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Building a Mystery… I mean a City Builder

posted on January 27th, 2010 by golden jew

Growing up, I was a huge fan of Legos. Loved the damn things–I think I spent time after grade school every day building Legos and watching old Batman reruns (POW!). Now that I’m an adult, it’s not really appropriate for me to build Legos, but it is OK for me to play video games. This is probably why I gravitate towards city building games: I like the act of creation, and seeing the fruits of my labor, even if not a damn street in the city goes in a straight line because I am a creature of impulse.

While recently lamenting the lack of new city builders (triggered by playing Roller Coaster Tycoon 3 and associated expansions yet again), I decided to dig around for some of the “golden oldie” city builders. Immediately what came to mind were Tropico and Pharaoh, two very different, but very entertaining city builders. Imagine my shock when I found that both had additional installments in their series. Shock quickly turned to cynicism as I recalled that the gaming industry is incapable of creating new IP, but instead recycles the same stuff over and over again. That didn’t stop me from picking up Children of the Nile (and Alexandria expansion pack) on Steam for $14, or the brand new Tropico 3 for $40. Full reviews will follow as I dive deeper into the games, but I want to note a few things each game does right (and wrong) based on playing initial levels. Interestingly, and perhaps not to their detriment, both games are fairly true to their original installments, plagued by the same problems and benefiting from the same assets.

In Tropico, for those who haven’t played, you play a ruler of a banana republic during the cold war. You are El Presidente, and have fairly complete control over your island. Within the bounds of the resources on your island, you have multiple paths to financial success: you might farm, you might mine minerals, you might go the tourism route. These options have multiple layers, meaning you can process raw materials into finished goods, or just go the bulk cash crop route. On the other hand, tourists don’t really like smokestacks (real world example: ever been to Curacao?–you’ll know what I mean), so you if you decide to go with tourism, you often are forfeiting resource income. On top of this, the game has a very advanced political system which involves placating multiple factions in order to ensure you stay in power. The game’s strengths are in its politics and its economy, but its city management aspects tend to be a bit weak and limited.

Children of the Nile has some of the same elements, but focuses more on maintaining the needs of your citizens, as opposed to increasing your economic might. And goddamn, for a bunch of cat worshipers who mummify their dead, they are needy bastards. There are something like ten gods you can build shrines to, and let me assure you, if you don’t have all of them, someone is going to bitch and moan. Conversely, the economic aspects of the game are weaker: since the game features a food driven, barter economy, you tend to make the same decisions over and over again to build up your city to a level where it can function more or less on its own, then move on to doing useful things. But that’s where COTN gets fun: turning your city into a war machine and sending troops out to conquer, or building absurd pyramids on the backs of Hebrew slave labor (wait a second!), or acquiring immense wealth for your people.

In my limited hours played so far on both, I can already see why I’ll stop playing both games. Tropico gets boring because I can only build so many apartment complexes and cabarets to placate my dictatorship loving people. In COTN, I can only assemble a functional base economy (with 257 places of worship) so many times before I’ll stop caring. However, both bring visceral city building pleasure for distinct reasons as well. In Tropico, I will relish the joy of a wealthy island economy (while siphoning funds to my Swiss bank account), and in COTN, building absurd displays of grandeur for my royal family.

Yes, I can see why we’ll break up, but in the interim, I fully expect to be satisfied multiple times by both games. Not a bad place to be in, for a gamer.

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