You can't beat the pedigree of CivCity: Rome. The city-building game was co-developed by Firefly Studios (of Stronghold fame) and Firaxis Games (of Sid Meier and Civilization fame). Yet... somehow, and in some way, the game went wrong. And it's not like CivCity: Rome is a bad game; it just feels like any other number of city-building games, and as I played my way through its campaign, what I kept wondering is why such talented people bothered with such a vanilla game. That's probably not the reaction the developers were hoping for.
In CivCity: Rome, you control the development of an ancient Roman city. That means you have to provide housing for your people, build farms and generate food so they can eat, give people entertainment and jobs to take up their time, and defend your borders against barbarian attacks to keep them safe -- all the while trying to make money so you can expand and upgrade your city. If you've played other city-building games in the past, then the basic goals are always about the same.
Where CivCity: Rome makes some changes is in the details. Almost everything in the game comes down to two things: the happiness of your people and the housing that they develop. Let me start with the happiness. Happiness is rated between -100 (bad) and 100 (good), and it includes things like employment, housing, and food intake. If the people are happy, then immigrants will come to your city, and if they're unhappy, then people will start to leave. What's unusual about the happiness system is that people won't arrive or leave for any other reason. If you don't provide any food, then people won't starve; you'll just incur a 5 point penalty to your city happiness. If you don't provide a job for a citizen, he won't leave; he'll just sit around at the town center until happiness drops or until you eventually create a new job for him.
The problem with the system is that you can buy happiness. It's pretty easy to make money in the game, and the more research you do (research only costs time and money), the happier people become. The more services you add to your city, the happier people become. The higher the wages you pay, the happier people become. CivCity: Rome is a game, and so you're not expecting extreme realism, but when you can succeed without creating a functioning city, just by just throwing money at everything, there's something wrong.
The other interesting thing about CivCity: Rome is how the housing works. You start out with just shacks, but then as people add more goods and visit more services, they can upgrade their houses to bigger and better things. Each house has a limited sphere of influence, and people won't go outside that sphere for goods or services, so it means you have to be very careful about how you lay out your city. If you put your butcher too far away from your houses, then people won't visit his shop, and they won't do any upgrading. There are over a dozen goods and services in the game (including spas and hospitals and goose meat), and it takes a lot of work to get your people to upgrade their shacks all the way up to palaces, the most expensive and taxable houses in the game.
In other games that I've played, citizens will grab all of the things that they need, but if the goods and services are far away, it'll take them longer to get them, and it'll slow down your economy. The difference in the approaches is that in CivCity: Rome, you have to keep your cities compact to keep them functional, and that means it's more difficult to build them to be pretty. CivCity: Rome comes with a variety of flowers and statues and fountains that you can build, but still, because of how the housing spheres of influence work, it's difficult to be artistic in the game and create cities that look good as well as play good, and that's too bad. For me at least, the artistic part of the game is half the fun.
There is also a military aspect to the game. You can house three legions of soldiers in your city, you can build walls and towers to protect your citizens, and you can even send your troops into the “empire” (the world map) to attack nearby enemy cities, but all of this works badly. Troops sometimes go where they're supposed to, and sometimes they don't. Velites (ranged soldiers) are more likely to throw their spears into walls than at enemies. And you're far more likely to take heavy losses if you try to use your towers and walls rather than just charging at the enemy. Fortunately, you're always warned when enemies are approaching, and so you can face them in the “empire” rather than trying to fight them in your city. There are also two campaigns in the game. One is peaceful where at worst you'll have to beat off some wild animals, and the other features lots of military action. So you can avoid battles altogether if you'd like.
I haven't played all of the city-building games that have come out. I've played Tropico and Stronghold and Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, but I haven't played some of the classics like Caesar and Cleopatra. Yet, even so, CivCity: Rome felt familiar. Worse, since Rome is one of the more popular game environments around, CivCity: Rome felt like a familiar game in a familiar setting, and nothing about it perked me up or made me excited to play. If you haven't played a lot of city-building games, then you might find CivCity: Rome to be enjoyable enough, but otherwise it's not a game where you'd be missing much if you skipped it.