When starting the game (any version), you have the choice of playing a scenario (accomplish a short-term goal, like balance the budget or recover from a disaster) or to start from scratch. I always chose to start from scratch and build my city from the first settler. The first thing that all cities need are industrial areas...this is the driving force behind everything else...factories where things are built. You'll need roads for people to get to the factories on...and soon, people will want to live in your town instead of commuting to these factories from the neighboring town. After a while, the residents of your town will want somewhere to shop...fast food places to eat at and grocery stores and Wal-Marts -- these are the Commercial zones. Note that you're not actually building most buildings...as mayor of the SimCity, you simply designate zones and the Sims build their own buildings to their specifications. And abandon them when the taxes are too high or the crime rate sky-rockets.
In the original SimCity, there were few things that you had to control: residental, commercial, and industrial zones, police and fire stations, roads, power plants, a seaport, and an airport. All items were a fixed size (zones were 3x3 tiles). You only had two choices of power plants: coal or nuclear. The budget was also fairly simple: one tax rate for everyone and a percentage of the requested amount for police, fire, and transportation. If those numbers were lowered below 100%, then police and fire stations would not be as effective (lower radius of coverage) and roads would start to deteriorate.
In SimCity 2000, zones could be any size and either light or dense levels. Each level only has certain buildings that can be built there...for example, light residential only allows single-family homes, whereas dense residential allows high-rise apartment buildings. What building is placed in a certain area is a result of a more complex formula, including land value, proximity to major transportation, etc. Airports and seaports are also zones instead of being one fixed item. You can also build different sized parks, zoos, stadiums, marinas for entertainment and schools, colleges, libraries, etc. for education. More things are tracked with SimCity 2000, including the literacy rate of your Sims, which affects various things, such as the land value (more educated people make more money and can afford better homes, which increases the value of the homes around it) as well as the desire of other people to move to your city. The budget also has more things to control, including the same police, fire, and transportation budgets, but also a health and education budget. You can borrow money and pay it off each year, as well. Also new are the "city ordinances"...enacting an ordinance such as parking meters will generate revenue for the city, but also annoy the residents, which may make them leave town.
In SimCity 3000, residents petition the mayor for things the city needs, such as more schools or various ordinances to be enacted. In the previous versions, you would get a yearly newsletter detailing the same information, or a message would be displayed in the status bar. Graphics in SimCity 3000 also were improved and you could zoom in one level closer. In addition, you could place landmarks in your city (such as a pyramid or the Taj Mahal). These landmarks, however, did not affect anything else, such as land value.
The upcoming SimCity 4 promises even more features and better graphics. You will be able to zoom in down to the street level as well as import your own Sims. The traffic models have been dramatically enhanced and now follow a typical day (in the morning, parents are driving their kids to school, in the evening, everyone drives home from work). At night-time, the crime rate is also higher and the town lights up.
The SimCity series falls into Sutton-Smith's genre of a board game. You have
a fixed world that you are working with and placing tiles to affect the
surrounding tiles. There is also an aspect of chance, similar to rolling the
dice: the population of your city has a random aspect as one of the factors,
disasters occur at random times, and traffic also has a random aspect. For me,
one of the reasons that I enjoy SimCity is because of the close reward and
punishment loop. Placing a power plant directly next to a residential area
will cause the Sims to abandon those buildings. Lowering the tax rate causes
the people to cheer and the population to increase. What you do in one tile
space affects every tile around it, which then affects those tiles. In short,
SimCity is a complex and challenging game without the blood and
violence of other games.