El Presidente is back and ready to rule a tropical paradise once again. It’s amazing to think that this city-building franchise is in its sixth game, yet here I am reviewing Tropico 6. Having enjoyed the previous games I came into this one looking forward to once again controlling a slice of the Caribbean and somehow managing to cock it up in new and inventive ways.
In case you weren’t aware the Tropico series are city building games with an emphasis on humour as you control El Presidente and preside over the Tropican people in whatever manner you see fit, be it crafting a Communist society with free housing and top-notch healthcare for all or just declaring Martial Law and crushing any who dare question your rule.
The biggest change – at least the one the developers are touting as such – are multiple islands. A complaint of the previous games was the lack of space on the maps. People who were willing to spend considerable time building a city wanted more room to expand. So for this sixth entry the developers promised bigger maps, and they are! Er, sort of. What they’ve done is split the maps into different islands, so technically the overall space is larger but only because most of it is water. Instead, you now have to contend with building bridges and ports to connect various bits of your industry together while contemplating what buildings to fit where. It’s a change that I enjoyed personally because having lots of space is something I find less interesting than having limited space and endless stuff to build.
Rather than having a straight campaign there are 15 stand-alone mission, each focusing on different aspects of the game. Tropicoland has you building a tourist economy, while another mission is all about running a rum empire while dealing with other nations, and yet another has you attempting to arrest a kingpin of crime. Throughout these missions the loyal Penultimo returns, narrating each adventure, providing help and acting as the main source of humor.
The scenarios are mostly fun to play through but there are a couple where the difficulty spikes upwards. I’m looking at you Tropicoland, a complete bastard of a scenario largely due to the game’s issues with tourism. Anyway, considering each scenario can take a few hours to complete there’s plenty of raw content to pummel through, plus the standard sandbox mode.
On the surface its business as usual for the Tropico series; you take a banana republic and attempt to turn it into a thriving paradise that churns out money like a faulty ATM. You’ll kick off with some basics like farms that grow pineapples or bananas, ranches raising Goats, and lumber mills churning out logs. From there you’ll construct production chains, turning your simple goats milk into cheese, planks into boats, bananas into juice and iron into steel and then into weapons. Like the real world as you move through the different eras of time raw resources become worth less, so you always need to be expanding your industry to pump out more refined goods for export.
You’ve got a degree of control over how the various buildings operate, too. You can bump up the monthly budget, for example, which in a workplace increases overall efficiency and gives the workers a better wage, in turn letting them live in better houses or afford cars. Or you can drop the budget if you need to save some cash. There’s a drop-down menu that gives a few options dictating how the building will run, so in an apartment complex you could have a door guard who helps the local crime rating stay low. Finally, there are paid upgrades like enabling electricity in a house or adding power drills to a mine.
Of course, these various buildings all require humans to run them and as well all know humans are annoying creatures with a seemingly endless list of demands. They’ll need various types of housing and entertainment to suit their economic status as well as healthcare, religious buildings and protection from criminals. Keeping their basic need to be fulfilled helps ensure their vote when election time roles around. Yes, even though you are a madman running the whole place you still have to navigate elections, and losing means losing the game. Mind you, there are sneaky ways around it, including bribing citizens, arranging accidents for troublesome people or just changing the constitution so that governmental employees always vote for you. Or maybe just let only the rich vote.
For Tropico 6 the developers proudly boasted that every citizen lives their own life and is fully simulated with their own wants and political views. Follow a person and they can be seen going to work, travelling to the local tavern, making taking in a movie at the theatre and then heading home. The next day they might go to work, then head to church and finally take a trip to the grocer. It’s an interesting system, albeit one you don’t tend to notice, at least until everyone at the local mine decides to take a few months off of work at the same time. The rules governing exactly where citizens travel to fulfil their needs seem shaky, so it’s not surprising to find several nuclear plant employees ambling across the entire island to reach the cinema.
As you move through the four different eras you unlock new buildings, going from little bunkhouses to towering skyscrapers, from basic farms to hydroponics and from circuses to snorkel bays. There’s around 80 different buildings in Tropico 6 and while many of them are returning from previous entries in the series quite a number of them are new, too.
A returning feature are the Raid buildings that do a variety of things. Basically you can send out pirates, commandos and more to interact with the larger world. A bit of espionage can help your own research, or they can be ordered to steal one of the world’s great pieces of architecture such as the Taj Mahal, Stonehenge or even the Statue of Liberty. Successfully nabbing one of these wonders and watching it get delivered via helicopter is a fun moment, even as it signals Tropico’s jumping of the shark. And anyway, how the hell do none of the other countries notice their famous landmarks vanished and then re-appearing somewhere else?
You also have to deal with the various factions that your people affiliate with. Environmentalists, Capitalists, Militarists and more all have their own preferences. Earning their support is vital to a thriving city but most choices will make one happy and another slightly more angry. Issue the Free Wheels edict, for example, that gives every citizen access to a free car will please the Communists but leave the Capitalists feeling a little annoyed. The more support you hold from a faction the more likely the members are to vote for you. Special missions for the factions also pop up, giving you a chance to earn support for doing a specific thing like building a church, altering the constitution or issuing a certain edict. These demands along the main objectives ensure there’s always something to do or work toward.
