I’ve been playing a fair amount of the old city-builder game Pharoah: Gold recently. (Bought it on sale at GoG at the beginning of the month.) And I’ve been pondering why.

I have played SimCity. I have a copy of SimCity 2000 (bought for cheap after 3000 came out). I have spent time with OpenTTD.

I think they’re all fine enough. But they don’t hold my attention for long. A few hours fiddling around with them and I’m done.

I am, in general, a strategy gamer. Which is a computer game genre definition so broad as to be close to useless. (The excellent strategy game podcast Three Moves Ahead has had occasional side discussions on ‘what is a strategy game?’, with Tom Chick asserting that ‘everything is’, and even making an interesting argument for The Sims as a strategy game.) There is, of course, a large number of sub-genres (ranging from overly-broad to tiny niche), and I’ve been meaning to talk about some of the smaller ones I’ve observed.

But, anyway: city-builders. SimCity is kind of the genre definer, and is generally a pure sandbox simulation ‘game’ without a lot of goals, and limited interaction with the actual mechanics. Pure sandbox games generally don’t do much for me; that’s the common thread between the games that don’t hold my interest that I mentioned earlier.

Caesar was a popular city-builder game, that spawned three sequels, and two spinnoffs based on the the Caesar III engine (Pharoah and Zeus). I enjoyed the Caesar III demo way back when (somewhat to my surprise, and that demo is why I bought Pharoah: Gold). I’ve now played Pharoah: Gold obsessively for over a week, which is now tailing off (I think).

The difference is that while the Caesar/Pharoah-model city-builders look a bit like SimCity, there is a decided difference in execution. As mentioned, SimCity is pretty much pure sim. You zone areas, lay out roads, and mix in essential services, and wait to see if the sims can put together a viable economy. Pharaoh is actually an economic engine game (who knew I had that much eurogamer in me?). You are placing specific industries to produce raw materials which are then taken to other industries to turn them into usable goods which are needed for other purposes (building weapons, improving living conditions, etc). It can be seen as a close-up of the ‘exploit’ part of 4X (a genre I regularly enjoy).

This brings me to another game that I discovered and enjoyed years ago that could be mistaken for a city-builder: The Settlers II: Gold Edition. It is fairly close to Pharoah/Caesar, but is easier to see as not related to SimCity. Settlers is a pure economic engine game. Every building has a cost in lumber and stone to build. So you need to cut down trees, convert it to lumber and quarry stone to get anything done. The full set of resources needed to get everything done is much more complicated (but mostly turns into providing food to miners to generate iron and coal for creating weapons and armor, and gold to pay/upgrade the resulting soldiers), but does not involve any hidden mechanisms.

Pharoah on the other hand still has the ‘sim’ aspect of the residents having wants and desires that are not entirely surfaced to the player. A basic building needs to be provided with water, so the residents do better and upgrade it; then they need a bazaar to get food from, then religion…. But there is also ‘desirability’. Placing a storage yard (for example) too close to a residential area makes it a less desirable location, and the building can only climb so far up the scale of increasing wealth. While there are ways to look at this in the game, no real guidance is given. How far does this effect spread? Which buildings are the worst for desirability? There’s also an ‘overall’ mood which can keep new immigrants from arriving when you open up new areas, but I have no idea what contributes to that….

There is a final, very important thing that Pharoah and Settlers share that SimCity does not: They both have campaigns, which have missions. I’m not set loose to just make my own city. I have goals. In Settlers II this is to take control of the gate that leads to the next island/mission (or just wipe everyone else off the map in the alternate campaign; both campaigns are quite challenging). Pharoah starts with a ‘build these buildings’ format common to a lot of early/tutorial RTS campaigns, but is looking like it is shifting over to ‘hit these arbitrary metrics in a challenging situation’. That makes sense, but I have a feeling I’m going abandon the campaign if it continues down that road.

There’s also a framing story around the main campaigns in both. Settlers II is the story of a Roman expedition that got shifted to some pocket universe, and is trying to find it’s way back through a succession of gates, hoping that one will lead home. Pharoah is about the successive generations of a family of administrators serving Egypt; the transition I mentioned happens at the beginning of the Old Kingdom stage. The former is far more effective at keeping me playing, but the latter is nicely used for a loose presentation of the history of Egypt.