Wot I Think: Tropico 3

By Jim Rossignol on November 11th, 2009 at 4:13 pm.


The third Tropico game, this time developed by Haemimont games, has finally washed up on the perfect beaches of my interest. Having messed around with it for a few days, I’ve found time to issue a diktat. Here’s Wot I Think.

There are certain games that it’s hard to truly love, but you nevertheless feel fond of. They are acquaintances that you get on with, rather than close friends. The Tropico games have always been like that for me – I was glad to see the series was continuing, because I think it’s a game with a usefully dark sense of humour, and one that serves a specific niche of management games that don’t demand too much.

The central idea remains the same in this new iteration, and consequently Tropico 3 largely feels like a 3D remake of the original game. Again, it’s a kind of black comedy, with secret police, starvation, and violent revolutionary politics all delivered with the same light tough. You’re the president of a tiny island nation, and you’ll need to make the “right” decisions if you want to stay in control. These decisions might not always be ethical, of course. There are a number of forces at play in Tropico 3’s world: the people, the economy, and international politics. The more successful you are economically, the more interested the outside world becomes in helping you. Tropico 3 is broadly set across the backdrop of the Cold War, so you’ll have both Soviet and American agents trying to gain influence in your little world. This might come in the form of aid, or it might be channelled through opposition to you on the island. (Which makes for an interesting and malleable safety net early on in the game – you can expect to be bailed out by foreign powers, to the detriment of your standing with them). Ultimately, being pushed from office by elections or violence is an ongoing danger.


The heart of Tropico 3 is in the people who live on the island. Unlike other building games the “policy” side of things is extensive here, and how your president deals with people and factions such as the church are intertwined with the game’s basic decisions. This provides an interesting contrast with recent builder, Cities XL, which treats the idea of people rather differently. Both games expect you to build infrastructure so that people will move into your city, but in Cities XL people are more like a resource or information flow: something to be directed and manipulated through building. Tropico 3 meanwhile makes you mindful that people react to the world around them, and may push back if they get pushed. People don’t want to live in shanty towns, and tourists won’t want to visit an island that is ugly, or which has nothing for them to do. People in Tropico 3 are also influenced by other forces – rivals for your control of the island, such as rebels – so you need to convince them that your way of doing things is best. Consequently you end up seeing Tropico 3 as a kind of cultural management game, where the environment and politics directly impacts on the most important factor, the people, rather than an infrastructural game – which we have with Cities XL – where building dictates the activities of the people who live under your mouse cursor. While Cities XL’s online avatar is essentially characterless, here the weird stereotypes and historical figures – or just bizarreness, like top hat and leather-jacket-wearing cigar-smoker “Voodoo Pizzaman” – all factor in to how the island is managed, via explicit traits.

While the most minimal aspects of this are displayed in the tutorial, you end up learning this in the campaign mode, which is an island chain of missions, which opens up as you play. After one introductory mission you’re faced with scenarios that illustrate different aspects of the game – staying in office, mastering economics, setting up a tourist haven – before things get tougher. All this is rather like the recent Anno game, especially in that I soon gravitated towards the sandbox mode.


The sandbox also offers a series of islands, each with its own natural resources and topological challenges (limited room on your island is probably the toughest barrier in the entire game), and each one can be set to play out rather differently. The sandbox mode presents you with a series of sliders that allow to adjust exactly the levels of all the key factors in the game: political stability, tourism, world economics, and even random events. If you don’t want to have to suppress rebels in your sandbox game you won’t have to. It’s just the kind of adjustable setup that this kind of game needs, because you’re always going to find the kind of scenario you prefer playing when you’ve pushed your way through a varied campaign mode. Good thing too, because I don’t think the campaign will take too long to beat (I’m nearing the end of it and still dabbling in a sandbox game.) That said, it feels like the pace of the game itself could do with work. I’ve played it at full speed the entire time. “Normal” speed feels like a snail’s pace, and getting an economy up and running can take a while. Once you’re up to speed there’s a lot more to actually do, but that early fallow period can be annoying.

