The Design and Care of a Tile-Based City Builder

Tile-based city building games are among my favorites. That’s in large part due to the creativity that they introduce. I mean, I’m one of the generation that grew up with SimCity (1989), obliviously building until the sun began to flood into my college dorm room, suggesting that it was time to be off to bed. I love being able to put together the puzzle pieces of a city, and a good tile-based city builder lets you do that.

City TycoonThe General Shape of the Game

When I’m talking about tile-based city builders, I’m specifically limiting my consideration to game designs that meet several criteria:

  1. Obviously, they allow you to build cities out of tiles: usually square tiles, but occasionally hexes.
  2. Often, you’ll have your own city that you’re working on … but quite a few games instead have you contributing to to a joint city.
  3. The tiles that you place are complete and coherent buildings, businesses, residences, or other structures within a city. They’re not just parts of a whole.

There are probably hundreds of tile-based city games that I could have picked from in writing this article. I opted for the ones that I know the best, because I’ve played them. I’ve mostly focused on recent ones. My complete list for this article includes: Acquire (1964), Alhambra (2003), Between Two Cities (2015), Big City (1999)Carcassonne: The City (2004), Chinatown (1999), City Tycoon (2011), Key to the City: London (2016), Quadropolis (2016), Saint Malo (2012), Suburbia (2012), and Urbania (2012). Obviously I could have picked others (and I may expand this article in the future). 

Of the games I picked, many deserve some additional explanation, because even with this small group, I wasn’t able to find a perfectly symmetric set of games:

  • Acquire and Chinatown just barely made my list because their single tiles often become parts of big business blobs, which goes against my third criteria, requiring coherent buildings. So, I ignored that aspect, but did use these games as references for some other design patterns. However, I mostly drew the line at Carcassonne (2000), even Carcassonne: The City, because there’s nothing discrete about those tiles (but nonetheless, I couldn’t help but mention it a few times).
  • Alhambra feels the least city-like of this group because of its foreign theming. But there are further-flung possibilities, as noted in Appendix I.
  • Between Two Cities is a weird variant where you don’t have your own city, but instead two cities shared with other players.
  • Big City, City Tycoon, and Urbania go even further: you don’t have your own city, but rather are working on a  joint city.
  • Key to the City: London is a rare game that uses hexes; Suburbia is another.
  • Saint Malo is the most far-flung. It’s not actually tile-based. Instead, you roll dice and write results into a grid, based on what you rolled. However, that’s the functional equivalent of tiles: the (ephemeral) writing is the same as putting a (physical) tile in those places.
  • Urbania kind of isn’t a city builder because you start with a grid of tiles that already form a city, and then have to renovate them.

Despite how different these dozen games, they still offered many insights into the game design patterns that you can consider when designing a tile-based city builder.

I. How You Acquire a Tile

The first question in a city builder is how the players get their tiles.

I.A. Random Acquisition

The acquisition can be random.

Random Draw. Any number of Carcassonne games have players draw tiles, then place them, as do Acquire and Chinatown. In Between Two Cities, a random draw is the start of a more intricate acquisition mechanic.

Random Roll. Saint Malo offers an alternative; you roll dice and illustrate what you get. However, Saint Malo shows that random rolls can allow a lot more control than random draws, since you can reroll to try and get precisely what you wan!

I.B. Selected Acquisition

The acquisition can be a player selection.

Free Selection. Sometimes you can just take a tile, like in Big City; the catch here is that there’s probably a constraint in where you can place that tile.

Constrained Selection. Sometimes the constraint is instead in the selection process itself: in Quadropolis the tiles are all in a grid, and you expend an architect and it tells you what row or column you can draw from.

I.C. Collective Acquisition

The acquisition can be the result of a collective mechanic.

Tile Draft. Card drafting has become increasingly common in recent years, and Between Two Cities shows how to use that in city building. Each turn you choose a pair of tiles (for your two cities) and pass the rest on for someone to use. It’s a nice mechanic, because it creates a sort of sub-game just for the tile acquisition. City Tycoon does the same, but you’re only building one city there!

Tile Trade. Chinatown is a rare game that lets players freely exchange their tiles (after their random acquisition).

I.D. Costly Acquisition

The acquisition can have a resource cost.

Tile Purchase. The simplest resource cost lets players buy tiles. In Alhambra and Urbania you must have a set of resources of the right type to make a purchase; Alhambra also gives bonuses for paying with exact change.

