Platforms: PC (reviewed), Xbox One, and PlayStation 4
Tropico 6 is a strategy game that lets you play as El Presidente, the dictator of your own Caribbean archipelago. The gameplay is an interesting and approachable bit of strategy that feels a bit like a bright, tropical Frostpunk. (Though to be fair, as a series, Tropico has been around for much longer, so maybe Frostpunk is actually a dismal, hypothermic Tropico.)
First, a note about content
I want to take a second to talk about the subject matter of Tropico 6. (I haven’t played the previous installments, so this is my first exposure to the series.) The island nation of Tropico is basically Cuba with the serial numbers filed off. By default, your customizable dictator looks like a high res, low rent parody version of Fidel Castro.
The game is clearly a parody, but you still play as El Presidente, the dictator of Tropico. You can select citizens, dissidents, and faction leaders to fire, jail, institutionalize, or assassinate at will. Tropico 6 is a living reality for people living under dictatorship, and it’s largely played for laughs. For someone who has lived under a regime like this, or is related to someone who has, this may not be the game for you. It might be hard to laugh at human rights violations that you or a loved one lived through.
That being said, the game largely punches up, mocking the leadership of every faction, portraying Communist guerrillas as lazy, capitalist entrepreneurs as greedy and immoral, nuns as religious zealots, environmentalists as air-headed hippies, etc. Tropico 6’s sense of humor takes no prisoners or sides. Everyone is a buffoon, but most especially you, El Presidente. Before every election, you have a chance to address your citizens, and no matter what options you choose, the result is a speech mocking you and your reign. Tropico 6 doesn’t endorse dictatorship - it mocks it for the absurdity it is.
Economics and (lack of) combat
From the outside, Tropico looks like a 4x game, but you really only engage in two of the “Xs” - exploit and expand. There’s no need to explore; from the beginning of the game, the entire map is visible to you. And usually, there’s no one to exterminate. (There’s a multiplayer option, but I didn’t get a chance to give it a go as I reviewed this game during the pre-release period.)
Combat in Tropico 6 is similar to a tower defense game. Automated units land on the island, almost always at your weakest point, and attack your buildings until they’re destroyed by your military units or your defensive towers. If you’re unlucky, they’ll carve a swath of destruction all the way to your presidential palace and burn it to the ground, killing you and ending the game.
This Clash of Clans-style combat might represent an inexcusable loss of control for some folks, but I liked it. I despise the micromanagement of every bloody artillery piece and tank in games like Civ, and found Tropico 6’s approach refreshing.
Building stuff and exploiting resources were always my favorite part of 4x games. If each “x” is a wheel, Tropico 6 is a motorcycle that drives straight ahead to the gameplay I love the most.
Economics are the core of Tropico 6’s gameplay. Your main job is deciding what to build where in order to maximize your island’s economic output. Place sugar plantations near rum distilleries. Be sure to construct enough housing. Don’t forget to build a theatre or tavern or two to make sure your citizens are entertained. Make profitable trade agreements so you can build more, keep your citizens happy, and maintain your rule. You are democratically elected, and the game ends if you lose an election. But you can always decide not to have an election. Hey, this is a dictatorship.
Gameplay is dictated by a “real time with pause” format familiar to anyone who’s played Hearts of Iron IV or other grand strategy games. You can pause at any time, issue as many orders as you want, and then unpause the game and watch those orders get carried out. The game also pauses while you’re paging through the game’s many voluminous menus, or selecting a build location for a structure. You can also double and quadruple the speed of the game at any time.
I’m impatient as hell, and spent most of the time playing the game at 4x speed. But the ability to pause is essential, especially when something goes wrong, like figuring out why my factories weren’t receiving the raw materials they needed to build manufactured goods for export.
Also, I say “micromanage” with emphasis on the micro. You can set the budget of each individual factory, farm, service business, and government building. You can hire and fire people. You can upgrade individual resource generating buildings, making them sleek and high tech, or leave them as dirt farms. It’s up to you and what your budget can bear. When your economy is humming along, you can ignore this to some degree; throw a plantation on the ground and watch your citizens staff it. But if things go wrong, that’s when you have to get your hands dirty and figure out who needs their budgets slashed.
Eras and development
The game moves through four eras (colonial, world wars, cold war, and modern), each more complicated than the last. Era dictates what buildings you can build, what you can research, and what edicts you can issue. The increasing complexity creates a nice difficulty curve that helps you ease into the game.
During the colonial era, you mainly have to keep the British crown off your back - if you don’t fulfill their requests, they’ll throw you out of office and the game ends. You leave this era when you start a revolt and declare yourself El Presidente.
From there, you move into the World War era - WWI and WWII are mashed up together, and you’re mostly on the sidelines, picking between the Axis and Allied sides and running them equipment. If you piss off either side, you may be attacked. The Cold War era is similar, except the Axis and Allies are replaced with the Eastern Bloc and the Western Powers.
Things really expand once you get to the modern era, with multiple on-island factions vying for your attention, and several superpowers demanding nightclubs and trade routes to stay in their good graces.
You always feel like you have your hands full, but you almost always have a second to breathe, adjust, and move forward. If you liked Frostpunk’s mechanics, but didn’t like its grimdark setting and near-constant threat of hypothermia, death, and mayhem, Tropico 6 is for you.
