Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review of Tropico 4 From a City Building Standpoint

My Dictator Self

A disclaimer
I love city building games. What I really want is Sim City 5, but that doesn't exist. I was reading about video games and decided to try out Tropico, which has both city building and strategy elements. Since I am much more into city planning than political intrigue and building up armies, and the review reflects that point of view.

In a nutshell

You play as the dictator of a small island in the year 1950 (think Cuba) and can choose to be a benevolent ruler or a cruel tyrant. Your political and economic decisions and layout of your island will either make your people happy or cause them to rebel.

Starting out

You can choose to be modeled on a real dictator, or your own creation. You pick several options which will start you off with different bonuses. For example if you pick that your background is from many generations of police you start off with lower crime, if you went to school in the US you have a higher diplomatic rating with the US and lower with the Soviets.

You get a random island to start with. Since you can't build on strong slopes, if you get a mountainous island it makes it much harder. On my first two play throughs I got mountainous islands, and that really limited my building space. On my third game I got a great island with lots of flat areas to build.

To start you get $10,000 in your treasury, a dictator's palace, a tenement, a garage, a construction office and a trucking company (teamsters). You also get some other random things – I got two corn farms in my most recent game.

You want what?

You will get hints from your adviser, and various characters will request that you do things which will earn you money or support from various factions and countries. Much like Sim City, the advice you get is not always good and can really bankrupt you. For example, by trying to please the nationalists by raising salaries, I lost a lot of money and went to a negative balance in the treasury. I never did please the nationalists either.


You have several different ways of making money. You can export raw materials from farms, mines or fishing. You can refine and export materials by making factories and canning facilities. You can build a tourist dock and attractions for tourists. You make money from building restaurants, pubs and other enterprises.

Every six months a freighter arrives and will take your exports and bring imports if you want any. So at first you want to be ready with cash crops like tobacco and coffee. Later you can make more money by building factories which make exports like cigars and rum.

You can build pubs, restaurants and other businesses for your citizens to patronize.

You can build a tourist dock and build stuff for tourists. I found this was really hit and miss. Some stuff like motels and bars made money right away, and things like the tour company and souvenir stands lost money. The revolving restaurant lost a lot of money! The zoo made tons of money while the casino sat empty. But the revenue from the profitable ventures made up for the losses.

How do I do this, and do I care?

The game didn't feel that intuitive. It's easy to start out making a country, building farms and housing. Once it gets to more complicated though, you have to wonder if parts of the game are supposed to be that way or just hard to figure out.

When you accept a request from a faction or country, it goes to the bottom right of your screen until you complete it. It doesn't seem possible to remove the requests and you can only accept a limited amount of them.

One of the requests is from the Chinese government who asks that you send them a certain amount of goat cheese. No problem! I made several goat ranches. But how to make cheese? On the place where you enhance the ranch there's only a place to make a beef smokehouse. Oops. But I had to have the request on my screen taking up space.

I also had agreed to send oil to another country, and though I was producing oil I couldn't figure out how to get it there. I'm sure there was some way of doing it, but it wasn't intuitive to me and by the time I got to that point I had really lost interest.

If I really was the dictator I would let people park on the street

4 garages needed for an area which is not built up much! 
Traffic is a hard thing to deal with. Tropico has many cars but apparently outlaws street parking. Some buildings have their own garages, but many buildings like apartments and movie theaters need parking but don't have it. This means you will have to build one nearby.

When your downtown area gets built up, you will receive many notices that your garage is overloaded and you need to build another one nearby. You will have to demolish buildings and put garages in their place. I had one stretch in my last game with 5 garages in a row, and still more were needed. This just doesn't fit into the game well.

Sorry folks, I built the hospital backwards.

You cannot move buildings once they are placed, you have to demolish them and re-build. When you are in building mode, you can't zoom in and out or turn. So it's hard to tell if you are building facing the right way. Buildings with their own garages must be built facing a road with their garages connected by a green arrow. In many views it's hard to see this and I ended up having to take down perfectly good buildings just because no one can park there.

I have decreed that we need a bus system on this island. Why do you not listen?