Tile Auction. Auctions have long been a popular means of acquisition. Suburbia uses a Dutch auction: you can buy freely, but prices come down over time. Key to the City: London uses a more standard auction methodology, but it’s quite complex: you’re simultaneously bidding on a dozen different tiles with multiple currencies (actually: meeples).

Note that in this and future categories, these design patterns aren’t necessarily standalone. They might combine (and sometimes do). For example most Tile Drafts start with a Random Draw. It’s also possible to imagine a Tile Draft where you then have to make a Tile Purchase to play your acquisition; in fact, that’s how 7 Wonders (2010) works, but with cards instead of tiles.

St. MaloII. How You Place a Tile

The second question in a city builder is how the players use their tiles.

II.A. Unconstrained Placement

The placement can have no limitations.

Free Placement. Saint Malo is a rare game that lets you place a building wherever you want, within your grid.

Preferred Placement. Even if you have free placement, you can get benefits from putting certain tiles together. This comes out in the scoring of games with Adjacency patterns, like Between Two Cities and Suburbia, where putting certain tiles together changes their score. Key to the City: London shows a less obvious type of implied connectivity: some tiles jointly benefit from having the same color connections built across them, so you want to place them adjacent if you can.

No Placement. Urbania rather uniquely lays its whole city grid out beforehand. You’re not actually playing new tiles, you’re just “renovating” (flipping up) ones already one the board. Perhaps this is a style of Unconstrained Placement … or perhaps it’s not quite a city builder.

II.B. Tile Requirements

The placement can be enabled by existing tiles.

Adjacency Requirements. Most games require that new tiles be placed adjacent to existing tiles. Alhambra, Between Two Cities, Carcassonne, City Tycoon, Key to the City London, Suburbia, and Urbania all do this. This can allow games to use an “open grid” where the overall size of the city isn’t constrained.

Terrain Requirements. Big City shows a more extensive placement requirement: new tiles might require certain types of existing tiles to either be on the board or adjacent to the new tile. For example, a bank must go next to two businesses.

II.C. Tile Constraints

The placement can be constrained by existing tiles.

Limited Terrain Constraints. Roads and rivers typically constrain connectivity. The Carcassonne games are the classics of this sort, but Key to the City: London also has constraining rivers. These are all limited constraints, because they affect a minority of tile edges.

Notable Terrain Constraints. However, most of the Carcassonnes games also have more extensive constraints, requiring you to connect a variety of terrain types to each other. There might be three or four different terrains in a set of tiles, meaning that you ability to connect tiles is notably impacted. Mind you, this style of placement limitation hasn’t been used a lot in tile-based city builders, because it usually doesn’t meld with the idea that each tile is a separate and distinct building (and, in fact, Carcassonne doesn’t meet that criteria).

II.D. Other Component Constraints

The placement can be constrained by other components.

Specific Placement. Some games specifically limit where a tile can be placed. In Acquire, this limitation is based on the tile itself. Big City and Chinatown instead have cards with specific locales on them; you can then build tiles of your choice on those specific places.

Limited Placement. Quadropolis contains a different sort of constrained placement. The same architect that is used to acquire a tile also limits where you can place that tile on the board. There might be other limitations like this, external to the tiles themselves.

II.E. Player Constraints

The placement can be constrained by other players.

Cooperative Build. Though Between Two Cities uses a Free Placement pattern (with a Preferred Placement suggestion), that placement is cooperative: each player has absolute control over where he puts his tile, but he should talk it over with the other player working on his city. A Cooperative Build pattern could alternatively require agreement.

III. How You Use a Tile

The third question in a city builder is how the players use their tiles once they’re in play.

Many tile-laying city-based games don’t allow players to do much with their tiles once they’re down on the board. In fact, country-building games like Catan (1995) and Glen More (2010) could offer more ideas on what to do with tiles than the typical city builder. Nonetheless, a few tile-based city builders support this level of complexity.

III.A. Power Timing

The abilities can occur at different times.

One-Time Bonuses. Abilities can occur when a tile is placed.  Quadropolis demonstrates this with its resource generation: you get a resource one time when you place the tile.

Ongoing Bonuses. Abilities can be constantly active, such as Tile Prerequisites or Tile Discounts.

Recurring Bonuses. Abilities can regenerate from time to time, such as the tiles in City Tycoon that recycle their electricity and power generation.

Activated Bonuses. Finally, abilities can require some activation, such as in Key to the City: London, which has powers that require the expenditure of meeples (currency) to activate.

III.B. Tile Placement Powers

The abilities could affect the placement of other tiles.

