SimCity 4: A builder's paradise

Updated: April 4, 2009

My first encounter with SimCity 4 was, naturally, a complete disaster. Having never before played a Sim-style builder type of game, I wrongly assumed it would be something like Caesar III with just a touch of Age of Empires and a tad bit of Cultures. It was neither.

I tried playing modestly: I zoned a few light, low-density residential areas, propped up a few schools and waited, waited, waited ... until I ran out of money, got angry and shelved the game for three years. That was back then in 2003 or 2004.

Still, something in that game managed to burrow into my heart and keep hidden there, soft yet persistent, nagging me to give it one more shot. One blue-sky day in year Y2K+7, I walked upon a bargain copy of SimCity 4: Rush Hour expansion pack and decided to buy it.

This time, I was a lot more patient. And for a change, I read a few reviews and walkthroughs before trying to play again. This time, it was a success.

Satellite view of a rapidly growing region; from a few shacks to a giant metropolis housing millions of souls

What is SimCity 4 all about?

The idea is to build a city, or rather, a whole network of cities, from scratch, no time limits, no goals, no commitments. It's all about the pure enjoyment of building metropoles any which way you feel like doing it.

The only catch is: you have limited money. So an undeclared goal of the game is to manage to earn revenue while expanding your city. A chicken and an egg thingie, actually. You invest money in building infrastructure for your future denizens: you zone residential and commercial areas, you create industrial sectors, you build roads, bridges and railways, you plant trees and open gardens and recreation spots. In return, people flock to your city and start paying taxes. In fact, it's very much like in real life. This is what makes SimCity 4 such a great game.

How to make a successful city?

Burgeoning city
If you're smart and patient, your villages will grow into big, busy metropoles, with hundreds of thousands of people living and working in them

Your success will depend on your patience. You will have to balance between over-expanding and letting your city grow stale while trying to keep the finance sheets positive. It took me a while to realize this, but once I got the hang of it, my cities flourished like mushrooms after a radioactive rain.

To make your cities profitable, you have to gain more than you invest - the golden rule of money-making. You do this by very, very slightly depriving your citizens of their needs. You'll be tempted to bestow all manner of blessings upon your population. But it would be a mistake to do it outright.

Your first immigrants will be a rowdy, uneducated lot with little demands except solid work in grubby, polluting mills. They won't care about colleges or the subway network - they won't even be able to afford it. So there's no need to build those until after you have established a solid middle class with some basic education.

Thus, you may want to build a small elementary school and let your peasants grow literate. After a few years, several aspiring minds might clamor for a high-school. Build one, then. Slowly, gradually, expand your services to meet the existing needs - rather than anticipating them. Empty schools are a burden that will quickly bleed your budget.

Dirty industry
No one wants to live near the cancer-friendly heavy industries; notice the firestrip amidst the factories, ready to put any of those lovely chemical fires down quickly

The same rules apply for other sectors of your city life. Build a small clinic staffed with interns before building large and expensive hospitals. Adjust tax rates to attract this or that crowd to your town. Reduce power and water spendings in your stations, keeping them just above the max. demand level. Let your people use buses until they can afford subways.

If you stick to these basic rules, your budget will grow alongside your cities. With careful planning, you'll start earning cash, growing more confident, allowing you to take bold steps and make your regions even better.


It turns out that the SimCity people are a rather spoiled kind. They love to live in clean, beautiful places. As your villages progress, you will find them asking for more and more commodities. The plebeians won't ask for much except some suet for breakfast, but the buorgeoise will want more. In order to attract the posh citizenry, the kind that pays a lot of taxes and makes your cities even more profitable, you will have to make your cities attractive.

To this end, you'll have to build parks, lots of them, and all sorts of recreation and relaxation venues, like, tennis and basketball courts, football (soccer) stadiums, and plazas. The rich will also demand safety, so you'll have to build police stations.

Tourists will also start coming to your cities once they become more than just mining labor camps. To cater to their needs, you'll have a range of historical (and extremely expensive) props available including the Statue of Liberty, the CN Tower and other buildings. Hotels, the Stock Market Exchange, the County Club, the Marina, these are all weapons in the hands of a great city builder dedicated to creating a magnificent metropolis. Then, let us not forget the religious and civic needs, the worship houses and cemeteries. You must also maintain an efficient network of roads and rails, aplenty with bus and train stations, to allow your workers to quickly and efficiently commute across the cities - and to and from the neighboring regions. Air and water pollution and traffic noise will also be a major concern. It's like real life in the big city.

Supply & demand

The success of your cities will also depend on how appealing they are; build lots of sports venues, parks, recreational facilities, and tourism hotspots - and people will flock to your regions, boosting all-around demand

You will be amazed how big the cities can grow in SimCity 4. If you're smart, you'll have regions populating hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people - with many more just waiting for the opportunity to come. You will have demand meters telling you how popular your city is. These meters will tell you how many more residential, commercial and industrial units your citizens wants. If your regions are popular, you'll always have a long, steady queue of immigrants waiting to come to live and work in your cities.

On the other hand, you may also experience emigration. For example, high-tech cities will not want peasants or coal miners in their posh societies. So it may come to pass that your low-class folks will gradually leave certain towns and move into other regions, more suitable for their kind. You'll see old factories turning vacant and even entire industrial sections growing completely stale.

