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Tropico 6 preview: Building bridges to keep everybody happy — whether they like it or not

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No one wants to be a dictator — until they have to

Limbic Entertainment/Kalypso Media

After about 100 hours in Tropico 5, I learned that, as a dictator, I could be rich or I could be popular, but not both. That balance was really only useful in the game's story-driven campaign wrapper. In the sandbox mode, where I spent most of my time, popular acceptance didn’t require much work, outside of winning an election I had rigged anyway, and the only internal faction that could seriously threaten me was my own military. Tropico 5, the “dictator simulator” launched in 2014, didn't really force me to be one.

Tropico 6, coming next year, is going to change that, says Martin Tosta, a producer with publisher Kalypso Media. Yes, there was a trailer a month ago showing off flashy new features — bridges, monuments, the return of political speeches and some additional role playing elements, while directly referencing current political events (such as Brexit, or walls at the border).

But what grabbed my attention in our conversation about the new game is when Tosta admitted how easy it was to appease all of the factions in Tropico 5, whose historical eras gave the user no more than four to manage at a time. Tropico 6 will bring all of those interests together, Tosta said. With eight in the mix, at least one will be left out of the government.

They will be very unhappy.

"In Tropico 5 it was very easy to get every faction to be happy," Tosta said, "so not every choice you made really mattered that much. That's something the design team at Limbic (Entertainment) really tried to get into, this juggling act of different political factions and different political beliefs for your Tropicans. That's also very much based on player feedback."

It's not the sexiest detail to sell a new game, but this has me tenting my fingers and hissing "yesssss" for Tropico 6. If you’re running a banana republic, extralegal expedience — bribes, assassinations, vote-rigging — must be the cocaine of authoritarian rule: Something very wrong, something you shouldn't do, but something you try once and then return to with increasing necessity. In Tropico 5, I had a simple vision for my island — a cheesy, Cold War tourist trap featuring women in block-print sundresses and men with wide ties and the whole nation exporting rum and cigars. For the most part, the locals went along with that idea because there were so few competing ideologies. Except for a purge of disloyal military officers — not a game option, something I effected line-by-line in a menu to stave off a coup d’etat— there was never any real need to deal dirt.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the role of faction leaders in Tropico 6. Each faction will be represented by a single spokesperson communicating with the player, similar to Tropico 5. However, these spokespersons will be unique to each faction, unlike Tropico 5, where one character could represent different factions across eras. For gameplay purposes, the leader of a faction will still be drawn from the general population, and may be interacted with the same as any other Tropican.

Raids will let players steal from among 17 nations’ renowned landmarks
Limbic Entertainment/Kalypso Media

The Tropico series, at bottom, is a city-builder, and there are a lot of other games in that genre, where one overcomes economic forces to construct a utopia. Tropico distinguishes itself by providing a political opposition to that vision — and the unilateral means of crushing it. That is where you pay the freight. Tropico 5 didn't do a good enough job of making that a real choice.

In Tropico 6, under new management with Limbic Entertainment (replacing Haemimont Games) "You really have to work for it," Tosta said. "Maybe you have to release an edict, and silence one of those parties. There are lots of under-the-hood changes that we have tried to incorporate."

Dictators don't act against their people alone, of course. Tropico 5 featured enormous interactions with the world at large, but it was mostly in repelling or reducing the threat of invasion from some other global power. It introduced historical eras of play, and at the end one could develop a nuclear program for peaceful or belligerent purposes. Tropico 6, according to Tosta, will have a raid system available to El Presidente, who can order operations on foreign soil that do more than keep the U.S. or U.S.S.R. off his back as you work the nation up to the point of superpower, or containment threat.

"In World Wars (one of the eras returning to Tropico 6) you will have commandos and with that you can, for example, intimidate neighboring countries, bringing down the overall happiness level of the Caribbean," Tosta explained, "so the guys on your island might say, 'Hey, maybe it's not so bad here after all.' There are hackers in the modern era and spies for the Cold War. This will offer a very different kind of interaction. Hackers can crash the stock market and bring up your trading prices, or maybe gather intelligence on superpowers, and maybe you can use that."

Bridges will allow players to manage a more diverse landscape in Tropico 6
Limbic Entertainment/Kalypso Media

The mention of hackers perked up my ears, as I live in a nation enduring its own comically incompetent dictatorial simulation, abetted by a foreign power’s information warfare. I asked Tosta, does Tropico 6 directly reference current events?

He demurred. "The Tropico series has always been satire of political events," Tosta said. "There's always a bit of inspiration when it comes to the topics we have, or the inspiration for a gag, or a funny side story. Right now we're living in times where there's a lot of stuff available for us to make satire of. It's not that we said, specifically, 'There was an intelligence scandal, and we need to build a gameplay mechanic around it.' It's rather that we have a gameplay mechanic, and gameplay is king in Tropico, and we have a way to give it some character."

Visually, Tropico 6 will get another big dose of character through the introduction of bridges, allowing users to span a system of islands rather than be confined to one. This is a long-requested feature, Tosta said, and it was shown front-and-center in the E3 2017 video announcing the new game. "We wanted to go for the archipelago concept because it offers quite a bit of variety, when it comes to the level design, making it more interesting in the way you find resources. But also, there's simply the visual appeal of it. Now you can zoom out and see not only your main island, but also these different islands, with different topographies."

This means, more or less, that would-be dictators won't have to manage a single biome. An arid, desert island, rich in mineral resources, can be part of a system that includes arable terrain. In Tropico 5, the starting island was generally one type or another — usually plantation space or subterranean resources — forcing the player into one management style.

"For me, the archipelagos are great, because they really offer, not just from the gameplay perspective, I have to get into more of the city planning,” Tosta said. “I have to manage my distances, and how do I want to use this island, and how do I want to use that island. From the visual side, it’s very busy, watching the ships drive across the ocean.”

Paradise, or authoritarian hellhole? Why not both?
Limbic Entertainment/Kalypso Games

Tropico 6, Tosta says, will cater to the would-be dictator's sense of grandiosity in other ways. Political speeches, a feature of Tropico 4 but absent in 5, will return as a means of influencing, calming (or infuriating) the public. The user may make promises to the people, or go full Orwell and say everything is fine when it is not. "You can choose from a huge list of options," Tosta said.

The dynastic family introduced in Tropico 5 is gone. The player’s expression will be through a single character who rules throughout. Users will get all kinds of new customization options for their dictator, and now they may alter the Tropico flag, reposition the presidential mansion, and even decorate it — for example, with a pool out front and a shark swimming in it. The constitution one writes for the nation, a feature introduced in Tropico 5, will have more options as well, including the recognition of same-sex marriage, with its effects filtering through the public's approval, happiness and the tourism economy.

No one has to be a bad guy. But the option still is there. "We want the player to be the dictator they want to be," Tosta said. "There are some limitations to that. We want to keep it in good taste. But for those who want to be on the evil side, there are new kinds of tools to express that."