Summer Overlord: Tropico

Waiting patiently for his final year at college, Declan is in the midst of a four-month summer holiday. He is quite bored. Unemployed and at home, to stave off insanity, he is playing through fifteen management/tycoon games from the last decade in a series of articles in which he will attempt to become the ultimate Summer Overlord, master of routine and efficiency and pro hirer of vomit-sweeping janitors. Join him every Saturday on a journey which will take you through some of the best and the worst that the obscure genre has to offer. 

*  *  *

I'm glad someone recognises my greatness.

By Divine Right, I Decree

Rue the day that sees me come to power. As I ride my black horse through Westminster in London, the rain falling in sheets, there will be a great deal of wailing, beating of chests, and gnashing of teeth; the womenfolk will lament and become barren; plants will wilt, animals will bow their heads to me, and rivers will run dry. My slow-marching armed escort will be accompanied by the newly established Glorious Imperial Orchestra which will play a powerful rendition of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7, preferably with teary eyes and the occasional sob. Bursting into the House of Commons, my praetorian guard will seize undesirables,  I shall sit upon my throne, dismiss Parliament (the music is still playing, by the way, it makes it all more epic), have the Cabinet hung, declare war on France despite the gasps and cries of “outrageous!” from my gentlemanly moustache-sporting generals, then squander my country’s finances on mistresses and lavish banquets of wild boar and peafowl.

Then I woke up.

Alright, so I’m unemployed and rarely go to bed before three o’clock in the morning; okay, fine, I’ve spent most of my summer holiday so far frozen in time before my laptop, occasionally gazing out the window and hissing at the unceasing torrential downpour of rain; and, sure, I’ll admit, I have the physical presence akin to that of the common housefly. Reluctantly, then, I’ll concede that I’m probably not ideal emperor material. But, though reality may well bite, at least I have Tropico, the parodytastic Cuban-dictator sim courtesy of last week’s Railroad Tycoon 3 developers, PopTop. Though lacking the depressing greys and blacks of Victorian Britain, it shares the same noble objective: total societal control.

El Presidente, I Presume

Firstly, Tropico, like most management games, is best played in its ‘sandbox’ mode; its ‘campaign’ scenarios are harsh and overly restrictive. Choosing the freeform route allows one to create his or her own ideal Caribbean island by determining factors like terrain elevation, soil fertility, mineral richness, and political stability. Taking up Isla Tropico’s leadership as Presidente “Declano Burrez” (I thought a degree of Latinisation was necessary), I set about following my plans of constructing an elitist haven, neither friend nor foe of the USA or USSR, an independent bastion of intellectualism and free-thought headed by a charismatic and potent leader.

Then I woke up, again.

Ah, of course, you're tired. I apologise, I was only building your country.

Government is hard. People always want things. Though I had such grand visions of soaring arcologies and hyper-sleek urban design, I was instead forced to kowtow to the whims of poor tobacco farmers and lumberjacks. Suddenly, the top seemed very far away. My people pined for cheap housing, so I was forced to build one of those disgusting tenement blocks, the kind you secretly hope will blow up in an unfortunate gas leak. Then, people started dying of tuberculosis. “So sad,” my adviser said in a delightfully condescending way as I prodded their bodies for information. Ugh, healthcare. Have your damned clinic. “We want education!” they began to cry. What about my plans for a transplanted academia? Jesus, alright, I’ll build you your bloody ugly concrete high school. I begin bulldozing farms and moving them away into the countryside, far from my planned city centre of embassies and colleges. My work is not appreciated. I am rapidly ousted from power. Curses.

