Terra Forming In Cities: Skylines

CITIES: SKYLINESBy now, you already read my Previous article about Cities: Skylines and you want to know more. If this is your first time here, I would suggest to go here and read the article about basics of this game as I will continue on it.
As I would like to cover as much as possible I also don’t want to make encyclopedic articles. Therefore, continuing with terraforming and map creation seems like logical continuation on the previous article. If you don’t have any interest in this, as mentioned in previous article, you can grab a map from workshop and start building a city. First steps in building a city will be covered in the next article. As I played this game on PC, I don’t know how will this be relevant to console players, but if you have the ability to create a map, read on as I will explain terraforming through basic tools and then mention some mods that can help you out in creating a map. Have in mind that any of the mentioned mods will not have impact on requirements for your map if you decide to publish it.


As mentioned previously, before you want to create something, you have to have at least some idea what you want to build. In this case, you need to visualise your climate and place. First thing game will ask you when you go through Editors -> Map editor -> New is what type of theme you want to use. There are 2 categories: Built-in and User themes.
Built-in themes are the ones that come with the game and you should have no problems with those. They have default textures, lighting and don’t cost too much RAM as the game has already accounted with the RAM usage on these.
User themes are the ones that are made by users – yourself or by others. You will notice that there is a theme maker in this game where you can create your own. Here you can play with this option. As this is fairly large area, theme creation will not be covered this time as I want to make this as short as possible. If you want to know more, you can search theme creation in articles about game visuals and how to improve them. It is also worth mentioning that some of the themes can take a couple of hundred MB’s of RAM so check the requirements and be careful if you are running low on your working memory.


Theme is one of the most important parts when starting a map or city along with LUT. This will define the looks of your city and even if you can change the theme and LUT later, I would suggest to stick with same one. Reason for this is that every custom theme has it’s own textures and if you like certain texture from one theme it can be overwritten with other texture if you change themes. There is a workaround through mod called Theme mixer where you can pick a texture from one theme and replace it with texture from another theme. But leave this until you start building your first city. LUT is also important as it gives different feeling to the city and a map you’re creating. It can go from full contrast with vibrant colours to monochromatic (even black and white) – the choice is yours. Have in mind that vanilla game won’t let you change theme later on so this is another reason to carefully select theme you want to work with. If you want to use mods, then there’s a workaround: a mod called Environment changer. It lets you choose a theme each time you want to load a save game. Even if you can have different theme each time you play your city, have in mind that it might not look as you thought it would, so don’t go changing themes too often. When you do change a theme, make sure you create a new save and then experiment on that to avoid corrupted save games and losing days, months or even years of effort. There’s no “Undo” when your save gets corrupted! It is also important to mention that there are no seasonal changes in game, so if you select a winter theme, you will play in that theme until you change it with mod.


After theme selection, game loads an empty map where you can start modelling the terrain. There are a couple of different tools to do this. I have split them into 3 sections:
DIRECT TERRAFORMING TOOLS where you shape the terrain and manipulate the water
BEAUTIFICATION TOOLS where you add environment, traffic and resources
PRESENTATION TOOL where you define how your map will look like before you load it and how will it look if you want to export it to the Steam workshop


CITIES: SKYLINESThe first icon in your toolbar will be “Terrain”. From here you have the following options:


With this tool you can create mountains hills and valleys. As you select this tool, you will be able to create mountains and hills with left click(on PC) and valleys with right click. First time you do this, you will notice that tool is too strong and it’s difficult to work with it. At this point, I would like to mention a mod called Extra landscaping tools. It will add more brushes for you to play with and you can create a different patterns with this. Usability of this mod is more noticeable when you start building your city.
CITIES: SKYLINESOn the left side you will see 2 sliders, brush selection and undo terrain modification. First slider is pretty obvious but I want to explain the second one a bit more. Brush strength is something that can make you angry because it’s hard to get the right value for the thing you are creating. Strongest value is one which is absolute and it can raise the mountain or dig a hole very quickly. That’s why you need to experiment with different values for these two sliders depending on what you want to accomplish. Values that I work with are between 0.02 and 0.20. For example, if you want to create a mountain range, set this value to high and take a large brush size. After that, lower the brush size and strength to do some fine detailing. If you made a wrong move, you can use “Undo terrain modification”. This tool saved a lot of my time and frustration. Play around with different brushes, strengths and brush sizes to get the feel of the tool. Have in mind that game works with heights between 0 and 1024 meters so plan accordingly. Best idea here is to make one mountain (as small as possible) that will have maximum height so you have a reference point.


