SimCity Newbie Mayor's Strategy Guide

Before this week, I had never played a SimCity game. Oh, sure, I’d manipulated the day-to-day lives of many a virtual person, but only in the micro-managed world of The Sims. After reading David “Xerin” Piner’s review of the rebooted SimCity, however, I felt I had to give macro-management a whirl. Turns out the game is addicting as hell, and I honestly couldn’t keep my hands off it--if the servers were up, I was in my region zoning, sorting out utilities, and plotting mass transit options. To keep things lively, I also dealt with the aftermath of a tornado, a giant city-crushing lizard (straight out of EA’s Spore), hostile aliens, and zombies. (God, how I hate zombies.)

As a newbie, I found SimCity dead simple to pick up. But, the more I played, the more the game’s depth came to light, and the more questions I had. So I put together a compendium of the answers I dug up, and the strategies I learned by playing SimCity obsessively since launch. I’ll assume you’ve skimmed through the manual or can figure out the bare basics on your own. Even with the most basic familiarity with the game, these tips should help you transition from novice city founder to mayor extraordinaire.

Getting into the Game

Going through the game’s tutorial will get you off to a solid start, but there are a few things the tutorial won’t necessarily tell you that experience revealed to me.

  • When you begin the process of claiming your first city, you’re given the option to start a new region, or join an existing one. There are advantages to joining an existing region, since you’ll be able to share resources with your neighboring mayors, and they will also send you things like fire and police protection, which are helpful when you’re just getting your city off the ground.
  • If you want to spend some time learning the game and ironing out strategies without having to worry about things like money problems, air and ground pollution, and random disasters, you can check the box for Sandbox Mode on the Select Region screen. While you won’t be able to gain achievements, rank on the leaderboards, or participate in challenges, you will have full control over your city without all the associated struggles. You’ll also have access to limited cheats. (Alt+W adds $100,000 to your city’s coffers. Kaching!)
  • tempting as Sandbox Mode is, it’s probably best to avoid it at first and learn from the good ol’ School of Hard Knocks. Sure, you’ll screw things up, but don’t call them mistakes, call them learning opportunities.
  • Take some time to look over the available cities in your region before choosing one. Each will have advantages and disadvantages, and differing levels of available resources, which present different levels of challenge. They’ll also give you clues as to what sort of specializations your city is best for. One might tell you that the area would make a great resort town, which is perfect if you plan to specialize in tourism. Another might point out a wealth of natural resources and mass transit options.
  • SimCity Strategy Guide

    Taking time to read over the city descriptions and examine their available resources can help you choose the right city for what you have in mind.

  • If you’re brand new to the game, you might do well to choose a city at a higher elevation with a good source of wind, since wind is a cheap and clean energy source to use when you’re just getting your city off the ground and funds are tight.
  • Should you choose a different server to start on later, the game will automatically have you repeat the tutorial. You can skip this process by beginning the tutorial and moving through it until you get to the first lesson about camera controls, then hitting Esc and exiting to the main menu.

SimCity Newbie Mayor's Strategy Guide

Building Roads

It’s tempting to just start laying down roads randomly, but a little forethought and planning will save you some headaches later on.

  • Your first point of business as a new mayor will be to build a road connecting your proposed city with the outside world. There are two different types of roads: Streets and Avenues. You’ll probably want to connect your city to the main highway using the least expensive Avenue (medium density) to handle more traffic. Although roads are upgradeable, you can’t upgrade a Street to an Avenue without deleting the street entirely...which also destroys any houses, businesses or factories along that street.
  • SimCity Strategy Guide

    The roads menu.

  • Be careful as you’re building roads; there’s no undo function and the only way to delete a road you’ve created is by bulldozing it, which wastes your precious simoleons (money). If you’ve drawn a road you don’t like, you can undo it before it’s completed by pressing the Esc key before you release the left mouse button.
  • You can start building roads around your residential and industrial areas with the cheapest streets possible--low density dirt roads. As you progress through the game, you’ll be upgrading your roads, but until you’ve established your utilities and balanced your budget, you don’t want to go on a spending spree.
  • Avoid urban sprawl! In other words, don’t spread out early on. It’s expensive to build roads and, at least while you’re founding your little city, it’s best to keep it small and compact.
  • Your area’s population density will increase as you upgrade your roads, so upgrade carefully lest you have a population boom that you didn’t expect. Commercial businesses upgrading can cause a shortage in shoppers, and industrial upgrades can cause a shortage in workers.
  • Adding parks and other things your sims love, such as a mayor's house in a residential area, or a City Hall in a business area, will increase happiness and cause your sims to upgrade to a higher wealth bracket. Movin' on up!
  • SimCity Strategy Guide

    Plopping parks makes sims happy. See? They're already building new abodes!

