Blink while playing one of the best city-building games, and you’ll lose countless hours expanding your city, refining your infrastructure, and focusing your trade. Every game on our list represents hundreds of hours of simulation gameplay, regardless of if you want to build a modern metropolis, conquer strange Viking lands, or terraform the Red Planet.
Although city-building games usually carry a steep learning curve and tons of content, beginners can dive into any option on our list and have a good time. We have a mix of hardcore survival experiences like Frostpunk and minimalist builders like Islanders, so there’s something for everyone.
Cities: Skylines is the best city-building game you can play right now. It takes all of the best parts of SimCity, ignores the bad parts, and expands on the mechanics to create a city-builder that’s enjoyable for hundreds of hours. Starting with a small square off the highway, you’ll build your infrastructure to accommodate new residents, businesses, emergency services, schools, and more.
The base game gives you plenty of challenges to overcome, including managing emergencies, keeping your residents happy, and dealing with the flow of traffic throughout your city. Cities: Skylines really comes alive through its DLC, though. Green Cities, for example, gives you 350 assets to build a more eco-friendly city, while After Dark gives you new tourist attractions and an international airport so you can draw more people in.
Plus, there’s mod support, so you can add community assets and grab inspiration from custom-built maps. Cities: Skylines is the city-building game on PC, and it’s a must-own if you’re a fan of the genre.
Anno 1800 puts you at the beginning of the Industrial Age. Starting with a trade port and a small plot of land, you’ll attract farmers and workers to build your city from a farming village into a modern manufacturing powerhouse. From there, you’ll make your mark on the world with a network of trade routes, diplomatic agreements, and expeditions around the globe.
Like other Anno games, this one is focused on production and industry. Instead of engaging in war or appeasing your citizens, Anno 1800 mainly tasks you with building and maintaining supply chains and then exploiting those supply chains to generate as much revenue as possible through trade. You’ll need to fight from time to time, but only to defend your industry.
We chose Anno 1800 not only because it’s the most recent but also because the setting captures the spirit of the gameplay. If you’re looking for a different setting, Anno 1404 throws you into the age of colonization, and Anno 2070 looks forward to near-future industry.
Frostpunk is a city builder under the worst possible circumstances. You are the leader of a surviving colony after the fallout of a volcanic winter. Eruptions and catastrophic weather have wiped out most of the world’s population, and it’s your job to build a city around a steam-powered engine stuck in the center of a frozen wasteland.
Frostpunk puts on the pressure early and never lets up. You’ll have to send citizens out to gather materials, knowing some of them won’t make it back, enact laws to extract 24-hour labor, and choose who gets rations and medical treatment first (if at all). Frostpunk is as grim as video games come, but it still provides a riveting experience where building your city feels like just a means to an end.
Eager to settle the Red Planet? Surviving Mars is for you. It’s a traditional city builder where you need to build infrastructure, tend to the needs of your citizens, and grow your industry, but instead of dealing in electricity and housing, Surviving Mars deals in oxygen and space domes. It’s one thing to attract people to your colony on Mars. It’s another thing to keep them alive.
Surviving Mars comes from Paradox Interactive, the same publisher behind Cities: Skylines. That means a lot of DLC. New content is still rolling out, but Green Planet gives you new terraforming options so you can turn land into sources of water and vegetation, and Space Race throws you in the center of an international struggle to colonize Mars first.
In a lot of ways, Surviving Mars is Cities: Skylines in space, but even that description sells it short. It combines survival, exploration, and city-building into a neatly defined package that never fails to entertain.
El Presidente is back in Tropico 6, giving you another chance to rule, manipulate, and build your own banana republic. If you haven’t played a Tropico game, they are city builders where you’re allowed to do all of the devious, corrupt things you’re not supposed to do while building a city. As the absolute ruler of your island, your job is to make lofty speeches to keep your citizens happy while exploiting the land and resources for all they’re worth. The world will know the name of your island — for better or worse.