With this tool you can create flat surfaces and measure height. Left click is pretty straight forward but the magic of this tool lies in it’s right click. With right click, you can get altitude information and set the height of the terrain. As soon as you select this tool, you will notice another slider named “Terrain height”. This is where you can check altitude even if you don’t want to create flat surface. When you use level tool to fine detail the map, pay attention to terrain height. Creating a flat surface is pretty easy: right click on terrain to select the height, and hold left click to apply the change. Using topographic lines is also a useful technique here and you can also type the altitude value manually. This will save you from using undo terrain modification a lot, as it did to me. As for the values of the other 2 sliders, set brush size accordingly and strength leave at 1 as you will want to create flat surfaces fairly quickly. This is not a rule and as always, keep experimenting and have in mind that Undo has you covered, but only certain amount of times – measure twice, cut once.


This one is a bit tricky and needs more time to get right than the other two. Again, sliders and brushes are here and left and right click as well. I’ll skip the sliders, brushes and try to explain left and right click. Left click makes the terrain smoother between lowest and highest point within the brush size. Right click takes the average height within a brush size(usually where you mouse pointer is) and starts smoothing from the middle point outwards,. It took me some time to get used to it.



This is the most fun tools in this arsenal. It has same options as level tool. It’s kind of transition between soften and level tool. It’s much more sensitive to the height difference than other tools. If you want to create a proper slope, right click the elevation you want to go to. Then click and hold left mouse button from the point you want to create a slope to the desired elevation. Your desired elevation can be lower or higher and you can also do curved slopes. This tool is mostly used to make realistic slopes for your railway and highway network.

When you select any of these tools, topographic lines will display which can help you later with inclines of the road and rail network. There is another small mod that I can also recommend: Topographic lines toggle – it does what the name says even when you are out of terraforming tools. Very useful when you start building your infrastructure.


This is one of the essential parts in creating a map. However, it takes a lot of explaining due to its complex nature, so I decided to make separate article about it. Look for it on Distrita page in near future.


Heightmaps are essentially a blue print from other maps. I haven’t experimented with them so I won’t be able to tell you much. You can import a PNG file that has specific settings and use it as a template to build on. As this is an option with external references, expect a lot of configuration and trial and error. As this can easily grow to another separate article and I don’t have enough information on this, I’ve decided to give you a link where you can find out more: Reddit page

GROUND RESOURCES – This tool is pretty self explanatory and doesn’t need much of explanation. However, when you do put some natural resources, notice how the colour of the ground changes. This colour is affected by the theme you chose on the beginning. This can have some interesting applications: for example, you can create snow covered peaks without having a winter theme.

FOREST and ENVIRONMENT are beautification tools. You can add trees, animals, rocks, ruins, castles and lot more. There are no special instructions or secrets about them. It’s just up to your creativity to decorate the map using them. Depending on a theme you chose, you won’t have the same items in all of your maps as some items are reserved for certain types of themes. It’s important to mention that some elements can obstruct a water flow (like rocks) so have that in mind when you start building your river beds.


