I didn’t bother buying 2013’s disasterous, online-only SimCity reboot, even after developer Maxis introduced an offline mode. I figured that its creators had decided to follow their own agenda, even though that meant alienating and losing much of its fan base, including myself. The game soon exited my consciousness, but it has returned—this time as an iPad app. And it works. SimCity BuildIt’s online features, particularly the ability to trade with and compete against other players around the world, enhance the classic formula. The franchise has risen from the ashes, and SimCity BuildIt is a new PCMag Editors’ Choice iPad game.
Same City, New Features
The object of SimCity BuildIt is the same as the other games in the franchise: To create and grow a prosperous virtual city. As Mayor, you lay down the roads, place houses, stores, and factories, collect taxes, and arrange deals with other cities. You must also provide services for your citizens, the Sims, when the options become available—power, water, sewage treatment, sanitation, and education. If you neglect expanding services and the overall city upkeep, your Sims move out, you lose tax revenue, and the city stagnates. First, though, they can and will talk back to you (with their words appearing in an opinion bubble above a house or other property), tell you what’s working and what isn’t, although their responses are admittedly canned.
Before that, though, the Sims can and will talk back to you, by telling you what’s working and what isn’t, using canned responses. In these ways, SimCity BuildIt is cut from the same cloth as previous SimCities—although with BuildIt, it’s probably cloth you’ve produced yourself, or bought in the Global Trade HQ. Unlike most previous SimCity iterations, you can’t generate terrain, although you have some limited ability to shape it (mostly by adding canals, lakes, and other bodies of water.)
In the beginning of the game, there’s a sea, and a highway that leads past an unbuilt seaport towards distant mountains. Several commercial buildings and an unbuilt airport are on the highway’s left side. On the right side, across from a billboard advertising The Sims, is a turnoff leading to an open area where you are to construct your city.
Your advisors guide you in how to get up and running, and then they’ll step aside. Occasionally, the advisors alert you to deals that other mayors have tried to make with them to buy some of your city’s resources. If the deals involve products, they’re probably worth making, as they brinig in cash and free storage space. But as often as not, the deals are for your storage and expansion parts. Money generated from these deals come at the expense of your city’s growth, so think long and hard about giving these parts up. You’re the Mayor, and have the final word.
Commerce, SimCity BuildIt Style
Tapping the Global Trade HQ, which I always think of as the World Trade Center, shows items that other Sims have put up for sale. Touching the building brings up a list of offers, which you can refresh every 30 seconds. Each offer consists of the seller’s city’s name (many are in other alphabets, most commonly Cyrillic and Chinese), an icon identifying the product for sale, the quantity, and the price. When you click on an item you are interested in, you are teleported to the seller’s city, to their Trade Depot, in which all the products they have listed for sale are displayed. There, you can buy it or any other products listed. All trades are with real people, and you’re seeing the actual cities they’ve built in the game.
When you’re done dealing, or if you decide not to buy anything, closing the Trade Depot box brings you into their city proper. It’s well worth taking a look around, as some cities are quite exquisite, and examining other people’s cities may give you ideas as to how to design your own. Keep an eye out for a blue gift icon in a talk balloon; tapping it gives you a gift, anything from an ingot of metal or a log to really valuable products (including expansion and storage parts). As a rule, I only tap the gift icons if I’ve actually bought something at that city, but there’s nothing to stop you from taking the gift without buying anything, as I have occasionally.
This commerce process is one of my favorite parts of the game. It is well designed. Factories, which at first you should keep to the edge of your city because they tend to pollute, produce raw materials. In stores—there are nine different stores ranging from building supplies and hardware to fashion and home appliances—the materials are further processed and usually turned into finished products. Athough Maxis could have designed SimCity BuildIt’s commerce function for single-player use, making transactions with real players and visiting their cities adds greatly to the richness of the game. The downside is that I really miss the ability to trade when I’m offline.
