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Published: Saturday, 7/6/2002

`Tropico' lets players run their own private island


Ever wonder what it's like to run your own Caribbean island? When was the last time people groveled at your feet and called you “Your Excellency,” then grumbled about you as soon as you turned your back?

Should you raise the rent for tenements? Which would be a better investment, a cigar factory or a rum distillery? What kind of farm will you plant next: banana, tobacco, or corn? Do you want to construct a cheap hotel to lure low-class tourists as soon as possible, or invest more bucks in a luxury hotel hoping to bring in the high rollers?

Such is the daily routine for the dictator of Tropico, a fictitious Caribbean island nation and the name of an amusing, tongue-in-cheek strategy game by PopTop Software (makers of “Railroad Tycoon II”).

“Tropico” puts computer users right in the boots of a Caribbean island dictator, and with that role come all the perks - and risks - of power.

You must keep your people happy - or at least not so unhappy that they revolt - by balancing job opportunities, food supplies, housing, entertainment, medical care, safety, liberty, and spiritual nourishment while looking out for your own interests.

You can pad your Swiss bank account, but if you stash away too much cash it could hurt the island's flimsy economy and spark a Tropican uprising. If you raise the rent too high, the tenants could move out and build their own shacks, cutting your income as well as hurting your image.

The decisions facing Tropico's El Presidente are similar to those confronting players in other popular strategy games such as Civilization and Age of Empires. But “Tropico” adds a dose of wry humor, which makes it a challenge without losing sight of the fact that this, after all, is just for amusement.

Everybody on the island - and there can be up to 500 residents and tourists - has a personal file that lists up to 50 individual characteristics including name, age, hometown, family size, education, skills, and political affiliation.

You can set up the game according to a wide range of variables, including the size of the island, its elevation, level of political and economic difficulty, and whether your goal will be to amass wealth, score points, or hold onto power for the longest time.

Each dictator edits his or her “dossier,” and the details will affect the Tropicans' view of their leader and how the game unfolds. Choosing “incorruptible” as a trait, for example, means you will not be able to open a Swiss bank account, but you will be highly regarded by the island's religious faction.

The choices all have domino effects on subsequent decisions. You cannot build a gourmet restaurant, for example, until you have electricity, and if you build an electric power plant, you will need skilled workers to run it, and you can't train workers until you build a high school and college, so you'll need to lay out some cash to lure skilled workers to the island.

One of the strangest things about “Tropico” is the game player's point of view. As dictator, you'll look down from the skies, god-like, on the islanders and tourists. You can watch from a great distance, high above the clouds, taking in an overview of the island, or you can zoom in progressively closer, although you can't see inside the buildings.

The graphics are clear, bright, and smooth. Tourists head for the hotel pool, unroll a towel, and stretch out to soak up some rays. Workers in hardhats, carrying lunchboxes, amble toward the factory. Dancers in colorful dresses enter the cantina.

When a yacht pull up at the dock, out climbs a gaggle of tourists wearing Hawaiian shirts and lugging suitcases. A freighter arrives and dock workers in T-shirts start hauling bundles of tobacco into the cargo bay.

The manual for “Tropico” is well written, clear, thorough, and humorous. Senora Consuela de la Pluma y Escritorio, Secretary to the President, writes a letter to the new Presidente (you) offering a rundown on the island's situation. When she mentions that the dictator must choose two positive character traits, she apologizes by saying, “We know that you have dozens of admirable qualities, but the silly peasants can only seem to remember two.”

Throughout the game, bouncy tropical music with plenty of percussion, steel drums, and trumpets provides a festive backdrop. Some specially-marked editions include a free music CD of tropical tunes.

“Tropico,” which retails for about $30, is available for Windows or Macintosh computers. The PC version requires Windows 95 or higher, 32 MB of RAM, a 200 MHz processor, 820 MB of disk space, and a CD-ROM drive.

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