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.

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