The Virtue of Specificity in Pharaoh

It’s easy to criticize games with historical settings based on their inaccuracies, and equally easy to defend them on the basis of gameplay. I have certainly done both before. This time, I want to do neither; in this post, I will examine how specificity strengthens Sierra’s Pharaoh in terms of both historical representation and gameplay.

Pharaoh was released in 1999, toward the end of a boom period for simulation games, in which it was necessary to make each new simulation game somehow distinct from all the others. Some of these games had vast aspirational subjects: Maxis’s SimCity series, Microsoft’s Age of Empires series, Sierra’s Empire Earth, and so forth. Others approached the problem of making interesting mechanics out of this genre by getting narrower in their scope, such as Maxis’s SimFarm and SimAnt. Pharaoh maintained the utopian civilization-building aspirations of SimCity and the themes of empire and conquest from Age of Empires and Empire Earth, but narrowed the scope of both by locating itself specifically in Ancient Egypt, rather than offering a list of civilization or–as SimCity does–positioning the player as the architect of an imagined civilization that is some abstraction of what it means to be a (modern) city (which corresponds, generally, to Earth’s modern western civilization).

I often tell my freshman composition students that the narrower and more specific their topic is, the more they’ll be able to say about it and the more interesting their writing will be for it. I claim that Pharaoh demonstrates the same principle in a historical simulation game–and that this principle is further demonstrated by the failure of Zeus and Poseidon to effectively translate Pharaoh‘s Ancient Egypt-specific mechanics into Ancient Greece.

Pharaoh as a teaching tool? I’m not too sure either.
(screen capture from the introduction animation of Pharaoh)

I used Pharaoh as one of the ten required games for a semester-long Composition II course on 20th century PC games last spring, and it was one of my students’ favorite games. We played it early in the semester, and their love for it only grew as the semester continued. And I will admit, it is a very engaging game. I asked my students what they thought of the historical setting of the game, and they suggested that the game would be valuable for teaching Ancient Egyptian history, perhaps to upper elementary through high school students. When I resisted this idea, arguing that the game might misrepresent Ancient Egypt to uncritical players, they suggested that it might at least inspire students to do more research into Ancient Egyptian history. I must concede this point; the game routinely encourages players to read more about various features of Ancient Egyptian civilization, providing this further information with a single click, although like many other games of the same genre, it suffers from a lack of outside references available to the player, so that the player is generally dependent on the game designers’ research and interpretation for any historical content. That being said, the content of Pharaoh is exhaustive; the game includes articles on even minute aspects of Ancient Egyptian civilization, down to, for instance, trends in granary architecture in different periods of Ancient Egyptian history.

A sample explanation window from the game. Gameplay comes first, but research is just a click away.

Still, for all its display of research and attention to detail, Pharaoh does not claim to be an educational game; it aspires rather to the status of historical fiction. After the narrative introduction on the first page, the first part of the manual states: The action in Pharaoh takes place roughly between 3,200 BC and 1,300 BC. While Pharaoh is not a strictly historical game, events in ancient Egyptian history do shape its structure” (p. 10). And therein lies the true appeal of Pharaoh‘s gameplay: although it is not strictly bound by historicity, the mechanics of the game nevertheless stem from historical research and and attempt to understand a specific culture and time. It is this specificity (in addition to some characteristic Sierra lightheartedness) that makes Pharaoh unique and engaging.

Although Pharaoh has a mission designer and a sandbox play mode, it encourages the player to go through chronologically ordered missions, creating the narrative of one fictional family that endures through the dynasties of ancient Egyptian history by faithfully serving royal families as they come and go, until finally the player’s family becomes the rulers. This not-quite-kingship position for the player makes for a convenient space in which the necessary open-endedness for gameplay can occur within historical frameworks, not unlike a historical fiction novel that focuses on a fictional but plausible side character in a known historical narrative. The player is asked to establish known cities and to build known monuments, such as the Great Pyramid and Sphinx at Giza for Pharaohs Khufu and Khafra (whom the game presents as tyrants that the player nevertheless obeys for the greater glory of Egypt). The game is organized into historical periods, and missions are based around cities and their monuments or resources. The interest of gameplay lies in city management–making sure that resources are obtained and distributed efficiently–and, unlike many games about historical empires, military campaigns are only a minor aspect. There are missions that focus heavily on military development, but the mechanics of the game actually prevent military conquest from being the primary goal of any mission, as mission goals are usually determined by a combination of population, survival, and four ratings: prosperity, culture, monument, and kingdom. Military might only contributes slightly to these, and serves primarily to preserve the means of achieving these. In many missions, especially early in the narrative history, the player doesn’t even have the option to build military units, and in all missions the number of military units is severely  limited.

Building the Sphinx: it’s a work in progress.
(Screenshot of gameplay)

The effect, then, is that Pharaoh constructs history not as a narrative of conquest (the way that many school textbooks have traditionally presented it) but as a narrative of resource management and meeting competing demands of rulers and subjects alike. The history in Pharaoh is more local and slightly more personal, although it does not go as far as historical fiction in zooming into the level of the individual, and still maintains the traditional emphasis on history as a narrative of ruling parties.

