I’m brownbear. Today I’ll be doing an in-depth review of Tropico 6. I’ve been playing the Tropico series for the better part of the last decade and I thought it would be cool to give the 6th iteration a proper look. Note that this review focuses on the single-player content, particularly the campaign missions.
Here’s our agenda for today: I’ll start by talking about the core economic design and some interesting things 6 has brought to the table here. I’ll then talk a bit about mission design before doing a comparison with one of Tropico’s contemporaries. After that I’ll talk about some of the scaling issues I ran into as well some suggestions for the future of the franchise.
Alrighty, with that out of the way, let’s get started. I hope you enjoy!
Introduction and Core Economic Management
Tropico 6 was developed by Limbic Entertainment and released in 2019 for the PC platform. Tropico is an economic and political management simulator in which players take on the role of El Presidente and complete missions on individual Caribbean islands.
Each mission centers itself around a core theme, like disasters, housing, or tourism. Objectives often depend on the completion of specific structures or the achievement of certain levels of economic success. In order to fulfill these objectives, players spend most of their time building out resource, industrial, and logistical structures to establish a reliable source of income. They also regularly need to meet the needs of various factions and keep citizen approval high enough to consistently win elections.
The way I model the economy in my head is to categorize aspects of the game as either profit or cost centers. Entertainment, public services, and many government buildings are critical to building out a sustainable island, but they pull down a player’s income through upkeep and labor costs. In order to fund these constraints, players need to build out a large economy: this in turn is not free, and creates a need for additional cost structures like fire stations and bus stops.
This is actually similar to the capacity and constraints framework I used to analyze They Are Billions. In general I’ve started to believe that this is a more compelling economic model than the simple resource gathering present in many strategy games, particularly competitive RTS. It’s also much harder to execute, and we’ll discuss some of Tropico’s scaling and balance issues later on in this video.
The great thing about this model is the way it aligns with Tropico’s layered economic management. Players first establish basic resources like wood or cloth: these can be exported directly, or they can be transferred to an industrial structure for further processing into planks or textiles. These industrial outputs can be further transformed into finished goods like furniture, boats, or apparel. Each stage in this pipeline adds considerable value to the final product: but it also requires more labor, more logistics, and more upkeep.
The interaction between cost and profit centers on top of the overall layered economic approach allows Tropico to achieve a strong level of integration. When you play Tropico, you feel like you’re managing a single economic entity. 6’s inclusion of bridges and archipelagos slot into this quite nicely. While it’s billed as managing separate islands, the logistical and infrastructure links between sections keep the game feeling integrated.
6 arguably improves upon this model by tightening up the economic balance and making it harder to buy your way out of citizen unhappiness. Winning elections is no longer about spamming churches and clinics and declaring give-away edicts: instead it’s now at least partially dependent on more complex factors like smart building placement and overall economic organization. Good examples here include ensuring that residential districts have newspapers and setting up adequate transportation to and from citizen workplaces. These requirements in turn lower the player’s overall profit margins and push them to build out a more efficient economy.
I was initially quite surprised by this: Tropico has historically come across to me as a bit more relaxed than other management simulators. The tightened up balance definitely forced me to better understand some of the game fundamentals: a good example here is efficient use of multi-culture farms. I think another important factor is that the Hard difficulty has been beefed up compared to previous iterations of the game. I did play one scenario on Normal and found it to be substantially easier: I still couldn’t do whatever I wanted, but I definitely had a lot more flexibility.
I think the tighter balance of 6 helps Tropico’s integrated economy shine a bit more than it otherwise would. A good comparison here is Rollercoaster Tycoon – for me this was the game I thought of when I played Tropico for the first time a decade ago. In RCT, there’s no inherent connection from ride-to-ride nor any strong in-game incentives to segment a park in the way that a normal theme park might be laid out. As a result, each section of your theme parks feels like an individual money-making silo. Contrast this with Tropico, whose layered and integrated economy feels connected and unified.
Overall, the economic gameplay is pretty satisfying: I have a number of issues with it that we’ll discuss later, but I think it’s fundamentally the reason I put more than 30 hours into this game. The designers have done a good job making economic development a good gameplay experience, in large part by polishing the mechanics brought over from previous iterations in the franchise.
Next up on the agenda is mission design. I found the missions to be pretty disappointing overall, for a number of different reasons.
