The struggles of building a city (Cities Skylines)

Cities-Skylines-screenshot-1-1024x576Months ago I started playing a very realistic city building game, Cities Skylines, and I simply can’t stop. It’s like Sim Cities but more fun! And there’s always something to do, something to fix.

This has got my thinking. The struggles that politicians in for example London must go through. Should they extend the Bakerloo subway line? How to handle the traffic jams in Piccadilly? How to meet the demand for more and better housing facilities?

Beijing is interesting because it’s very squared. There’s a clear vision that seems to have been present from the start. They have planned ahead. Yet here too traffic moves very slow in rush hour. How to solve that?

All this is included in the game I’m playing. Allow me to explain how it works, and why I can spend countless hours trying to make my city as good as it can be:

Zones & demand

You start out with an open, empty landscape. You build a few roads and next to the roads you can add ”zones”. These can be residential zones (houses), commercial zones (shops) and industrial zones (factories). Later in the game you can add office zones, high density residential zones (apartments instead of houses) and specialized commercial zones to focus on tourism or entertainment.

People will automatically populate your zoned areas if there’s a demand for them. It’s all about demand. You can’t ”force” expansion by creating zones that no one will move into. And this is where it gets interesting.

As you start out, people living in your cheap housing areas have no education and are happy to work in a factory or a simple shop. But they also need schools, health clinics, fire stations, etc. And as you add those the land value in the area increases. Your little town becomes more popular. There will be a demand for more houses, and the houses that you have will grow to more expensive houses.

As children go to school and citizens become more educated they will want to work in higher-level industries, and other than offices you can specialize industries to drill for oil, mine for ores, or farm fertile land. Once you have a university in your city, this is crucial or people will move out! You need to balance the demands.



As more and more buildings pop up in your city, more and more traffic to and from those buildings appear. Factories export their products and trucks need to carry the goods out of the city. Shops need to import their goods. Residents need to travel to and from work, and in their spare time they go places for entertainment. This is all very realistic.

When starting the game you have one highway connection, which brings traffic from outside the map. You can build different sized roads to handle different levels of traffic. Cars and trucks will automatically choose the quickest way to their destinations. You can have roads with trees too limit noise pollution, or bus lines to help public transportation.

The real challenge is when your city grows so much that traffic jams in narrow areas with only one or a few routes leading to the highway. This too feels very realistic, and if you haven’t planned way ahead you’ll find traffic jams difficult to solve as the city grows. The key is to extend the highway and always have highway routes connected to large zoned areas, so cars don’t have to drive through several areas before reaching the highway.


Garbage, morgues, fires, crimes, etc.

Adding to the already busy roads you need to provide services to your citizens, and most of these take to the streets as well. If there’s a fire the closest fire station will automatically dispatch fire trucks to the location. Garbage trucks drive their routes from the garbage facilities. Police cars patrol the streets and ambulances race through the city if someone is sick. This all makes your city very lively and a joy to watch unfold.

cities-skylines-7Public Transportation

You can create bus routes, build subway systems and railways, airports, taxi stands, etc. And the beauty is that the game gives you completely free hands! People will never get stuck as they can always take their own car, but of course you want to avoid that they do that to limit traffic.

When creating a new bus route, you click where you want to place each stop. You usually add routes gradually as your city grows, but imagine handling this in a city with 100 000+ citizens! The game makes it so simple yet so hard to get it right!

Effective public transportation will save you trouble on the roads, and you get a real insight to how real life mayors and politicians need to plan stuff like this. You can even adjust the budget for different types of transportation, for example to affect how many buses are on each route. No point for them to drive empty!

Follow people and cars

You can zoom out for a birds eye view of your beautiful city, and you can zoom in all the way to the streets. I’m not sure but I don’t think each single citizen is represented by a person on the screen, but pretty close. You can click people to see their names, where they live, where they work and where they are going. People are always on the move.

You can do the same with cars and trucks to see where they are heading to, and follow them as they drive through the city. The landscape and skyline is beautiful!

Citis skylinesAdd parks, pathways and unique buildings

To keep people happy, residential areas need to look good. As you add parks these areas will grow in value and ”level up”. Soon poor looking apartment blocks will become modern skyscrapers for the rich. If you go into detail you can add walkways. People will walk a limited distance to reach their destination or next public transportation connection and pathways allow you to make shortcuts for them.

You can also add unique buildings, like plazas, stadiums, unique towers, etc. These attract tourists which come either by car from the highway or train, airplane or even ships if you have a dock.


Other then the budget for various facilities you can adjust taxes to balance income and citizens happiness. But more interesting is the many policies you can apply. You can manually create districts and decide what policies each district has. For example, you can ban heavy traffic in a residential area to lower noise (but you then need other routes for trucks), issue free smoke detectors to all buildings, ban smoking (good for the city environment, bad for free choice), encourage bicycling, set closing hours for night life, etc. Everything has it’s own cost and advantages.

Water levels can drown your city or poison citizens

A final thing I want to mention is that you need to provide water and electricity. At first you may rely on coal but as you have more money you might build a wind mill farm or a nuclear reactor. This is pretty straight forward.

Water is much more interesting. Rivers flow through the landscape. You have water pumps to supply water, and sewage facilities which pump bad water into the rivers. Of course, you don’t want the bad water to be pumped out up stream and your water pumps to catch that water down stream and make your people sick. Water in this game reacts very realistically and for various reasons, for example if you build a dam, how the water flows may shift.

Whoops, I just dried out the supply to my water pipes while drowning a part of my city.

cities-skylines-8This is when I thought it was over…

I never seem to grow tired of this game! Usually in city building games, things become repetitive and after a few weeks of playing you stop. But this game never ends! There’s always something to do! A road that has too much traffic and you need to add alternative routes without destroying the surroundings, a train that is stuck because too many trains try to reach the same station, a new subway line to create because you just built a new office area and people need to get to work, new pathways to create, new bus routes to get to and from the airport, or new policies to put in place to make citizens happier. There’s so much freedom!

And when you actually do grow tired of a city (there’s a limit to the physical size/where the city borders go), you can start a new city on a new map, where mountains and rivers and highway connections are placed differently for a fresh challenge.

…but then I found user-created content!

I *almost* got to the point where I had tried all the maps, built several cities with 200 000+ citizens (at this point you get tired of tweaking the same roads to optimize traffic flow), and stopped playing. Then I found the *thousands* of user-created mods you can add to the game! You can browse a catalog online and simply click on the stuff you want, and it will automatically be installed in the game.

This can be anything from new buildings (my residential zones now feature more skyscrapers and fewer boring low buildings), train stations with multiple tracks and more types of roads, to mods that allow you to analyze traffic in more detail, color-code your bus routes, or make pedestrians behave more realistically.

And of course you can download new maps! I now have one that should be very tricky to plan because it has a lot of mountains and the buildable areas are limited, one that has the river Thames shaped exactly as it is in London, and even one that pretty accurately resembles the land that Kuopio in Finland is built on, which should be interesting as it has a lot of lakes.

There’s so much I should be doing right now (prepare the next interview for my blog Read an Interview, write travel articles for online magazines, edit my next Youtube video, blog about China, edit my upcoming video about China, go out and experience Beijing, go to sleep…), but no time to do it! I just have to add *one* more apartment district in my city, and then I *just* need to relocate an industrial district because I want to make room for a second airport…



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