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Video Game / City-Building Series

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This page is about the City Building Video Game series. If you are looking for the city-building genre, see Simulation Game.

A series of Simulation Space Management Games in which your primary task is to build a city. First developed by Impressions Games, then Breakaway Games and finally Tilted Mill Entertainment, most of the titles were published by Sierra and are among its few games where not everything is trying to kill you - only your neighbors, their gods, your gods, wild animals...

The settings for the games are all famous ancient cultures, but the devs at least tried not to fall wholly into Hollywood History:

  • The Caesar series in Ancient Rome:
    • Caesar I (1992) and Caesar II (1995) started the series off, but are mostly forgotten nowadays, even by the hardcore fans of the series. Those who do remember them may have a very strong negative reaction if you say "Plebs are needed" to them.
    • Caesar III (1998) is the earliest of the games that might still be recommended as a classic today.
    • Caesar IV (2006) is the latest release in the series.

A new installment, Medieval Mayor, was announced as being under development by Tilted Mill and originally scheduled for a 2013 release. Set in medieval Europe, it would have returned to a 2D representation and a walker system. Unfortunately, the game fell into development hell due to funding issues.

The series provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: While the more history-centered games start off following history relatively closely, most games take a turn towards alternate history later on.
    • The Campaign maps for the Caesar games included some provinces that were never actually under Roman rule.
    • Pharaoh makes your family take over the throne of Egypt in the middle of the campaign, and rule a united Egypt until the end (although the time period corresponds to an actual usurpation).
    • Cleopatra requires you to change history by winning the Battle of Actium.
    • Emperor has the Song and Jin Dynasties defeat Genghis Khan and prevent the establishment of the Yuan Dynasty. On top of that, you do so as Jin dynasty, who were Jurchen (proto-Manchu people), rather than Han Chinese.
    • Poseidon, which makes no pretense at having any historical accuracy, offers two campaigns as alternate histories to each other. In one you play the Atlanteans and defeat the Greeks, in the other, you play the Greeks defeating the Atlanteans.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Averted. You can right-click on your citizens and they will complain about everything from a lack of employment to a lack of workers, inadequate healthcare or worship services. Even if there are only 10 workers needed in a city of 7000. Very unhappy homes also spawn muggers, vandals or looters.
    • On the other hand, if you manage your city well, your citizens will give you unending praise.
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: While there is no population cap, there is a cap on the number of companies of soldiers you can have.
  • Arrows on Fire: In Poseidon, the Atlanteans can use orichalc to enhance the power of their towers.
  • Artificial Insolence:
    • Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom: Allied and vassal cities can rebel against you and refuse to fulfill your requests, but the reason why is not always apparent, such as the rate on exported goods being too high for their liking or missing too many deadlines on requests from other cities.
    • Pharaoh: The survivors of demoralized companies will flee back to their forts. Giving them an order will result in the company taking a few steps outside the fort and immediately retreating back into it.
    • Zeus: Master of Olympus: Repeatedly requesting aid from other cities (especially military or joint strikes) very quickly causes you to lose favor with them, requiring lots of time and bribery before you can ask again (presumably to avoid the player abusing the mechanic). On the other hand, it leads straight to Gameplay and Story Segregation when the entire point of a colony-founding mission is to set up a strong military outpost to fight back against an oppressive empire... who then refuses to help you.
  • Brick Joke: In Zeus, one of the lines you'll hear around Drama Schools is "Has anyone seen my spear? How can I be a Spear Carrier without my spear?" Come Poseidon, Atlantean Spearmen will, when there isn't anything to fight, wonder if maybe there's a spear carrier somewhere who could use a spear.
  • Command & Conquer Economy
  • Construct Additional Pylons: The whole purpose of the game. Also literally, in order to reach perfect coverage of the city for your various service buildings, you need to build additional apothecaries/schools/gymnasia/whatever, even if all your citizens actually already receive it, but the statistic that keeps track of it (and influences some modifiers) works on a Number of Citizens/Number of Buildings basis.
  • Crippling Overspecialization: In Zeus, one hero gets summoned to take out one monster (and can't be summoned until the monster shows up).
  • Critical Staffing Shortage: Somewhat lessened (compared to Pharaoh) in Zeus, as buildings get workers automatically instead of looking for staff in nearby housing, and standard housing won't turn into Idle Rich neighborhoods. However, as the army is taken from the population, drafting large amounts of Rabble units will cause services to bleed workers.
  • Difficulty Levels: Most game offer difficulties from Very Easy to Very Hard, which changes various in-game modifiers, such as good consumption rates.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: Most of the tropes of the series were standardized by Caesar III. I and II have their own quirks, such as being far less battle-focused (if such a thing is possible), having separate city and province maps, no trading mechanics and the "loot and scoot" strategy (where you pour your city treasury into your personal chest right before you get promoted, leaving yourself rich and the city badly in debt).
