Impressions Games used to make these city builder games themed around ancient civilizations and their mythologies. Their original was Caesar, which was about building various Roman cities throughout the history of the republic and empire and had less of a mythological theme than most of the others, and others included things like Emperor, about ancient China, Zeus: Master of Olympus, about ancient Greece, and Pharaoh, which was about ancient Egypt.
For a game about building ancient cities, ancient Egypt seems like the perfect setting. Civilizations that were often at war, like the expansionist Romans or the Greek city-states constantly enmeshed in internecine warfare, necessarily gave the city-building a military feel. Military cities had a straightforward objective, to sustain a population and weapons manufacturing industry big enough to beat off enemy attacks for X years. Economic-themed cities had more general goals of reaching a population of X and a minimum prosperity of Y, and these were perfectly satisfactory gameplay challenges, but they lack the feeling of accomplishment.
“Your city will be sufficiently awesome once it has 7,000 people” doesn’t feel like a specific achievement the way “conquer the Macedonians” does, especially after doing it eighteen times. Different enemy armies can have different soldiers that require different combinations of cavalry, infantry, and archers to defeat (though the combat engine and unit diversity is certainly not on par with exclusively military focused games like Age of Empires), but getting however many people in the city is always the same. You set up housing blocks fed by enough goods and services that they will upgrade to high-level housing that can contain lots of people (you can’t upgrade housing directly, instead houses upgrade whenever they’re provided a specific good or service, so level 1 crude huts upgrade to level 2 sturdy huts when they have a supply of clean water from a well, level 2 upgrades to level 3 when they have a food supply, and so on). Your goal on this map is to do the same thing you did on the last map, but with a different set of starting resources and maybe slightly bigger. It’s not easy, and those different starting resources means that figuring out one city’s distribution network is not the same challenge as figuring out another’s, but games have framing stories for a reason and having the same objective over and over again gets old.
Ancient Egypt, however, has monuments. Most notably the pyramids, but also obelisks, the sphinx, giant sun temples, and so on. Here’s an economic objective that feels like a specific achievement and not some arbitrary population goal: Build a giant thing. Even if the process for building a pyramid and a sphinx are fundamentally a similar process of setting up an economic engine powerful enough to harvest or import necessary materials for decades, at the end of one you have a pyramid and at the end of the other you have a sphinx. Provided the pyramid city and the sphinx city have sufficiently different maps from one another that you can’t copy/paste a working city from one onto the other, the missions will feel different not just in how you get to the end, but also in the end you got to.
Here’s the problem: Building a prosperous, thriving city that can feed the engine of monumental construction takes like a decade, maybe two. Actually finishing the larger monuments can easily take double that time. You can build a pyramid faster if you have more miners to quarry stone, more peasants to drag the stone to the site, and more construction workers to turn that stone into a pyramid, but frequently you’re required to build a pyramid using materials that aren’t actually on your map, which means the bottleneck is the rate at which other cities are willing to sell you those resources. That rate is often pretty slow. Given the vast amount of resources required to build a pyramid, it can take decades of time just to import the materials. Even if you site the monument when your city is still just a collection of mud huts on the bank of the Nile clamoring for a steady food supply, and even if you can juggle building the city up while also building the monument (depending on what monument you’re building and what resources are on the map, this can range from pretty easy to a nightmare, but even in the best case scenario you have to make sure you don’t site the monument atop some of the often-scarce space nearby arable land that can be used for siting agricultural or residential areas), you will still have another two or three decades of sitting around and waiting for your monument to reach completion.
The game does have a speed up function, but it only goes so fast, and you’ll still end up waiting for half an hour or longer for your monument to finish. So, sounds like the speed up function needs to go higher, right? Except, that would be terrible. Cities are prone to regular problems that complicate economic expansion or maintenance of an existing monument-building or army-maintaining economy. Enemies will invade and you’ll need to direct troops to repel them, or Pharaoh will demand goods and if your reputation with him drops too low he’ll roll a giant army over your face. You’ve got to deal with these as they pop up.