One online feature that lets you directly interact with other players is the Mayors’ Club, which unlocks at Level 18. You can join a Mayors’ Club, which is a group of up to 25 players who can chat or make deals with each other. They also compete together in the Contest of Mayors. You don’t have to join one, and you can leave one you’ve joined if it doesn’t appeal to you. The Contest of Mayors is a five-day event in which Mayors who choose to participate are given a number of tasks. They get points for each one they complete, earning Simoleons and Platinum Keys in the process.
Storage and Expansion
The most coveted, if not the most expensive, items are related to storage and expansion: Locks, bars, and security cameras in the former case, and bulldozer (better known in the game as dozer) parts in the latter. (There are additional items for expansion to the beach and mountainside.) To increase your territory or your city’s storage capacity, you need to get a certain number of each of a set of three parts. For example, to expand into a certain 6-by-8 lot, you might need five dozer wheels, five dozer blades, and five dozer exhaust pipes. For a different lot, you might need seven of each item.
To acquire these parts, you can buy them in the Global Trade HQ (be advised that they sell quickly), or on rare occasions receive them as gifts when you travel to another city to buy something else, and click on a gift icon. Probably the best way to get them, though, is by clicking on your Sims’ opinion bubbles, as sometimes you are gifted these items. And if you get one storage or expansion part in this matter, keep clicking, as the parts tend to come in batches.
You can also get these parts by buying them in SimCash. To get an expansion part, you tap an undeveloped plot next to one you already own (or an untouched area of beach or mountainside). Up pop icons showing the triad of parts. These let you know how many you have and how many you need of each part. There’s a button beneath the part showing how many SimCash dollars it costs. The price is per part: If you need, say, five dozer wheels, and the price on the button is 24, you would have to pay five times, totalling 121 SimCash dollars. You employ the same general process to buy storage parts.
I found the payment buttons problematic. They come up in other circumstances. For instance, you can pay to remove an item from factory production. One time I had just put some raw materials into production. I must have touched one of the buttons with my thumb, because it had removed a bottle of chemical from production and charged me 28 SimCash dollars, which seemed an enormous sum to pay for a simple mistake.
SimCity BuildIt can be played on an iPad, iPhone, or iPod touch running iOS 7.0 or later. I tested it on an iPad Pro 10.5 and an iPad Air 2, each running a different city. (There doesn’t seem to be any good way to run more than one city on one device.) I first installed SimCity BuildIt on the iPad Pro—that game is now on Level 35—and then installed the app on my iPad Air, curious to see if the game would be as stable on it. It is, and I am up to Level 17. The only difference I’ve noticed in running the app on the two machines is that you get a more zoomed-in default view on the Air because of the difference in resolution.
Whichever device you use, the basic game is free, though you can buy various amounts of SimCash for prices ranging from 99 cents to $99.99. With your purchase, you should be able to expand your city faster or buy exotic items you couldn’t otherwise afford. I tried the payment function by buying 250 SimCash dollars for $4.99. (I just had to show off the World’s Largest Ball of Twine, which actually costs 300 SimCash dollars, so I had to make up the difference.) To make the purchase, you enter your Apple password, and the SimCash appears in your account within the game.
In playing tens of hours of SimCity BuildIt on two iPads, I have experienced no crashes at all. Occasionally it has hung while loading; invariably, it loaded with no problem after I closed and rebooted the program. The only other, not unexpected, performance issues had to do with connectivity. Much of my playing time was on the subway, going to and from work. Wi-Fi connectivity is pretty good in most New York City subway stations these days, but not while a train is moving.
You can’t buy or sell products when you’re offline, because you’re making deals with actual people—other participants in the game—rather than an AI. That said, you can do most anything else. Things you’ve put up for sale can be sold while you’re offline, but you won’t know, and can’t collect the proceeds, until you’re reconnected, but you’ll be credited with the Simoleons eventually. You can’t chat with members of your Mayors’ Group if you’ve joined one or check your standing in the Contest of Mayors. The one thing I really miss when playing offline is the ability to buy and sell. If, for instance, you’re missing a backpack to complete an order to be flown to Paris within the hour, you can’t go to the Global Trade HQ—which refreshes with new offerings every 30 seconds when you’re online—to try to snag one (though you could create one from scratch if you had the materials, time, and the proper upgrade to your Fashion store). All you can do is watch the clock run down.