There is no bus service, and no on island transportation other than roads. Bus service would have been a great addition and much more realistic than building a parking garage for every other building. But don't listen to me, I'm just the dictator.

If variety is the spice of life, Tropico is bland

The buildings are all very cool looking. They must have spent some time studying the architecture of Cuba. Unfortunately there is usually only one style of each building, so when you build a pub, it is the same as every other pub on the island. You can choose to make it a nicer pub with a dress code, but it's still the exact same look. There is only one type of market where people can buy food. They should have made several levels – one could be a no frills market, then there could be a nicer middle class one and a fancy tourist market.

There are slight variations in some of the houses – if you build two apartment blocks they will look similar but be different heights. The condos have more variety. But it's really not enough.

There are not enough types of businesses. On the build menu, there is an “entertainment” section with twelve types of businesses ranging from a pub to a giant revolving restaurant. But most of the entertainment is big ticket items like shopping malls and zoos that you can only build once you are running a big profit. You also need a lot of room for the big entertainment.

They should have made a lot of smaller businesses like taco stands and little shops. This is more in line with the economy in countries like the ones that this game is based on. Smaller businesses would be easier to place in the city.

You can beautify the area with a small assortment of trees, statues, gardens and fountains. Watch out though! The decorations can't be demolished, and you can't build over them. I put a bunch of gardens around the palace, and when I wanted to get rid of them to build other things I couldn't. It really messed up my downtown area on one of my games. I don't know if there was a problem with my game or they just didn't think things through. If there was a wider variety of decorations, and you could move them around I would have liked this game better.

The true wealth of a country is people

Your citizens walk and drive around Tropico. You can click on them and see what they are thinking, how happy they are and what they want. You get stats on their job, house, spouse and children, and a brief rundown of activities they have been doing.

Almost all of my people had the same two complaints. They didn't have access to a church when they wanted to pray and there was nowhere on the island to buy luxury goods. Ok, so I thought I had enough religious outlets with two churches and a Cathedral for 200 people. I built more and more churches and another Cathedral. People were still unhappy.

I had to wait a while to build the mall but I thought that would take care of the luxury goods problem. I saved a prime location for the mall and put a parking garage on either side of it. Actually almost no one went to the mall and people still whined about their poor shopping choices. There's no other shopping that you can build. I was annoyed.

Another problem was the food supply. I kept building more farms, but I had a hard time getting enough people to work on them, even after raising wages. I also built markets all over to distribute the food. Every year I would get messages that people had died of starvation. Gee, maybe they should have worked on my farms.

What do you mean you're unhappy?

I tried in all three games to make the citizens happy. I built farms, I built hospitals, I raised wages. I built electric plants and gave my people air conditioning. I gave them free housing. I never got above 54 percent happiness rating. I'm sure that if I devoted a lot of time to this game I could get a higher percent but by that point I was bored and not motivated to do research.

Of course this is a free country.

Every so often you will have elections. You have to try to get people's support by issuing edicts that will please them. You can attract religious supporters by having the Pope show up or by banning contraception. You attract environmentalists by banning pollution, though this pisses off the capitalists. You can make all housing free, but this will take a heavy toll on your treasury. So it's a balancing act.

You can also cheat on the elections or get rid of elections altogether, which really stirs the rebels up.

Bring it on, rebels!

When people are unhappy they will start with peaceful protests and then turn rebel. You have the opportunity to deal with this in various ways, by bribery, having them killed, putting them in prison or branding them a heretic. It's disturbingly satisfying to order protestors killed after trying so hard to please the ingrates. This was the only point I felt emotionally connected with the game at all.

Rebels will attack when their numbers become big enough. In one of my games the rebels attacked a mine, which means about 7 of them stood around and waved their guns while the miners calmly went about their tasks. The army ran on foot all the way across the island to meet them, which took a long time. We have cars and could have been there quickly. It seemed very silly to run across the island.

Your army can also rebel against you and take you down in a coup. This happened in my first game, where I survived the rebel attack but my army took over and I had to pack up and flee to Florida. Game over.

