Saved By Tropico


I was at home when the United States started bombing Afghanistan, so I started up my news center and started observing. During the election fiasco I became fairly good at monitoring two separate news streams at the same time, and during the terrorist attacks I perfected the skill. After information started looping enough, I started focusing on other things. I still wanted to keep an ear to the ground, but I did not want to become so over-saturated that I burnt myself out the first day in. So I booted up the PC.

I was at home when the United States started bombing Afghanistan, so I started up my news center and started observing. During the election fiasco I became fairly good at monitoring two separate news streams at the same time, and during the terrorist attacks I perfected the skill. After information started looping enough, I started focusing on other things. I still wanted to keep an ear to the ground, but I did not want to become so over-saturated that I burnt myself out the first day in. So I booted up the PC.

Two days before I had gone out carpet shopping, and picked up a copy of Tropico in the process. Tropico, for those not in the know, falls into the venue of strategy games. In this one you play the ruler of a developing Caribbean nation. Its timeline is the Cold War, a decision that allows the game to partially revolve around developing world politics in that era and the careful dance of power faced by the potential pawns.

For this, Tropico stands out amongst its peers. Other nation-building strategy games are about achieving and maintaining dominance, balancing expansion, military might and scientific development so that control is yours. In Tropico you are always sucking hind teat. You have complete control of a small piece of land, until the rebels start showing up. You cannot conquer your neighbors; you cannot build up an army for much of anything else other than oppressing your own people (an attack by one of the superpowers is unlikely, but with a corresponding unlikelihood of you surviving it). Your nation, at best, will be a tourist destination or banana republic. You are limited.

In fact the game has many limits, which makes the game more challenging but also considerably different than most other games of the ilk. The presence of a tight time constraint (you get to rule for about as long as an actual human would, a couple decades at best) and specific game goals are signs of these limits. Tropico takes the wacky ironic tone of a game like The Sims and marries it to a more typical expand-and-conquer game. It is a spectacular game for brief periods of occasional play because of such crafty limits and sumptuous environments.

A game like Civilization is repayable because the situation is always drastically different, but your response to winning is mostly the same. Tropico is the reverse. In such a small scale, there are many different styles of play possible. Tourism vs. industry, communists vs. capitalists, democracy vs. despotism or any mix thereof, and each leads to victory of a sort. In one of my first of many games that day, I was playing a pro-U.S.S.R. game. I was working on turning my island into a little Communistic paradise, with cheap housing for all. I pretty solidly sided with the Communists, and was having a grand old time dropping heavy industry all over when I started to hear complaints from the U.S.. I was not taking them into account at all. Soon enough, I received a message that the U.S. was not pleased with me, and was sending a gunship as a friendly reminder. Soon enough there it was, patrolling my coastline.

My reaction was immediate. Who do these bastards think they are? What gives them the right to have any sort of influence over my policy, or to think that they could achieve their policy goals by some Admiral Perry bullshit?

Ah, clarity.

It set in with a pleasing feel. I had to stop and laugh for a second. Of course the analogy does not hold in the least. The situation with the Taliban could not be more different. There is at least a damn good argument as to why a military attack on Afghanistan is justifiable, if not an uncontestable one. All the same there is a connection. I am nobody, I am just a humble dictator enforcing my way of life, and you guys come down and thinking that you can just kick ass into getting your lifestyle impressed upon everybody.

I must admit that playing Tropico that day did a lot to maintain my overall state of optimism and sanity. People like to argue about just what role fantasy should serve in real life. Is fantasy about escapism, getting to ignore just how bad that your life really is? If so, it might seem to be a bad thing because in getting away from what is actually happening, people are led to ignore the real world. On the other hand, that escape might preserve life when it provides some sort of mechanism of getting away, of not facing problems on a daily basis. For me, fantasy has always had a different role. It is the means of getting outside.

We are, necessarily, who we are. Your history is yours and mine is mine. People change, but they can only change in the ways that they people apply themselves to. There is only so much time in the world to learn Chinese or become a track star or write the great American novel, and not everyone can do all of them. But in fantasy absolutely anything can be experienced. I can be this sort of person, but try on being another. Maybe, if I really like that other person, I might strive to be like them, but there is nothing mandating that change. I get to experience what it is like.

Now, there are certainly many ways to experience how the other side lives, mere thought experiments being first and foremost amongst them, but fantasy is the most pleasurable of the lot. Fantasy makes it so that we can try on different selves, and feel our souls in new clothes and fresh minds. For some other people the escape might be important, but not for me. For me, perspective is that critical thing.

Perspective gathering is just self-conscious escapism, third person escapism. Perspective is getting away from whom you are, but remembering to look back. Whether it is more or less liberating is a matter of debate. Certainly raw escapism allows for a sort of ecstasy in an entomologically pure sense, of really getting out of body and forgetting everything, but that forgetfulness comes at a price. You cannot know what sorts of forgetfulness will be the most potent if you just go all out. It is a choice of raw power versus strategically applied force.

So, for someone in my camp, playing Ter the Orc Slayer is not about the release of being a demi-god of battle and warfare. It is not about being able to ride a horse without worrying about dying from an allergic reaction. It is not about being able to capably use a long sword. It is about getting into the mind of someone who could do all those things. It is the fun of thinking about what life would be like if my enemies were as plain as the faces they wore, and I could walk into their encampments and see fear in their eyes as I slew them all because I knew my actions were in the unquestionable right. Real life is not covenant like that, but it is useful feeling to remember. It puts my own feelings of confusion into perspective, and provides me with the ideological practice of facing down darkness and evil.

