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18 must-play video games for architecture and design nerds

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From a skyscraper-hopping action game to castle designing adventure

Sand Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey. Mario is in the foreground running on orange sand. In the distance are a group of very colorful buildings.
“Sand Kingdom” in Super Mario Odyssey.

As children, we begin our interaction with the world through shapes, building blocks, and Legos. As times goes on, we lose that willingness to create as we fall back on more passive activities, watching TV shows rather than creating our own stories, texting our friends instead of daydreaming. For those whose fascination with making things never stopped, we've compiled the top video games every architecture nerd—and Lego fanatic—will love.

This list includes long-loved games like SimCity and Minecraft as well as lesser-known gems like Monument Valley and Calvino Noir. These games are meant to excite players through human curiosity, creativity, and puzzles. While some of them allow the player to build monuments and towns, others are examples of how architecture can influence our emotions in ways we might not realize. If there are any video games you believe were mistakenly left out of this list, be sure to let us know in the comments.

The Sims and SimCity by EA Maxis

There's little to say about SimCity and The Sims that isn't already obvious at first glance. These two video games allow the player to create their own neighborhood, city, and even human life with the potential to construct utopias or hellish atmospheres. While series creator Will Wright describes SimCity as "a guilt driven experience," Curbed can only describe it as an experience that can inspire others to immerse themselves in interior design and cityscapes like never before.

Calvino Noir by Dan Walters

Those who play Calvino Noir must wander through complex rooms and towers enveloped in shadows that become illuminated when the player journeys through them. With stunning visuals relying on architectural realism, this point-and-click adventure game, a game we previously christened "the ultimate architecture video game," was inspired by the noir genre and and the works of 18th-century architect Charles de Wailly. Creator Dan Walters, an architect himself, told Wired that the visuals of the game were most influenced by architectural perspective drawings due to their "diagrammatic, sculptural quality."

Super Mario Odyssey by Nintendo

This recent release for the Nintendo Switch is being hailed as one of the iconic character’s “best adventures.” On a mission to save Princess Peach from his forever nemesis Bowser, Mario goes on a world-hopping journey that takes him through some incredible, hyper-detailed “kingdoms”—from fantastical underwater and desert cities to an impressive “New Donk City,” based off (what else?) New York City.

Monument Valley by UsTwo

This sweet, minimalist video game offers M.C. Escher-inspired puzzles built into structures that resemble Islamic minarets and Scottish castles. Curbed’s Architecture Critic Alexandra Lange relished in Monument Valley for its architectural references, with parallels to architects of the 1970s and deconstructivism.

She wrote, "As I played along, I felt that the game's designers had, both intentionally and unwittingly, absorbed many lessons of modern architecture. But I also came to feel that architects could learn a great deal from playing the game about how people move through space, about which options our instincts scream out against, and about impossible moves real buildings can only suggest."

For those who may be intimidated to jump into the world of video games, UsTwo Director of Games Neil McFarland told Curbed that he wanted Monument Valley to be a game for non-gamers, a game with no punishment and no time limits. There is also an eight-chapter expansion called “Forgotten Shores.” Eulidean Lands is another Monument Valley-esque game to check out.

Minecraft by Mojang

Arguably the most famous video game on our list, Minecraft is an independent video game, which means that it was created by an individual without a video game publisher's financial support. Because this award-winning video game is a sandbox game, players are able to freely interact with the world without having to follow a restricting, linear format. If there is one objective to the game, that is the player must create. While cubes may seem fairly simple as building blocks, players have been able to create massive structures that rival the complexity of real world architecture.

Design Home by Glu Mobile

The popular iOS and Android mobile game is the ultimate virtual home decor adventure—with a competitive twist. Players can choose furniture and decor from real brands to design all kinds of rooms, and compete and vote in daily design challenges. If you fall in love with what you created virtually, you can also click to buy the pieces right from the app.

Gone Home by Fullbright

Polygon ranked Gone Home as the 2013 Game of the Year. In this video game, the player follows the typical haunted house formula where the protagonist must explore a mansion she inherited from her late great-uncle, Oscar. Inside, the player finds cassette tapes and notepads, postcards and letters, learning not only about the house's inner workings, but the inner inhabitants' secrets. In comparison to games like SimCity and Cities: Skylines, Gone Home might at first seem too simple and too singular; rather than create, the player instead discovers. But what this game reminds us is that a single room can be powerful enough to move one's senses and emotions.

