I’ve talked a lot about the Tropico series of city builders and usually dismissed Tropico 2: Pirate Cove with a wave of my hand as if it doesn’t really exist. Developed by Frog City, the makers of the Imperialism games, it has some real talent behind it and you can sort of see the direction the devs were pushing it. But it never real takes flight or becomes convincing as a pirate city game, in my opinion.
Now I’ve been taken to task for ignoring or dismissing Tropico 2, so I reinstalled it this weekend because my brain was totally unable to deal with anything much more complicated or original. It took me a while to find my bearings, but it was sort of neat to go back and see why I didn’t like it very much when it came out in 2003.
It’s weird going back in time from the current light and colour drenched Tropicos to one from almost a decade ago. Tropico 2 is definitely not a vibrant rainbow world unless you zoom in on structures. Browns and topes and greys blend together on a very bland green carpet of grass. As annoying as Penultimo the obsequious radio shill is, he is better than the repetitive snarling pirate reminding me that my pirates need more wenches.
Here’s the concept/conceit. It’s the Golden Age of Piracy, and you are managing a Pirate Haven. You build the entertainment, the housing, the ships and the industry. You recruit pirates and send them out on missions for or against the nations that have settled the Caribbean. The short campaign teaches you the basics rather quickly and then sharply increases in difficulty, but a lot of this difficulty is based on how closely Tropico 2 hews to the traditional model of the try-and-fail-and-try-again model of city builder campaign design of its era. If you don’t do the right things in the right order or expand too quickly, you will go broke.
Going broke is easy, because there are so many fewer sources of income for you. You are a pirate, so you won’t be setting up a tourist industry or selling a ton of goods on the open market to the superpowers. Almost all of your money will come from what pirates can seize on the high seas (and you only get a cut, and they often come back with nothing), ransom from wealthy captives and whatever pirates spend in your casinos, bars and brothels. Of course, if they aren’t successful raiders, they don’t have money to spend. Oh, and you pay wages to staff these places, too. Plus the docks and farms and factories. Tropico 2 is not a game that shows its money making tricks easily, and is therefore pretty frustrating to relearn.
Tropico 2‘s theme never really works for me, which is probably the biggest problem. It is indeed a glorious thing to be a Pirate King, but Pirate Kings don’t sit at home and make sure that the blacksmith has a hauler so that cutlasses get made. The economy is never that different from island to island, scenario to scenario, so in effect you are just sitting around waiting for your pirate captains to score lucky hauls as they have all the fun and you decide whether to send them off to kidnap a priest or a gunsmith next, so you can build a more advanced structure.
It did make me appreciate how damned easy Tropico 4 is though. That is a game that I just breezed through for the most part. Scenarios may have taken me longer than they should have, there were a couple of failures, but for the most part I knew where I was going wrong soon enough to fix my problems before they became acute. Tropico 2 sucks for clarity of information (you need to dig into the ledger – how retro!) and once you screw up the path, there aren’t many ways to right yourself unless it is a sandbox map and your pirates score a big haul. But the missions are so short that you can’t really build a satisfying pirate capital by going really cautious; all of the Tropico games have encouraged that one big splurge of spending on the hope that the ship will come in with enough to pay for the recent expanion.
The repetitiveness makes it a below average city-builder. The randomness makes success frustrating difficult to plan for. The diplomacy is a nice touch, however, with much more elaborate options than what you would find in any of the dictator Tropico games – though the great powers are similarly unlikely to really bother you much unless you really screw things up. The theme makes it such an outlier in the series and the theme isn’t really want we think of when we think about pirates. I mean, when we play Stronghold we still see the knights fighting and participate in sieges. When we play Caesar we build aqueducts and recruit legions. Playing a game about pirates where you don’t really do much piracy when that is the entire “romance” of the idea is misbegotten. Tropico 2 would have to lift the Pirate Haven concept beyond stereotype and make the risk of discovery or pirate management truly intriguing in order for the concept to have any life.
Instead we have a game that is dreary trial and error city building with a bleak palette. Appropriate to my weekend, in any case, but not a game I will finish.