    • The games got more accesible as the series progressed and they also got just less frustrating, as lots of quality-of-life features were added later that are lacking in earlier entries. Most notably: the all-important Roadblock. Prior to Pharaoh the games lacked a roadblock the player could drop on a road to tell walkers to stay within a given area. As a result, an efficient road and supply network could turn out pretty darn weird as good players tried to avoid crossroads at all costs, often resulting in one lonesome meandering road snaking around the entire city. Hope nobody's in a hurry to get anywhere. By Emperor players had access not only to roadblocks, but could toggle certain gates to allow some walkers to pass and not others.
  • Earthquakes Cause Fissures: Introduced in Caesar III. Earthquakes are represented by a fissure in the ground that starts in a random spot and then webs around. Any building on the path of those fissures is instantly destroyed, and, far worse, they stay on the map, making that area impassable until a road is built over them. No buildings can be placed there, ever. Short for bombarding the area with fireballs from a cheat console in Zeus and then removing the resulting "rubble", there is just no way to remove the fissures.
  • Edutainment Game: Unintentionally so. While designed as strategy-simulation games to fill a specific niche, the amount of effort and research put into Pharaoh and Emperor lead to both of them being included on lists of recommended teaching aids by Ministry of Education in quite a few countries.
  • Forced from Their Home: A common sight when housing devolves (containing less people, paying less taxes and becoming less attractive) or is destroyed are homeless people complaining about their plight. Sometimes they'll head into newly-built housing but most of the time they simply leave the map.
  • Funny Background Event:
    • Most building animations feature some kind of amusing mishap, like a cheesemaker banging his hand, a kid throwing rocks at a palace guard or an Icarus-playing actor stuck spinning in circles.
    • A loaded trireme has three hoplites on deck... and a fourth water-skiing behind.
  • Game Mod: Every game offers a scenario editor. New scenarios and campaigns are still being released.
  • Game Over: In most games, running into debt leads to a game-over.
    • The exception to this being Zeus. There was a Ephesian leader so infatuated (without effort) during the Hercules' Labors adventure that he bailed her out of extreme debt. Ad nauseam.
    • In Caesar II, you can often get promoted while your city is deep in debt, leaving the mess for someone else to fix while you abscond with the treasury (which you then use to fund your next city).
  • Everyone Hates Hades: A rare aversion from Zeus. Hades is no more or less likely to be a nuisance than any other god. He can defeat any invading god that isn't Zeus or Poseidon, and he rewards you with infinite silver veins around his temple (Hades is also the god of mineral wealth!) and protects your city with his Cerberus. Of course, depending on the scenario, Hades could wind up being an invading god.
  • Global Currency: Justified in most games, as you simply build one city in a large empire, but the Greek city states all accepting drachmae is a bit of a stretch... then the expansion pack has the Atlanteans use the same currency, as well.
    • The drachmae example is partly justified (or even an aversion of global currency), as they were made of silver, and city states with silver ore deposits would mint their own money. With intrinsic value it could be accepted anywhere, and only the lack of exchange rates or variations in weight and purity needs to be handwaved.
  • Guile Hero: Averted with Odysseus: When summoned to fight the Cyclops, he goes up and beats the crap out of him instead of tricking him (though the scene shows up in a loading screen).
  • Idle Animation: Literally in Zeus where staffed building with no materials show the workers lounging around or playing with yo-yos.
  • Isometric Projection: All games up to and including Emperor. Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile and Caesar IV, however, were both fully 3D.
  • Level Editor: See Game Mod.
  • Mook Chivalry: Melee soldiers engage the enemy in one-on-one fights, except in Emperor, where every man in a company of 16 soldiers will spear the same single guy at the same time if the odds allow it.
  • Morale Mechanic: Most of the games have separate counters for an army's health and morale. If morale goes too low, they scram back to their fort.
  • NPC Boom Village: The bread and butter of the series. You get an empty piece of land (randomly generated in first two Caesars) and you have to create functional towns and then cities, fulfilling ever-increasing housing and economic requirements. In fact, it wasn't until Zeus that the game was capable of remembering cities built in prior missions, so any re-visit to the location meant a new city had to be built from scratch. And since the only way for the population to grow is via new immigrants, you have to either build more or better housing to accommodate - sometimes both.
  • No Such Thing as Dehydration: Averted, as wells are essential to your city's development (often the very first service housing needs in order to evolve).
  • Obsolete Occupation: Once a city's economy is up and running, a lot of jobs become pointless as they're only meant to keep the unemployment statistic down rather than massively increase production (which in turn would require huge amounts of storage space), as trade is restricted to a certain amount of goods per year. It's actually a much easier problem to deal with than the feedback loop of a Critical Staffing Shortage (lack of workers means fewer services, meaning housing devolves, meaning fewer workers, meaning...).
    • In Pharaoh, construction guilds (stonecarvers, bricklayers, carpenters, etc.) disappear from the build list once all monument work is complete. Fortunately, work camps are always available since they also provide floodplain farm workers and can be used to provide lots of jobs in a relatively small space.