You could have higher speeds automate that, too, though, automatically granting any Pharaonic requests as soon as the goods are available, and directing all available forces to fight enemies as they appear on the map, and then return to their fortresses to recover morale and losses after there are no enemies left. Provided your city has an economy that can keep up with the requests and replace losses without you actually interfering at all, this would work.
Well, most of the time, anyway. Sometimes, the thing Pharaoh wants from you is limestone, and he wants it irregularly, and no one is buying it, so if you don’t shut your limestone production down manually every time you finish satisfying a request, it’ll keep filling up your city’s storage until there’s no room for vital goods, which sit completed in their workshops with no room in storage, which means no way for bazaars to acquire them (the bazaars responsible for distributing goods to the citizens cannot buy goods directly from producers), which means your people aren’t getting them. Houses downgrade, the population plummets, your tax base falls out from underneath you and you no longer have the population to sustain your industries which means both that you no longer produce goods quickly enough to satisfy your population even if you had a functioning distribution network, and you certainly don’t produce goods quickly enough to export. Your city is shattered, and you’re zooming by on auto-pilot too quickly to notice and salvage it before it collapses completely.
You could fix that by having the city auto-pilot automatically turn off certain industries whenever there isn’t a Pharaonic request for that specific type of good, or when troops who require that good to arm aren’t needed to reinforce companies that have taken casualties. So, now the game is (I think) perfectly automated when zooming four decades of monument construction in two minutes. What if the player messed it up themselves, though? For example, what if the problem isn’t that you need limestone production turned off whenever Pharaoh hasn’t asked for it, what if the problem is that you made too many barley fields, and even with exporting excess barley to as many cities as will buy it, you’re still producing more than you consume? Other cities only need so much barley per year, and your breweries can only convert it into beer so quickly, and if you’re producing enough to exceed both of those demands combined, barley will slowly fill up your storage yards until your distribution network is paralyzed, producers can no longer get their goods from their workshops to citizens, dogs and cats are living together, mass hysteria.
If you’re playing the game at normal speed, or even at the maximum speed allowed by the game, you’ll probably catch the barley slowly filling up storage yards far from your beer production centers, and that’ll clue you in that you’re making too much and need to destroy some barley fields. If things get really bad, you may need to destroy some storage yards entirely, and all the goods inside them, to replace them with fresh yards that have room for pots and papyrus and such. At any speed such that monuments will be completed in anything like a reasonable amount of time, though? Your city will be destroyed by the problem within thirty seconds of it even starting to be a problem, and that’s if you’ve only very slightly overestimated the amount of barley your city demands, which is very easy to do, because the production of any given field (barley or otherwise) depends on how successful or not this year’s Nile inundation was, which varies. If you happen to have sited your barley fields during a few years of poor inundation, you might be struggling to keep up with your city’s demand, only to have your city suffocated in excess barley when good inundations return later on.
What exactly are you supposed to automate to solve that problem? Have the computer automatically destroy excess barley fields? Figuring out how much of a certain good you need to produce is part of the game, if the computer does that automatically, we’re getting pretty close to the game playing itself. Have the computer automatically destroy storage yards filled up with barley when they’re needed to store goods for distribution to the citizens? Programming the computer to successfully recognize when that’s necessary would be a nightmare, and in any case, the new storage yard is empty until new goods arrive. It’s fairly likely to be immediately choked by barley again, and even if it isn’t, while it’s gathering up the goods it actually needs for distribution, the city block (or city blocks) it serves might degenerate. That’ll only be a minor hiccup in the economy, but if causing those hiccups is the default solution to having too much of a raw resource in the system, it could grind the economy to a halt.
Maybe you could have the computer automatically detect when things are going wrong and pause the game with a pop-up saying “hey, turn your speed down, the city is on fire?” It’s almost impossible to get that right. Either the player will be inundated by false alarm pop-ups because the computer misread a brief excess of barley due to perfect inundation as the approach of the barleypocalpyse, and everything will be fine once normal inundations return, or else the computer won’t recognize a problem until the city is in extremely dire straits and it might not be possible to salvage it.
