes the Anno series so interesting is the fact that each installment takes place in a different era. After tackling the future with Anno 2070 and Anno 2205, developer Blue Byte decided to go back to a historical setting with their latest entry, Anno 1800. If you enjoy historical games this one should be right up your alley.
Just as its name indicates, Anno 1800 takes place during the Industrial Revolution, a setting that frankly doesn’t get used nearly enough in video games. Fitting to the time period, the game is all about managing colonies, sea trade, exploration, and the occasional war. Much like previous games in the series, Anno 1800 combines city building with RTS and economy sim elements. There’s also quite a bit of focus on diplomacy.
Anno 1800 isn’t necessarily the best title in the series depending on how you ask but it is the best-looking one and it has decent enough tutorials. I wouldn’t normally mention tutorials but Anno games are hard to get into so you’ll definitely want to check out the tutorials if you’re new to the series. Having said that, Anno 1800 is also the most expensive of the bunch by far thanks to its dozen or so expansions. Check out Anno 1404 if you’re looking for a good historical entry in the series that won’t break your bank.
Tropico 6 (2019)
Speaking of city building series that have been around for ages, next up we have Tropico 6. Once again you take on the role of El Presidente, the leader of a fictional Caribbean banana republic who’s generally more of a dictator than a president. The series deals with some heavy topics like totalitarianism and nationalism. It would have made a nice addition to our best dystopian games list if it wasn’t for the fact that Tropico takes a lighthearted and tongue-in-cheek approach to the whole thing.
Tropico 6 is the latest entry in the series and this time around you’re in charge of an entire archipelago, as opposed to just one island like in previous games. Having to manage multiple islands makes things a bit more complex but don’t worry because the game eases you into it. You’ll start off small before getting a chance to build bridges and tunnels that let you expand to other islands in the chain.
If you’ve never played a Tropico game before, this is as good of a starting point as any. Tropico 6 turns the ridiculousness to 11 by allowing you to hold over-the-top election speeches, convince loyal citizens to steal important landmarks from other countries, engage in shady backdoor politics, and more. All in the name of maintaining your reputation as the world’s greatest leader, of course.
Alright, now this is a really interesting one. Timberborn takes place in a world where humans managed to turn Earth into a wasteland and went extinct shortly after. As one might expect, another species stepped up to the plate and created its own sprawling civilization. Normally, you would think other primates might try to pick up where humans left off, but nope, it’s actually beavers.
Timberborn is a “lumberpunk” city building game about leading a society of beavers. The game is currently in Early Access but there are already two factions to choose from – the nature-loving Folktails and the industrious Iron Teeth. Timberborn plays much like a traditional city builder regardless of which faction you choose. However, each faction comes with its own unique architectural style, buildings, mechanics, and more.
I’m sure you can probably tell by now that this is a very lighthearted take on the city building genre based on a pretty silly concept. That said, the game itself is very solid and more challenging than you may think. It also runs quite smoothly considering it’s an Early Access title. But do expect some bugs and performance issues every now and again.
If you read our list of best medieval games you should already be familiar with this one. If you haven’t, let me fill you in. Banished is a medieval city builder/colony sim where you lead a group of exiled travelers who decide to settle in a new land. You’ll need to start off from scratch but don’t worry because the game has no skill trees and allows you to build any structure you want anytime you want. Provided you have the necessary resources of course.
Banished puts more emphasis on people than a lot of other city building games. Townsfolk get born, work, get married, establish families, and eventually die. You’ll need to put a good amount of effort into keeping them happy and well-fed if you want your village to grow and prosper. There’s quite a bit of micromanagement here. Villagers can take on one of twenty different professions but you can’t just assign people jobs willy-nilly because resources are scarce and there’s rarely enough food to go around.
Banished is a pretty old game by this point and it shows. Unfortunately, it never got a sequel but it inspired a lot of other similar city builders. If you’re looking for something a bit more recent, I recommend checking out Going Medieval. It’s still in Early Access but there’s already tons to do in the game and it’s getting even more content at regular intervals. Foundation and Medieval Dynasty are two other titles worth looking into.
Diplomacy Is Not an Option (2022)
We’re still sticking with the medieval (fantasy) theme but we wanted to give this one its own entry because it’s pretty unique. Diplomacy is Not an Option takes certain elements commonly found in city building games and combines them with tower defense and a bit of RTS. Your main goal here is building a stronghold capable of withstanding a massive siege. And I do mean massive.
In addition to having to defend your castle from thousands upon thousands of enemies, you’ll also need to build homes and amenities for the people living within the walls. Things like economy, politics, and bureaucracy need to be taken into account as well. The city building aspect isn’t overly complex but since you have to manage everything within the walls while also defending your fortress from a literal horde of enemies, things can get pretty hectic in Diplomacy is Not an Option.
If you’re looking for a game that’s somewhat similar in terms of gameplay but takes itself more seriously, there’s always the Stronghold series. The original Stronghold Crusader is arguably the best of the bunch but there are a couple of other good ones in there as well. Just try to ignore the most recent entry, Stronghold: Warlords, because it’s not that great.
Workers & Resources: Soviet Republic (2019)
This, comrade, is the Soviet Union like you’ve never seen it before. Workers & Resources is a highly complex city builder that aims to be the ultimate communism simulator. The game mainly focuses on industry but you’ll also get to build urban infrastructure, plan living areas, manage the economy, and sometimes interfere in the lives of ordinary citizens if you wish. You are the dictator after all.
Workers and Resources: Soviet Republic claims to be the “most complex and complicated city builder tycoon you’ve ever seen.” That’s certainly a bold claim but not an exaggerated one. You have tons of tools at your disposal to build a republic from the ground up and shape it as you see fit. Just keep in mind that you’ll have to micromanage absolutely everything in this game. It’s not enough to simply lay down a mine if you want to harvest iron, for example. You’ll need a mine, processing plant, appropriate vehicles, workers, roads, and more.
Soviet Republic wasn’t designed for fans of casual city building games. You can turn certain options on or off to make the micromanaging less intense, but it’s still going to take ages to wrap your head around everything you can do in this game. Workers & Resources: Soviet Republic is another Early Access game so expect issues here and there. Also, the graphics aren’t the best but I personally see that as a feature given the game’s Soviet theme. The slightly blocky visuals somehow add to its charm.
And that’s a wrap. We realize this list is by no means exhaustive so let us know if we missed any great city building games and we’ll make sure to add them the next time we update the list.