Despite crushing defeat, I would have been more than willing to jump into a new game unperturbed had this Castro-inspired management game not been in possession of an Achilles’ heel: Tropico is agonisingly slow. In fact, a snail sliming its way through treacle captured on a slow-motion camera in the weightlessness of the International Space Station would be faster, and probably more entertaining. While I understand that this is the Caribbean and people like to “smoke the ganja” and chill out to Bob Marley, Tropico’s inhabitants are the precise definition of work-shy: I played all my scenarios on “very fast”, the highest game speed possible, but even then, it felt as if what the game really needed was an IV-drip of controlled amphetamines; workers, when not moving at the brain-meltingly fast pace of one nanometre per second, must attend to their own needs, like religion, health, hunger, entertainment, and rest. It’s not unusual for a builder to be within inches of a construction site, then suddenly do an about turn and head off to the nearest church for a quick pray. Such is the power of Catholicism. If I could at least charge an exorbitant amount for the comfier pews away from the draft, or have Father Miguel bribed with boiled sweets and children, my lost work hours would be recouped. Alas, “religion is always free on Tropico”.

Man of the People

If you’re a leader inclined towards liberalism and democracy, your people will expect free elections. By the time your first one comes around, it is unlikely that your island will be much more than a cash-crop backwater with little to no industry and an uneducated workforce, problems created almost exclusively by your lazy, arsehole workers who’d prefer to live in the automatically constructed corrugated-iron shacks littering my tropical paradise and not, say, my half-built apartment complex. I even had a construction worker run against me for not providing adequate housing. I’m not sure what was worse: the fact that the game could be so frustratingly unfair, or that someone dared run against my divine self, the Dear Leader. Of course, I rigged the election, conveniently declared lots of national holidays and had my opponent shot, but even that wasn’t enough to save me, and I was forced to make a hasty break for Switzerland.

Ugh, elections? If we have to...

Release the Muammar al-Gadaffi in you and claim “all my people, they love me”, then refuse an election, and you face the prospect of a coup. In most of my scenarios, I ended up paying my guards and police triple the wages of a normal labourer to dissuade them from tossing angry Molotovs into my palace, which then led to more unrest because of income disparity.  With my testes in the vice-grip of the militarists faction, but my esteemed self still very much in control, I felt like a true despot. In fact, Tropico is far easier to play if you have authoritarian tendencies: rather than cater to everyone, cater (meticulously) to those who hold power and your problems are more-or-less solved.

And let’s face it, playing the bad guy in a game so tongue-in-cheek is always more rewarding. Issuing edicts for state-sanctioned arrest and elimination is so entertaining that it’s tempting to use them as your “solve problem” buttons. “El Presidente does not provide enough healthcare!” Bang. “El Presidente should build more schools!” Lock him away, boys.  Unfortunately, psychopathic displays of arbitrary and egomaniacal power aren’t available to you: one cannot, for example, ban the colour yellow, or forbid the wearing of trousers on certain days of the week. Instead, one must be content to deprive people of services and murder the occasional dissenter. The former would have been an interesting style of play had the bulk of the game’s content not been in its buildings and their upgrades.

Tropico is a handsome game, even on closer zooms.

Save or Delete?

Tropico’s ideas and goals are admirable indeed: whereas the likes of SimCity and Caesar focus on efficiency and production, Tropico instead occupies its players with the management of people. With intellectualists, environmentalists, capitalists, communists, and more, founding a successful Caribbean nation results from the amalgamation of careful financial management and keeping the electorate so occupied with decent working conditions, entertainment, and comfy housing that its political ambitions never threaten your own quest for unending dictatorship.

Unfortunately, these ideas and goals are not executed properly. Alas, Tropico’s gaze is fixed on construction and less on active political power; the resulting product is half-baked, sluggish, and confused. Married to the overall sleep-inducing pace of everything, when the game relies on building with that insufferable snap-to-grid system and – the mind boggles at this one – does not allow building rotation, it’s often hard to find enjoyment.

At the time of its release, in 2001, Tropico was a refreshing change for an increasingly stagnating genre, and I can see how its flaws may have been overlooked as small imperfections in a grander picture. Today, it feels unsophisticated. For a brief, light-hearted romp as El Presidente of a mini Cuba, it entertains; as a deeper experience, it fails to deliver. Though I cannot speak for its two sequels (and upcoming third), a decade after its release, Tropico is one only for the curious management/tycoon fan.

<- Last week: Railroad Tycoon 3                                                                   Next week: Beach Life ->


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