Edited by: Tiffany Lillie
Games have been through a golden age or two, and as a result you can find something for every job and personality. If you like cooking, golfing, ponies, or rolling katamaris, there’s a game for you. But what about the more overlooked jobs? The ones that are so boring, you wouldn’t even think of them if someone asked you to make a list of jobs? What about accountants? Don’t they deserve a game? Well, what if I told you there was a series quietly expanding its spreadsheets, charts, and stat tables to governmental proportions? That’s right, accountants, Tropico 6 has you covered.
Am I saying you can’t enjoy Tropico if you’re not an accountant? Well…
I went into the Tropico experience blind. I’ve played games like it (SimCity, RollerCoaster Tycoon), but I’ve never actually played this franchise until now. I assume if you’re reading this, you’re in the same boat (or you’re a die-hard fan here to get mad at whatever rating I give this), because Tropico seems like the sort of franchise where if you’ve played one, you know what to expect from all the others. It’s like Sid Meier’s Civilization in that way, as well as a few others.
So, as a new player myself, I have to say this game’s accessibility is downright terrible. If you opt to do the tutorial, you’ll be launched into a two-hour tax seminar. (You think I’m joking but I’m not.) And the thing is, if you skip this tutorial, the mechanics will likely be so opaque to you as to be unplayable. That’s because, even after hours of learning how to play the game — instead of, you know, actually playing it — many parts of Tropico 6 are still baffling. The answers to all your questions can be found, but they’re lost somewhere in the tiny text of the hundreds of menus you need to navigate.
Even after the tutorial, you’ve still got a long way to go.
The premise of Tropico 6 is that you’re El Presidente of a few small Caribbean islands. As a result, you need to navigate your archipelago’s industry, trade, political relationships, and even some random categories, like managing pirates and your Swiss bank account. All of this while keeping your citizens happy enough to vote for you in the next election.
Seeing all this for the first time, the 6 in Tropico 6 suddenly becomes clear: They’ve added features to this game over six installments, and seemingly have never taken out a single idea. This is a bonus to fans of the franchise, but for new players it means hours of frustration, wondering why Tropico’s national bank account is always tens of thousands of dollars in the red no matter what you do.
If you somehow avoid going bankrupt, the elections are no cakewalk either — and losing them means game over. Early in my presidential career, I made the mistake of promising better housing and had until the next election to raise my housing happiness rating from 35 to 50. I lost the next election miserably as I went bankrupt by building new houses that never got lived in. My housing happiness rating ticked up only one or two points in all those years; I’m guessing that’s because my citizens had no jobs and couldn’t afford even the cheap shacks I built for them (or, even more frustratingly, they’d rather be homeless than commute to work). In other words, it’s a little grim to come expecting to play a game and leave understanding the 2008 housing crisis.
It took me about a weekend to actually win a single level, but I’ve proven that it is actually possible to learn how to play Tropico 6… it’s just really hard.
But back up a second. There is a legitimate reason to learn to play this game.
As Beginner Unfriendly™ as Tropico 6 is, there’s actually a payoff from learning to play it, and this became clear from the game’s Speakeasy level. Speakeasy is a scenario set in the World Wars era, where the game begins in colonial times and continues through the World Wars and the Cold War to the modern era, with each era unlocking a new technology. In Speakeasy, the U.S. has enacted prohibition, so your island becomes home to a notorious rum smuggler. So far, all of this story happens before the level through pretty normal cutscenes and description text. But then you actually take control, and as you fulfill the missions set out for you, an interesting story unfolds. One which is told through your own gameplay rather than dialogue and text.
That’s why Tropico 6’s magic really starts to come together, once you figure out how to keep your economy and approval rating afloat. The voice acting transports you to the era you’re playing in, but keeps it light with consistently funny writing. Not a single joke falls flat, and they’re all topical: when the Communist faction comes with a request, their leader says something like, “The comrades haven’t cooperated on anything in a while, and they’re getting a little antsy.”
Each scenario pokes fun at another aspect of being an island dictator (or “Presidente”), and everything is accompanied by a fun-loving score full of tracks with a distinct Buena Vista Social Club feel. It’s the kind of music that makes you want to wear a panama hat, drink fruit cocktails, and dance. Against this backdrop, the Allies ask you to do things like build prisons and interrogate people to find the very rum smuggler you’re enabling by growing sugar and building distilleries on your islands. Meanwhile, the Capitalist faction asks you to do things like declare Tropico a penal colony and use all these prisons you’ve made for free labor. And hey, declaring prohibition will also give you plenty of prisoners you can send off to work. Slowly, a picture of corruption and exploitation begins to develop.
In the end, you might catch a notorious smuggler for the Allies, but Tropico has become a crime haven in the process. A very profitable crime haven, where El Presidente always comes out on top. And it only takes you fulfilling a few requests from shady factions before you abandon all dreams of a perfectly-functioning democratic utopia and start becoming corrupt just for the money. Once you see the dollars rolling in from building plantations and extracting resources to sell abroad, while you skim some off the top and make dubious side deals, you really start to understand the dictator mentality.
After playing Speakeasy, I felt like I understood prohibition on some deeper level — and smuggling, and how tiny nations were exploited throughout the World Wars, and a dozen other things. It’s the kind of understanding where you not only clearly see, but also feel the motivations of the man in charge. This story, or perhaps more appropriately this message, is delivered in a darkly comical way that’s brightened just enough by the tropical sun. Whether you agree with the message or not, it’s undeniably effective storytelling, and it’s legitimately just tons of fun. And Speakeasy is only one of fifteen scenarios, each with an hours-long story involving things like turning Tropico into a knockoff Wonka chocolate factory paradise or a pirate kingdom. In other words, if you can get past the learning curve, there are countless hours of high-quality enjoyment in the story mode alone.
You just might want to brush up on your economics first.
The Verdict: Great
Tropico 6 involves a huge time investment and a steep learning curve, but it is a solid entry in the management/sim genre. There are far too many mechanics to achieve an elegant and balanced experience, but every element is at least polished — from the comedic social commentary, to the score, to the engaging storytelling. If you happen to be an economist and a gamer, you’ll probably love this game. If you’re a normie, you might grow to like it too.