I kind of promised to do indie games and Tropico doesn’t quite fall into that category, but I definitely think it’s an overlooked gem in the genre of city builders. Games like SimCity and Anno get far more attention than Tropico, and as far as I can tell, I really don’t know why. Even Cities in Motion got more credit after the kerfuffle that was SimCity than Tropico, which I do believe to be the superior game. I heard some mention of Tropico but only ever as a comparison to SimCity which I don’t believe is a fair comparison. Sure, they’re both city builders but Tropico does it in a very different way. The gameplay in Tropico reminds me much more of the gameplay in old Sierra games like Pharoah and Zeus: Master of Olympus, which incidentally I poured days of my life into as a kid (and then recently re-bought for near pennies from good old gaming).
Anyway, my comments will be directed at Tropico 3 and Tropico 4, which was basically a slightly more polished version of Tropico 3 with slightly more choices, resources and buildings. I’ve heard some compare 4 to an expansion pack rather than a true sequel, though I think that’s a bit misleading; plenty of sequels just improve upon and add to the existing gameplay, it doesn’t have to feel wildly different to merit the name ‘sequel’. Plus, there’s always the risk of alienating fanbases if you move too far away from the original. For example, I didn’t like the transition from Civ 4 to Civ 5, I felt it lost a lot of its complexity and the hex-based grid was hugely limiting. I’ll also be commenting on the DLC for Tropico 4, especially the Modern Times DLC which essentially doubled the number of campaigns from the original game.
So, like most city-building games, you have this God-like view of your sandbox. In Tropico’s case, you quite literally have a sandbox; the tropical islands that you are asked to build on feature beaches, a dock, mountains and plains. There isn’t much variety in the islands, but the differing set ups of resources and mountain sides will impact your design decisions greatly. You’ll have to decide what kind of resource is going to make you money and how environmentally conscious you’ll be. Mining and oil drilling will net you a lot of money but they are highly polluting and will piss off the environmentalists (one of several political factions whose favour you must win before elections). On the other hand, you can be entirely green and grow farms that plant papaya or pineapples, or you could go for cash crops like tobacco or sugar cane. The second step to industry is to build factories which can refine your raw products and sell them for more money. Or you could choose not to go for industry at all, and instead focus on a roaring tourist trade. I find that I tend to favour more environmentally friendly approaches, but occasionally I decide to act like an oil tycoon and oligarch and just screw over my population in a capitalist feuded vendetta.
Now, Tropico usually starts you off in the year 1945, and most scenarios bring you to somewhere around 1980. The Modern Times expansion will let you go all the way to about 2000. Of course, you can always carry on playing after you complete the scenario, but there won’t be any more story-based events. Tropico’s story is incredibly quirky and occasionally just downright weird. Your islanders can be quarantined for things such as llama flu. There’s a scenario which involves contacting aliens. But more often than not, Tropico focuses on some of the political relations between your island and the two big cold war superpowers: the US and the USSR. Favouring capitalist orientated policies will garner favour with the US whereas providing free food and housing will endear you to the USSR. Now, don’t get me wrong, it doesn’t go into much depth in this regard. You won’t be re-enacting the Cuban Missile Crisis, though you might hear a radio broadcast about it. The game is adamant about maintaining its hilarious, off-beat humour and its incredibly astute satirical take on politics. You are El Presidente, and the different political factions that vie for your favour are just hysterical. They are absolute caricatures of common political tropes. There are the militarists who are obsessed with power, weapons and hunting down rebels on your island. The religious faction just wants large churches and cathedrals built (as well as congratulating you for opening pubs close by). The communists complain incessantly about bad living and working conditions and demand free stuff all the time. The loyalists are like nationalists who are obsessed with you and want you to build museums dedicated to yourself. The environmentalists are hippy planet-loving flower-wearing people who will chastise you for destroying our precious Earth’s resources. Those are just some of the characters in Tropico’s universe. In Tropico 3, there is a wonderful radio presenter called Juanito who desperately tries to justify all your actions to a disbelieving population. When you build a garbage dump and there are reports of noxious fumes, Juanito is there to try and convince people that these fumes are good for a child’s development. You’ll encounter evil U.N. representatives who want you to export weapons to a country of their choice. You’ll even have to deal with President Nixon and choose whether to give into his demands.
The story aspects of Tropico are very solid and enrich the city-building experience immensely. They give you goals to work towards, and encourage you to change up your designs. In some levels, you’ll be forced to utilise a certain resource or a type of energy or to work towards a certain large building. This way, the campaign guides you through every possible type of building you can place. Of course, there’s also a sandbox mode where you can fully customise the type of island you start on, how many years you want to play for, the number of starting people, the number of rebels, how many natural disasters etc. There are also user-made maps which you can download and play on. One that I tried was an entire island of oil, designed to help you build up the maximum amount of money that you can. Like any city-builder, the amount of replay value depends entirely on your creativity. You can always make the game easier or harder, and you can start specialising in different things and combinations of things. You can be a benevolent democratic leader or you can be a evil despot of a dictator who rules with an iron fist and has a military so large that even the US will turn away its ships. You can target individuals to put them in jail, to brand them as religious heretics or to just straight up assassinate them.