Cities in Motion by Colossal Order

In Cities in Motion, the player's goal is simple: implement and improve a public transport system in Amsterdam, Berlin, Helsinki, and Vienna. Your options? Metro trains, trams, boats, buses, and helicopters. Since its release in 2011, there have been multiple sequels and expansions that allow the public to toy with other major cities like Tokyo and London. As a business simulation game, the way to win is to challenge oneself to wonder: How can I make my city better? A question most should ask themselves, but don't.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst by Electronic Arts

In Mirror’s Edge Catalyst (and the original Mirror’s Edge game first released in 2008), you can get all the skyscraper-hopping, tunnel-roaming thrill of parkour without actually risking your life. The fast-moving, gravity-defying game centers around a protagonist who has to master navigating a gleaming dystopian city to complete missions and beat enemies. As Polygon explains in a feature on designing the franchise, “While Mirror’s Edge Catalyst’s City of Glass is an open-world, players will need to unlock the city section by section.”

Cities: Skylines by Colossal Order

SimCity may be one of the most well-known city-planning simulation games, but Cities: Skylines is one of the most highly regarded in the genre. In this video game, the player is able to apply policies to districts and utilize fully fleshed out transport systems. As mayor, the player is also able to control pollution, crime and disease, and access to clean water. With few to no disasters and random events to deal with, the player is able to focus simply on city planning without fuss or frustration.

INFRA by Loiste Interactive Ltd.

Explosions! Backstabbing! Revenge! The infrastructure-themed video game INFRA pulls at players' cinematic interests and reels them into an adventure that pits the engineer protagonist against the disintegrating fictional city of Stalburg. This game was inspired by Crumbling America, a documentary that explores America’s infrastructure problems like leaking water and sewage systems and crumbling highways. With this inspiration, game designer Oskari Samiola intends for the player to come face-to-face with a labyrinth of debris and fix the deficiencies with only a camera and a flashlight in hand.

Design This Home and Design This Castle by App Minis

Sometimes you like your games simple and sweet like candy, in which case the easily addicting Design This Home and sequel Design This Castle will do the trick. In these free to download iOS and Android games, you have hundreds of hundreds of items to customize your home or castle with. The goal is always to have the most epic abode in all the land—in the case of Design This Home, the better the house, the higher the home value, and the more income to collect.

Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp by Nintendo

The latest release in the Animal Crossing series, Pocket Camp simulates a campsite that players get to decorate with whatever furniture they want. To acquire furniture, you can gather raw materials for the local carpenter or visit marketplaces to find new items, all while making friends with neighboring animal villagers.

Mini Metro by Dinosaur Polo Club

If you ever get frustrated by an overcrowded subway or a destination unreachable by transit, try your hand at designing your own metro. Mini Metro is a beautifully minimalist mobile game that tasks users with one goal—craft a rail system that can keep pace with a rapidly growing city. You can get your start in any major global city. As the city grows and requires a greater and greater reach, your subway follows, adding tracks, more train cars, major interchanges that make transfers quicker, and so on. It’s available for iPhone and Android, so give it a whirl on your commute home—maybe you’ll get off with a greater appreciation for your ride.

Block’hood by Plethora Project

This game combines the block-style gameplay of Minecraft with the city-building ethos of SimCity, and the result is a puzzle of a game that is largely focused around resource management. Block’hood has users place—you guessed it—blocks to create a neighborhood, with each block drawing a different type of natural energy, requiring you to create a neighborhood that manages to sustain itself without destroying the world around it. It blends themes of ecology and environmentalism with industry and development, and while it may not be as heavy on the world-building aspect that some of these other games bring, it will certainly require some creative thinking.

Hidden Folks by Adriaan de Jongh and Sylvain Tegroeg

Think Where’s Waldo, but for urbanism nerds. Hidden Folks is entirely based around finding hidden characters and objects in a variety of complex and intricately-drawn environments. And while it might require a chunk of free time to really dive into the worlds, once you’re there it might be hard to get out. Last year, Polygon called it “the most joyful thing on iOS right now,” and it rates a perfect 10/10 in the Steam store and 4.9/5 in the Apple App store. The point-and-click game sees users interacting with an animated monochrome environment, and you’ll be blown away by the detail that has gone into the creation of this game.