CITIES: SKYLINESBy now, you know how some of the essential tools work and you want to connect your map to the outside world. You can connect your map with highways, rail, ship path and airlines. At this point, I would like to mention the starting square. You have noticed that map you were working on has squares on it in 5×5 grid. This grid lets you know where you can put your starting square. Starting square is place on your map where you start building your city so make sure you have at least a highway exit in your starting square and enough space to expand. Game works on a principle where you zone for RCI, buildings get built and people move into these buildings from outside of the map. If people can’t reach your perfectly zoned city, they won’t move in. No people = no money = no taxes = dead city.
Also, good infrastructure is something you need to plan ahead. As I mentioned previously, you have to have an idea how will your city look like so you won’t have to tear down large areas of the city or do additional terraforming while building. Also, don’t put too much infrastructure as later on you might change your mind and do it differently. Even if building highways and rail doesn’t cost anything in this mode, have in mind that moderation is the key.

HIGHWAYS – this is the most common connection and one that is available from the start. As a highway exit, for starting city, easiest thing is to make a “T” intersection on a highway and finish one end with a roundabout. This will be more than enough until you get access to more advanced roads and be able to buy more plots of land.
RAILWAY – this is the most expensive mod of transportation to build in the game, but also one that’s fastest in cargo and passenger delivery. You can leave a rail line in the starting square, but I would discourage you from doing so. When you start your city, rail station will be very expensive and costs of maintenance will be very high.

TUNNELS are something you need to avoid as I don’t even think you can build them in map editor without having mods, so have that in mind as well.

SHIP PATHS – if you have lots of water on your map(or any at all) it’s good to add ship paths. They can help you with cargo, bring people to live in your city and loads of tourists as well. You can leave circular ship paths or you can leave dead end ones just don’t forget to connect them to outside world. Only difference is that you will be able to see ships on a circular route even if you don’t have a harbour. If your ship route is passing under the bridge, make sure it has enough clearance because ship cutting through a bridge won’t fill the passengers with confidence. Besides, it doesn’t contribute to the realism of the game. Same thing with rivers that are too narrow.

CITIES: SKYLINESAIRPLANE PATH – they are as simple as they can get: draw a line and you’re good. Again, don’t forget to connect them to the outside.

I would like to mention a couple of mods that can be very useful when you create your traffic network:
Move It – very useful mod that lets you fine tune the nodes and segments of highways and rails. This is one of the must have mods and I would highly recommend it.
Precision engineering – after the Mass transit update, we got more control over road and rail building, but this mod expands on that even if it’s older than official update. Also, a must have mod.
Fine road tool and Fine road anarchy – ads more control and fine tuning to your infrastructure. Highly recommended mod.

MAP SETTINGS – After you have finished with creating your map, here you can set starting square and select a thumbnail for your map. Remember that vanilla game has only 9 tiles available(unless you use mods) so plan accordingly. You can also export your map to the Steam workshop within the game if you want to. If you do, please add a couple of pictures to represent your map properly. Don’t leave it without thumbnail or put just one picture because even if your map is the best in the world, no one will download it. Also, avoid names like “Best map evurrrr!” or “My map” and other names that don’t make sense. Doing these bad things makes the search for wanted map harder for all of us because you need to go through a lot of garbage where people just published an empty map or did minimal involvement in the map just for giggles or their immaturity. You will know what I mean as soon as you start searching for a map.


Finally, after all of this, I hope you understand terraforming tools better. Most of it is up to your creativity and imagination, only a small portion is what I have presented here to you. These are only tools with which you can create what you imagine. Remember, if you want to publish your map to the Steam workshop, please have in mind that not all of us have bought the same DLC’s, so try to make your map vanilla as much as possible. Even if you build it for your self, you will have less problems later if author decides to pull his asset or mod from the workshop, and it turns out that your map is depending on it.

Also, there are a lot of mods and assets that you can add to your map which will make it richer or easier to make, but have in mind that not all of us have the same PC configurations and your own PC won’t get any younger. Feel free to experiment with different mods but make sure you read the description and check dependencies. And, as always, show support to the content creators if you use their creations. Remember that constructive criticism is always helpful but raging is never welcome.

Looking forward to see your quality maps on the Steam workshop soon.CITIES: SKYLINES



Distrita’s own experience

Image of Newark interchange – Google maps

Select Language