All of this nonsense could be solved if monuments in Pharaoh just took less time. If they required fewer total resources and those resources were consumed by workers at the same rate, but just resulted in more of the monument being completed per resource consumed, then you could build a pyramid in about the same time as it took you to establish an effective city to begin with. Instead of the game being about making a working city and then pretty much just watching it and occasionally nipping problems in the bud for an hour while your pyramids stretch skywards at a glacial rate, the game would be about making a working city and then maintaining it for a decade or so, at which point it’s pretty much a foregone conclusion that the city you’ve built can handle anything this scenario will throw at it.
This isn’t terribly realistic, of course. You can’t crank out the pyramids of Giza and a sphinx on the side in ten or fifteen years. Pharaoh doesn’t really produce realistic looking ancient cities as it is, though, so I don’t think this is much of a concern. The game’s art is good and seems true to the era from my limited knowledge, so a fully functioning city definitely has an authentic vibe and looks pretty, but the layout is devised around minimizing intersections to make patrol paths straightforward (your biggest enemy in Pharaoh is ancient Egyptian stupidity, as a priest vital to maintaining local property values decides five times in a row that taking a left turn towards the residential area to actually do his job is for losers and instead turns right towards the bazaar, the entertainment pavilion, and the local courthouse). Real cities maximize intersections to make getting from point A to point B as much of a straight line as possible, so cities in Pharaoh are already unrealistic. Making one more sacrifice of realism for the sake of gameplay wouldn’t be a big deal.
Zeus, the next game in the series, had divine sanctuaries that were somewhat similar to Pharaoh’s monuments, but they could typically be completed within a few years of game time (and their clock moved at about the same rate). You might be required to build up to four, whereas Pharaoh demanded no more than three and usually just one or two, but even so, Zeus’ sanctuaries took much less time. They were also much smaller (sizes varied, but the biggest sanctuaries were a lot smaller than full-size pyramids in Pharaoh), which made it easier to site them nearby necessary resources or the docks where they were imported, which expedited construction times. The longest I ever took to finish a sanctuary was a one to Athena that took about half an hour of real time, and that’s because I sited the sanctuary on the other side of the map from all the resources needed to construct it. Athena’s sanctuary was on the large side, but they could actually get quite a bit bigger, and I regularly completed much larger sanctuaries in much shorter amounts of time with better city designs.
Zeus also solved the problem of economic mission monotony by having several missions all take place in the same city. So, the first mission teaching you basic gameplay would ask you to create a city that was a fairly modest 1,000 citizens strong. Then the next mission would ask you to take that same city and build a mansion for Hercules to go kill the hyrda guarding the marble quarry, and then export a certain amount of marble in a year. In Pharaoh, you would’ve started the second mission from scratch, on an all new map, and you would’ve have to have built your city up through its early stages all over again with a new set of resources and geography to contend with, which gets old after a while.
That second mission also illustrates how the economic missions usually revolved around exporting a certain amount of resource rather than just hitting a certain population limit and satisfying a general prosperity and/or culture score. Pharaoh tried to sort of soft-impose these requirements by having Pharaoh demand goods of a certain type, for example demanding gems every so often, which presumably requires you to be mining lots of gems. The problem with that is that you can also keep Pharaoh happy by regularly sending him lavish gifts from your personal treasury, so as long as you can make the economy strong at all, you’re under no obligation to ever mine any gems in the gem mining city. Ultimately there’s not a whole lot of difference between Pharaoh’s gem mining city and Zeus’ marble quarry city, but you spend a lot more time with the latter, and your attention is also drawn more sharply to the marble supply, and those combine to make the marble city feel distinct from the silver city or the timber city. In Pharaoh, a combination of starting a brand new city for every mission and the goals of every city being so similar to one another means that all the cities tend to blur together, which exacerbates the problem of how long it can take to finish one of the scenarios even after you’ve built your city up to long term economic viability.