My first issue relates to the interaction between mission objectives and core economic development. Too often, mission objectives depend heavily on cost-center structures and call for the player to construct buildings that they wouldn’t otherwise normally build. In many cases, like Ballgame and Concrete Beachhead, this means it’s essential to first ignore the objectives because otherwise they’ll lead you into economic ruin. Superpower Defence is one of the worst offenders, requiring an extraordinarily large economy and ending with a random late-game requirement to ship thousands of cars. In all these cases, the correct approach is to build out the economy of your choosing and then later burn through the objectives at a rapid clip.
Look, it’s great that missions explore a wide breadth of gameplay, and I don’t think missions need to align perfectly with economic development. But from my perspective, there should be way more overlap than there is today. This is particularly important in 6 because of the tightened up economic balance. The situation as-is feels like the designers thought the mission design and gameplay design could simply be layered on top of each other without thinking through how they integrated.
A second issue with mission objectives is the way they don’t connect with each other in a logical way. Shackland is a good example: the initial population goal makes sense, but it then transitions into a completely unrelated goal of professionalizing the military and completing a sabotage raid. The connection between the two is tenuous, evidenced by how both of these objectives are dropped completely for yet another population goal, at which point the mission ends.
Tropico’s mission objectives have always been quirky and funny; its writing was and continues to be its greatest strength. But quirky is different from disorganized. 6 feels to me like missions were written by multiple people in parallel, and then stitched together at the last minute to create sufficiently lengthy scenarios. I think this explains why the individual writing segments retain the franchise’s classic charm, but they don’t always fit together in an interesting or logical way.
Tropico as a Management Simulator
Next I’d like to talk a bit about how Tropico functions as a management simulator in 2019. For me, I’ve been playing various types of management sims since Caesar and Cleopatra. There’s always a delicate balance between the range of features offered to the player and the level of complexity in the management interface. When I first played Tropico, I was impressed with how it solved both problems: an order-of-magnitude jump in sophistication backed by a user interface that was accessible even on the Xbox 360.
Playing through Tropico 6, I can’t help but have the same feeling, but kind of in-reverse. I feel like the developers haven’t done a good job staying up-to-date with innovations in the genre over the past decade. To help illustrate this, I’d like to compare Tropico with one of its contemporaries, Cities Skylines. That game was released more than four years ago, but its interface is significantly more advanced than Tropico’s.
Let’s start with the overlays. Tropico’s are nice but limited: for example, overlays relating to citizen approval are frequently unhelpful and rarely help pinpoint the real problems in your city. Useful information like traffic flow, commuting patterns, and so forth are missing entirely.
Contrast this with Skylines – note the detail and utility in the interface. This is complemented by pop-ups on the map to highlight efficiency problems.
Next let’s look at research and edicts. Tropico organizes them by era – this is unintuitive and makes it difficult to find what you want. Skylines provides a much cleaner list interface; furthermore, a lot of quote-unquote “upgrades” are handled directly via budgeting, making it easy to manage everything in one place.
Budgeting in general is actually worth discussing further. While Tropico enables budgeting on a building-by-building basis, it’s not particularly useful or transparent: everything boils down to a single efficiency number. By contrast, Skylines offers fine-grained control of each sector of your economy: after you make adjustments, you can actually examine individual buildings to see the concrete effects. Furthermore there’s always tons of available metrics to measure how you’re doing – Tropico, by contrast, doesn’t even include the most basic of data like teamster’s efficiency or median time to commute.
After all that, there’s also a huge slew of features that Tropico is simply missing entirely: mechanisms to escape death spirals, non-electrical infrastructure like sewage and water, complex public transportation, cargo systems, and so on and so on.
Tropico is more than just a management simulator, so it should come as no surprise that it compares unfavorably to one of the best-in-class experiences in this genre. But it shouldn’t compare this unfavorably. It’s hard to go back to Tropico once you’ve experienced the depth and sophistication that’s available in other games. To be clear, the concern here is not around efficiency; actually, the sophistication in Skylines’s interface frees me from worrying about the functionality of my city and allows me to focus on more interesting things like design, layout, districting, and so forth. In Tropico I often feel like I’m flying blind; I’m so focused on function that I never get a chance to look at form.
Another way of saying this is that Tropico 6 just feels dated. It’s not a bad game by any means, but it’s hard to play when you’ve experienced what else is out there. And that’s before considering just how buggy it is: bus stops completely bugging out causing my economy to grind to a halt, teamsters prioritizing incorrectly and leading the island into a death spiral, freighters refusing to dock at ports, and army units completely failing to engage rebels are just a sampling of the issues I ran into.
