Watching the Virtual Grass Grow

I joke with my coworker, Chris, who is a Level 70 Undead Warlock, or some such, in World of Warcraft, that my gaming life is very boring. I tried my hand at online, multiplayer warfare with Red Baron 3D and it was about as enjoyable for me as a high school gym class.

Then I discovered Tropico, a building game in which the player, as El Presidente, must run a Caribbean island economy. You can take it in a number of directions; raw materials, rum & cigars, tourism. The game is a gem, and surprisingly deep. The modeling is superb. The vegetation is lovely, with many types of flowering trees and shrubs. There are occasional hurricanes.

I found myself over and over trying to build an Arcadian paradise, rather than accumulate a fortune for El Presidente. I just liked to watch the farmers farm,the fishermen fish, the goats and cattle graze. You can grow all kinds of crops: bananas, sugar cane, coffee beans, tobacco, pineapples, papayas, corn, depending on the conditions. Your peasants will work away in the fields, planting and harvesting. In the picture above, you can see a new tobacco farm on the left, where the padre is paying a visit.

The trouble is, it's hard to make time stand still with a building game. Tropico, for all its initial bucolic appeal, has a modern social structure with political and cultural factions. There are communists and capitalists, liberal intellectuals and a religious right, environmentalists and militarists, none of whom favor keeping everyone down on the farm, a la Pol Pot. In a game like this, the people want better jobs, health care, entertainment, and El Presidente must either make them happy or keep them in line by force, risking a guerrilla uprising. It is something to see when the rebels appear!

Tropico inhabits a larger, Cold War world, where your choices range between the extremes of Cuba and, say, the banana republic of Guatemala. Cuba is clearly the basic model, with its command economy, and Fidel is more or less the default El Presidente. That the player can secure an infusion of foreign aid by allowing the Soviets or the United States to build a missile base is the giveaway. Only the Soviet Union ever desired a missile base in the Caribbean.

PopTop Software created a Spring Break/Eco-Tourism add-on, Paradise Island, that reflects the direction many Caribbean and Central American economies, such as Costa Rica, Dominica, Jamaica, and Bonaire have taken in recent, post-Cold War years. It comes complete with a Mayan ruin. (The definitive Tropico release is the Tropico: Mucho Macho Edition.)

Where, then, to turn, for a digital Happy Valley, unencumbered by modern hunger for tantalizing, elusive Progress?

I looked for other farming simulations. I found farming games, such as the arcade-ish Farm Frenzy and Magic Farm. I also found a couple of genuine sims:

SimTractor, to judge by the videos of beautifully modeled farming machinery in action, succeeds very well in simulating the operation of a large industrial farm. It is free, and there are many additional models of tractors, spreaders, balers, etc., available for download. It would be perfect for 4H-ers, and for folks who want a sort of farm version of a railroad sim. But there are no people in the sim, and "first-person" farm simming isn't really what I had in mind. I prefer to be God in His Heaven.

The SimTractor site links to another, European, multiplayer farming simulation, SimAgri. This is daunting indeed, being played entirely "on paper". That is, you schedule things to happen in a tabbed text environment. There is no 3D graphical world at all. Again, very 4H-y and serious, with mainly French-speaking players, over 27,ooo of them, 156 playing online as I write.

I was thinking of an ancient farming village, where nothing would change for millenia. I'm looking at some of the empire-building demos: Imperium Romanum, Caesar IV, Anno 1701, and Medieval Lords.

The closest thing I have found so far is Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile, a 2004 game which was re-released with improvements last year. It is said to be, "one of the most serene and gratifying city builders since the genre began". Its 3D world is stunning. It takes 2000 years to play. See you in 2000 years.

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