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SPIEL '19 Game Preview: Pharaon, or Prepare to Weigh Your Heart

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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In Pharaon, a big box game from designers Henri Pym and Sylas and publisher Catch Up Games, you are preparing for your death — or more specifically for your afterlife. Your actions in the world will be judged, and in the end you or someone else at the table will be judged the most worthy player.

Pharaon is set in ancient Egypt, and over the course of five rounds, players take actions in five sections of the game board to improve their standing. In more general terms, you'll start with a few resources, and over time you'll attempt to transform those resources into dozens of points in a variety of ways.

On a turn, you either pass to sit out the rest of the round or pay the action cost of one of the five actions, then carry it out. The action cost is partly determined by a wheel that rotates at the end of each round and partly by the action itself; the combination of these two keeps your choices challenging throughout the game as the cost on the wheel can be used to pay part of the cost of the action itself. If, for example, the cost to take an action is a red resource and a yellow resource, and the cost on the wheel is red, then you pay only red and yellow; if the cost on the wheel is blue, then you must pay red, yellow, and blue.

The more efficient you are in taking the right actions at the right time, the more that you can do — yet you often need to pay a higher cost to act now because time won't last forever. These action locations are:

Offerings: Pay the cost on the wheel, then take one of the pairs of offerings on display. Pay an additional resource of the same color, and you can take a third offering.
Nile: Pay the cost on the wheel and a specific pair of resources (with the former cost possibly being part of the latter), then take the resources indicated and advance one or two of your tokens on the Nile tracks.
Artisans: Pay the cost of the wheel and three matching resources (again, with the former cost possibly being part of the latter), then draft one of the four artisan cards on display, with you earning endgame points and resources from this card.
Burial chamber: Pay the cost of the wheel and the cost of the next space on the path of tombs, and you advance to that space, which is worth points at game's end.
Nobles: Pay one of each of the five basic resources, then draft one of the three nobles on display. Each noble is worth endgame points, with that value sometimes based on other factors, and it has a special power that you can use once, once per round, or constantly as indicated on the card.

The number of actions in each space is limited, so you risk being locked out of an action if you don't take it near the start of a round — yet often you take certain actions in a certain order so that you can do whatever it is that you want to do. Taking a Nile, artisan, or offering action sometimes lets you net resources over the cost — perhaps spending three resources to get four — or at least break even, so you often want to take those actions before drafting a noble or improving your burial chamber. Do that, though, and you risk someone else drafting the noble you want first.

I've played Pharaon three times on a review copy from Catch Up Games, twice with two players and once with four, and I've improved my play over time. In the second two-player game, each of us scored at least thirty points more than in our initial game as we discovered how to work the levers in a more efficient manner, so to speak. Everything in the game design threads through everything else, so you're competing against yourself as much as you're competing against others for nobles, offerings, artisans, the pharaoh bonus, and the actions themselves, which are limited based on the number of players.

For much more on the gameplay and how it all works — including the additional challenge of how to please the gods at game's end — check out my video overview:

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