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Tropico is a development simulation in which the player becomes the dictator of a small Caribbean island, at least vaguely reminiscent of Cuba. The only real goal of the game is to stay in power, but the ease of this task is influenced by hundreds of dynamic factors that determine the island's status and the citizen's satisfaction. Unlike the populace in classic "sand-box" games such as SimCity or even Caesar III, each citizen in Tropico exists as a unique entity, affected by upbringing, education, job, and living conditions. However, unlike the direct interface of a character-based life simulation like The Sims, the Tropico player cannot control these virtual charges directly. The dictator must persuade and manipulate the citizens of Tropico into behaving in a particular way.
The dictator can influence the conditions on the island through two basic means: the ability to construct and control buildings and the authority to pass laws and edicts. If there aren't enough citizens to staff the docks, raise the wage that building pays. If a low birth rate is causing a drop in population, pass an edict that bans the use of contraceptives. While the dictator cannot directly tell the citizens of Tropico what to do, he can usually manipulate the environment such that his people "choose" to follow his wishes on their own.
As the head of the nation, the player may also want to interact with the rest of the world. Encouraging tourism can bring loads of extra cash into the island's economy. The game is set in the Cold War era, beginning in 1950, and a good dictator must consider the island's ongoing relations with both the United States and the U.S.S.R. The citizens of Tropico must always be of primary concern, however, so it is important not to upset them with too many foreign visitors or too much political anxiety. If the dictator cannot keep his citizens busy and happy, they will become angry. Too many angry "Tropicans" will almost always lead to a revolt. The military forces of Tropico must be regularly appeased as well, or they may stage a coup. Luckily, like any good third-world dictator, the player can keep a secret Swiss bank account full of "extra" money, just in case he needs to make a quick exit. ~ T.J. Deci, All Game Guide