Remember the two competing camps of city-builders, back from the Cities XL review? No? Well, I have a few minutes so you can go back and review.
Back already? Oh good. As I was saying, Tropico 3 is primarily in the Caesar camp – the most important thing is how far your little people have to walk. This makes a lot of sense, as your city is actually Florida an unspecified banana republic somewhere in the Caribbean.
As the beloved leader of your very own island nation you will be presented with many challenges. Some are standard for the genre such as balancing a budget or winning an election. Many are specific to running a banana republic as envisioned in a B movie such as putting down rebels, attracting tourists and exploiting natural resources.
The game itself plays out as a series of scenarios. Each scenario has a primary goal to accomplish and several pitfalls to avoid. For example, a scenario might require you to lure 500 tourists to the island over a span of 20 years while simultaneously avoiding bankruptcy and assassination. Each scenario is scored on several factors and you can submit scores to a central server. This leads to a sort of “high score” competition along the lines of more arcade-style games.
Before you actually run the island you get to choose your characteristics. Male or female? Intellectual or moron? Army leader or pacifist? Each choice can provide benefits or handicaps based on the scenario. A playable set of historical leaders is provided for your amusement.
Then you can begin ruling your country. Tropico 3 has a nice set of overlays to help you determine the strengths and weaknesses of your island. Taking a few minutes to determine the mineral deposits (e.g. iron, gold or bauxite) and the climate (for growing crops like sugar, bananas or corn) can start you on your way to a basic economy.
You'll start out with some housing, but you'll want more to house the workers for that new gold mine you're building. Of course, if the housing is too far away the workers will not work at the mine, but if the housing is too close no one will want to live there (as the quality of life is low due to it being next to a working mine and all).
The solution is to build a parking garage near the housing and another near the mine. Then, every morning, your workers will get up, walk to the nearby garage, turn into a car, drive to work, and get going. Of course this happens in reverse at the end of the day. Watching the little people go about their business is one of the best parts of the game. They have thoughts and hopes and dreams that you can see by clicking on them. You'll want to do that from time to time to see how you're doing.
So that's great – you have a mine and some apartments and it's all good. Except that all cost money and you're broke. Dang! Turns out most things in Tropico 3 are mined/grown/created for export and the trading ship only comes in from time to time. There is a balancing act to be done between expanding too fast (and spending the money required to do so) and waiting for the ship to come by and getting income.
Of course it is not that simple. Your citizens also want services. Things like health clinics and high schools cost money. And these are not the sort of people to take being unhappy lying down.
Every citizen has political opinions. They each belong to one or major factions (e.g. militarists, industrialists, ecologists, religious and so on) and the things you do can make them like you or hate you. This is one the best parts. Tropico 3 is one of the best games in terms of simulating the way domestic politics actually works. Running a nation is not like playing Civilization, where everybody just does what you say. These factions have identifiable interests and can take (some) action to make you see things their way. Of course they may (and often do) oppose each other, and you can't make everybody happy all the time, but that is part of the game.
So what happens if you fail and enough of them hate you? If an election is coming up they vote you out of office (and you lose the scenario). Otherwise they take to the jungles and become rebels. Not only do rebels not do any work, they will actively attempt to destroy buildings and try to kill you. Yes, you, the beloved El Presidente!
You can build regular police and secret police and an army to oppose the rebels but these all cost money. So you will need to augment your revenue stream. The simplest way is to start manufacturing finished goods. Build a distillery to turn your sugar cane into rum, or a lumberyard to turn your logs into lumber. Of course the environmentalists will hate you but you need the money, right? The tech tree is shallow, but there's not much that can be done with an island in any case.
The other major revenue stream is tourists. If you have some beaches you can lure tourists in to visit. Tourists can really help the economy, but it takes a lot of infrastructure and it will take a while to get things going before seeing a return on that investment.
To really get the money in you will need to build an electric plant. Pretty much everybody hates the electric plant. It's noisy and polluting and hurts both native and tourist happiness. But good luck building a luxury hotel or major factory without one.
Tropico 3 is like that a lot. Every decision you make (what building to build, what immigration policy to put in place, how much education to offer) has benefits and drawbacks. You will spend a lot of time thinking “Is it worth upsetting the nationalists in order to import some foreigners who can help me expand faster?” or “Is it worth making the intellectuals unhappy by squashing the newspaper so that I can keep unrest down?” and the like. The decision itself is clear, the groups affected are clear, and you generally have a pretty good idea of when you can politically afford to do something or not.
The major drawback lies on the economic side. City builders tend to be micromanagers, or at least very interested in the statistics of how the economy is functioning. A few numbers are available to tell you how much some thing has been exported but some important numbers are missing. For example, how many sugar plantations does it take to keep a rum factory fully stocked? How long is the average commute for workers in this factory? What percentage of college-level jobs are filled? Did the last farm I placed clobber the old farm's fields? A lot of information that would help guide planning is not provided.
To some extent the graphics make up for this. They are clear and informative, often providing a visual representation of important game information. It's not enough. You will get tired of the music, too.
Another problem lies in the difficulty setting. It cannot be adjusted. Some players will find it too easy, some too hard, but there is no way to change it. This was a strange omission.
In summary, this is a good city-builder which doesn't sacrifice much depth while providing a bunch of fun. Bursting with too many good ideas to list, plant your tongue firmly in cheek and sail on down.