Pharaoh was released in October 1999 as part of a series of historic city building games published by Sierra Entertainment that in no way rode the coattails of Maxis’ SimCity which created the whole genre. Some bright spark at Impressions Games decided that building a metropolis was cool and all, but what if it was set in the ancient world? From this, they went and made Caesar for the Amiga (That classic computer with less memory than a Nokia 3310) in 1992 with a DOS port being released a year after. The game did well enough to spawn several sequels before Impressions tried their hand at a city building game set in Ancient Egypt.
I first played Pharaoh in 2001, at the tender age of 8 years old. Even being that young, I was able to get to grips with the game and create a mostly functional city. Fair enough, we had mass unemployment, daily building collapses, the wrath of the gods and a sewage nightmare that threatened to consume us all, but we had a respectable pottery industry and ample storage yards making us more or less the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of Stoke.
Gameplay is relatively straight forward, it’d have to be for the 8 year old cretin I was to understand it. You provide for the needs of your growing populace including housing for the homeless, jobs for the jobless and temples so the gods don’t decide to use you for target practice. All this is simple enough as you rubber stamp your building tool down alongside the roads you create homes for the migrants that flood your city in droves. Once you’ve got the people to live in your city, you can then have to listen to them moan at you about the issues that are affecting them such as crime, starvation, a lack of entertainment and build accordingly. They’ll often prattle on about the fact that you can get all kinds of goods at the bazaar, which can get annoying after a while. That said, there is nothing funnier than destroying peoples homes with the demolish tool to build gaudy beatifications and then clicking on the now-homeless former occupants to here them whine about how they’ve been “kicked out of my home through no fault of my own!” I like to imagine that’s how Iain Duncan Smith feels everyday.
To help you out, the game arms you with a series of overlays, advisers and micromanagement tools which can seem a little galling at first, but you quickly learn which ones are worth paying attention to.
One unfortunate bug exists with the excessive need to build tons of firehouses and architects posts every ten feet or so to prevent buildings from burning or falling down. Sometimes even that won’t help you, I’ve had buildings touching the local firehouse burn down then take the firehouse with it, purely because my firefighters were apparently “preventing” fires elsewhere. Of course, this game predates patches and updates so these types of bugs were preserved in all their horrific glory and sadly, there are rather a lot of them.
There are several modes you can play including a loose story based campaign which will hold your hand until you’re big enough to build your own pyramids, a series of preset scenarios with certain win conditions of varying difficulties including one where you’re at war with pretty much every other kingdom and an open sandbox that lasts until you get bored or the game breaks (Whichever comes first.)
Graphically, the game looks as you expect from a late 90’s strategy with the focus on functionality over aesthetics, something a lot of games currently on Steam Greenlight fail to grasp and somehow still manage to look like crap. Resources are clearly identifiable and for the most part I can bear to look at my residential areas, although even the upgraded housing still has that Ancient Egyptian ghetto vibe.
Broken down into its lowest common denominator, Pharaoh is more or less, Simcity: Ancient Egypt. If you can look past that however, there’s a lot of fun to be had here as you rule an ever expanding kingdom and acquire more and more resources. Just remember to honour the God Ptah or he’ll cause your storage yards to collapse and no amount of workshy architects will save you.
Pharaoh and its expansion Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile is available on PC and can be picked up for less than £1 at some second hand games retailers or you can get a DRM-Free copy on GOG.com. A must play for anyone looking a retro city building experience.
Edit – The author of this review would like it to be known that Ptah is a douche with no regard for the struggling economy of my city and a megalomaniacal need for me to build temples in his honour.