The body of the game is one of serious micromanagement. You need to get the balance of exports just right, although you have no precise control over that. The trick is the types of things your farms produce, and in how well you end up paying the works. These, indirectly, define how the game is going to reward you financially. Tropico 3 is not an epic building game, and the building trees are ultimately rather limited. Where the challenge lies is in performing the kind of balancing act that real politicians face: outside forces versus the constantly fluctuating demands of a restless population. Satisfaction in Tropico 3 comes not from a kind of visionary build, but from mastering the tools at your disposal, getting rich, and staying in office for the duration.


To close I should mention that there’s an odd parallel in design elements with Haemimont’s other recent title, Grand Ages: Rome, in that the game fails to present information in a totally transparent fashion. (It also boasts the same rather pretty engine) It’s all there, but it seems obfuscated. This information opacity seems partly due to the lack of pop-ups on buildings, partly due to the structure of the UI, and partly due to how the game presents its information. Just as in Grand Ages: Rome, it feels as if the information layer of the game – crucial for a management game – just buried awkwardly below the surface. It’s not a fatal flaw, by any means, but there is a sense that a better UI would simply have made for a smoother experience. Ease of decision-making is hampered, and that’s a vague annoyance that took me a while to identify.

It feels like there are rough edges still being smoothed out, too. The game’s autopatcher has updated the last couple of times I’ve switched it on, and I expect that’ll continue for a while. Ultimately, as I said at the beginning, this feels like the return of an welcome acquaintance. I won’t be singing its brilliance at the end of the year, but I’ll be glad of the few days we spent hanging out. It was a fun time.

Tropico 3 is out now. Get the demo here.

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37 Comments »

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  1. phil says:

    Do they still give you a personalised epitaph at the end of the game? The conclusion of the first one is the only time I have ever been described as both an iron man and a true friend to farmers.

  2. Pew says:

    I guess we can learn to live without island wenches and pirate ships to send out to loot. But can we really live without the “Arrrrgh Captain, we got enough gold to choke a whale!” lines?

  3. Dominic White says:

    Gah. This popped up on my Metaboli account today (Launch day release, or close enough to it? Neat!), but I just don’t have the time to play it. The enormo-hugeness of Dragon Age is an all consuming plague.

    • jonfitt says:

      Wah! I have too many good games to play. Also, I am too rich and my diamond shoes hurt my feet!
      :)
      Seriously though, it’s been a good year for PC games. Save it up for the 1st quarter drought.

    • Dominic White says:

      Metaboli.co.uk is a subscription/digital rental type service. I’m cheap, which is why I use it. Almost all my games recently have been rented in one way or another (lovefilm.com is also rather lovely for console games). Dragon Age is the first thing I’ve bought full-price in ages.

  4. Flappybat says:

    This is nearly a great game but there are a lot of things holding it back. The economy is extremely easy to beat so the only difficulty comes from the scripted and random events, you tend to need a huge amount of parking garages which suck up space and construction/good transport works via chaos theory so some things will get stuck unbuilt or unmoved for ages.

    The lack of flexibility you have with construction changes it from being like Sim City to more like a card game, unfortunately one with simple rules and little depth.

    • MWoody says:

      The economy is easy in sandbox mode. In the campaign, however, the limitations placed on you – in addition, yes, to the scripted/random events – really add a welcome challenge. I usually avoid campaign modes (like in Anno, where I lost interest almost immediately), but here, you’re missing out on the actual game if you just head straight to sandbox.

      And if you need a huge number of parking garages, you’re doing something wrong. Your goal, if you have traffic problems, should be to make sure people are living, eating, working, worshipping, getting health care, and having fun all in roughly the same area. That’s the challenge: how do you make sure your people spend their days getting things done rather than in perpetual transit. Pollution, both industrial and from high-density habitation, can make that task delightfully difficult.

  5. Martin Edelius says:

    Loved the first one to bits as I’m not really an RTS type of guy. Just enough challenge with lots of charm and wit to boot.

    Have the demo of this, haven’t gotten around to playing it yet…

  6. Garg says:

    I remember playing the demo and quite enjoying it for a while, until I needed to place a farm. The red/green colour coding for whether or not it would be fertile was not very informative, seeing as how I’m red/green colour blind. More colour blindness toggles in games!

