Thanks to stories like Stargate SG-1 and The Prince of Egypt, I was obsessed with Ancient Egypt as a child. I loved the pharaohs, I loved the pyramids, and I loved getting my hands on anything that has to do with mummies or hieroglyphics. This obsession was also the main reason I first got into other shows like Yu-Gi-Oh. Ancient Egypt sparked my love for a lot of fandoms—and hey, it was also the only thing that made me even mildly look forward to history class as a child.
So when the PC game Pharaoh was released in 1999, I scooped it up as quickly as possible. I loved every moment of it—but sadly, being a 1999 game, it stopped working on my computer right around the time I got Windows Vista. Now that I’m on Windows 8, it had been years since Pharaoh graced my computer screen and I had no hope of playing it again. I became even more dejected after I visited the Chicago Field museum a few months ago and spent a couple hours in their Ancient Egypt exhibit. The experience left me wanting for more. I set out to find Pharaoh again, determined to make it work, and in my search, I discovered GOG—a gaming website I’m sure everyone in the world knew existed before I did.
But hey, it had both Pharaoh and its expansion Cleopatra on sale and compatible with Windows 8 for about ten dollars. I was set.
Pharaoh + Cleopatra is part of Sierra Entertainment’s City Building Series. And city building is pretty much all the games are. Every level, you are given a plot of land and have to build homes, farms, a treasury, and all the other things needed to run a city. You also have to be able to import and export goods with other cities, and if you’re not careful, you’ll run out of money very quickly. Essentially, this is the game that taught my eleven-year-old self that she couldn’t understand economics worth shit. This is also the game that taught her that the Egyptian pantheon doesn’t fuck around.
Every level, depending on what city you’re running, you have different gods to worship—Seth, Ra, Bast, so on and so forth—and if you don’t hold festivals in their honor or build enough temples and shrines, they get pissed at you. As my younger self struggled to get out of whatever depression she so carelessly caused each level, she also had to contend with Bast sending plagues upon her city because she didn’t worship often enough.
Replaying the game in my mid-twenties, I find it much easier to manage pleasing the gods and creating a stable economy. Of course, I also replayed the game on the easiest level.
Pharaoh runs through several eras in Egyptian history, and its expansion Cleopatra picks up where the first game leaves off and continues the gameplay through to the Hellenistic period. One of the reasons I love Pharaoh is because it’s so educational. It might not be the best game to play when looking to study Ancient Egypt. Not being an expert on the matter, I can’t be sure how much of it is historically accurate, but from what I can tell, it’s pretty on point.
For instance, farming is based entirely on the annual inundation of the Nile, which can have a detrimental effect on your food supplies. And when building monuments of any kind, you need to gather or import all the necessary supplies, such as limestone or sandstone. The game also goes out of its way to teach you about how things were done. When building the pyramids, for example, the workers spend numerous in-game years using water to level the base, building the internal burial chambers, and dragging stone after stone after stone to the construction site.
And thanks to how the game implements the deities, you also get to learn a lot about the Egyptian pantheon as well and what the different gods were worshiped for. I caught on pretty quickly that no matter what I do, I should always keep Seth happy, because he has a habit of smiting my enemies for me (I would hate to see what he’d do to my armies should I somehow make him angry).
Pharaoh + Cleopatra is a fun, historically based game with a bit of mysticism to it. Though it was difficult as a child, it’s easy to play now. You can speed through the levels rather quickly and learn something in the process. The graphics are still pretty decent for a sixteen-year-old game, and it’s totally worth the ten dollars GOG asks for it. Go check it out.