While you’re attempting to get a handle on the economy of Tropico, you also have faction leaders of every stripe making demands. Some of them make sense (“The revolution requires gold! Smuggle it out to us in coconuts!”) while others are delightfully absurd. At one point, the militarist faction leader needed me to build a nightclub, which will apparently help deal with external threats to Tropico? Is EDM a weapon of war now? Whatever, I built it and reaped a +5 approval rating from his faction.
Factional approval ratings are the key to ensuring your re-election and keeping you in power. You can always delay elections, but if your people get pissed off enough, they’ll revolt, burn buildings, and eventually attempt to kill you.
Frequently, two factions will come to you with dual demands. For example, the capitalists might want you to build a bank, but the communists want you to build a bus station. Go with the communists, and you lose favor with the capitalists, and vice versa.
Interface and information
Tropico 6 is a lot of fun, but some of its interface elements could use some improvement. I really wish Tropico’s menu elements lived at the bottom of the screen rather than popping up front and center, over your view of the game map. You live in the build and trade screens; they’re up at least 50% of the time. I wish I could refer back and forth between the map and the menus more easily.
It’s especially silly in 4K, where the menu takes up less than a quarter of the screen. You should be able to easily move the pop-over window down to the corner, but the game doesn’t let you.
Also, inside each menu there are multiple tabs, which makes it hard to find the buildings you want, when you want them. Does the fire station building live in the government building tab or the public services tab? Does a cabana village count as tourism, luxury tourism, or fun?
The tab system does help make comparative decisions, e.g. if you’re attempting to compare costs and benefits between building a conventillo (a large slum that slowly degrades over time, but anyone can live in) or a nice but expensive apartment building with a high rent, having the info on both side by side is helpful.
But there are so many buildings and so many tabs that I found myself wishing I could hit Ctrl+F to type in the name of the building. I wish there was a master tab where all buildings were listed in alphabetical order.
Bringing the heat
Another issue is the heat map system. For some stuff, it’s great. It lets you see all the important mineral deposits early on in the game, so you don’t put an expensive government building on top of an oil deposit. It also shows you which areas are best for each kind of farm and ranch, which helps you plan and strategize. However, after you play for a few hours, you’ll realize that the heat map lacks some key information.
If something is going wrong on your island, it’s not necessarily clear how or why it’s happening. Homelessness was a big one for me. In the early parts of the game, you have to build housing near people’s places of employment, making the issue reasonably simple to tackle. However, as the game goes on, people start commuting from one island to another, driving to work, or taking buses. It gets very hard to know exactly where you’re lacking housing, and the heat maps don’t have a “homelessness” tab.
Also, you usually want to put people in the best housing they can afford. The only way you can tell how well off a homeless person is, and where they live, is to find their shack and mouse over each citizen’s tiny icons, one by one. Tropico 6 needs a better way to handle this.
I also occasionally found myself going broke after doing fine for a few hours in-game. Often, the problem was a lack of teamster coverage - teamsters bring raw materials to factories, and manufactured goods to the dock for export.
However, there’s no heat map that shows teamster coverage. Given that a lack of teamsters can destroy your economy, you’d think there’d be an easy way to see if you’re missing coverage in critical areas. You can click on the teamster building to watch them make their deliveries to get a sense of what they’re doing, but that felt awkward.
When factions offer you dual demands, it’d be great to see your rating with each faction. Currently, you have to leave the demand screen and go to the almanac menu to see your factional standing, then go back to the demand screen to choose which demand to fulfill. Tropico 6 is a very information rich game; it’d be nice if that information was more easily accessible.
There are two basic game modes: sandbox and missions. Sandbox games are similar to Civilization; you start during the colonial era with a few basic buildings and make your way through time. Each successive era presents more political, economic, and maintenance challenges. Most notably, the number of factions you have to keep happy increases in each era, making maintaining your rule more difficult. There are a number of pre-generated maps that present unique challenges. You can also randomize the map.
There are also missions, which lay out a set of tasks for you to accomplish on top of maintaining your economy and regime. These range from the satirical (turn your island into a rum runners’ paradise during the Prohibition, then catch the kingpin and turn him in) to the truly absurd (build Jurassic Park, except in Cuba). You can alter the difficulty setting of these missions, which is good because some of them are hard when you’re new to the game.
Fit and finish
Tropico 6’s graphics and textures are beautiful, especially in 4K. The game’s mobile camera really lets you get in there and see your city’s fine details. The blue-green water, the architecture, and the catchy Latin Caribbean music are really immersive. I do wish there were a few more tracks though, because during long game sessions, you end up hearing the same songs over and over.
I also wanted to give a shout out to the voice actors. There’s more voice acting than you’d expect in a game of this kind, virtually all of it filled with jokes, puns, and satire. The voice actors hit their marks admirably, ensuring that every demand they make is hilarious.
I’m really enjoying Tropico 6. It’s not the hardest of hardcore simulation games, but for folks looking for something more casual, it’s a blast. It’s entertaining and addictive, and its minor interface flaws only stand out because the rest of the game is so polished and enjoyable.