You see, in Tropico, each individual has an identity. You can click on any one of the hundreds of citizens wandering around town to find out who their family is, where they live, what they enjoy doing in their spare time, how they’re feeling at that moment, what their political affiliation is, what their occupation is etc. There is so much detail to every single simulated person. Unlike SimCity which just treats people like traffic or another resource to herd around, Tropico has a world which is fully populated and alive. I grew rather attached to the story of Carlos who started as a poor corn farmer and worked his way up, with a family, to work in a large bank. Or how about Rodrigez the criminal, who after being rehabilitated, became a college professor? The stories you can craft are endless. In a way, this level of depth for each character limits the city sizes. The largest islands will have a population of about 500, maybe 750 if you have a good gaming rig.
Which brings me on to my next point. The game is rather process intensive. You need a decent CPU to run the game at high settings without lag. Of course, you can always reduce the graphic settings to suit your needs and that does make a noticeable difference in performance. There is a lot of stuff being simulated under the hood so your computer needs to be at least in the middle of the range. Look up the specs before you play. Especially Tropico 4, I think it’s much less of a problem for Tropico 3. Anyway if you do have a good rig, this game is gorgeous. The details on the building are fantastic. You can zoom right down to ground level and watch all the little people on their daily routine. You can zoom into the palace and watch your flags wave around in the breeze, or zoom onto a papaya plantation and watch the workers sow seeds and tend to their plants. It is a beautiful, highly detailed game with a lot of life to it. I find SimCity a bit desolate at times. I find myself thinking, “Why are all those people walking around and around the block over and over with no purpose?”. You’ll never feel like that in Tropico. You’ll click someone and you can learn their life story, and it’s fairly obvious where they’re going to be heading. You can check their needs, kind of The Sims style, and assess what your citizens need.
Citizen happiness is determined by how well you fulfil their needs. They need food and shelter foremost. Then they tend to want to go to church, to get a high school education, to have access to healthcare and then to be able to chill out at entertaining places like restaurants and cinemas. They also care about how pretty their environment is, how safe they feel and also things like how free they are as citizens (which can be increased by building media buildings like the TV station or newspaper). Furthermore, each citizen puts a different weighting on different aspects. An environmentalist, for example, might want a pretty environment over feeling safe. A religious zealot will value religious access more than anything. Balancing the needs of your citizens versus your treasury’s coffers will be a confusing task to begin with, but the campaign scenarios do a very good job of guiding you through it.
The other major game mechanic is the political side of things. You will have to win elections every couple of years in order to remain in power. Partially, that will depend on happy your citizens are with you. But it will also depend on fulfilling the needs of the different political factions. Furthermore, you can issue political edicts which change the way your island operates. For example, you can issue ‘Food for the Masses’ which gives everyone twice the amount of food (make sure you’re growing enough or they’ll starve!). You could issue something like ‘Litter Ordinance’ to make the island tidier, or one-off edicts like a ‘Tax Cut’ which makes everyone like you more (very useful for turning the tides if you’re losing an election). During election time, a vote counter pops up and updates over a few in-game months; if your vote count is higher, then you win, and if it’s lower than your opponent, then you lose and you must restart the level. You could always decline to hold elections of course, if you’re playing the role of a power hungry despot. But you’ll find that this reduces your relationship with the US, and your citizens will probably grumble too. Every action you take has many consequences and balancing that risk is a hugely satisfying affair. One time, I went too far as a military dictator who always had martial law activated. I was constantly flooded by rebels who were disgruntled citizens but my massive army would take care of them. Unfortunately, the US did not take kindly to me calling them fascist pigs so they came and invaded my island and I lost.
I said I would talk about the DLC. I recommend getting the Modern Times DLC for Tropico 4 if you can afford it. It basically adds a whole new campaign with more scenarios to complete, as well as a whole bunch of new building which modernise your island. You can start building sky scrapers, bio-farms and even massive call-centres. It really changes the way you build in Tropico. Instead of only planning for small settlements, you must ensure your city grows as time goes on. Luckily there are very good upgrade tools which let you upgrade your housing without bulldozing them. There’s other DLCs too which only add half a dozen buildings or so, but they’re pretty cheap and I picked them up on sale for less than £1 each. I don’t find they make a substantial difference and you can only use them in the main campaign, not the Modern Times one, but it’s kinda useful in some ways. The one that adds concrete factories and speeds up builders is a godsend, because you’ll find that builders are the laziest workers and never seem to be where you want them to be (you often have to give a much higher salary than they deserve just to get them off their lazy ass).
In conclusion, the game is just a fantastic modern city builder. There was much more to the game that I didn’t even mention, such as the customisation options you have for El Presidente (you choose traits which affect your islanders like being 10% more productive or 5% better at growing tobacco). I honestly find it far more compelling than SimCity, even though you won’t quite be building cities so much as built up island settlements. The downsides aren’t nearly as bad as the gripes people had about SimCity.
In Tropico, the maps can be quite small, though that’s part of the challenge. On the largest maps, I never find myself using all the space because it’s too difficult to connect it all together. You have to constantly balance making resources and exporting them, citizen’s happiness, politics, story-based events and continuing to build up your city. Also the game can be slow at times when you have to wait for your builders to get off their lazy bums, but otherwise, there is a lot to deal with most of the time. It’s not like SimCity where you set the time on Cheetah and go away to make some tea. Tropico’s main bottleneck in terms of speed is waiting for buildings to build, though there is a quick build option which costs money but instantly builds it; very useful for buildings you desperately need, like quick fix housing for the hoards of immigrants you just received.
Overall though, there is so muchto do in Tropico and it’s all packaged in a lovely, cheerful and funny story which adds a lot of atmosphere to the game. The simulation is very well designed and highly polished. It really feels like you create a real, living world.
Go forth, El Presidente!