  7. Christian says:

    The only thing worse than in the first one is the music. I remember playing the first part for hours and hours without the music getting on my nerves..but this one: too few tracks and there’s an announcer (sort of radio-moderator) talking about recent events now and then..which is a fun idea and nicely done as well..but he tends to repeat himself a bit too often.

    Apart from that I’m really enjoying this game..what’s also great: after building a larger city, just zooming way out, then back to street-level and move through the streets, enjoying how beautiful everything looks. It’s amazing, it seems really hard to create an ugly city.

    • MadMatty says:

      Yeah, looping music will always get irritating. You usually listen to a music album once or twice in a row (1-2 hours) while you might be playing a game for 5 hours…. almost every game gets this wrong. Id suggest the simple practice of applying like 20 mins of silence between tracks, and/or maybe only play some of the tracks at special events ingame.

  8. MadMatty says:

    I din´t have any problems with the interface at all…. after around 2 hours i found all the info i wanted within seconds (like 2). Its a lot like the old game, and while i had an interesting time, one big 5 hour game was enough for me. Havent played it since, but then again, i got a lot of good games lying around right now. I´d say its pretty good, and yes, a lot like the Anno series.

    • MadMatty says:

      I played an Island ruler, which was based on Paris Hilton (TV personality) with a gambling addiction… Turned out well, even though some money meant for development (but not catastrophic amounts) went to the Casino ;)

  9. Smurfy says:

    It’s not out in the UK yet, comes out on the 13 and I can’t wait.

  10. Serenegoose says:

    Garg: I'm hugely colour blind too. I have tons of problems where developers think "I know, red and green is the perfect way to distinguish between these two zones!" and I can't tell them apart. It was really tough for me in the demo, which is hugely farm based, to know where I should be planting farms for exactly that reason, just as it's also tough for me in Empire to know where my troops/cannons can fire to, because their firing range is marked in red, and obviously, the grass they march on is green. There's tons of examples of this, too. Sometimes I'll even have to play as blu in TF2 because I prefer the sniper and there's some maps where I can't see my own scope-dot because of the background, if I'm red. Developers seem gloriously unaware of this.

    • Psyk says:

      Not colour blind but surely there is a difference between what you see as red and green? can’t you just trial and error or get someone to show you whats green and whats red not the best solution and the devs should think of colour blind ppl while making the game.

    • MWoody says:

      If he could tell the difference between what he perceives as red and green, he wouldn’t be colorblind. Yeesh.

    • Garg says:

      There’s sometimes a bit of a difference in what you see, but it’s more like a different shade of a colour. It’s perhaps like trying to make out something that’s camouflaged, so just asking someone to point out which one’s red and which is green doesn’t really work.

      In Empire I find I have to find the edge of the firing arc cone near the cannons, where it’s more obvious, and then trace it out so I can clearly see it. Red/green target reticules are the worst though. Valve have added colour blindness toggles to their games, so more reason to love them. Odd more devs don’t though, as something like 5-10% of men have some variation of colour blindness.

    • jonfitt says:

      As I understand it, with one common form of colour blindness, essentially the amount of redness and greeness a colour has are indistinguishable. So RGB 128,0,0 and RGB 0,128,0 would look the same.
      So I guess if the green and red chosen for something were different like 128,0,0 and 0,255,0, then it would be like you trying to tell 255,0,0 from 128,0,0. It’s do-able, but not exactly what you want when pressed for time.

    • Ivan-Assen Ivanov says:

      Serengoose, please drop me a line at ivanassen blah blah blah gmail blah blah, I’d like you to test a micro-patch replacing those red/green gradients with grayscale ones – you were not the only colorblind person who complained. It’ll work on the demo, too.

  11. Vinraith says:

    “The sandbox also offers a series of islands, each with its own natural resources and topological challenges ”

    Wait a tick, are you telling me there’s no random island generator? That was one of Tropico 1’s greatest features, it would custom build you an island to your specifications, surely they’ve not done away with it?

    • MWoody says:

      There is a random island generator. For some reason, the way they present it made me (and other people I know) think it was just picking from the premade list. But it does, as far as I know, generate random islands.