In essence, Tropico 6 is like juggling. The support and happiness of the people is always fluctuating. As you attempt to maintain good standing with the various factions you also need to build a strong economy, too. Managing both can be a real challenge. Do you have enough college-educated people for governmental work? Should you issue the free housing edict? Are the religious folk starting to get annoyed by the lack of churches? Perhaps its worth tossing out an edict that will impose heavier taxes on rich folk.
Sadly the game doesn’t always do a good job of communicating things to you. Although there are overlays and an almanac that gives you overviews of happiness, your economy and other things, attempting to pinpoint problems can be…tricky. Numerous times I found myself losing money and struggled to find the cause. Likewise, support would suddenly drop like a stone with seemingly no cause and attempting to get to the root of the problem was a nightmare.
Indeed, things just happening in Tropico 6 is probably my biggest bugbear. So many times things were going just fine and then either economy, approval or happiness would go crashing through the floor like they were suddenly being sucked into a black hole. Bringing your sinking city back from the brink is hard, too. The game gives you a quite generous debt limit, but if you’re in the red people start to become annoyed and you can’t build anything or issue edicts. It can easily become a death spiral.
But when it all works Tropico 6 is immensely satisfying to play. Watching your rum-soaked paradise blossom into a power machine of industry is a joy, as is smartly balancing the many demands of the people and their factions. A quick edict change to appease the communists over here, a fancy new hospital over there to fulfill your election speech promise for better healthcare and a nice bank in the corner that’s quietly funnelling cash to your personal slush fund.
And if keeping the people of Tropico from rising up and kicking you out wasn’t there’s also the various super-powers of the world to consider. Keeping a good working relationship with the likes of the EU, Russia and China will help open up better trade route deals so that you can sign lucrative trade contracts. Lose too much support from these pests and you risk a trade embargo or even war. These trade routes form an important part of the game. While the goods produced in Tropico are automatically exported (unless you say otherwise,) signing contracts allows for better prices and strengthening of relationships.
Between edicts and the constitution you have a nice area in which to dictate the kind of country Tropico will be. You can spend ages trying to put together a utopia with free housing, good education and access to cars for all, or you can create a militaristic state packed with soldiers before declaring martial law. As I said earlier, though, the Tropico series has never commited properly to the idea of letting you rule as a true tyrant, so going down this more ruthless path tends to ultimately fail. With that said, arresting bunches of people who didn’t vote for you, tossing them in jail and then earning cash from their labor is a hoot.
A new feature is that of The Broker, a shady individual who offers you ways to spend your hard-earned Swiss Bank Account cash. The ability to funnel funds into El Presidente’s private bank account has been a central concept of the series, but in prior games it often felt like it wasn’t worth the effort. The Broker is an attempt to make the system more important, so now you can spend Swiss funds to buy blueprints for new buildings, gain support with the various factions or even to purchase the Convincing Talk which lets you “complete” certain objectives without actually doing them.
There’re some issues that keep Tropico 6 from toppling the likes of Frostpunk, though, such as how housing and jobs work. For reasons best known to themselves even if you provide free cars, plenty of bus routes, metro stations and great housing people want to be right next to where they work. To do this perfectly well-off citizens will live in shacks next to their work while lovely housing a few miles down the road goes to waste. This in turn will lead to a drop in housing happiness that may lose you the next election. It’s infuriating because it makes it hard to create true residential and industrial zones and instead you wind up with strange hybrids and mini towns sprouting up where you have a couple of production buildings because if you don’t provide access to entertainment and other things then your people will spend a lot of time travelling long distances to those things.
The other issue seems to be tourism and how its workings are a mystery. On the surface it seems simple enough; build attractions and entertainment facilities to draw the punters in, then take all their cash. However, actually turning a profit with tourism seems to be nigh-on impossible. Perhaps there’s a secret trick to generating cash but I’ve yet to find it and the forums are filled with people trying to figure it all out.
Smaller niggles didn’t ruin the game but did frequently irritate me. Bus garages, for example, only have one start and one stop point, so building a proper network of bus routes means having a small city of garages. I also disliked how resource distribution can’t be controlled in detail, and that sometimes meant resources would pile up in a factory when I wanted them to get shipped out as exports. This kind of micro-management is something I found myself wanting a couple of times.
Tropico 6 isn’t a huge leap forward for the long-running series, so if you hoping for some big improvements then it might be disappointing. And as to whether this is the best in the franchise…well, that’s difficult to answer without replaying them all. Fans are going to have their favourite picks. What I can tell you is that I thoroughly enjoyed playing Tropico 6 and I’m still actually going back to it. The problems certainly can’t be ignored, though, and they are many. Thankfully it’s nothing that updates can fix, but as always that’s a future what-if that I can’t predict and doesn’t reflect the game here and now.
So let’s wrap all this up and stick a nice little bow on it, yeah? I liked Tropico 6, just as I liked the prior games, too. But I can’t claim that this latest iteration is any better than Tropico 4 or 5. The swap to multiple islands is fun, the humour still brings a smile to my face and building a rum empire is a hooch. There are just problems holding Tropico 6 back from getting a 4+ score from me, but hopefully in time those issues will be fixed. Until then this is still a great city-builder that fans of the genre will have plenty of fun with.
4 out of 5