Heir to the Pharaoh from Eagle Gryphon Games is a two player, tile laying, bidding, area control, hand management gem. It plays in about an hour and was designed by Alf Seegert. You should seriously consider picking it up if you have a spot in your collection for a great two player game.
Displeased by his children, the Pharaoh favors his pets instead. He has decided to alter the lines of succession and will bequeath his entire kingdom either to the feline goddess Bast or to the canine god Anubis. But which one?
I've got a soft spot for Alf Seegert games, I'm the first to admit it. Not because he's a cool, interesting guy (he is) but because he designs cool, interesting, delightful games. I've played a lot of games in my life and while I've been bored and entertained in just about equal measure, it's rare that I'm delighted at a game. Heir to the Pharaoh is a delight to play - it's strictly two player, has tons of player involvement, looks really darned pretty and gets auction/bidding right for two players, a rare thing. Mostly though, the game flows like a natural, evolved creation, not a constructed thing of cardboard and rules. More on that later.
How to Play
Each player will pick a side - Bast or Anibus (cat or dog). The board gets set up and it's off to see who'll win the favor of the Pharaoh!
The game is divided into two phases - the Bidding phase and the Action phase. You'll play each of these phases 8 times, when the game will end. Your final scores will be tallied and a winner declared. I'm going to gloss over some of the rules and leave a few things out. You'll get a good sense of how to play reading below without me simply copying the rule book and pasting it here!
The Bidding Phase: Each player starts off with a deck of cards numbered 1-10. These are your bids. The Gods deck is shuffled, with Thoth always on the bottom. The top card is flipped over and a Pharaoh's Favor token placed on it. This gives that particular god an additional ability this turn.
Each player then selects one of their numbered cards and these are simultaneously revealed. The player with the highest number wins! Mostly. Sometimes. You'll see, just hang on a minute. If there's a tie, the player who's card shows a Sun symbol wins that tie. Repeat until the God's deck is depleted, with one exception. If the Pharaoh card comes up, it's moved to the Pyramid symbol on one corner of the board and each player selects one Bid card and places it face down near the Pharaoh.
Now, there are these Animal Magic cards as well. Before each god is bid for, any player may declare that they're going to summon up some Animal Magic. These cards can alter the way bidding works. Sometimes the lower number wins, or a Moon symbol breaks a tie or what have you. The Animal Magic card also allows access to the higher value Pharaoh cards for some extra bidding oomph.
On every other Action phase, which comes up next, you'll see what happens to that Pharaoh card.
The Action Phase: Each of those God cards you've been furiously bidding on have individual actions on them. Whichever card that turn has the Pharaoh's Favor token on it will gain additional actions on the card (I didn't list them below). All actions are always performed in the following order:
Seshat: Place a monument token on the board. Each token has arrows, which become vitally important very soon! Each side of these tokens is also keyed to Bast or Anibus. When you place the token, you decide which side is face up. Also place the 'monumeeple' (the monument meeple) on the board on top of the token.
Geb and Nut: You may flip over one of the above mentioned tokens to change ownership.
Ptah: Claim the active Monument card (Shrine, Sun Temple, Obelisk) as your own and immediately score it. Here's the set collection! Through the game you can collect 1-4 of each monument and they're worth 1/3/5/7 points accordingly.
Ra: Place a player disk on the Sun space on the board that's currently active this turn. Score yourself a point for that. This adds to your score in the end game.
Wadjet: Draw the top Animal Magic card and add it to your hand (right in with your bidding cards). If it's the last round, forgo the card and just score 2 points.
Pharaoh: Every other Action phase, you'll be revealing your secretly placed bid cards (there will be two of them) to see who controls the Pharaoh. The player who has the greatest total gets control and gets to build one section of the great Pyramid. That section will show the player's color. At the end of the game, whoever controls more of the Pyramid gains a 7 point bonus.
Thoth: Exchange all of your used bidding cards with your opponent, move the Sun marker, choose a new Monument card and reset the Gods deck.
Once all of the gods have been revealed and bid on, the best part of bidding in this game happens. Any cards you used to bid for the gods, whether you won that bid or not, are then traded to the other player. It's very easy to have a spectacular turn bidding, only to set yourself up for failure on the next turn as you hand all those high numbered cards to your opponent!
These phases continue until the sun has mad a circuit around the board (8 times) and then final scoring takes place.
Every animal magic card you have in your hand is worth 1 point.
Your longest chain of sun markers (see Ra above) placed on the board is doubled and scored. So if you have 3 sun markers in a row, that's 6 points.
The player with the most (of four) Pyramid tiles gets 7 points. If it's a tie, the player with the top tile wins. (Incidentally, my daughter has won this way a few times).
Score the monuments. Each monument is placed on a tile which donates ownership and has some arrows on it (see Seshat above). For every monument and the pyramid that are on the arrow's line of sight, you score points. Shrines are 1, Sun Temples are 2, and Obelisks are 3. If your monument points to the Pyramid, you score your own monument as well (not just those in line of sight).
Whoever has the highest score wins!
Why you should play
Heir to the Pharaoh falls into that hard to reach category of slightly whimsical, extremely eye-catching and strategically interesting games. Once you get the hang of the game (and I'd recommend playing a round or two and then restarting the game your first time) it just flows. It flows so wonderfully that you're barely aware of the phases switching or the rounds ending and are more focused on the game itself. That's what I mean when I say it's a delight to play! You forget that the rules are a structured thing as they meld so well into the game play and theme and you just enjoy the experience itself.
If you're reading the How to Play section above and it seems a little complex, that's because it is. At first. Trust me though when I say that a few rounds into the game you'll just get it. It'll click (like so many of Alf's games do - Fantastiqa I'm looking at you!) and before you know it you'll be motoring along without having to reference the rules or figure out who does what when. This game really does reward multiple plays. As you get to know each of the God and Animal Magic cards you can start to focus more on strategy and how you're going to outsmart your opponent rather than mechanics.
I know for a fact that Alf spent over a decade working on this design and it very much shows. The game is highly polished, with auction/bidding mechanics that make it a joy to experience with only two players - a real rarity in gaming. The game also looks fantastic - the artwork is great, it's theme and setting meld nicely with the components and art. More so than anything else, the best way I can describe why this game shines is that it just... flows. A few plays in and returning to this game is like playing chess with an opponent you've been playing chess with for a decade. You both know the rules and the mechanics so you can simply bypass them and just enjoy the challenge of the game and the company of your opponent.