    • Zeus: Master of Olympus lets you choose when to muster troops, towers, and ships or demobilize them. This reduces unemployment even if there's no enemy to fight.
  • Oddly Named Sequel 2: Electric Boogaloo: For original games, even.
    • Queen of the Nile: Cleopatra
    • Master of Olympus - Zeus and Master of Atlantis - Poseidon
    • Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom
    • Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile
  • Offscreen Moment of Awesome: Zeus and Poseidon feature quests given to you by the gods, where you need to summon a hero such as Hercules, Achilles, or Perseus, to your city, who must then be sent to fulfill some sort of important task (such as Perseus retrieving the items needed to fight the Medusa, or Hercules performing some of his labors). Said tasks takes place entirely offscreen, with nothing but an eventual message telling you that the hero has succeeded. Averted when a hero is summoned specifically for the task of slaying a monster attacking your city.
  • Orichalcum: Naturally, a resource in Poseidon, known there as orichalc. Can be used as either monument decoration, or fuel for the deadly Atlantean Fire.
  • Punny Name: From Caesar 3 onward, many walkers have those. For example, Zeus features apothecaries named Aspiridos.
  • Pyrrhic Victory: Potentially for the cities, if not necessarily for the player. Because most of the games feature campaigns where you build up one city, and then move on to the next one, it is at times possible to simply make a mad dash for victory, leaving the city in a poor, unsustainable state that you won't have to bother fixing. Your city needs a few hundred more inhabitants for you to achieve victory? Don't bother making sure that your infrastructure can feed and supply that many, just place down low-level housing until victory is achieved. Your city is under attack? Doesn't matter, you just finished the monument needed to complete the mission, someone else will have to deal with the invaders. In Zeus and Poseidon, this is much less of a viable strategy, with campaigns featuring the same city from start to finish (meaning that whatever mess you get yourself into, you will actually have to clean up yourself), with an exception for the occasional one-off colony mission.
  • Real-Time with Pause: Up until Zeus, it wasn't possible to lay down buildings while in pause mode.
    • As a workaround, it was possible to adjust the game's speed to a crawl before complex builds.
  • Recycled In Space: The original Caesar was described as SimCity in Ancient Rome with a military aspect added. Also the games that share the same engine (from Caesar III to Emperor) can be recursively defined in this way; Pharaoh is Caesar III in Egypt, Zeus is Pharaoh or Caesar III in Greece and Emperor is Caesar III in China.
  • Refining Resources: The goods required by the population can be made by the local industries or imported from the world market. Gaining access to the cheaper raw materials to then manufacture expensive/strategic goods on your own becomes an important gameplay aspect.
  • Ridiculously Fast Construction: Except the monuments.
    • The greek temples take a long time to make, even if you already have everything needed to build them.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: In the first two games, you can bribe the Emperor with your personal funds, so he'll lower the tribute that your city has to pay to the Senate. Also, when you receive a promotion, the size of the city treasury is irrelevant, but you can carry your personal treasury to your next city (either to fund the new city's growth, or to pay off the Emperor). And yes, you can pay your own salary while the city is 9000 denarii in debt.
  • Scripted Event: By the truckload. Each game contains numerous scripted events, be they requests from other cities for goods, cash or troops, invasions, opportunities for conquering other cities, droughts, earthquakes, divine wrath...
  • Sequence Breaking: In Zeus it's possible to delay your first mission of the Trojan War campaign and build up your forces in preparation for the war. With the right preparation, you can even conquer Troy before the war begins.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Video Game Delegation Penalty:
    • Inverted in Zeus and Emperor: both allow you to simply bribe invading armies to go away. This is much faster than actually fighting, which cuts into your manpower, slowing down production for months, and frees you from having to maintain expensive troops. That said, if you maintain zero troops whatsoever other cities will happily attack you.
    • In Zeus and Pharaoh, honoring the gods can net you some very interesting blessings such as increasing trade frequency or instantly killing enemy armies. However, to prevent you from getting overly reliant on them there is a limit to how often you can pray/hold festivals per year, and in Zeus, sacrifices regularly lower your sheep/goats/cattle, which need to be manually replaced (there's no automatic warning that your livestock population is getting low).
  • Video Game Tutorial: Every game offers some form of tutorial.
    • Forced Tutorial: In Pharaoh, the tutorial is spread over the first fifth or so of the campaign, as new concepts keep getting introduced. While single scenarios and sub-parts of the grand campaign can be played on their own once they've been unlocked, playing the grand campaign forces you to learn how water is distributed over and over again.
  • You Require More Vespene Gas: Your citizens require food (in most games more variety means better houses and happier citizens), basic commodities (whether pottery, linen, olive oil or tea) and luxury goods (exotic furs, incense, wine, silk...). For the grander construction projects you may need wood, stone, marble... and everything needs to be paid for, whether in debens or drachmae or food.
    • Averted in the first two games. Here, your citizens require amenities to advance their housing quality, but not food, and their consumption of goods from your manufacturing businesses is one of your two main sources of income.