  • Check your Data Maps as you’re building so you know the best places to put certain things in your city. For instance, you want to make certain that your factories are in a part of town where the wind is carried away from the residential area, lest air pollution creep in to make your population unhealthy. You’ll also want to know where resource areas lie so that you can plop things like water towers in places where the water table is high, and reserve other resource-rich spots for things like mines.
  • It’s good to check out the specialization menu early on to get an idea of what your city might specialize in. The location description when you picked your city area might have already given you some clues by pointing out that you have large deposits of oil or coal, or a great location for tourism. As you’re creating roads, you’ll want to leave plenty of space to add specialization buildings later on. Plan on adding a bunch of casinos? Make sure you have room for them, as well as room for mass transit that will bring lots of tourists to your gambling hotspots.
  • Leave space around city services that are likely to spread out. A clinic, for instance, will need room to expand its waiting rooms and ambulance bays. A school will eventually need to add more classrooms. Your starter Town Hall will expand as your city grows, as well, so give it plenty of space as you build roads and zone other buildings around it.
  • While the game gives you plenty of options for building things like curvy and even circular roads, it’s easiest to start out with rectangular blocks. The game will suggest guides for road placement to help you make the best use of space. Until you’re a skilled city builder, you’ll do well to stick to them.

Zoning: People and Places

Once you’ve got a road or two, it’s time to bring in the people and give them places to shop and work. That’s what zoning is all about. Getting the balance just right can be a challenge, but it’s also half the fun.

  • You’ll see the term RCI used a lot in SimCity. It stands for the three types of zones: Residential, Commercial and Industrial. (Now, when the game prompts you to “zone RCI,” you’ll know what that means.)
  • Your first zone will be residential--a city can’t function without people. You’ll designate spaces along streets for residential housing. If you’re building streets in blocks, three blocks seems to be a good starting point for a residential area.
  • Once you’ve given your sims places to live, they’ll need places to work and shop. Start small. Zone a section of a street for commercial shops, and perhaps one block for industrial factories.
  • When you open the zone menu, you’ll see indicators showing you the residential (green), commercial (blue) and industrial (yellow) demand for low, medium and high wealth areas. Keep an eye on these indicators to figure out when you need to zone more of a certain type. Remember, though, that the zone demand meters don’t account for buildings under construction, so wait until your buildings have been completed before checking demand and zoning for more.
  • If you don’t want an area’s housing density to expand, but you do want the street density to allow for more traffic, you can de-zone an area. For instance, say you have some residential houses that you don’t want to grow into the mega apartment complexes that come with a high density area. You can remove the residential zone beneath the existing houses. The houses will remain, and they won’t expand into apartments when you update the streets. This can be handy for managing traffic while keeping your population from expanding too quickly.
  • SimCity Strategy Guide

    Dezoning areas will keep population density from expanding even if you upgrade road density.

  • Resist the urge to grow too fast! I can’t stress this enough. It’s tempting to keep building and expanding rapidly, but you’ll find that growth comes with associated headaches you may not have the funds to deal with such as an increased need for power, water, sewage treatment, and services. All services come with an hourly upkeep price tag, and adding them too quickly is a sure way to bankrupt your city before it even gets going. If you want to enjoy your city long enough to see your first skyscrapers appear on the skyline, then steady as she goes.
SimCity Newbie Mayor's Strategy Guide


Your city can’t function without services. Not only will you need to set up utilities, you’ll also need to provide your populace with access to things like education, health care, and mass transit. Your sims are also going to want fire and police protection. Needy little buggers, aren’t they?

  • Your sims are a pretty tolerant lot when your city is first getting started--they’ll put up with your lack of services for a while as long as you have met their basic needs for things like water, electricity, and sewage outflow. (Ick.) But eventually, they’ll start to make demands. This is why it’s important to resist growing too fast--if you save your money, you’ll be better able to meet those demands as they come up.
  • Your city needs to provide all kinds of services, but which ones should you make your first priority? Figuring this out is easier than it seems--let your citizens tell you. As your city grows, they’ll begin to make demands, which you’ll see in little thought bubbles above their houses. A resident telling you that they smell smoke, or an alert saying that there’s a small fire in your peaceful burg, indicates that you need to plop a fire station first and foremost. As a rule, you’ll need fire protection first, followed by health care (clinics), police and schools. That can vary depending on your city, however. A city with high tech industries, for instance, will want you to make schools an early priority so that they have access to educated workers.
  • As your city spreads out to take up more land area, your need for services increases. Cycle through the services on your toolbar regularly to make sure that your coverage areas are keeping up with demands. When you click an icon, such as health care, you’ll see the roads in its coverage area lit up in green. Wherever your roads aren’t illuminated, your sims don’t have access to that service and you’ll need to plop another building.
  • SimCity Strategy Guide

    The service coverage zone map shows you where you have coverage (green areas) and where you have no coverage at all (not illuminated.)