Next up I’d like to talk a bit about Tropico’s user interface. 6 definitely moves the needle forward here, providing a cleaner and more polished interface all around. Spacing around the bottom of the screen is better, the events stream provides a lot of detail, and the new tabbed windows feel really efficient to use. I’m also a big fan of the way screen real estate is leveraged here, splitting the information from the bottom-left command card into multiple different UI elements. The only change I dislike is the removal of the mini-map, though I can understand why they did this. I wonder if the designers can squeeze it back into the bottom-right.
A look back at Tropico 5 really helps illustrate the difference: this is of course subjective, but from my perspective 6’s interface is an order of magnitude better than its predecessor.
That all being said, I did experience one problem with 6’s interface: while it brings a lot of polish to the table, it doesn’t change any of the fundamental interface paradigms. In other words, while it’s a beautiful re-skin, it’s functionally very similar to what came before. This creates another problem: Tropico’s game engine just hasn’t scaled to support the number of features the franchise now supports.
The objective interface is a great example. Tropico’s strength has always been its writing: the game periodically interrupts the player with cleverly written quests that the player can accept or reject. This was well-balanced in earlier iterations when there were only a handful of prompts like mission objectives and faction demands. But over the years the designers kept adding on sources for objectives without re-evaluating the stop-and-read interface: broker prompts, superpower prompts, optional quests, trade route completion notifications, and so on and so on. All they’ve done to accommodate this is made it so you can disable the automatic pop-up behavior, at best a band-aid on the issue that doesn’t actually make demands go away. The result is hundreds upon hundreds of random and disconnected interruptions in any given scenario. It’s overwhelming, and it’s just not possible to focus on the depth and humor in any individual task.
The construction system is another good example. 6’s inclusion of bridges was a good addition in principle, but in practice they’re quite difficult to place efficiently. Tunnels are even worse, sometimes taking more than a minute just to get anything functional laid down. It’s also quite common for a road extension to break connections with already-connected buildings; why the engine allows this is beyond me. Roads themselves also cannot be extended by a single cell, forcing you to frequently destroy and reconstruct roads from scratch.
None of these issues mattered all that much in previous iterations of the franchise because there was simply a lot less stuff going on. Compare for example the complexity of my island at the completion of Mission 1 between Tropico 5 and 6 – in the latter I have more than double the population of the previous game. The interface just doesn’t feel designed for this increase in size and scope.
The scalability issues in 6 lead it to feel unpolished. Quantity of features needs to be balanced with quality and depth, and in some cases I think the developers over-prioritized the former at the expense of the latter.
Future of the Franchise
I’ve been pretty critical thus far, so I figure I should offer some suggestions with respect to where the franchise should go from here. These are just my two cents.
First, the developers need to establish focus. Cut the extraneous features that don’t add much and concentrate instead on adding more depth to the core game mechanics. One idea here is a re-design around how education, beauty, pollution, fire, and crime work: as it stands they’re quite one-dimensional. Another idea is better incentives around island layout, particularly the creation of districts: not only does this make management more logical, it opens up the potential for a huge amount of depth in logistics, infrastructure, and transportation. This would also enable the variety of structures to scale better: as it stands, islands grow so large that it can be hard to find any particular building without a good deal of searching.
Next, I would re-evaluate the interface paradigms with a laser-focus on efficiency. Get out of the player’s way so that they can better appreciate the franchise’s excellent writing (and fantastic artwork, I might add). One idea I had here was to convert smaller objectives like faction and superpower demands into a mini-stream on the right-hand side, with small checkbox and X buttons to allow players to quickly accept and reject requests.
Finally, I would consolidate the objectives and make them more meaningful. There’s just too much to do in any given mission, leading each individual task to feel unimportant. I would also do a better job connecting individual objectives in a logical way; further, I would structure the first few missions such that they teach the player about the game’s economic subtleties, and try to better align mission goals with healthy economic development.
Tropico is a fantastic franchise, but in my eyes it’s in need of a reboot. I can only speak for myself that I got into these games in part because of the innovations they brought to the table: an integrated, layered economy, funny and interesting plot lines, and the polished balance between cost and profit centers. I would encourage the developers to remember these roots, and try to apply their lessons to the next iteration in the franchise.
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