But Pharaoh‘s gameplay makes the argument that rulers cannot completely control how resources are distributed. The player places buildings and roads, but must do so in accordance to what resources are available in the provided map. The building then produce “walkers”, which then determine access to services for other buildings. The player can only control the movement of these walkers by positioning the roads (and roadblocks) to control the flow of traffic. Furthermore, the walkers can provide the player information about city sentiment, as they speak (in character) when clicked on, representing the autonomy of citizens.

Granary Description Screenshot
A portion of the description of historical granaries, in which the game admits that its representation is limited.

The only buildings that upgrade are housing units, and those upgrade not according to technology or era, but according to desirability and access to services–that is, according to how wealthy the residents of that housing unit are. On one hand, this avoids ideologically problematic technology trees. On the other hand, the uniformity of units denies the architectural and other culturally determined differences between buildings in different cities and times in ancient Egyptian history, a problem that the game actually acknowledges in the “read more” sections: the section on granaries, for instance, describes several different styles of granary, and notes that “those depicted in our game” are like those from the Middle Kingdom.

Life along the Nile.
(Gameplay screenshot)

Still, by focusing on a particular culture and a particular (if long) time period, Pharaoh manages to avoid some of the tokenism that tends to come with civilization-building games–the same sort of problems that I identified in Age of Empires II earlier, in which such a game suggests that all civilizations are basically the same with some added bonuses here and there for flavor. Pharaoh instead allows cultural distinctions to shape gameplay: level design enforces dependence on the Nile’s annual inundations, requires the use of water lifts to irrigate non-floodplain farming on arable land (which itself is scarce, depending on the city), education is dependent on reeds for papyrus, mission goals involve building monuments appropriate to the time period (variously mastabas, pyramids, sun temples), and so forth. The fact that these are mechanics created specifically for representing ancient Egyptian culture becomes clear in contrast to Zeus and Poseidon, in which Sierra attempted to translate the same mechanics from Pharaoh into representing classical Greek culture–resulting in a far less interesting game that tries too hard to be Hellenic and not hard enough to be an engaging game. Pharaoh feels organic, with units responding appropriately according to their professions and only making the occasional, as appropriate, reference to Egyptian artifacts and mythology (a priest for Ra, for instance, will certainly invoke Ra), but Zeus has too many attempts to reference Greek mythology at every turn, making their responses feel forced and sometimes even inappropriate for the period.

“Osiris is upset” may be an understatement here.

It is actually the representation of ancient Egyptian mythology that makes the gameplay of Pharaoh most interesting. The gods interact with the player’s city actively. Except in the very earliest missions, each city has a patron god who demands higher devotion than the others, and then there is some selection of “local deities” that the city also worships. The game restricts these to five possible well-known (to a modern audience) deities (Osiris, Ra, Ptah, Seth, and Bast), which is severely limited and naturally oversimplifies ancient Egyptian religion in interest of gameplay, although other gods are acknowledged in various add-ons to the temple complexes (such as the altar of Isis in the temple complex to Bast). But more importantly, the player experiences the gods as real. They are not treated as distant mythology, perhaps the superstitions of a primitive culture, maybe a step in progress toward monotheism (as in many Euro-centric technology trees). Rather, the gods actively interfere in the city, blessing or punishing according to their appeasement and domain: Seth might strike dead the enemies of a city that appeases him, or Ptah might destroy a full storage yard and all its goods in a city that angers him (and, in the Cleopatra expansion, any of the gods’ blessings may become “construction blessings”, in which monuments are built by the hand of a pleased god, providing one of my favorite theories for pyramid construction to date–apparently, the pyramids built themselves by divine intervention!). These divine events are significant and can severely alter the course of the mission, making religion into both integral strategy and compelling narrative.

All the gods are not appeased. I should throw more festivals and build more temples.

The effect of these active gods is to have the player, as a strategic choice, interpret events through a believer’s perspective: “I must appease Osiris,” the player thinks, “so that the inundation will be sufficient to fertilize my fields and produce enough food for my people. I must appease Seth so that my soldiers will be protected in battle and my city defended. My storage yard didn’t just collapse randomly, but because I angered Ptah, so I should throw a festival to Ptah or build a temple,” and so forth. It can be tempting to regard ancient mythologies as primitive or superstitious, to explain away miracles with post-hoc scientific explanations and say that ancient peoples didn’t know any better, but Pharaoh treats mythology as rational, something that is very real to the people who believe in it and live in its culture, and places the player in the position of having to respect that belief to succeed, because the gods are active forces, no less than citizens’ need for food or the fields’ need for floods. In this way, Pharaoh does some very important historical work of valuing a culture on its own terms (within limits) by encouraging players to read ancient Egyptian history sympathetically, rather than as a curiosity or wonder. Although it is still very much a modern western game with modern western values, it does some of the work of postcolonialism by respecting the beliefs of the other as rational for the time and place represented, breaking down some of the orientalist motivations that drove the early excavation and often destruction of ancient Egyptian archaeological sites.