Tile Prerequisites. Existing tiles can act as requirements for the placement of new buildings. Big City offers an example of this, where the Terrain Requirements for placement allow existing tiles to enable new ones.

Tile Discounts. Alternatively, with a Tile Purchase pattern, existing tiles can provide a discount for that purchase price.

Tile Upgrades. Some tiles might be upgradeable after they’re placed, with their two sides showing different things. Key to the City: London offers the best example of this, as most tiles can be flipped to their better side by using the right resources.

III.C. Resource Powers

The abilities can affect resources (or other game components).

Demand Fulfillment. The simplest sort of resource generation doesn’t necessarily create resource components, but instead fulfills some demand; just think of the power plants in Power Grid (2004). City Tycoon is the closest to this design pattern: you use tiles to generate resources to supply other tiles with water and electricity to activate their special powers.

Simple Resource Generation. However, simple resource components can also be generated by individual tiles. Key to the City: London creates skill and connection resources when you activate a tile.

Combined Resource Generation. Those resource-generation patterns can also be more complex. Chinatown generates cash, but it does so in an interesting way: the amount of cash increases the more similar tiles you have connected. This suggests a general design pattern, where resource generation could get better when better supported — with sets of tiles, with other resources, or by some other means.

III.D Tile Usage Powers

The abilities can affect the usage of other tiles.

Tile Power-Ups. Some tiles supply bonuses to adjacent tiles. City Tycoon does this with a “cooperation” power, which gives a benefit to adjacent tiles of an appropriate sort.

Between Two Cities ThumbnailIV. How You Score a Tile

The fourth question in a city builder is how the players score their tiles.

IV.A. Victory Point Timing

Tiles can be scored at different times.

Victory Points on Placement. Some games give you points for tiles when you place them. This is a particularly common pattern for games with shared cities. Usually, tiles that are harder to place are worth more. Big City is an example of this.

Victory Points at the End. The other common pattern is to award points for tiles at the end of the game. This allows for more intricate interrelations between tiles and is common for games where each player has their own city.

Victory Points over Time. Trickier games like City Tycoon take a middle route, generating victory points over time, sometimes at the end of each turn, sometimes in more intricate ways.

Victory Points if Activated. The City Tycoon tiles also show another pattern: they have to be supplied with resources and activated to earn their points. Quadropolis similarly requires you to supply your tiles with people or energy when they’re scored at the end of the game.

Victory Points if Needed. You can introduce a nice press-your-luck mechanic by having city features that may-or-may-not be needed, but that give victory points if they’re used. Saint Malo offers an example: soldiers and walls are important if pirates attack, otherwise they’re irrelevant.

IVB. Geographical Victory Points

Tiles can score based on where they’re built.

Victory Points for the Right Place. Sometimes, tiles score based on where they are on the board. Big City has some tiles that earn points for being in the right neighborhood.

Victory Points for the Right Neighbors. Sometimes, tiles instead score on what else is placed nearby. Though tiles in Suburbia have innate scores, they also gain and lose points based on what’s next to them. Similarly, Big City has tiles that score bonuses when they’re next to street cars.

IV.C. Resource Victory Points

Tiles can score based on what they’ve got.

Victory Points for the Right Resources. Some games give points for putting the right tokens on tiles. Key to the City: London generates a lot of bonus points for building connections of the appropriate sorts on your tiles, while the shops in Quadropolis score when you pile people into them.

Victory Points for the Right Upgrades. If a tile has been improved, it usually scores more points, as shown in Key to the City: London.

IV.D. Like Tile Victory Points

Tiles can score based on the presence of similar tiles, as part of a set-collection game.

Like Sets. Most simply, similar tiles can score based on how many you have. Typically, this means that the score increases geometrically as the number of tiles in a set increases linearly, to reward success for collecting a large set. Between Two Cities uses a lot of mechanics for scoring; its offices have geometric scoring.

Majority Control. A Like Set can be comparative, creating the classic euro mechanic of majority control, where players score based on the size of their set in comparison with everyone else. Alhambra, one of the most classic games in this list, is entirely built around the pattern. In Between Two Cities, industry tiles are scored based on which cities contain the most.

Like Adjacency. A Like Set can be more limited: the tiles might need to be together. The parks and shops of Between Two Cities both require adjacency: the shops have to be in a line, but the parks just need to be connected in a blob. The harbors of Quadropolis similarly require adjacency for scoring. The towers of Quadropolis offer a more unique methodology, because you stack them.

Like Disjunction. Alternatively, a Like Set can score when it’s separated rather than together. The public services in Quadropolis score more if you spread them out into the four districts of your city.

