The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook

The SimCity Planning Commission Handbook by Johnny L. Wilson is a slim little book that tries a little subterfuge. It acts as a game manual and tips & tricks book, but the author is really interested in the art and engineering of town planning and sneaks that in.

It’s also a time capsule of architectural heterogeny of times past. The first chapter of the (still quite slim) book handles installation and usage of the game including the terrain editor, and it discusses a few differences between platforms. Because, see, SimCity was sold for Amiga/Commodore, Atari, Mac and PC, all with subtle differences. For example, there is no stadium on C64. We even get short installation commands, albeit only the happy path.

Strewn throughout the book are helpful tips and ideas about gameplay. You can bulldoze one corner of a residential zone and plant a park there. Doing this you stop the zone from growing further.

SimCity is a “real” city simulator, not a mere toy. It is extremely simple by today’s standards, but still. There are many things it cannot simulate at all, or not simulate adequately, and the author has taken it upon him to invent little workarounds or sometimes even “house rules” – voluntary restrictions on the part of the player or some creative reinterpretation of certain aspects of the game’s simulation. This is the most impressive and valuable thing that the book has to offer. I have never seen anything like that before.

For example, the author tries to simulate his home-town, a Californian town near San Diego. He disables auto-bulldoze, because his home has lots of sensitive native American and paleontological areas where you need to be careful when digging and you may need special permissions. Bulldozing every plot manually in the game is supposed to simulate that additional burden.

Land-use restrictions do not allow hospitals in industrial zones. You cannot steer where the game pops up hospital buildings. Wilson bulldozes every “wrong hospital”, zoning new residential areas until a hospital pops up there. Also, there is an offical goal for the hospital-to-person ratio. SimCity does not have anything like it, so he keeps a close eye on the statistics screen and zones new residential areas if too few hospitals exist. Similar for schools, although it seems you can build them directly, at least. Similar with parks, although you need to check at every end of year the ratio between people and number of park tiles, and then adjust by building or bulldozing.

Waste management? Oh yes, also not in the game itself. But you can place a power plant and not connect it anywhere. It costs money and it takes up space. Like a landfill.

Yes, all that is incredibly tedious, but to Wilson, it’s the fun part! Remember, he’s not in it for Godzilla, he wants to play with city planning. And he wants you to think about your own town.

Undoubtedly, the author landed on his house rules by extensive and controlled experimentation. And that is what he is constantly nudging the reader to do for himself: Build an industrial zone here, a residential zone here, lay down streets like this. Do the same on the other side of the map, but change something specific. The length of the street. The number of zones. Observe what happens. Drill down into the statistics screens. Find out, what the game does. Think about what that means.

The author is hand-holding a lot with these experiments, though. You don’t have to fear failure, the experiments are mostly quite simple. Still, it shows and encourages a certain playful approach that emphasizes understanding both the game and, hopefully, the real world.

As mentioned, the game manual is mostly a set-up, a hook for the author to tell us some things about city planning. We see maps of Karlsruhe’s planned radial layout, of Aosta in the first century B.C., of London before the Great Fire. Wilson shows a few – very limited – options in the game to do similar planning. But SimCity can simulate growth pains in regards to ecology and traffic surprisingly well. Also, population density problems in the game cannot be solved simply, by bulldozing and redesigning willy-nilly, the player needs to have a plan that includes handling crime, pollution and economic growth. All these intertwined aspects are explained and shown in the book all the time, because whenever one problem is tackled, the others tend to follow close after.

One aspect that is easily misunderstood is that building decay is not a consequence of some property of the building. Bulldozing the building will not let the zone recover with new buildings. Some players seem to have thought that low churches, occurring randomly in residential zones, should be bulldozed when low-valued. Wilson warns us that this has cause and effect exactly backwards: low-value churches aren’t bad, bad land value leads to low church value, and land value must be improved holistically, tackling crime, pollution, etc., as always.

Regarding the economy: SimCity has both an export multiplier and an import replacement multiplier, where seaports (which are much more important than airports in the game) have large effects on the city. But at a certain size of the city, the city-internal economy starts to trump the external (export) economy, and the book draws back the curtain between the game’s internal calculations, as it does in several places.

Traffic is the most fleshed-out part of the simulation, but it is very much centered on cars and light rail, not offering any further traffic options. More streets equals more traffic is a valid theorem in SimCity, as it is in real life, and curves slow down traffic, so your “scenic route” might bring your city to a standstill.

Ecology is mostly simulated by the problems of pollution and flooding, but it is quite crudely simulated. Forest or parks do not actually improve pollution levels, they merely increase land value. This is one of the things that one might wish better simulation mechanics for.

The book also explains how to win the scenarios that the game brings with it, always showing clearly what the most pressing problems are and how to tackle them. Most important is the decision process, and Wilson is thinking out loud here. For example, the Bern scenario features a traffic collapse, but if the player tries to bulldoze and redesign the road system, the city will be bankrupt almost immediately. Incremental changes are the winning move here.

Additionally, the author critiques both additional cities that come with the terrain editor, and a few winning player entries from a SimCity design competition. This part could have benefitted from a few more pages, it is extremely interesting, but also quite… dare I say curt? The cities are quite non-conventional and unlike anything most players will try themselves. Why not have a city with a gazillion sports stadiums? Deadwood City (page 158) has you covered!

Disasters like airplane crashes, flooding, but mostly, of course, Godzilla (officially, the “monster”) are spicing the dry simulation up, and make it more acceptable to gamers. Player’s agency is quite limited, though. Mostly you can only wait it out and clean up.

The meat of the book is fewer than 200 pages, discounting the installation information, explanation of icons and the terrain editor. It feels longer. Not that it’s boring, but you get so much out of it. Many other authors could do worse than take inspiration.

The only flaw with the book I can find is that maps are reproduced quite well for the standards of 1990, I suppose, but I find them small and the pixel look of SimCity not really easy to decipher. Additionally two images of maps on pages 98 and 99 are supposed to show dramatic differences in flooding levels. To me they are identical, and I’m almost certain they are indeed identical, on account of a clerical error when preparing the manuscript.