      But again, give campaign a shot before you go sandbox, as the game quickly grows boring with no specific challenges. There’s no reason to even ever use half the buildings in the game when you don’t have some overarching challenge like the constant threat of revolution or imminent starvation. I find that being able to custom-design my El Presidente for every mission, combined with the missions still always starting you on a near-empty island, really alleviate the feeling of linearity that clouds most city-builder or RTS campaigns.

      I wish I could save my El Presidentes, though. That’s a pretty major flaw, made worse by how relatively easy it would have been to implement.

  12. Latro says:

    I’ve been trying the demo and found it very fun.

    But reading quotes from Pinochet or Guevara kinda of irked my “born in Latin America” sensibilities. The Pinochet ones are … awful.

    Still, I think I will buy it, I miss a nice game of management and this one looks like tons of fun.

  13. iQue says:

    I played the demo for like 15 hours alone so I’m afraid this game will suck me in and never let me out once the full thing releases on steam.

  14. Serenegoose says:

    Psyk: To illustrate how colourblindness works, I used to play medieval total war (the first one) in which, the Turkish flag is an orange crescent moon on a green background. It took me a year to realise that the flag wasn't just a flat green flag, as I could not see the crescent moon at all. So no, I can't get someone to show me the difference, because to me there -is- no difference.

    • Lukasz says:

      don’t be mad at him. he just did not how colorblindness works.

  15. Carra says:

    The statistics are indeed messed up. You can find someones companion (male or female) but it’s impossible to find out how much farms you need to build. I ranted a bit more about the statistics in a blog post.

    I still find it to be a fun game but quite repetitive. Not something to play for hours on end but just start up the game and spend a few hours playing a mission. Repeat a week later.

    • Christian says:

      The thing with the farms is easy:

      If your people are starving, build another farm ;)

      (Seriously: if the output-store of your farm(s) is always empty (and if the happiness regarding food is low , build a new one. Which also has the benefit that the overproduction can be sold. This game seems to be too simple for you I guess *g*).

  16. Serenegoose says:

    mad? That was a succinct explanation as to what colourblindness was. I had no intent to convey anger, I just seen no reason to be wordy. It takes a lot more than not understanding what colourblindness involves to make me angry. Usually it involves 20 minutes of *holds book* "what colour is this?" *holds kettle* "what colour is this?" *touches sofa* "what colour is this?"

    Now that gets maddening. :P

    As to the game, and on topic, I am more convinced than ever that Tropico 3 is something I want to pick out when it comes to the £15 price range.

  17. uipop says:

    Lak, there was no tone of anger in his post. I don’t know where you got that idea from.

  18. Antlia says:

    @Serenegoose

    You can set a custom crosshair for TF2 in the game options. It changes all crosshairs in game and also shows up in snipers scope. Really helps even if you’re not color blind.

  19. Ayekay says:

    >3D remake of the original game

    I stopped reading there and bought it.

    Well I didn’t, because it’s Rossignol so I automatically read to the end. But you see my point.

  20. Jakkar says:

    The game gives me an odd feeling of intellectual maturity in the concept. I play it with a constant small smile, torn between the depiction of unhappy shanty-town life and developing prosperity, tempted constantly by the urge to lock up 90 year-old political dissenters until they die.. Amused by the fact my survival depends more upon selling bananas than appeasing the Soviet Union because I’m simply too small for them to care about.

    The whole game succeeds in continually feeling lightly amusing and unceasingly cynical. There’s a subtlety there that makes every moment of it just.. Slightly, twistedly funny.

    As for gameplay; if you can enjoy a slow, smooth, very pretty minimal-management game, you’ll like this. Think of it like a joke-version of Caesar 3 where you can’t -afford- to build 500 shacks at once just to boost your number of workers, and the island’s too small anyway. Everything is prideful and tongue-in-cheek and embarassingly small scale. Life in denial that you inhabit a rock 500×300 metres and sell bananas to survive, and remember; You are El Presidente.

  21. Golden_worm says:

    he’s colourblind blind.

    • Golden_worm says:

      reply fail. that should have been a witty addition to Lukasz reply to Serenegoose. I look a right plum now, thanks reply button.