Billed as a "city-ruler" as opposed to a "city-builder", Kalypso's newest title Urban Empire has the flavor of genre titans Sim City and Cities: Skylines, however there's one feature thrown into the mix that makes this game unique: City Council. Other city-builders allow you to play as a Social Engineer or God/god in that you are able to plop down police stations, schools, streets, and while you do have to watch the bank account closely, there's really nothing standing in your way. I learned through schooling that city planning was not a one man show. That planners advise on proposals and plans, but do not build cities or make the calls. When I started in planning, I went back to my trusty Sim City and thought about what it would be like if whenever you wanted to zone a block, you had to get some sort of approval (like IRL). I'm not saying that this would necessary be a fun element, however it would be authentic. Well, that game has materialized and it is Urban Empire.
Urban Empire is premised on being given a charter from the Austrian Emperor to start a City in the early 1800s. You, as Mayor, then need to create your first district. You don't lay out the streets or the zoning (initially), but you propose the size, location, and name. Then your next step is to place your City Hall. You then propose the district. Now, the first time you do this you spend your own money (from the Emperor) to start the city. Any actions after that such as adding a school or clinic, you need to take it to City Council for a vote. There are a number of Councillors who are members of a few political parties (more parties as time progresses). Each party has an ideology and their number of seats change periodically. Needless to say, sometimes it is easy to add a school, other times it is a chore.
As Planning Peeps is a community of practicing urban planners in most cases, public sector planners working in local government, we thought it would be interesting to review the game in three categories: Concept, Authenticity, and Content.
Having played most city-builders (Sim City, Cities, etc.) out there as well as empire-builders (Civ, Tropico, Total War, etc.), I can say with authority that Urban Empire is unique. While recognizing that it takes many elements from the aforementioned games such districts from Cities, traits and effects from Tropico, and research trees from Civ and TW, it goes one step further: Checks on decision-making. Urban Empire gives you the tools to play god, but you don't get the final say. That's unique and brings a whole new element to the genre that can be explored further. 5/5
As public sector planners or private sector who consult with cities, we are keenly aware of local government; the politics, limitations, and its purpose. Although you play as a Mayor in Urban Empire rather than a planner, planners would be able to appreciate the authenticity of the process. In Urban Empire, you are able to change the zoning composition of any district of the city, improve the infrastructure, and add services (schools, police, fire, etc.). Any of these changes come with a cost and are packaged into a single proposal to City Council as a modification to the district. You don't always have to change each of these elements. For instance, you can change the zoning composition (percentage for residential, mixed-use, commercial, and industrial) as your sole modification. In Sim City you would just change it. In Urban Empire...you propose it to Council. That's a taste of authenticity that while may not make for enjoyable gaming, does represent city operations and growth considerations. There are also tax increases/decreases, service rate increases/decreases, many laws and edicts that you or other Councillors can propose and vote on.
Where Urban Empire could have used some tweaking is on its scale. The game was developed by Kalypso who worked on the later Tropico titles. Tropico is an island-builder where you rule an island nation as a dictator. The general feel of Urban Empire is that you are running a City State with a Congress who just happen to be called City Council. You are Mayor, but you're not elected. Instead you come from a dynasty of rulers that change with eras. Starting in the third era, you have to fight for re-election by the City Council. This feels more like a vote in Parliament or House of Representatives than what would be typical of western local government structure (ref. At-Large electing of Mayors). 4.5/5
Urban Empire is rich in content. The technology tree is ripe with unlockables that keep the game feeling fresh. A periodic newspaper tells you of changes in the composition of Council (elections) and follow major votes. The game allows for mixed-use zoning which sets it apart from other city-builders. It also allows for historic building protection and has game elements for sustainability and smart growth, among others. 5/5
Urban Empire provides a new take on an established and difficult to enter genre. While players can still build beautiful, sprawling cities, Urban Empire makes them beholden to the people through elected officials holding the purse strings. Urban planners who have a good idea on what it takes to build great communities are faced with this reality every day and would be able to appreciate the premise of this game. Urban Empire is arguably the first real political city-builder which requires rubbing elbows and mudslinging to get zoning approval. When my first request as Mayor to increase the zoning density in the downtown district of Kaisershaffen was denied because of political infighting, I could hear the facepalms down at the Kaisershaffen city planning office.
Urban Empire was released by Kalypso on 1/20/17. The game retails for $39.99 on Steam and Amazon.
disclosure: affiliate links were used in this article, however not for the game being reviewed. This is not a paid review of Urban Empire.
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