According to Steam, I’ve put about 55 hours into Cities: Skylines. While that may not seem like that much in the grand scheme of things, it’s way more than I have any right to have clocked. Because even after 55 hours of playing this fantastic city builder that Colossal Order has made, not one second of that time was played the right way.

See, when it comes to strategy and city building games like these, I’m absolutely fascinated by them but have no interest in playing by their rules whatsoever. I’m always really grateful that developers include scenarios and campaigns for people to play, but I’m never one of them.

In the case of Cities: Skylines, every city I’ve created has been done so without any money restrictions. I like to imagine that some rich benefactor like Peter Thiel opened up his seemingly bottomless pockets and let me build civilization with it. When you have that kind of monetary backing, you just go crazy and do whatever you please. The financial information panels were always in the red, but how else could I afford to cut taxes to 2 percent, build 46 fire stations, and over-fund every possible city service?

Here we see industry. The heart of any economy. Except one that literally doesn’t need money.

I’d do this for a while, and then ultimately get bored for two reasons. First and foremost, my cities weren’t growing. I lacked a fundamental understanding of how the game systems worked by never having to engage with them. I never could make skyscrapers appear, or even have any office space get filled out. It was perplexing to me. I gave these people everything they could ever want, all they’d have to do is move in, but no one would show up. I never allowed any demand for anything to build up, something I would’ve understood had I played one damned scenario.

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The other reason for my boredom was lack of any real challenge. Even though I wanted to and totally was playing God, I still wanted a little bit of a challenge. I just didn’t want to fail. Maybe that says a lot more about me as a person, but that’s a different story for a different time. But I just wanted a little, tiny, almost minuscule bit of challenge, so I imposed some rules upon myself.

Here we see Blackburn, a city built on rules.

For starters, I wouldn’t overdevelop right out of the gate. I’d start with smaller communities and try to link them from there. Then I’d make sure I was balancing my checkbook, in a sense. Even though I was rich, like, unlimited money rich, I could be richer if I just was a better economist. So I’d now try to keep a steady profit rolling in. I also wouldn’t just start off by building a nuclear power plant or other late game structures right out of the gate. I made it so that I’d have to hit the required milestones to place certain buildings.

I was policing myself. Except, no, wait, I wasn’t, I was literally just playing the game the correct way. I was doing everything I was supposed to, and reaping the rewards because of it. Suddenly, I’ve got skyscrapers popping up all over the place, I’m flush with tax revenue, people keep going to any of my many well-funded hospitals because they think this much happiness is bad for them. It isn’t, welcome to my awesome city, this is how it is now. These new, self imposed rules really were a game changer, and now I’m playing the game the way I was supposed to in the first place.

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Except for the fact that I still have unlimited money. At any point, the sewage could back up, and there could be a mass exodus from my town. I could fall back into the red and have to tinker with some sliders to get people to come back, but I’ll never have to because Peter Thiel still has my back. He’s always been there, whispering words of encouragement in my ear. “You’re a fantastic mayor” he says, “The best I’ve ever had the pleasure of knowing” he continues, “Please, take more of my money.”

Ah, so this is what demand looks like.

I might be playing within the rules of the game, but I can never fail at it. At any point I could become unhinged and build 65 airports, cause fuck you, tourism is gonna take off here like you’ve never seen before. Or build 6 nuclear power plants immediately, so no one ever has to go without power, ever, even if that means they might end up with 11 fingers because of it. But I won’t, because that isn’t fun anymore.

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Now I know you’re probably wondering how I could be having fun with the ultimate in safety-net technology right below me? To that, I don’t really have an answer. I guess in these kinds of games I like seeing the systems interact with each other, rather than interact with me. I still want that agency and control, but I want the stakes to be as low as possible. I’d rather make the city look cool than worry about if the 13th Applebee’s on this block is a smart business decision or not. Cause the answer is no, we don’t need another one here, at all.

I guess the main crux of this all is that there are games I want to challenge me and make me want to conquer them. Then there are games like Cities: Skylines, which allow me to tune out a little bit, and just relax a bit as I shave off some more hours of my life. Even if I’m not playing the game the right way, I’m still having fun and will continue to have fun. And when Planet Coaster goes on sale, I promise you I’ll be doing the same thing with that too.