Like Sets with Scorers. Finally, a Like Set (or any of its variations) can score based on the acquisition of a different component. Urbania offers an example: you have to buy specialists, who score based on the same-colored sets of renovated buildings in the city.

IV.E. Unlike Tile Victory Points

Tiles can score based on the presence of dis-similar tiles, as part of a set-collection game.

Unlike SetsThis is just like Like Sets, but instead of collecting things that are the same, you’re collecting things that are different. The taverns in Between Two Cities do this: you’re collecting sets of four different symbols. The houses in Between Two Cities use a extra level of abstraction: each house scores a number of points equal to the different number of types of tiles you have in your city. Saint Malo shows that Unlike Sets don’t have to based just on on types of tiles: its Churches score if you have a sequence of churches of different sizes.

Unlike Adjacency. Some Unlike Sets only score when those unlike tiles are together. This tends to be more limited than Like Adjacency: when you’re looking at tiles of the same type, you can form like lines or blobs, but when you’re looking at tiles of different types, you instead tend to be making pairwise comparisons. In Between Two Cities, you get bonuses if your offices are next to taverns and in Quadropolis you score if your parks are next to towers and if your factories are next to shops or harbors. In Saint Malo you score if your jugglers are next to lots of different people.

Theoretically, there could also be Unlike Majority Control, Unlike Disjunction, or Unlike Sets with Scorers; some of these mechanics would be somewhat unintuitive though.

V.E Victory Point Penalties

Bonuses can become penalties.

Scoring Penalties. Any of these victory point patterns can become victory penalty patterns, creating a psychology of loss aversion. For example in Between Two Cities, houses are devalued if they’re placed next to factories.

More than any of the categories of design, Scoring is the one where a game is most likely to combine different design patterns, as evidenced by Between Two Cities and Quadropolis, both of which tend to have different scoring rules for different types of buildings.


Any great new city builder is probably going to have an innovative mechanic that’s not on this list. However, a listing like this is valuable for several reasons.

First, it gives you a design language so that you can look at existing games, categorize them, and then see how they’re similar to (or different from) other games. For example, I can look at Between Two Cities and say it has: Random Draw and Tile Draft; Cooperative Build and Adjacency Requirements; no use patterns; and Victory Points at the End that include Like Sets, Like Adjacency, Majority Control, Unlike Sets, Unlike Adjacency, and Scoring Penalties. From there, it becomes easier to assess what you like about a game (or don’t) and what works (or doesn’t).

Second, it gives you a foundation: a look at what you might want to include in a game, and what design questions you might have to answer.

Third, it reveals some of the empty spaces: the places where you could develop, expand, and innovate, creating something truly original.

Castles of the Mad King LudwigAppendix I: City Builders, But Not Cities

Clearly, many of my core definitions for what makes up the tile-based city-building genre are artificial, intended primarily to make the category small enough that it could be discussed rationally. However, the most artificial may be my limitation to “city” building. Castles of the Mad King Ludwig (2014) is essentially the same game as Suburbia, but with fantasy theming. However, it’s just different enough to offer some interesting insights, like the fact that not all tiles have to be the same size (or shape!) in a city builder. The Castles of Burgundy (2011) is even more far-flung, but I think it has many nice lessons for city builders, including great dice-based acquisition and a super-tight, multi-faceted scoring system. It’s also another of the few “city” building games with hexagonal tiles.

Appendix II: City Builders, But Not Tiles

Many other city builders go beyond my definitions here because they not only don’t use tiles, but their actual components don’t work at all like tiles. San Juan (2004)Oh My Goods! (2015), and Kaiju Incorporated (2017) all allow for the creation of interesting cities, but their focus is on resource-management and they’re pretty far from the ideas laid out here. Machi Koro (2012) and Colony (2016) use their cities to control and improve dice rolling (and its results). Citadels (2000) and Flip City (2014) lay out similar city tableaus, but they’re in service to other mechanics: role selection and deckbuilding.

And we haven’t even touched upon the city destroying games — mostly because you don’t tend to build up that city first. But what if you had a game of Rampage (2013) where you did?

Might there be interesting lessons learned if you combined all of these more far-flung city builders with the tile-based ones and looked at the intersections? Perhaps, in another article.

3 thoughts on “The Design and Care of a Tile-Based City Builder

  1. Very interesting!

    I looked in vain for Medina, then realized that it doesn’t meet your 3rd criterion. The pieces you place are usually parts of buildings, rather than buildings in their own right.

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