I'm a city planner, not a fighter

For my second and third games I was a much more careful manager and built up a strong and happy army. I managed to make a lot of money with exports and tourism. In my second game I lost a lot of money trying to please various factions though and got bored at around 600 population in the early 1980s. That is where the rebels started to pop up with increasing frequency.

I started another game. I did better financially in my third game but again got bored around 1980.

To some people the best part of the game would be putting down rebels with the secret police, building prisons, proclaiming Martial law. I just wasn't into that. I wanted to build transportation systems not a totalitarian government.

It's more interesting to be poor and hopeful

I usually find these games a lot more fun at the beginning when you are setting everything up. It's exhilarating when you turn the corner and you start making a profit and have extra money to play with. Then you have tons of money and can do just about anything. It becomes monotonous. So I was actually kind of glad that you can lose the game by losing a rebel war or coup and start over.


I got to the point where I was ready to quit my third game and uninstall it. I took an aerial photo of the island for this review – and the game crashed. I had noticed there was a lag when taking photos before so I think this must be a weak point of the game.

That was the only crash. The rest of the time the game was as smooth as the flavored rum that was Tropico's most profitable export.

Was it worth it?

At $39.00, not quite. I didn't get nearly as much enjoyment out of this game as I have with other less expensive games. I don't feel ripped off, just kind of meh. If I had to do it again I would wait until the price dropped,or buy Tropico 3. Many reviewers who played both 3 and 4 have said there is not that much difference between the versions and you can buy the version of Tropico 3 with the expansion pack for only $14.99 on Steam.

I would buy an expansion pack for Tropico 4 if it added more types of businesses, transportation and housing options.

In a word: Bland
I never developed an emotional connection with this game. I didn't care if my dictator character got deposed or when people died from starvation. I felt a little annoyed when people were unhappy despite my best efforts, but that was it. The whole game seemed a bit shallow – not a great city builder, not a great strategy game but not terrible either. It was amusing enough for four days and now I'm ready to put it away.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Shattergrave Knights

This was a book I read on Kindle, because it kept popping up on my suggested list.  At first I didn't think I'd like it because it was set in a totalitarian world - those sort of books are usually disturbing.  This one was disturbing in parts - there is a witch hunt for traitors and innocent people get hung.  Overall

Jack and Olive are teenage twins living in a small town.  Early in the book we are given a history lesson in the form of a pageant that Jack is forced to participate in.  Basically there was an evil guy called Maxander who was supported by his Shattergrave Knights and goat-headed creatures called Tautho.  He was defeated by the Protectorate, the current religious totalitarian government.

A very nasty witchfinder is sent by the government to investigate an old woman who may be a witch.  The witchfinder starts convicting people of treasonous activities on flimsy or no evidence, and hanging them in the public square.

Jack and Olive find out they are the descendants of one of the Shattergrave Knights, and are given some magic items, just as the witchfinder decides to investigate them.  They are forced to flee, along with their newly discovered aunt and her friend.  Their destination is a city ruled by a dragon where the Protectorate has no power.

The book then becomes a journey style novel as the four of them head for the dragon's city.   They use ruses and magic to escape their pursuers.  They get into bad situations and escape them in surprising ways.  They pick up some unusual companions who end up helping them.   All of this is very enjoyable.  

After an interlude in the city they must go back and rescue their parents from a mind control prison situation and carry out rebel type activities on the Protectorate.  This is where the book feels a little choppy.  The journey to the city was covered in detail, down to what the characters are feeling and the vegetation of the terrain they are travelling on.  Then all of the sudden for the second journey - bang!  There they are at the destination.  I guess we are just supposed to imagine that a bunch of stuff happened, like the first trip but different and they got there ok.  This was not a major problem with the book though, I just felt like it could have been handled a little smoother.

This is a spoiler free review so I'm not going to talk about what happens next - it's pretty much what you would expect if you read a lot of fantasy novels, done in an entertaining fashion.

I was surprised how much I liked this book.  I hope there will be a sequel or other books set in this world.

A few things that worked well:

Most people have pretty common names in this book.  The main characters are Jack, Olive, Daniel, Prudence and Zanzibar.  Ok, the last one is a little unusual.  But there's no one named A'athurun or Emmyldr or anything like that.  The author doesn't need to constantly remind us that we are in a fantasy world by using made up names.  