Fantasy gives perspective. Perspective is sometimes just what we need. Without perspective, we might forget just who we actually are.

Hiya JS

Who makes Tropico?

I'm in mostly total agreement with you. Gaming means escapism for me as much as a learning tool, it's like a big psychology lab where you get to try out certain attitudes and behaviours (What if I ...) although the lab results usually don't transfer well to the real world, it's nice to ask what if.

By the way tell the 3E and 2E fanatics down in "The Demise Of Dungeons and Dragons" some of em really need a good dose of perspective... sheesh.

PS speaking of perspective: remember when the Talibans were the "not so bad guys" because they fought the USSR? Hey Rambo joined them once!
Or when Sadam Hussein was a good guy because he fought Iran (who was backed by the USSR)? Now it seems Iran is nicer than Irak.
The game you mention seems to dwell a bit on that. Look at how quickly the US and other western powers are quick to turn on an allied country and vilify it once its purpose is served or when it decides to stop playing the puppet.

You've all played an adventure where some guild , corporation or noble tricks the heroes into getting rid of an agent gone rogue (Shadowrun and Cyberpunk are full of those). Actually it often happens to the PCs in those games.

I'm not suggesting that the Taliban are being framed or anything, only that westerners (and humans in general) are quick to forget their allies or collaborators in times of crisis. Public opinion and support are a fickle things.

Cthulhu Matata

Tropico is created by PopTop software and distributed by GodGames. Both are trademarks of Gathering of Developers.

Thanks for fillin' in, Aeon.

I can't think of any other game out there that could be described as a jovial romp throught the Cold War other than Tropico. It's not what the game is about, but it would not make sense without that context.

That is my vote as to what they should add to any future expansion sets, of course. The island should have a varible of strategic importance, which could come and go, so at various points in the game both sides could be bearing down on you for a response. It might kill the big fish in a small pond aspect, but it would also make for an interesting risk.

Anyway, to risk delving into real politics, remember that there still are people today who prefer the Taliban...women even...not for any sort of idealogical or religious spin, but because the Taliban were the ones who came as the "law and order" party when the place was just feuding warlords.

Then again, that's what I love about Tropico. Be a petty warlord! Be a liberating humanist! Be a drunken lout! Unlike most other rulership games you can win with each style.


There's really no need to look for parallels in the current situation with the Taliban. There are far more direct comparisons to be made. The impact of U.S. foreign policy toward Haiti comes to mind, particularly during the Duvalier regime.

"The impact of U.S. foreign policy toward Haiti comes to mind, particularly during the Duvalier regime."

And yes, in the game you can play Papa Doc. The analogies can be picked up wherever there's dominio theory realpolitik that made and makes superpowers act dumb. There are direct comparisons all over the globe.

Still, I never heard of a booming tourist industry for Duvalier Hati, which is something you theoretically could do in this game: a police state/tourist trap.


I haven't had the chance to play Tropico yet, but a good friend of mine has regaled me with stories about his different games. Another game that is in the spirit is Junta from Steve Jackson if I remember correctly. Junta is a boardgame, but in the game you take the role of a faction seeking power in an anonymous bannana republic. The parallels aren't as direct as in Tropico, but the game still provides a fun romp for the evening.

Junta is such a hilarious blast. Everyone always got nervous of the guy picked to be the Head of Secret Police, and people actually buckled under the pressure during Pay Day.

Correction to a statement someone made above. I keep hearing this particular piece of revisionism, but:

The Taliban never fought the Soviets in Afghanistan. The Taliban never even existed before 1994, five years after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan.

The Taliban was created by the Pakistanis, who wanted to use them as puppets to take over Afghanistan, except it turned out that Dr. Frankenstein could not control his monster after all.


you are technically correct, but the point still stands. The Taliban contained many elements of the extremist Islamic organisarions that were created and funded by the American CIA to fight the soviets. The mistake the Yanks made, was not to help the Afghans reconstruct after the USSR was kicked out. In the absence of a stable govt, and with an alarming Afghan Refugee problem, the Pakistanis helped create the Taliban to stop the civil war there. An imaginative and constuctive solution. Unfortunately, these guys could not be controlled by the pakistanis. As a detatched observer, I blame the Yanks, rather than the Pakistanis. The Americans weree responsible for unleashing the forces of fundamentalism (under whatever name) and of not putting the genie back into the bottle.

Anyway, to get back to realpolitik gaming. The was a funny boardgame we used to play called 'kremlin' I think. Basically you got a load of cards each of which represented a differentsoviet leader, with base age and skills, and unlikely names such as Yuri Blastemov and Anna Getemov . The purpose was to get your guys promoted to the top jobs, and you got to win by taking the mayday salute three years in a row. Unfortunately, every political action a comrade took, aged them so many years. This could result in a apparatchik being sent to the sanatorium for a rest , in which case his office/job was liable to a coup, or eventually you could age your man to the poin where he died and then that card was buried reverentially in the kremlin wall.
Good fun, for the couple of hours you have to kill after a game of D&D.