Pharaoh takes Impressions' popular Caesar III, relocates it to ancient Egypt, and adds a few welcome features. Like Caesar III, Pharaoh's gameplay falls somewhere between the intensive city-management of Maxis' SimCity series and the combination of city management and combat found in Blue Byte's Settlers games. However, Pharaoh is neither a sequel nor an expansion to Caesar III; although many of the game mechanics are identical to its predecessor, the strategy is noticeably different in order to suit Pharaoh to its setting. Pharaoh is an all-around better game than Caesar III, and while it may seem overly familiar to fans of that game, it offers enough variety and innovation to keep things interesting.
The game begins simply, requiring you to create jobs and homes to attract settlers. Once your population begins growing, you must make sure it has food and water, access to religious facilities, entertainment, and other luxuries to attract a larger and more affluent populace. You must also ensure that your people are protected by a suitably strong militia.
Accomplishing these goals is a complex process. Most goods require natural resources in order to be produced, and many of these resources must be imported. Many of the goods must be imported as well, and you must manage the distribution of these items to make sure everyone is getting enough of what they need to survive and what they want to live happily. Imports can be pricey, so you must also produce items for export.
Unlike in SimCity, management of your city in Pharaoh is a very hands-on experience. With the sole exception of housing, which will upgrade itself based on nearby services, you decide exactly what type of building will be placed where. Storehouses and industrial buildings must be close enough to residences that goods will be easily accessible, but not so close that they lower property value. The same principle applies to markets, which distribute food and luxury items to your people. Those who found themselves frustrated by the inability to manage market workers' distribution routes in Caesar III will be glad to know that a roadblock option has been included in Pharaoh, giving you some control over where patrolling workers will walk. It's not a perfect solution - strict management over their routes would still be welcome - but it certainly helps.
The ancient Egyptian setting of the game leads to some other interesting new features. The regular flooding of the Nile River demands you produce or import enough food to last through the flood season. A poor inundation can lead to bad irrigation and food shortages, so satisfying the god of the flood, Osiris, becomes a top priority. The religion system in Pharaoh has also been improved since Caesar III. Satisfying the gods is now a higher priority, but there are fewer gods to deal with in each scenario, thereby making the process slightly less involved.
The primary play mode of Pharaoh is the "family" mode. You control a ruling family who must govern a series of cities, each time taking on more responsibility and earning more respect. The mission-based nature of this mode is interesting; instead of being a simple open-ended management simulation like SimCity, in Pharaoh you have very specific goals, but these can take a long time to achieve. New options and features are introduced at a rate that keeps things interesting, and the end result is a game with a great deal of longevity. Those who prefer a more open-ended simulation will want to play the game's "sandbox" mode, which lets you build and govern without the constraints of the scenario objectives.
Pharaoh's missions are also more involving than those in Caesar III. Combat is still a secondary element, but it is easy to control and never really becomes the focus. In most missions, you're required to build monuments, and these get larger and more costly as you progress. Not only does this provide a bit of tangible success to each scenario - seeing a huge pyramid completed is far more satisfying than reaching some arbitrary numerical rating - but the monuments also add some visual excitement to a game that otherwise looks like Caesar III with an Egyptian flavor. That's not to say it looks bad; the landscape graphics may be somewhat bland, but the building graphics and animations are detailed and appealing.
Pharaoh is only subtly different from its predecessor, but its new elements make it much deeper and more satisfying. Like Caesar III, Pharaoh takes ideas from other games and combines them in a way that is different and entertaining. Unlike Caesar III, the frustrations that accompany some of the game's mechanics are easily dealt with. Pharaoh is slow-paced but addictive and is immensely complex but incredibly easy to play.