Review: Predynastic Egypt20 Jun 2017 3
Review: Predynastic Egypt
Released 31 May 2017
Predynastic Egypt is a single-player civilization management game which pits you against time itself. Unlike Sid Meier's Civilization, however, you are not guiding one nation among many to global preeminence; there is no direct competition or even autonomous enemies. Instead, the ultimate goal is to create the Egyptian state in two-hundred and twenty turns, to set the stage for dynastic Egypt. The game splits this crowning achievement into six separate tasks, each difficult in their own respect: creating the Hierakonpolis chiefdom, conquering Ombos, uniting the fifteen river tribes, discovering a single pantheon, building the city of Memphis as your capital, and celebrating the unification of Egypt with a sumptuous feast.
In the beginning, you start with a single worker inside humble Hierakonpolis. Most of the game's turns will be spent shuffling around these workers, who help your city amass food and military strength as well as culture, authority and production. Each worker can be slotted to gain these various resources, once the space is explored. Food is used to buy new workers and feed the populace, as well as in military expeditions. Production erects new buildings to further enhance productivity, while culture is used for researching technology. Authority grants special dispensations from the gods, powerful and specialized but of limited duration. Lastly, military strength reflects the standing army's size and its ability to rebuff attackers as well as conquer smaller tribes and cities.
Buildings enhance existing spaces and sometimes offer a percentage-bonus to resource gathering. Technology's effects vary wildly, from simply serving as prequisite for futher tech or buildings to boosting trade, military, exploration or resource gathering. Predynastic Egypt does an excellent job of laying out your choices and paths, and spelling out their costs and benefits from the very beginning. In such a finely-tuned numbers game, however, there is a disturbing amount of hidden information, so much so that I would say the game gives you its whole suite of answers without showing what questions and demands they are meant to reply.
After two-hundred and twenty turns have passed, you will be scored based on how quickly and completely you completed Predynastic Egypt's trials, sprinkled about evenly across the game's runtime. Early on I had to scrounge for five production in order to finish a temple in time; by the final turns I needed about five thousand grain for a feast. I first thought that the game had six different conditions and that I could just specialize towards one of them in order to win, like researching the final tech for the cultural victory. About halfway through I realized my mistake and grew concerned that I wouldn't manage to finish any of the tasks, let alone all of them. Predynastic Egypt plays its cards close to the chest, dealing them out slowly and sparingly to the player.
Playing it for the first time, I was totally in the dark about how to gauge the viability of various strategies. For example, exploration is necessary but takes up multiple turns of your valuable workers' time. Sometimes it revealed a choice new space to harvest more food, but many other times it revealed an inferior resource space or even a hostile tribe that was best ignored for the present. And the tech and building trees were similarly deceptive: I thought I would choose certain tracks and advance them while ignoring others, but realistically learned that in general researching and building most everything in order of expense was not only feasible but preferable in the long run. The trials, too, were foreshadowed a few turn in advance but not enough to plan for from the beginning.
These quiet surprises are for the best, because Predynastic Egypt, the first time through, is largely a game of tactical flourishes chosen in response to unexpected setbacks. Its event system giveth and taketh way, forcing some degree of adaptability. My projected harvest might be blighted by famine or bolstered by the Nile's annual flood. Many of its unexpected trials paid out generous rewards, and in the final quarter of the game I saw the clouds part as victory once again seemed possible. With a little elbow grease, I forged a trading route to Palestine, crushed the rebellious river-states and patiently waited to gather enough culture points to research the 'Single Pantheon' tech.
In some ways, it does actually fondly call to mind many of the joys of Civ, from the thudding compulsion to take one more turn to the sense of deep insecurity that abruptly vanishes as your civilization begins to come into full bloom. Balancing these sorts of games means giving the player just enough fear and apprehension to make the final success hardscrabble and hard-won. My Hierakonpolis went from being a ragdoll buffeted by the winds of fate to a juggernaut that could throw its weight around and reshape the whole of Egypt. Eventually the tightness in my throat went away, slaked by a draught of power and possibility. Then the rest of the game became my plaything, an exercise in whim rather than getting by.
The game's interface makes fiddling with various possible turns fun and intuitive, and its many numbers and effects are all presented in a clear-cut and logical format. Despite all of these strengths, I do slightly resent how opaque a first playthrough is, because for a long, slow game like this, a player should be able to study as many of its systems and trials beforehand in order to eke out a higher score. It shouldn't take a four hour playthrough for a new player to orient themselves in the strategic space, to figure out exactly what the game asks of them. Still, don't be mistaken: this is praising with faint criticism and not damning with faint praise. I only gripe because the game here is very tightly wound and very good; I just wish it trusted me more.