Pyramid Scheme: Revisiting Pharaoh and Other Sierra City Builders

Back in the early days of high school — sometime in the Mesozoic Era, it feels like — one of my favourite subjects was history. We can probably thank the Civilization series for seeding and Age of Empires for nurturing that interest, but that fascination carried over into my schoolwork. I was always keen for an opportunity to study the past, particularly ancient history.

This was something that my dad took notice of, hence why I found myself gifted a jewel CD case bundle containing Caesar 3, Pharaoh, and the latter’s expansion Cleopatra. Made by Impressions Games under the Sierra banner before their closure, these were (at the time) the latest entries in a series of city building games. I was vaguely familiar with Sim City 2000 by this point, but the notion of a real-time game in which I built cities in Ancient Rome and Egypt was fascinating and immensely alluring.

I ended up playing both games quite a bit during my high school years. They were a couple years old by the time I got to them, which meant they had the advantage of working on the low-specs PC I had in my room that was ostensibly for school work only. This made them staples when I wanted to slack off, so naturally I played them a hell of a lot.

Of the two, Pharaoh had the advantage of improving on the issues of Caesar 3, being a much more enjoyable experience that also had a few more unique elements. It was easy enough to build farmland in ancient Italy, but Egypt had no such luxury, forcing me to make use of the limited Nile floodplains per map and abiding by the whims of the seasonal inundation. Certain resources were much harder to get, trade was more important… but most importantly, Pharaoh demanded that you build some of the great monuments and structures. In the end, this one saw a lot more playtime.

I never did finish all the missions and campaigns on offer for either game, but Pharaoh quickly became one of those titles that I would just pick up on a whim every few years to play a couple levels. It even became one of the first titles I purchased on GOG, back when they were still Good Old Games.

From this same platform, I had the opportunity to dabble in the games that followed it: Zeus and expansion Poseidon, the Ancient Greek version steeped heavily in mythology; and Emperor – Rise of the Middle Kingdom, one set in China. Both games ostensibly had more features, improvements, and better graphics than Pharaoh, but I never did end up sticking with them or finding the same satisfaction.

While I had considered this a matter of nostalgia or just preferring the Egyptian thematic over the alternatives, I ended up playing all of these games again following the Christmas search I outlined in my last post. Once again, Pharaoh ended up being the one that stuck with me the most, and this time I was able to figure out why.

Ultimately, it’s a matter of the campaign layouts. Pharaoh goes through the timeline of Ancient Egypt, gradually progressing towards building the bigger and grander monuments or larger military conquests and expansions. The pacing is better and it doesn’t overwhelm with too many resources and factors all at once. But most importantly, it keeps each of these missions to just that: single missions. You’ll start from scratch, build the city, accomplish your aims, and then move on to the next.

By contrast, both Zeus and Emperor group multiple missions into a single campaign. This isn’t an issue thematically, but what it does mean is that you’ll often return to the same city you just “cleared” every other mission, with the layout being exactly as you left it. Now, however, your objectives will have changed, the resources you can acquire are expanded, and the layout of your city might now be quite unsuitable for what’s needed of you.

The attempt to build a connection to this city over multiple missions might be nice in principle, but it’s hard to feel that way when I have to restructure a huge chunk of it or else be planning ahead for resources that I can’t work with yet but know that they’re coming because I’ve already given up on the future levels. The one-and-done approach of Pharaoh levels honestly ends up being less frustrating.

So yes. While it might be interesting conceptually to follow the multiple stages of a Greek myth to completion, the city building itself can be a real nuisance. The mythology aspects can be quite painful as well, since the various temples of Greek gods replace the monuments of Pharaoh, yet completing them will give you access to crucial resources that you can’t get otherwise. So until you build them, you’re hamstrung… and often there will be some mythological creature attacking you and making life hell until you’ve built those sanctuaries and can summon heroes. It just becomes more tedious and frustrating than entertaining.