By no means do I want to say that Pharaoh is perfect in this regard. It is not exempt from the oversimplification and erasure that is endemic in historical simulation games. By the game’s own admission, the buildings are designed to be iconic rather than historical (and thus they conform to popular notions of what an ancient Egyptian city “should” look like), and certainly the way that levels and units are designed encourages modern grid-like city planning. Because each mission uses a selection from the same list of available units, there is little distinction between time periods within the game’s selected period, so that the player does not actually see or enact most changes in art, architecture, religion, or other cultural markers throughout ancient Egyptian history, erasing those distinctions in play (although the “read more” essays address this problem, and the mission briefing narratives do describe these changes to some degree). Likewise, many of the culturally specific representations do verge on tokenism, especially the oversimplification of the pantheon. And certainly, I have neither the space nor qualifications to launch a detailed critique of Pharaoh‘s inaccuracies, misrepresentations, or oversimplifications; I would invite someone to take up that discussion elsewhere, of course.

Still, I agree with my students that Pharaoh‘s strength is its accessibility (and therefore playability). Its design manages to recognize the geographic and cultural situatedness of ancient Egyptian civilization by employing those features as a source of gameplay mechanics, yet it makes the people in that civilization very human and relatable. By keeping its focus narrow and specific, Pharaoh is able to treat its subject both playfully and with respect, and in the process create a very pleasantly addictive game.


  1. Huh, never really consciously thought about the Gods in that way, but you’re right – it *does* promote thinking about the pantheon in that sort of way. And I’d definitely agree with your thoughts on “Zeus”, especially the trying-way-too-hard aspect of the dialogue, although the Dr Seuss aspects of the art style make it a little bit hard to fault it for failing; it’s a Bullfinch’s Greece, not really a historical one.

    Also, re the changes over time aspect: have you played Emperor? The temporal changes aren’t huge and aren’t foregrounded too much, but there is a definite progression-through-time aspect: different crops are introduced, different religions arrive, goods and trade patterns alter. Everybody still needs an (identical, very much not Han-era) inspector tower nearby, but there is a definite feel that the Shang and Song are very different periods.

    1. Actually, on consideration, there’s probably a bit of challenge in making it clear that eight dynasties and 3000 years of inspector tower models are all the same at a user’s quick glance, but it could certainly be done; and together with the actual mechanics noted above, that would probably do a lot for promoting the user’s idea of genuine progression through time.

    2. Author

      I appreciate your input. I have not played Emperor, but it sounds like it may be worth looking into, although it may be a little out of my expertise.
      Of course, we can’t in fairness demand that these games make every unit unique and contextualized; computers just don’t do that (yet), and especially not in the older games that I tend to work with in my research.

      1. Oh, definitely, although a couple of different tilesets probably isn’t too bad, resource-wise (Sim City 2000 had four two decades ago). Like I said, I think the limiting factor for a complicated simulation-puzzle game like the Sierra City Builders series is being able to immediately convey to the user what buildings are where (something not so directly necessary in SC2K). That gameplay-versus-accuracy problem half the posts on this site are about. 😉

  2. I LOVED this game as a kid. I was really into Egyptian History in high school. I made a small model of a tomb in a shoe box to go along with a huge long ass report I did for my world history class. The best thing about it is that I was home schooled, so mom was very happy about me taking interest in something and researching it. And I am not talking kid books, I am talking books I found in deep in the adult section of the library. I have kept doing this through history. There is another game about the Titanic where you have to solve puzzles and talk to people to solve a mystery which, as far as i know, is pretty accurate.

    The thing with me though is that I didn’t like the military missions. I didn’t progress all the way through the game to the end or anything like that. My dad updated it one time for me and their “just build a city all ready” missions were opened up on the game. I play those all the time. At least, I used to. *sigh* sadly it only works on a windows computer and I have a mac now and I can’t find any good city building games.

  3. A bit of necromancy, I guess. I’ve read the entire article with great interest and I’d like to focus on one bit from it. Namely, the idea of using it as a teaching aid in schools. Due to variety of factors (many of those listed in your article), Polish Ministry of Education included Pharaoh on a list of teaching aids for middle school (children age 12-15), where the History enters curriculum in full extend, rather than the bare bones that are taught in elementry schools. This wasn’t done solely as “easy way to teach the history of Ancient Egypt”, but more about the importance of proper management and resource allocation. Back when it came out, “Pharaoh” was a rare case of a strategy game that in the same time was accessible on the difficulty scale (sure, it gets more difficult each mission, but the learning curve is relatively mild) and “peaceful” – your goal is to build functional cities, rather than train soldiers and conquer enemies of your side of some conflict. This was in line with then-recent idea behind teaching history exactly as that: economical development and meeting its demands, which allows socio-cultural growth in turn.

    In the same style, when it came out, Emperor was also added to the list, since on top of following all the positive elements of Pharaoh’s design, it was also far more detailed on the historical front, while still acknowledging own limitations at presenting various bits. Considering how exotic in the 00s was any sort of teaching just about anything in Polish schools about things outside Europe and Middle East (and token mention of colonisation), this forced in turn teachers to adjust their lessons, because students ended up asking questions about that stuff. After all, the game was on a ministry-approved list, so what better excuse one could get to play games and then pester teachers about its content.

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