Things Mikey Likes: Cities: Skylines

I suppose I could have made the subject more broad—I like city builders, in general. I was a strong adherent to the old SimCity series through SimCity 4: Rush Hour. Then SimCity (2013) happened and…OK, I promised I’d mainly be talking about things I love, so let’s just say I didn’t love SC2013 and move on.

Recognizing an opportunity in SC2013’s big fumble, though, a company in Finland called Colossal Order teamed up with Paradox Studios to see if they could produce a true successor to SimCity 4, and the result was Cities: Skylines.

Right at first, the game was kind of clunky—in that way that a lot of new games can be clunky particularly on lower-spec, or older-spec hardware. But Paradox tends to be in for the long-haul with its games. With only one exception I can immediately think of1, they release games intending to support them for the better part of a decade, fueling that ongoing effort with content packs and other paid DLC, but delivering free patches and sometimes content to everyone as well. So, fairly quickly, between improvements in the software, and updates in my hardware, it came to run fairly smoothly.

What I like best about it is that it’s entirely self-paced and creative. I almost always play with a budget, but there’s an “unlimited money” mode, so if I wanted to, I wouldn’t even have to worry about that, but I like the reminder to build up slowly (see also: One Brick at a Time).

At it’s most basic, the mechanics hearken all the way back to the original SimCity. You lay out a road network—not a large one at first, because it costs money. Streets and roads can be zoned against, and the zoning retains the “classic” categories: Residential, Commericial, Industrial. Cities: Skylines adds in Office in lieu of a high-density Industrial. You need to think about the balance of zoning based on the demands, but also based on factors like ground and noise pollution, highway access, and so on.

Once they start to move in, citizens need work-places (which mainly drives industrial demand, especially early on when the education levels are mostly low), and then they start to want places to shop (which will also employ people, but employment demand tends to show up as industrial demand). Shops, in turn, need goods, which also drives industrial demand, which will in turn start to feed back into residential demand (the need for more workers).

A small-ish city in progress, with two tiles available side-by-side, one mostly settled, the other just begun, and not completely laid out yet. A small industrial complex is set a bit apart in the north, while a mix of residential and commerical zoning makes up the west side.

It sounds complicated, but mostly, you just have to decide at what point you’re going to do what the three demand bars are asking you to do. You don’t have to guess.

As your city grows, services start to unlock in a progression that mostly makes sense: garbage and health care; then fire, police, and education; a little while and you can start adding parks.

Your citizens, in turn, will express their satisfaction, or dissatisfaction, in various ways. Give them services and education, and both their homes, shops, and workplaces will start to upgrade themselves, and the city’s revenue will improve in turn.

As the city grows, you can draw out districts, and start to play around with district policies and even vary district building styles (by default, the game will mix architectural styles willy-nilly). You can treat districts as neighborhoods, or even as entirely separate villages, connected by their roads or, on a map with islands, possibly by ferries or transit. You can add bus routes, subways, trams, monorails, even cable-cars, to help get people out of their cars—the classic problem of city density!

A larger city I worked on over the winter, with an appropriately wintery theme. This and the previous shot were taken while running with mods, so there’s a bunch of controls on the screen you wouldn’t necessarily see out of the box.

This game also has a huge modding community. I don’t both with mods for most games, but some of the mods for Cities: Skylines offer real “quality of life” improvements for someone who wants to get deep into the details of their city. One modification let’s you get detailed with traffic control, going beyond a question of stop signs or traffic lights (which the vanilla game offers) and into things like junction restrictions, vehicle restrictions (e.g. no heavy traffic down this street), and lane changing logic. Another offers an easier way to build roundabouts, and yet another makes it easy to improve road connections and slopes.

Ultimately, Cities: Skylines is where I turn when I need to unwind, but want to also be creative. I’ll start a new city, or load an existing one, and start to figure out what happens next in that city’s “story”, then sit back and watch the zoning fill in, the traffic patterns shift around, see what made people happy and what didn’t, then start planning the next phase. Sometimes, when most of the city’s needs are reasonably well balanced, I’ll just sit back and watch the city go by for a while.

In the end, I love this game for it’s depth, when I’m feeling like getting into the weeds; and for the ease with which I can just get kind of zen with it, let the real world go for a bit, and just watch things grow.

  1. Surviving Mars was, disappointingly, cut loose. From the outside, it looks like there was a falling-out between Paradox and the actual developers, but that’s pure speculation.