While we enjoy a good city building sim as much as the next man, they all tend to be rather serious affairs. Not Tropico. Transplanting the action to a small Caribbean island and casting you in the role of "El Presidente", this is a game with its tongue firmly planted in its cheek.
Starting the game you are given the choice of which dictator to play as, with options ranging from Fidel Castro and Augusto Pinochet to Evita Peron and .. um .. Lou Bega. Yes, the man responsible for that reprehensible slice of pop music "Mambo #5". Like I said, this isn't a game that takes itself seriously. Once you have picked out your favourite dictator you are given a dossier on them which allows you to change their characteristics, such as who they are (from Harvard graduate to former farmer), how they came to power (democratic election, installed by the CIA, military coup etc) and what their strengths and weaknesses are (such as being an alcoholic, flatulent, a diplomat or an entrepreneur).
Although it sounds silly, all of these choices have a big effect on how your game will play out. For example, if you were given your job by the KGB your people won't be too surprised if you refuse to hold free elections while the Russians will be far more favourable towards you, showering you with foreign aid. On the other hand, if you chose to be Lou Bega your island will be more popular with tasteless Yanqui tourists, and your nightclubs are the toast of the town.
Underneath the humour there is a serious sim though, with a complex economic system and a bewildering array of buildings to construct and edicts to issue. The game is a fine balancing act, with a number of domestic factions to keep happy as well as Russia and the USA, and the threat of being overthrown by a military coup, revolution, election defeat or foreign invasion is always there to keep you on your toes.
Although there is a small selection of preset missions (such as recovering from an earthquake or building up your island's economy after its lumber industry is brought to its knees by deforestation), the real heart of the game is the random scenario mode. Here you can create your own customised country to rule over by adjusting the size, height, population and mineral richness of your island, select how long you want the game to continue, and choose from optional mission objectives such as padding your own secret Swiss bank account or making your islanders the happiest in the Caribbean. If you just want to kick back and soak up the atmosphere, you can also opt for an open-ended game with no victory conditions or time limit.
Generally you will start off with a handful of islanders, a few farms, a dock and your palace. From this inauspicious start you must build up your economy with more farms, mines and logging camps, as well as providing housing for your citizens, who start the game living in primitive shacks. Distilleries, lumber mills and cigar factories can provide more valuable exports, while your people will soon begin to demand entertainment, health care, education and churches. With a limited cash flow to pay for new buildings, you have to juggle the requests of the various factions on the island with your own long term plans. A few hours with Tropico will make you realise that Fidel Castro isn't doing such a bad job of things after all...
The size of your island makes things even harder, as the sea surrounding your country limits expansion. Those golden beaches might make the perfect tourist resort, but could you make more money by strip mining the mountain overlooking them? You need to build a power plant to supply electricity for a hospital or TV station, but if you don't place it downwind of your town you will have to deal with pollution.
Throw in a range of different crops for your farms to grow (from corn and bananas to coffee and tobacco) along with a wide selection of edicts which you can issue (cracking down on littering, encouraging education or offering part of your island for the USA or Russia to use as a military base) and you have an almost endless series of choices to make as you decide how to develop your island, both physically and politically. Are you going to be a corrupt dictator filling your pockets from your people's suffering, or a benevolent leader trying to improve their lot in life? Will you hold on to power by executing your rivals and building guard posts all around your city, or will you hold regular free elections, even if you may have to (cough) re-interpret some of the votes after the fact.
All of this is controlled in-game using a fairly simple interface, allowing you to place new buildings, set construction priorities, adjust wages, fees and rents, fire people, issue edicts and limit the number of workers in a particular building. As in most city management games you have no direct control over your citizens, but there are enough tools here to indirectly influence them into doing more or less what you want them to. You can also view them individually, getting information on what a particular person is thinking, which (along with the annual report on your economy and citizens) can give you valuable feedback on what you are doing wrong, as well as some amusement from comments such as "what this island needs is a good railroad simulator" and "work, sleep, eat, sunbathe - there must be more to life".
It's not all good news though, and the lack of direct control does bring up problems. The biggest issue is with teamsters, who seem to be fat, lazy and incompetent, which is perhaps realistic but does prove annoying. It's not unusual to see your economy lurching in and out of debt because of entirely random factors such as which products your teamsters happened to take to your dock to be exported and how many ships turned up to collect them. With no way of ordering them to carry out specific tasks there's little you can do about this.
Which can make things rather haphazard, as one year you may earn tens of thousands of dollars from exporting cigars, lumber, gold and alcohol, only for you to find your island in the red the very next year because your dock hands were all asleep when a ship arrived or your teamsters were transferring food to a marketplace instead of moving goods to your dock. This can often be solved by hiring more teamsters, building additional docks closer to mines and factories, or laying down roads to allow your teamsters to move around faster. But sometimes even the best planned economy can collapse overnight for no obvious good reason, leaving you powerless for a year or more while you wait for enough products to reach your docks to buy you out of debt.
Because once your treasury is in the red, there is very little you can do to get out of debt apart from sitting back and praying - as soon as funds fall below $0 you are unable to build anything, issue any edicts or hire any more foreign graduates to work for you. All you can do is reduce wages and tinker with prices to see if you can reduce your overheads, while hoping that next year trade will pick up. This makes relying on exports dangerous, and it pays to have an alternative source of cash such as tourism to lessen the impact of random factors on your economy. This is more of a work-around than a solution though.
Apart from these annoying glitches in the trade system, Tropico is both very funny and highly addictive. The graphics are nicely detailed and beautifully animated, and the whole thing runs fairly smoothly even at 1600x1200 on a reasonably specced machine, with the ability to zoom right in on individual buildings and people or to pull back your view until you can see your entire island below you. A special mention also goes to the music - I'm not usually a big fan of latin music, but the soundtrack fits the game so perfectly that you can't help humming along to it. It's just a shame that there aren't more songs, as they can get a little repetitive after several hours of playing the game.
If you can overlook the niggles with the island's economy, Tropico is one of the best city building sims of recent years and certainly the most amusing. Well worth a look for SimCity veterans and newcomers to the genre alike.