Review: Tropico 2: Pirate Cove
It comes as no surprise that Tropico 2 is the black sheep of the series. The only one to break from the banana republic formula, Pirate Cove has you as a pirate king, ruling over an island of buccaneers and captive laborers. It’s a novel concept, and I can’t be the only gamer who’s dreamed of building their own Tortuga, rife with brawling and wenching. And so it was that I came to Tropico 2 with high hopes, and left with them dashed against the rocks.
There are more than a few notable changes from the original Tropico in this installment. As mentioned, you have two separate populations to manage, pirates and captives. Pirates man your ships and keep your island safe, while captives provide all the labor and services pirates need to stay happy. You’ll need to shower your sea dogs with booze, wenches, and cards to keep them satisfied, whereas captives must be kept fearful and complacent to minimize the risk of escape. It’s an interesting dynamic that mostly works, though a few of your tools for maintaining the nebulous Order and Anarchy figures are things like skull topiaries and cartoonish piles of bones, belonging more in Rollercoaster Tycoon than this title.
Mechanically, the game is even more distant from its predecessor. Almost all buildings are locked to roads and cost no money to build, instead requiring lumber chopped from camps and milled into planks. There’s a greater emphasis on supply chains as well, with individual units of corn going from farm to brewery, being brewed into grog, then going from brewery to tavern. Every building has its own hauler in addition to the usual workers, and some have overseers which are usually unoccupied pirates. Much of your production will be in rations and weapons for your ships, which you order out on plundering or kidnapping missions to score gold, captives, and resources on a strategic map.
All of this makes a pretty good setup for a management game, and indeed the first few missions of the robust campaign roll along with promise. The moment you hit the fourth mission, however, the whole thing comes apart. Once you are charged with maintaining the happiness of your pirates and complacency of your captives, you discover just how little control you have over them and how fragile it is. You cannot assign captives to specific jobs, so a little thing like having no hauler for your tavern means it never gets grog, meaning none of your pirates can drink, meaning you’re about to have a mutiny on your hands. Same problem if you can’t keep enough female captives for your farms and brothels, or even workmen at your lumber camps.
There are simply too many random elements to make the game reliably fun, even in the campaign. In my first attempt at one mission, based around kidnapping key workers, my ship was randomly sunk which forced a restart. On the next attempt I had no extra male captives to man the lumber yard, which meant I couldn’t do anything for the first year of a five-year mission. And despite the excellent tutorials and advisor, there are some incredibly poor design decisions. In the first mission where you must manage pirate happiness, you’re locked from building them any sort of residence, a key happiness indicator. The whole thing smacks of decent concepts taken to faulty conclusions.
The graphics share the crisp sprite charm of the original, but the pirate motif is far more forced in the stylings and will start to grate once frustration at the mechanics sets in. As much as I like the concept, it’s ultimately a game about the most boring part of piracy, and abstracts all the good bits behind charts and text pop-ups. I still think it’s possible to get a good game out of managing an island of degenerates, but this certainly isn’t it.