Emperor is better than Zeus in this regard, focusing more on the timeline of Chinese history much like Pharaoh did for Egypt. Unfortunately, it still lumps time periods together in campaigns. Example: you might spend a mission establishing a colony and gathering resources to trade back to your home city from the previous mission, only to then be sent back to said city to accommodate the new industries that have opened up… and usually in ways that just don’t line up with the organisation you had previously without having to reshuffle things and drain your resources.

Pharaoh is, to me at least, the perfect middle ground of the Sierra city builders. Enough UI adjustments and information available from the simpler Caesar 3, and not so few quality of life improvements as to outweigh the frustrating campaign design of its successors. It might be a different story for sandbox cities, but I prefer having mission objectives and goals to work towards.

So with all this said, there’s probably a good number of people reading this who never played any of these games and only have a slight grasp on how they might play. Having selected my favourite of the bunch, let’s dive further into Pharaoh and why I like it so much, shall we?

By the People, for the People

Mission design in Pharaoh starts out with a couple of simple ones that introduce a few basic concepts, with focused objectives that are fairly straightforward to accomplish. After the first five or so missions, these objectives open up a bit and become more about satisfying a short list of criteria, usually by achieving set rankings in different fields. Generally, you need to have Prosperity (making more money than spending), Kingdom (pay yearly tribute to Pharaoh and answer requests promptly), and Monument (based on building the required monuments, shockingly) ratings at a set point to win.

But the most important requirement both for mission completion and just accomplishing the objectives? Population count.

Pharaoh plays simply, by having you place buildings on the map and then manage everything to make sure things function as they should. Find the list of buildings, click to place, it’ll instantly build and set about looking for workers and resources to accomplish its aims. Simple. The crux of it all, then, is building housing.

Unlike the fire and forget building of other structures, you’ll instead designate set tiles as houses, and then immigrants will arrive assuming conditions in your city are favourable. They’ll find an empty spot and build the basic level of houses on it. From there they’ll list a need or desire. Fulfill it, and the house will upgrade to the next tier, increasing both occupant space and tax that can be collected.

But should that need ever pass without being satisfied for a while, the house will devolve as many stages as it has to to hit that requirement tier again, spitting out potentially quite a few homeless people. That cuts into your city’s workers and tax income, which can cripple your effectiveness and sometimes leave industries understaffed, and that can snowball the problems. Thus, your aim is always to keep the housing levels high and the breaks in supply low.

Building a city in Pharaoh will often see you start with a designated housing “district”, as I tend to think of it, from which you’ll centre everything for the sake of accessing workers and centralising distribution. From there, it’s all about tending to the desires and getting your industry online. First you make sure there’s water supplies, then food, then access to nearby entertainment and religious facilities, then pottery, then beer… it continues upwards with increasingly advanced requests.

Given the nature of Egypt though, you’re often curtailed heavily by what resources are available. Cities built on the Nile will have minimal flood plain real estate to juggle food and luxury farms on, and a bad year of flooding can really mess you up. Cities away from the Nile will usually have less sources of water and rely on hunting wild animals for food. In order to make up these deficits, trade becomes crucial.

You can establish trade routes for a modest fee to specific cities around the map, which are usually ones you built in prior missions as a nice continuity nod. Each one has a list of resources they will buy and sell, so you’ll usually want to start moving heavily into the resources you call sell early. From there, it becomes a balancing act of managing import and export costs to meet all the desires, keep your houses from devolving, and keep your chequebook in the black. It’s surprisingly compelling and sometimes quite tricky to find the balance.

Sooner or later, though, you settle into the rhythm. Your city is continuing to grow and expand, your industry is online, and you’re not in debt. All is well in Egypt.

It’s about this time that the Bedouin invade.

Occupational Hazards

As a kid, I played on the easier difficulties for Pharaoh and kept it that way for a time without even realising it. On more recent playthroughs, I set things to normal and was immediately surprised by how much more hazardous the city building becomes. It’s much better to have these things to juggle and take care of, in my mind, but it still came as a bit of a surprise.

