Tropico – A Retrospective Review

Developed by PopTop Software and released in 2001, Tropico is the first of the eponymous series of construction and management simulation games in which the player takes the role of leader of a Caribbean island, building its economy up from humble beginnings, all while trying to keep the population happy – or at least happy enough not to revolt. Set in the Cold War, Tropico combines its construction and management game mechanics with a tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and perspective on banana republics, where the United States and Russia act as mostly unseen forces who will invade if they are suitably dissatisfied and where a certain level of corruption is not only tolerated but expected – including funnelling money to your own secret Swiss bank account as a nest-egg for your retirement, whether that’s by choice or by forcibly being made to retire.

There are two different types of game in Tropico: pre-determined scenarios whereby you have particular constraints on your activities, along with a random map generator where you can set various characteristics of the island and the conditions in the game, like how strong the economy is, the political stability of the island and so on, with a corresponding bonus multiplier to your end-of-game score based on the difficulty. With the expansion pack, Tropico: Paradise Island, there are about forty different scenarios, with conditions ranging from an island of ex-convicts with little immigration and a poor reputation, to an island at the whim of a massive fruit conglomerate and to an island where you play the “third cousin, once removed” of Fidel Castro and have the objective of attaining as much cash as possible. There’s plenty of diversity in the missions, but the random map generator has plenty of mileage in it as well.

While scenarios will typically start you off with a pre-constructed island, the random map game type starts you off with just about enough infrastructure to start making money, with a few farms, a dock, a teamster’s office and a construction office, along with your palace and a population living in shacks. The farms begin by growing corn, which is good for feeding your hungry population, but is not particularly lucrative, but can be set to grow other products, including pineapples, tobacco, sugar and bananas. Some of this produce takes a long time to grow, but is particularly lucrative once it is being sold, while other crops have particularly harsh conditions on their ability to grow. Once the crops have been grown and harvested by your farmers, they’ll be picked up by your teamsters and brought to the dock, whereby your dockworkers will load the produce onto incoming freighters which bring out the fruits of your population’s labour and bring in immigrants to expand your workforce. Other basic resource gathering activities include mining and logging.

Once your activities start making a profit, you can start to diversify your economy by building factories which will take the produce from your farms, mines and logging camps and reprocess it further into a more valuable commodity, or start building hotels and tourist attractions to make your island into a tourist paradise. However, factories require more educated workers and can take quite a long time to become profitable, while Tropico‘s tourists prefer locations away from your farmers’ and labourers’ activities.

While you’re busy building up the economy of your island, you also have to keep the population satisfied by providing them with various facilities and satisfying their needs. Different members of the population have different needs, but in general, your citizens desire better housing, to be sufficiently entertained, to have a nice environment to live in, their religious and healthcare needs met and so on. Meanwhile, there are various factions on the island who favour different approaches to how the island is run; for instance, militarists favour many soldiers employed on the island, while environmentalists favour an environmentally friendly approach to economic activities and the religious prefer to have plenty of churches and fewer pubs, cabarets or casinos as part of the entertainment facilities on the island. You also have various characteristics for your character which can increase or decrease your favour with some of these factions as well as setting the democratic expectations for your character as part of the way you were installed into power. In a scenario, these are already pre-selected for you, while in a random map game, you have a choice, with several pre-prepared templates representing real-world dictators and revolutionaries – as well as, bizarrely, the mambo singer Lou Bega, who was then particularly popular for his version of “Mambo No. 5”.

Unfortunately, while the concept is very good at creating a challenge for the player in balancing the needs of the citizens with the desire to make money, most of the frustrations in the game come from dealing with the population. There is very little in the way of micromanagement in the game, with your interactions mostly coming from choosing which buildings to place and where, along with the pay for the workers or price of services at various buildings, which I quite like, but this can sometimes lead to boneheaded decisions with the AI which add fake difficulty to the game. Construction of new buildings can be mildly annoying, as the pathfinding AI of your workers is poor and this can keep them from constructing a necessary building as quickly as you might need it. Furthermore, before a building is constructed, the ground on which it will stand needs to be flattened and cleared of obstacles, which becomes more difficult as you move away from the relatively flat coasts and move inland. The frustration comes from the fact that it is often difficult to determine the gradient of a certain building plot since it isn’t very obvious from the graphical style of the game.