Tropico 6 is a joy to play, not only because it’s so silly but also because it’s a genuinely fun city builder. That said, it gets even better with DLC. Lobbyisto opens the doors to foreign leaders for some backdoor politics and helps you cover your corruption, and Spitter makes El Presidente a superstar on social media to attract celebrities and faction leaders to your island paradise.
It’s hard overstating how much of a joy Tropico 6 is to play. If the cold industry of Anno 1800 and the hopeless survival of Frostpunk are just too much, give Tropico 6 a spin.
Banished is a city builder that puts your citizens at the heart of the experience. You lead a group of exiled travelers looking to establish their own colony, and unlike a lot of similar games, growing that colony is your sole focus. Banished does away with currency and skill trees; instead, you’re tasked with managing the resources your colony can harvest and ensuring that your colonists can start families to keep your colony running into the future.
Banished is a methodical city builder that rewards thoughtful resource management and punishes rash expansion. Instead of conquering new land, you’ll focus more on assigning jobs to your citizens, replacing natural resources you’ve harvested, and growing your city only when there’s a need to. If you’re looking for a city builder with loads of DLC and mod support, Banished isn’t for you. Instead, it’s a game that focuses on doing one thing well, and it succeeds.
RimWorld is a colony simulator where almost anything can happen. You lead the establishment of a new colony on a rim world, a planet located on the edge of known space. Your colonists all come with a randomly rolled list of traits, which dictate how they act. You may have a genius who learns quickly but is suspectable to a mental break or someone with bloodlust who gets a mood boost from killing strangers and making clothes out of their skin. Seriously.
All of the traits are tongue and cheek, despite how serious they get (nudists, for example, get a mood bonus while they’re naked). The combination of traits across your colony gives you a wholly unique experience every time you load up the game. Your colonists will interact with each other based on their traits, and that’s where much of the basis for gameplay is formed.
On top of that, an artificial intelligence (A.I.) storyteller heads up your experience, providing random events based on your difficulty and game settings. Events can be everything from two colonists breaking up with each other to a revenge assault of animals you’ve hunted too much. RimWorld is a generator of unique and memorable gameplay experiences, and it’s one of the best simulation games on the market.
Islanders is a bite-sized city builder about building a city on an island. It does away with skill and research trees, trade, and resources and focuses on the building itself. At the start of the game, you have the choice between different packs of buildings. Regardless of the one you choose, they’ll fill your inventory with buildings that you can place on your island. It doesn’t cost anything to place them, but you’ll get a score depending on where you place them.
As you build and raise your score, you’ll unlock new buildings and refill your inventory. From there, it’s just a matter of how far you can go. Once you fill up an island, you’ll have the option to move to the next island and expand your empire. And if you run out of buildings before you can refill your inventory, the game ends.
Islanders is a simple game that anyone can pick up and play, but it rewards players who pay careful attention to building placement and resource management. If you’re looking for a city builder that isn’t bogged down my menus and systems, Islanders is for you.
Northgard puts you in charge of a Viking clan looking to conquer the mysterious shores of Northgard. Either against A.I. opponents or real-life players, your goal is to expand your kingdom to win. Similar to Civilization VI, Northgard provides a few different win conditions, including Wisdom, which is awarded for recruiting loremasters and receiving blessings, and Fame, which is awarded for conquering new territory and becoming a king.
The game pushes into the 4X territory of the best strategy games but still manages to keep things accessible. Although conflict with rival clans and beasts is to be expected, Northgard still includes a jobs system for your Vikings, farming, and trading, so you can build your city the way you want.
The SimCity franchise has been dethroned by Cities: Skylines, so there isn’t much of a reason to pick up the latest entries in the franchise. 2003’s SimCity 4, however, remains a staple of the genre. It’s a nostalgia trip that allows you to build a network of cities connected by public transit, summon natural disasters at will, and tend to the varied needs of your citizens as you build a sprawling metropolis.
At the time of publication, however, SimCity 4 is 18 years old and hasn’t received the attention it deserves. If you’re interested in playing the game, we recommend installing a few mods and bug fixes to get the game running smoothly. Otherwise, you’ll deal with frequent crashes and/or game-breaking bugs.