There’s a few basic hazards you’ll inevitably face in each city. You’ll want to have Firehouses on hand so that they can patrol buildings and reduce the chance of them catching on fire, or else putting those fires out when they happen. Architect Posts keep your buildings from toppling over, and this will happen quite a bit due to wear and tear if you don’t. Police Stations patrol areas and keep crime down, which means your houses (and tax collectors!) don’t get robbed.

On easy difficulties, these don’t occur too often. On the normal difficulty, I tend to build a new set of these three every couple of blocks and next to crucial storage structures, because stuff will topple over or catch fire (or both). Some buildings are more likely to than others; Scribal Schools are stocked with highly flammable papyrus, and I’ve found that even with a Firehouse right next door, they still burn really easily.

Generally, these are your primary threats and interruptions to your standard management affairs in any given scenario. There’s also the quality of the yearly Nile flood, which can be very weak or non-existent in some years and thus leaves your farms massively unproductive for the season.

And then, of course, there’s those pesky Bedouin I mentioned earlier.

There’s a military system in place for the game as well on some levels. Depending on the city locale and individual missions, they might attack early and frequently, or just have bigger assaults later. You’re always warned a couple of months ahead of any invasions though, which gives you time to deal with it.

That said, military strategy isn’t on the level of something like Age of Empires or Warcraft. You build forts and a Recruiter, and the Recruiter recruits soldiers to man the forts. An Academy will teach the soldiers to be better beforehand. You can build either Archers or Infantry, with the latter being stronger but requiring weapons made for them from copper. When a force invades, you move the fort squad out to meet them and hope they kill them before you get killed and too many buildings get destroyed. Rinse, repeat. Naval combat is much the same, but requiring a Dock and wood to build the boats.

It’s a fairly minor part of the game, all things considered, but it’s there and important to take note of. Later missions will also see you needing to transport and deploy troops to distant conflicts at the behest of the kingdom, or else suffer a significant hit to your rating. So that’s about all, really.

With all these said and done, now the true hurdles of building cities can be addressed, and it’s definitely the highlight and selling point of Pharaoh.

This will be my Monument

What’s a game about building Egyptian cities without building Pyramids? An incomplete one, that’s what. Thankfully, Pharaoh has you covered on that front, and then some.

Unlike your other buildings, monuments aren’t just placed and completed. Once you commit to building one, it places a zone that it will take up, and then has to be built in various stages from the ground up. It’ll start you off with brick mastaba tombs, which simply require peasant labour and bricklayers, and from there it’s just a matter of time and keeping the supply of bricks incoming. Once it’s finished, boom, you have yourself a big centrepiece to your city.

From there, you’ll eventually progress through history to some of the bigger structures. These require more materials like limestone or gold, and you’ll often have to commit extra luxuries once the monuments are done for the burial proceedings of those interred there. The Cleopatra expansion adds a few more impressive and majestic structures, which are always a delight to tackle.

It’s here that the mission formula really opens up and demands more of you than just getting a city to a certain point. From there, you have to maintain that in order to facilitate the ongoing construction efforts and keep the stage-by-stage resource requirements met.

As I’ve made clear of late, that’s the kind of nerdy logistical juggling act that I seem to be favouring in my games recently. Throughout my journeys and experiments with games that inch closer in some ways but further back in others, Pharaoh tends to be the one fallback I can rely on to at least soothe the itch. Whenever the other strategy games don’t quite get there or fail to connect, I’ve just found myself starting it up again and building another city.

I still haven’t finished all the missions in the game, this many years past. I’ll just constantly be chipping away at it, or come back and end up starting over after a couple of years and a new PC have passed. That could very well remain the case forever, but even if so, I’ll more than happily sing the praises of the game. Just because I never finished it all, doesn’t stop me from coming back to it again and again.

So there, that’s my hot take on Pharaoh, a game that is probably 20 years old at this point. Give it a look if you’re ever interested in a different take on city builder games than the typical modern city equivalents.

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