Escape into peaceful fantasy worlds of your own design with the modern generation of city-builder games, starting with Islanders.

Those of us who like our games relaxing, cerebral, and constructive know that there’s nothing so enjoyable as building up a really satisfying city layout. A while back, we examined the popularity of Sim City and Maxis’ botched attempts to recapture that magic. This time, I’d like to cover modern-day games that scratch that same itch, or in some ways, scratch an even better one.

Islanders

On Steam currently for $4.99, Islanders is one of the most original takes on city-building that you’ll find in awhile. Islanders has no citizens apparent, collects no taxes, requires no utilities or roads, and suffers no problems from smog. Instead, it’s a stripped-down version of the city-building formula where the whole game focuses on the challenge of planning.

So don’t consider Islanders a typical city-builder. It’s a puzzle game that involves laying out a city. The gameplay formula is the definition of “casual”:

  • You get a starter pack of buildings
  • You get islands to build on – they procedurally vary in climates and features
  • Each building has a sphere around it indicating its range of influences
  • Each building scores positive or negative points depending on what other buildings are nearby
  • Score high enough and at regular intervals you get a new building pack
  • You can choose from different building packs depending on the theme you want to try
  • Score enough points and you unlock the next island
  • Run out of buildings while having too low a score = game over

Islanders is a sweetly designed game, with soothing music, inspiring atmosphere, eye-friendly graphics, and a gentle pace. Pulling off a smart layout and winning your way to the next building pack becomes almost a Zen experience. It’s Lorazepam in electronic form.

But who says you can’t get hyper-competitive about it? One niche gaming YouTuber shows you just how deep this game can get: Connor Roberson, who has the best guides to Islanders hands-down, saving the rest of us from composing a guide.

Islanders can be speedrun:

You don’t have to move on to the next island just because you unlocked it. Stay there and milk it for extra points!

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In the late game, you’d better be putting up better than 100K per island. You need to put those numbers up. Those are rookie numbers.

So yeah, check back in a few years to see if Roberson’s obsession has brooked the threshold of creating Turing-complete machines in Islanders yet.

Other city-building Steam games of note:

Factorio

Factorio is a phenomenally popular builder game which takes a different approach. It’s a construction and resource management game where, as the name hints, you build factory-like contraptions and automate processes. You’re just one character stranded on a desert planet, mining resources to build your mechanical empire.

Factorio‘s price is a bit steep, at $30, but it has a free demo to get you hooked. Factorio is a nerdy game to the extreme. It will appeal to engineers and STEM-aligned folks almost exclusively, but may leave others a bit cold. It has a steep learning curve; even if you play through the tutorial, it will still take some trial and error play before you fully grok the operation of each item.

I confess, I played through the demo quite a bit but I’m just not at a point in my life to get into it. There was a time when I’d dive into this kind of game and get lost in it, but I just don’t currently have the liberty of staying up all night tweaking with factory design. Bored, single, young people are welcome to take up my slack!

Littlewood

Littlewood is easy to describe: Imagine an SNES-era JRPG, only you stay in the starter town and build it out forever. Actually, in the game’s documentation, it states “the world has already been saved,” you just get to relax and craft it into your empire now. It’s also perfectly in the genre between Animal Crossing and Stardew Valley. Buy stuff, build stuff, trade stuff, collect stuff, interact with the townsfolk, and marry the princess of your choice.

In the context of city-builders, Littlewood is a city-building game where you literally build it log by log and brick by brick by hand. At $14.99, it’s tons of game for the buck. Littlewood is hugely popular with a litany of rave reviews. With that said, I still don’t get too into these kinds of games because I’ve been-there / done-that starting with the old Harvest Moon series on SNES, which this game also brings to mind. I have too many chores in real life to be that into chores in my leisure time too.

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Cities: Skylines

Cities: Skylines takes the Maxis prize for “best successor to classic Sim City.” It’s got the streets, the traffic, the buildings, the taxes, the zoning, everything. Cities: Skylines is called “what Sim City (2013) should have been.” Indeed, Electronic Arts pulled the plug on Maxis right when Cities: Skylines came out. My only complaint is that, as far as PC, you need a full desktop gaming rig to run this bad boy. A laptop won’t cut it, which isn’t fair because there’s also a Nintendo Switch version.

There’s been a ton of expansion packs released for the game and it maintains a huge fanbase, which could have been Maxis’ fanbase if they’d just gotten their act together. At prices ranging from $29.99 to $204 (currently) depending on how many expansion packs you order, this is not a cheap hobby. Cities: Skylines is hardly breaking gaming news now, but if you came here looking for the true Sim City experience, this is the end of your quest.

Townscaper

Townscaper is an early-access game in beta dropping for $5.99, which I’m including here as an honorable mention. It’s not a game at all! There is no goal, score, objective, or levels. Instead, it’s a toy. It’s a toy where you click in space and watch a magical island village pop up under your mouse cursor, with no thinking at all. A toddler could play this!

Townscaper has been getting rave reviews for its tasty aesthetics, and super-low learning curve. Left-click to generate a block of city, right-click to delete it, and click the color palette on the left to change building colors. That’s it, we’re done!

That’s it, see you next time, my precious blueberries!

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.