Every so often, you’ll come across a blue movie icon hovering above one building or another. Tapping it makes an advisor appear and ask if you want to watch a short video in return for one of three prizes, two of which are shown and the third identified only by a question mark. Each prize is hidden in a box, and you receive whatever is inside the box you tap. Watching a video, most of which are ads for other mobile games or cars, seems like a small price to pay for bit of SimCash, a wad of Simoleons, some product, a golden key, or a lock or camera to help expand storage.
These videos only work while you’re online. Also, sometimes if I didn’t notice the movie icon quickly enough, the video would expire and nothing would happen when I clicked on the icon. Several times, I would listen to my advisor and watch the ad, but the advisor would not reappear to let me pick my reward. When that happens, I find it’s best not to click on the movie icon for a while, because if it happens once, it’s likely to keep happening.
Another minor glitch I’ve encountered is that the space occupied by buildings is really higher and wider than it seems, as there is invisible virtual space above and to their sides. Especially when your city gets taller, it can be hard to perform actions (say, moving a building) without taller buildings getting in the way.
Mad Scientists and Future Labs
When trying to, for example, remove a product from a factory, an archetypal mad scientist would appear at the lower left corner of the screen and gesticulate. This is Dr. Vu, who wants you—for a mere 40,000 Simoleons—to fix up his tower, the building that was getting in the way, so you can unleash disasters on your city and earn Gold Keys as rewards. Is Dr. Vu a harmless crank or an evil genius? The only way for you to find out is to play the game and build the tower.
You can construct a few specialized neighborhoods in SimCity BuildIt. The Omega Zone includes the Omega Corporation’s labs and bank (it has its own banking system and currency, the NeoSimoleon), and houses its employees and their families. It does its own policing (via a fleet of drones), and its buildings look very futuristic. It takes your currency (7,000 Simoleons a pop) and uses it to make “Omega material” and turn it into Omega objects—which resemble futuristic toys—that it returns to you, as well as conventional products. You can use these Omega objects to upgrade your Omega buildings.
Speaking of NeoSimoleons, there are five different kinds of currency in SimCity Buildit, also including regular Simoleons, SimCash, Gold Keys, and Platinum Keys, which seems excessive, especially in those situations where you need to gauge their value against each other.
An International Flair
Once you build the airport, several specialized neighborhoods become available that give your city an international character, including a Parisian Zone and a London Town Zone. With the airport, you can ship cargo to Paris and London. You’ll be paid for the goods, and with each shipment you get a distinctive item (such as baguettes for Paris and a red telephone booth for London) that you will need in order to upgrade buildings in these neighborhoods. Once your population reaches 260,000, your airport can ship cargo to Tokyo and you can add a Tokyo Town Zone as well.
Time in SimCity BuildIt doesn’t work the same way as in some earlier SimCity iterations: You don’t know what year it is within the game, let alone the month or date, and the introduction of technological advances isn’t dependent on reaching a certain year. Instead, leveling up is the deciding factor in when you can unlock some product or service. With each new level, new products, services, or features may be unlocked, but in terms of time, you’re always in the present.
SimCity Is Dead, Long Live SimCity!
I have been playing SimCity BuildIt for about a month now, both for the purpose of this review and because I thoroughly enjoy the game. I missed the previous SimCity iteration, and I figured that was the end of the line for the franchise. I’m glad to say I was wrong. SimCity BuildIt makes great use of online features, primarily its global marketplace, though you can play offline, too. This app is a successful reboot of the SimCity franchise, and a PCMag Editors’ Choice iPad game.