  • You can edit most ploppable buildings to expand them--just click on them and select the edit tool. Expanding utility buildings allows you to add more resources (like more wind turbines to provide additional power, for example) without plopping another building. However, expanding services like fire and police departments does not seem to expand their physical coverage area; it only allows them to provide services to more sims as an area’s population density increases. To increase your physical service coverage as your city grows, you’ll need to plop more buildings.
  • As your population increases, you’ll be able to upgrade your City Hall. Choose your upgrades wisely! You don’t want to upgrade Education only to find that your city’s Utilities are in dire need, because you’ll need to grow your population significantly in order to earn your next upgrade. Here’s where knowing your city comes in handy. If your industries have been complaining that they don’t have enough educated workers, you’ll have to focus on education early on so that you unlock access to building a college. If urban sprawl has put a strain on your utilities, you’ll need to make that your first priority.

Additional Tips

We’ve covered the basics, but there are still plenty of helpful hints to be had. Here are a few for starters.

  • If you get in a financial bind and find that you need a service right now, but you don’t have the cash to make it happen, you can resort to taking out a bond. Do this only when you really need to, though, because you’ll pay out money in interest and a bond can put an unexpected strain on your income as your city dynamic changes. Open the budget panel from the toolbar to access bonds. You can have as many as three bonds, and they’re available in larger amounts as your city grows. Use them judiciously.
  • The budget panel allows you to adjust taxes and, when absolutely necessary, take out bonds.

  • Disasters will happen. Some of them aren’t just so bad (tornadoes, surprisingly), and some are devastating (zombies.) My cities have recovered from a tornado and even a giant lizard attack, but recovering from a zombie apocalypse can be hellish. Try to keep a nice cushion of income in your coffers to mitigate these types of random emergencies.
  • A word on zombies--they suck. One of my thriving metropolises was devastated by zombies and went bankrupt. Trust me, it’s gut-wrenching to watch all that you’ve built fall because your buildings are nearly all vacant, and the cause of that vacancy is: “devoured by zombies.” Here’s a little trick I learned before my second zombie apocalypse tore down yet another city: block them in. Zombies, it seems, do not go cross country--they’ll only stick to roads. When you get the alert that zombies are in your city, pause the game and find them--they’re the people with the green glow about them. Once you’ve located them (generally around a clinic), block their path by deleting intersections (just the intersections; if you delete roads, you delete buildings) that would allow them to spread into the rest of the city. If those little bastards get to your apartment complexes they’ll spread like wildfire. When you unpause the game, keep it running on the lowest (turtle) speed and continue to search your city for signs of more zombies spawning, then pause and block those in as well. They’ll poof like vampires when the sun comes up, and you can reconnect your intersections then.
  • The giant lizard isn't a lot of fun, either. He'll smash buildings, but the worst damage that he causes is that he will create a large radioactive area in your city. Sims won't live or work in radioactive areas. (Can you really blame them?) The only solution I've found to this is to check your radioactivity map, destroy buildings in the radioactive area, and dezone it to prevent sims from entering. Yes, you'll lose some city area, but it'll keep your sims much healthier and happier.
  • From the budget menu, you can temporarily raise your city’s taxes to earn a little extra income. Don’t do this for too long, however, or your citizens, as well as commercial and industrial property owners, will become frustrated and may even abandon their homes and buildings.
  • If your city fails (don’t worry, it happens), you have a couple of options. You can start another city in the region and, once it’s rolling along smoothly, you can gift money and resources to your struggling city to help get it back on its feet. You can also abandon your city (from the region menu). If you abandon your city, you’ve given up your claim to it, which allows another mayor to step in and take a crack at fixing it up.

SimCity is not a difficult game to learn, but mastery takes practice and experience. Obviously, you’ll be a better mayor the more you play. You have 10 slots per server for starting cities, so go ahead and experiment and hone your skills. Be sure to check out our 8 Tips for the New SimCity for a more detailed set of city-building strategies.

Do you have some tips for new SimCity players? Share them in the comments below and we may add them to this guide!

To read the latest guides, news, and features you can visit our SimCity Game Page.

Last Updated: Mar 13, 2016

About The Author

Karen 1
Karen is H.D.i.C. (Head Druid in Charge) at EQHammer. She likes chocolate chip pancakes, warm hugs, gaming so late that it's early, and rooting things and covering them with bees. Don't read her Ten Ton Hammer column every Tuesday. Or the EQHammer one every Thursday, either.