It is also possible that if you foolishly persist with your chaotic building plans despite the warnings from the demand meters that you'll overturn the nature of regions around. The influx of undesirable, high-pollution industries into green cities might scare away tourists and office workers. Then, you'll see your skyscrapers turning black with neglect. High-class society will run away and your cities will spiral down into crime-infested labor towns. Which might be exactly what you want ... But if you aim to make beautiful, clean cities full of rich and educated masses, you'll be pay attention to your AI advisers and their charts.

Listen to the needs of your folks. If the demand meter for either residential, commercial or industrial zones is below zero, this means that your city does not require the particular type at the moment and even may have a surplus. If the bars are all high, you're lucky; you're doing well and people want to come to your city. This means you should invest in facilities for the newcomers.


Exporting power
Exporting power to neighboring regions will help you generate income while your cities flourish; try to use clean and safe energy sources, like solar power

The best part about SimCity 4 is that individual regions are not stand-alone entities. They are all connected to neighboring regions. For example, you can have a region dedicated entirely to high-polluting heavy industry and have citizens from other regions traveling to work there. Or you could export electricity and water to neighboring towns, making a handsome side profit.

The ability to chain regions into bigger cities is one of the highlights of the game. As you expand, you will notice the more interconnected the regions are, the faster their development is. More people will immigrate to your cities, the demand for commercial and industrial services will soar, your rail stations and airports will become busier. This will also spare you from replicating your cities in a predictable and boring manner - you won't have to build a power station or zone an industry area in every single city. Instead, you'll be able to manage your regions just like in real life; some will be more agriculture-oriented, others will be small, peaceful villages communities. Others yet will be skyscraper-only jungles. The largest cities will probably house universities to which people from smaller towns will flock. Industry and power centers will probably reside outside residential areas. Hot spots like military bases, jails or airports will most likely be located somewhere in the countryside.

A developed, high-capacity transportation network is the key to success. If you do not lay down roads and rails that extend beyond the borders of your regions into neighboring ones, your cities will be nothing more than small, underdeveloped ghettos. Once you chain them into a massive grid, you'll experience the true joy of city management.

Don't be mistaken! Building a functional network grid in SimCity 4 is one of the biggest challenges. You may not care much about the layout of your streets in the beginning, but they will clog up eventually, choking the progress of your cities. It is critical to plan ahead, even if your city only has a few hundred residents. You need to think decades ahead, when the population of your regions grows to hundreds of thousands.

Large airports will bring lots of commerce and tourists to your cities, just like in real life

Like in real life, this is no easy task. But if there's one thing I never skimp on in SimCity, it's the transportation infrastructure. Save your money elsewhere, but make sure your roads are top-notch. This means a tight grid of bus stops, rail stations, subway stations, and highways. Build your city around the transportation network; not the other way around.

Rush Hour expansion pack

The original SimCity 4 had quite a few flaws. The major of them was the awful AI pathfinding, which made even modest cities turn into traffic nightmares. The Rush Hour expansion pack introduced enhanced transport facilities, new buildings and new building styles, turning a great game into a fabulous one. If you can, make sure you grab Rush Hour before you play SimCity 4.


Network map
Transportation is critical to success in the game; without a thoroughly developed network of roads, railways, airports, and sea lines, you will get nowhere

Ah, yes! What makes SimCity 4 a true gem is its scalability. The game uses the flexible model of external plugins to extend its basic, default set, allowing people to easily add their own, custom changes to the game. This includes regions, vehicles, AI behavior, and just about anything else.

The best place to look for maps, tools, props, gameplay mods, and just about anything else that allows you to tweak SimCity 4 any which way you please is Simtropolis, and its Modds & Downloads, in particular. Personally, I'm using quite a few of these, including the must-have Network Addon Mod (NAM), which turns the game's inefficient transportation/networking AI into a practical, realistic model. Among its many features, NAM introduces diagonal streets, light rail, and advanced pathfinding algorithms.

Other useful mods include Radical Ordinance, Clean Air, Industry Multipliers, Functional Landmarks, and many more, some meant to ease the game play, others meant to turn it more beautiful or more realistic. And then, you also have custom trees, custom houses, realistic water, and much, much more. Think of SimCity 4 mods as Firefox extensions. Enough said.


SimCity 4 is a great game. For any modern urban enthusiast, this is THE one title that has it all: beauty, complexity, realism. It allows you to build huge cities with millions of people, down to the tiniest detail, with roads and railways spanning tens and hundreds of kilometers across your regions and planes swirling in the skies above them. Simply fantastic. Best of all, the use of mods allow you to keep it always fresh and modern.

The game is compelling and will keep you riveted to the chair for hours on end. Just for reference, my region of San Francisco, the one you see in the regional map, already has approx. 15 regions interconnected, roughly two million people living and working in it, has taken me more than a month to polish - and is nowhere near half completed yet. SimCity 4 embodies the modern RTS city builder, just like Caesar III did it for the old-world scenery.

Oh, just for the record, SimCity Societies, the successor to SimCity 4, is a total disappointment. Apart from being too easy to play, it abandons the beauty and realism of the former, becoming a would-be social networking simulator for the strategically challenged.

P.S. Fast forward a few years since this article was written, and you might want to check the completed region! Three years of work, 4.2 million citizens in 68 districts. Enjoy most profoundly!