The most interesting thing about Citystate is trying to understand its internal logic. While only a light-weight city builder its real ambition is as a policy simulator. The challenge is that policy is much more complicated than infrastructure. We all agree that a fire station increases your ability to respond to fires. Legalizing guns, level of healthcare and government surveillance have nuanced enough effects that real-life experts have little consensus. And so you’re at the mercy of the game creator’s interpretation of how the world works.
Citystate plays like a very simple city builder from the late 90’s, with the nonsensical UI and quirks that come with that era. The innovation is a yearly decision on a political issue which influences your city’s growth and satisfaction. I would have been perfectly happy with that trade-off. I love pitting my sense of fairness against a good simulator and trying to achieve health and happiness for my little citizens. The problem with Citystate is that its view of how the world works is so different from my own that my first two Liberal Democracies failed. When I started playing according to its rules it felt less like a political simulator and more like a puzzle.
During the city builder portion you concern yourself only with roads and zoning light, medium or heavy zones. Population is tracked but commerce and industry are non-existent. Everything else you would expect (health, security, education) is heavily abstracted down to a few sliders. Taxes are extremely low and the maintenance cost difference between zones is quite high. It’s easy to overbuild and fail and density doesn’t work as intuitively as you expect. On the flip side you can mine for iron or oil. It’s tedious but easy revenue, since the game automatically exports anything you don’t domestically need.
I should point out that nothing is mechanically explained. Just like a 90’s game, there’s no tutorial and just a few vague pages of help.
SimCity and most other games of this type have a basic loop. At first your city is ugly and lacking in amenities so only poor people want to live in it. They pay little tax and work at menial jobs and so it’s difficult to raise money. Once you get enough of them working tirelessly in smog and crime you can start to build a nice part of town and attract the middle class. They bring in more money and you improve another part of the city to attract the elite. Whether you’re a benevolent lord depends on how much of your surplus you use to improve the lives of people who you don’t necessarily have to for game reasons (since the poor are content living poorly while the elites flee). The games I enjoy let you do this fairly early in their loop, as long as you build efficiently.
The first two times I played City State I tried to play this way and my cities failed. I wasn’t a hippy idiot. I didn’t just throw all my money at parks and healthcare and hope for the best. I’ve played most city builders released in the last 30 years and can usually figure out a reasonable path that accomplishes growth without exploitation. Not so in Citystate. I could not attract a reasonable tax base while putting out the barest of quality of life measures.
Feed them to the wolves and they’ll love you
I like roleplaying, but I understand how games work and if I need to just coldly beat the system, I can. So for my 3rd playthrough I hardened my heart and set out to grow a city large enough to unlock all possible building and upgrades – an arbitrary goal I deemed the finish line so I can write this review and move on with my life.
It wasn’t particularly hard. I spent half my starting money on easy to exploit mines. Since the game doesn’t actually model things like employees or production, it didn’t matter if I had a population to work them, manufacturing to turn them into products or transport to bring them to market. Just build and profit. Then I slowly built up my population of exclusively poor people.
Whenever a political decision came, I chose the most aggressively free market option possible. Guns? Sure, everyone can have them. Roads? Privatize that shit. Healthcare? Only if you pay for it. Genetic engineering on plants and animals? Not thinking big enough my friend – let’s modify humans! Legalize everything, tax everything. Well, not everything – what started as a progressive tax rate with the poor paying 1% and the rich paying 6% worked out much better with the poor paying closer to 10%. I had invented the world’s first inverted progressive tax rate.
The poor did protest and even riot on occasion. It had no real effect so I ignored them, cleared the rubble and rebuilt the zone if they destroyed something. And I grew as fast as I could click – you can’t build while paused and can easily reach a point where you simply can’t build quickly enough to spend your money, since they UI lacks any basic marquee tools – everything is click, click, click. When I covered a quarter of the map I realized I was digging an environmental hole. I’m not sure if it was pollution from traffic and population or simply cutting down forests.
By that point my population had grown enough that the city center was ready for high density and I expanded quickly, not worrying about the budget with the revenue from whoring, gambling and the free distribution of guns. I also kept making ridiculous policy decisions which invariably increased growth of the poor and the rich at the cost of the middle. Since nothing real is modeled, the city doesn’t actually require a middle class to work in factories or run retail.
The final utopian nightmare
The final building to unlock required a huge population of elites and an overall utopian state. I made every revenue positive policy decision, no matter how disastrous it would have been in real life. Then I funneled all that money into the three sliders. I also stopped sprawling and replaced every non-city square remaining (including water) with a forest. The middle class fled. What remained was a small, rich elite who were taxed at a lower rate than a massive poor population. Everyone’s happiness was maxed out and I unlocked the final building with over 600,000 ecstatically exploited souls.
The UI is not equipped for this level of population. If the game wasn’t so easy and I had to actually deal with real emergencies or traffic it would have been beyond tolerable. There are also bugs that would be severe (monorails glitching the road underneath so it can carry 1/10 the traffic it should) if the game bothered to deal with the effects. In SimCity my sims would not reach their workplace and industry would domino and fail. In Citystate traffic has an effect on land value but otherwise it’s just pixels moving around meaninglessly, going up and down the road like teenagers on cruise night.
Should you buy it?
As a pure city-builder, it’s far, far too light and abstract. As a political simulator I think it fails to really simulate. I understand that my biases are showing here and a lot of my boredom came from the feeling that I wasn’t playing in the “real” world. So maybe the game’s internal logic will make perfect sense to you. My only counter to that is that my very successful final state doesn’t look like any real life country. My elite outnumber my middle class and the majority of the tax burden falls on the poor, who bear it with no civil safety net whatsoever. That should result in North Korea levels of joy and Mad Max levels of stability but instead the downtrodden poor sods who cruise my horribly inadequate roads are loving every minute of it.
Available from Steam
Citystate was reviewed on PC via Steam with a code provided by the developer.