I liked the system of magic a lot.  Magic is mostly done by speaking a special language which lets you overwrite reality.  You have to be very careful with pronunciation.  There are magic objects too, such as the magic circlet Jack was given which whispers to him the best way to destruct anything and anyone around him.  Very handy!

I hope there are sequels to this book, I would definitely read them.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Blogs That Cover the Covers - One Half Dozen Great Book Cover Blogs

As you could expect from a visual artist who loves to read, I've always been into book covers.

That's one of the things about eBooks that is kind of a down side - the cover is just this little bitty thumbnail.

That's ok, I can get my fix from a fine selection of book cover blogs.  What a subgenre!

These blogs mostly feature vintage books with comments on the cover and writing about the cover art.  There are other book cover blogs discussing the process of designing book covers which I will cover at a later date.  For now, bring on the (mostly) funny.

In random order

Distracted by floating price tag
This blog features the best of the worst of Science Fiction and Fantasy novels.  Since Sci-Fi Fantasy has some of the weirdest covers, this is a highly amusing blog.  I like the way many of the entries are written as if they are instructions from the art director.  I really have to wonder who thought up some of the stuff on these covers.  Anyone can submit a photo, and the rule is they must be taken "in the wild" with a digital camera.  Most of them look like they were taken in a used book store.  No series or parody books are accepted.


This is a funny blog.  I liked how it had books from various time periods and genres, instead of limiting itself to one theme. Anything mockable is fair game.  It featured Mammary Monday and Phallic Friday so that gives you an idea of the type of posts.  Sadly it has not been updated in a while.

This blog features my favorite type of cover - vintage pulp fiction.  Has a good balance of mocking and serious commentary about the book art.  Frequently updated.

More vintage pulp book covers, because I can never get enough.  Good commentary.

I actually had this Space Cat book as a child and I loved it.  The original didn't say anything about the mushrooms but now it all makes sense.  This blog has a good variety of books of different genres and time periods, with a big dose of snark.  Most of the books are not altered.

Now for something completely different.  This is a serious blog of artistic book covers from the 20s to the 70s, in a stark graphic style with limited colors.  These were published with much lower budgets than most of the other books on the blogs I've linked to.  They don't have all the fancy colors and printing and rely on artistic talent.  Very inspirational.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Hello Again, I'm Back and I Have Brought My Kindle

I've decided to revive my book blog, in a slightly different direction.

Now I have gotten very into reading books on my Kindle.  I don't even have a Kindle actually.  I have a Kindle Reader on my phone, which came pre-loaded on it.  I didn't intend on using it.  I mostly bought books used from used book stores or thrift stores.  I borrowed books from the library.  I also used a book swap service online.

I like to read science fiction and fantasy novels, which frequently come in series.  So I would buy or borrow the first book in a series, take it home and devour it, and then want to read more.  But I was at home, either not wanting to go out or the library and stores were shut.  Then I realized I had this little device that I carried around with me all the time, a magic book obtaining from home device.  Oh dear.  All the first books I bought on my Kindle were second and third books in sci-fi series!

I loved the fact that I could have books that I carried around with me all the time.  I'm a real estate agent, and that means a lot of waiting for people at properties.  Now I always had something to read.  I also liked the fact that I could read in bed without a light on.  I was hooked.

My little habit started adding up though and  I was spending a lot of money buying books.  Previously the majority of the books I bought were under three dollars.  Many of the books were a dollar.  Books from the library are free, unless you forget to return them.  Now I was buying new series books at 7.99.  I'm a very fast reader and the money was starting to add up - 79.00 for ten books!

I discovered that there were a lot of other Kindle books that were cheaper.  Much cheaper.  Some were even free - as cheap as a library book which would never have fines.  There was page after page of fantasy novels by unknown authors.  But isn't every author an unknown before you have heard of them?  So I jumped right in.  Most of the fiction books I buy are 2.99 or under.  

So I have decided to start writing about books again.  This blog will focus on books that are on the Kindle, but I will also write about other books and media.

Thanks for reading my blog, it is nice to be back.