Considerably more frustrating is the requirements for keeping a good standard of healthcare and religion on your island. While the other needs might be expensive and time-consuming to upkeep, they are at least sensible once you get the buildings constructed. On the other hand, both religion and health care require a lot of buildings for the population, require educated workers who are at a premium at the start of the game and don’t get much more common later on and provide no economic benefit once they are fulfilled.

What’s more, even when you have got appropriately educated workers, there’s no guarantee that they’ll work in the religious or healthcare facilities, even when the pay for the roles is generous. In one game, I spent more than $30,000 – or in other words, enough to buy four or five apartment complexes which will satisfy housing needs for up to 60 citizens – trying to entice workers with college education to become doctors in my clinics, only to find that when they arrived, they immediately decided not to become doctors after all, but instead go into farming or construction despite the fact that my healthcare needs were sorely lacking due to the lack of staff and that the doctor jobs were set to pay more than three times as much as the jobs they were taking.

Nevertheless, putting aside these concerns, the rest of the game works very well and there is certainly a satisfaction to be derived from seeing profits rolling in from your farms as your teamsters draw the crops out to the docks to be loaded onto the freighters, or from seeing tourists flooding into your hotels as your tourism market expands.

At the same time as dealing with your own population, you must deal with the concerns of the United States and the Soviet Union, both of which take an interest in your activities from afar. The US favours a capitalistic economy, with free elections, while the Soviet Union prefers communism, with little income disparity. Much of your early-game income will come as foreign aid from these superpowers, with the amount increasing as the countries’ favour increases. However, if you have a particularly bad relationship with one country, they may send a military force to depose you – and as their favour is tied to some extent to the happiness of the capitalist or communist factions on Tropico, you can’t afford to ignore either of these factions. You can also slowly improve your reputation with either or both countries by building a diplomatic ministry.

As you play, you will also have the option to pass various edicts which will influence policy on the island and with the superpowers looking over your shoulder. As you build more buildings, you have options like enticing tourism with a Mardi Gras festival, funnelling a bit of the building cost of all buildings to your Swiss bank account or holding a book burning at the behest of your religious faction. On a more personal level, if you identify somebody who may be particularly troublesome, you can bribe or imprison them, or, to the horror of your population, even have them eliminated by your own soldiers. This provides the potential for a bit of extra control to the game without sacrificing the aforementioned lack of micromanagement in the game.

Graphically, Tropico was never that impressive, with isometric sprite-based graphics which weren’t a tour de force, even at the time. Nevertheless, aside from the previously mentioned issues with determining gradient, the graphics are good enough for the job, although the age of the game does rule out any options for widescreen resolutions. On the other hand, the music is a particular highlight of the game, with catchy Latin-style tunes which suit the game very well.

The Tropico series is now up to five entries, with most of the entries building on the setting and gameplay of the original. As a consequence, it’s tempting to skip the first game and just go on to play one of the sequels, but at the same time, the first Tropico did build a very good foundation for the games to come. Despite the occasional frustrations with construction, religion and healthcare, the game is built around a very strong concept and executes it very well. At present, Tropico is available on both Steam and GOG.com along with its pirate-themed sequel, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, for less than Tropico 3 costs on its own and since the games in the series are frequently on sale through both platforms, if you’re looking for an inexpensive entry-point to the series, the original isn’t a bad place to start.

Bottom Line: Tropico combines strong construction and management fundamentals with a subtle, tongue-in-cheek sense of humour and a very catchy soundtrack, but does have some frustrating elements in managing the population in-game.

Recommendation: Given that the series is frequently on sale at several online distributors, I’d wait for a sale and then snatch it up in the Tropico Reloaded package which includes the sequel.

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