In the spring of 2001, PopTop Software and Gathering of Developers (now just Gathering) teamed up to release Tropico, a tycoon game about island management. It essentially elected you the Fidel Castro of your own private Cuba, and made you responsible for educating and entertaining your people, not to mention socking away a lot of money. Then in early 2002, Breakaway Games released Tropico: Paradise Island, an expansion pack for Tropico. Now in 2003, Frog City Software has released Tropico 2: Pirate Cove.
Well, I don’t know about anybody else, but when a game bounces around through that many developers, I tend to get pessimistic. In fact, I was worried Pirate Cove might not be anything more than Tropico with a new paint job, where maybe the night club turns into Polly’s Grog Shack and the apartment building morphs into a pirate barracks. But, lo and behold, Frog City Software actually took the Tropico engine and made an entirely new game out of it.
Of course, some parts of the game are familiar. You still play the mayor / leader / king of the island, and you’re responsible for things like keeping people fat and happy, putting up buildings, and making money. You don’t do any actual pirating yourself. You just create an environment conducive to pirating.
Where Pirate Cove starts to differ from Tropico is, well, just about everywhere else. Consider the economy. In Tropico you picked some resources (like gold or tobacco) to export, or perhaps you decided to go in for tourism. In Pirate Cove it’s all about cruising for plunder. There are still resources, but instead of selling them you use them to outfit your pirates. For example, you use lumber for buildings and ships, iron ore for cutlasses and muskets, and sugarcane for rum. You can even grow papayas and bananas so your pirates can have fruit pastries. (Of course, what sort of wimpy pirates eat fruit pastries?)
Then when your pirates are happy and supplied with weapons, you send them out into the Caribbean. Sometimes you send them in search of ships to board (for gold and captives to ransom), sometimes you send them out to explore (to find the richest waters to sail), and sometimes you send them out to raid settlements (to add slaves to your workforce).
That’s right, pirates don’t do any work. They just sail the seas and do some serious wenching and ale drinking. To get anything done, you need slaves. They do all the building and resource gathering, and they help keep the pirates fed and entertained. Also, in sort of a neat twist, you have to keep your slaves “resigned” (so they don’t try to escape) while you have to keep your pirates “happy” (so they don’t try to kill each other), and things that do the former sometimes undo the latter. For example, slaves want the island to appear orderly, while pirates want it to be chaotic. So you have to be careful where you place buildings, to keep your slaves and pirates away from each other as much as possible. You also have to worry about the defense of your island. You’re not too likely to be invaded (just like you weren’t too likely to be invaded in Tropico), but the more cannons and forts you have, the happier your pirates will be.
Pirate Cove also looks pretty good. Because it’s on a smaller scale than Tropico, the islands and buildings are smaller, and so you can play it more zoomed in and see things better, making it more fun to watch. (As a side benefit, the smaller buildings mean Pirate Cove doesn’t have the equivalent of the Tropico airport, which took forever to build. Structures in Pirate Cove go up pretty fast, and so it’s also a little faster paced.) Plus, the ambient sounds and narration are pleasant, and the game has a first rate soundtrack.
Where Pirate Cove has some problems is in the gameplay. Tropico gave the player lots of options, even if the options didn’t always mean a whole lot, but in Pirate Cove there is exactly one way to play. You first have to grow corn so you can feed your people and create rations for voyages. Then you have to mine iron ore to make weapons so you can send your pirates out to plunder other ships. But those two requirements typically take 2-3 game years (an hour or more in real time), and they’re identical in every mission. After that, you have to worry more about keeping pirates happy and slaves resigned, and while you have some options there, they’re limited. There aren’t many buildings or resources to choose from, and you won’t have to make any decisions about space versus efficiency or cost versus happiness potential. For example, in Tropico you had lots of choices for housing, but in Pirate Cove pirates and slaves each have exactly one house type.
And so missions all play about the same, meaning it doesn’t take terribly long for Pirate Cove to get boring (especially the first couple years of each mission). The game comes with a campaign that encompasses 16 missions (and also works as sort of an extended tutorial), and by the end I was more than ready to stop playing. Blue Frog Software would have been better off making a shorter, more interesting campaign with, say, more varied objectives and events to break things up. Of course, if you don’t get bored with Pirate Cove, then it has a lot of gameplay to offer. Besides the campaign there are also nine solo missions to play, plus a random mission creator, plus a mission editor. The campaign alone takes somewhere around 50 hours to complete. With everything else you could easily spend over 100 hours with the game.
So, overall, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove is a nice game with sort of a serious problem. It looks good and sounds good and is fun and breezy to play, but it also gets repetitive after several missions, and it doesn’t offer the kind of variety other tycoon games do. Of course, Tropico itself didn’t really capture my interest, even with all the options it presented, and so fans of that game or fans of pirates in general might have fun with Pirate Cove.