Pharaon board game: A four-sided review

The Pharaon board game is an action selection/worker placement style game for one to five players. It takes around an hour to play (a little more with more people) and is suitable for gamers aged 10+.

While lightly themed at best, this largely abstract game sees players as the children of the pharaoh as they go through life. Yup, you’re preparing for your journey to the afterlife – and perhaps becoming pharaoh – largely by turning little cardboard chits into victory points.

I’m a sucker for an Egyptian themed game and this one is gorgeous to look at. In the box you’ll find two game boards, about 200 cardboard tokens, 50+ small cards, 40 wooden pieces and a drawstring bag. While the board is typical Egyptian beige, the rest of the components are pleasingly bright and nicely made. And with the exception of the few wooden markers, all the coloured components also have images (which helps those with colour issues). At around £40, it feels like solid value.

Teaching the Pharaon board game

Despite the Pharaon board game having a lot of moving parts, it’s remarkably easy to teach to gamers. Yes, you have to explain everything up front because you can do any of the five actions from the start. But anyone having played an action selection game will immediately feel comfortable with the mechanisms.

On your turn, you’ll decide whether to take an action or pass (more on passing later). Turns are snappy, making it a euro game that’s completely fine with five players. Each of the boards five areas has its own related action. There’s a limit to how many times each area can be used and there are only five rounds in the game (eg, four times in a four/five player game). So you have a feeling of time pressure from the start.

The game has five resource colours, with each corresponding to one action area each round. So far so standard. The twist is the colour that triggers it changes each round, as the board rotates one click each round. And as the board is also modular, these sections can be in a different configuration each time you play.

This allows you to hold some resources back for when they’ll be good for another area. This is particularly strong as the resource you pay to do an action can also be used as a discount for it. So if an area needs ‘three of any colour’ to activate, and you need a red to activate the area, you’ll only need three reds to do the action. Otherwise, you’d need a red and three blues (for example).

The actions

Three action areas let you trade resources for a combination of other resources and/or points. All work slightly differently. The key is choosing to get as many/more resources back than you paid; just points; or a combination of the two. Various factors affect how you choose (not just its resource colour), making it more interesting than it sounds! How many more times can it be used this round? Or will it affect end game scoring?

One area is pure points – pay resources and move up a track. It feels horrible, as you get shorter turns. But reaching the top of the track bags 60 points. Pretty good, in a game where 120 can win it. The fifth track is also expensive, but gives a Noble card. These are your traditional euro way of giving rule-breaking abilities and ways to ramp up endgame scoring – or give you strong one-off benefits.

Passing early has its advantages. It makes you first player next round. You’ll also choose your resource jar first (there’s one per player per round). Each has three resources on it, so you can set yourself up better for the next round. Potentially better still, if someone stay in the round after you pass, when it comes back to you you’ll get another freebie. So a very early pass can potentially give the start player four bonuses.

Alongside points scored in-game, you can score five gods: another clever element of the game benefiting from the board’s five-section random set up. Each section relates its end game scoring to its in-game action. But is coupled to those either side of it, meaning you have to have completed both sides to get the bonus. This adds an extra decision space, as you try to choose your actions to maximise these opportunities.

Solo play

Solo player AI has come on leaps and bounds in recent years and Pharaon doesn’t disappoint. The player’s actions and goals don’t change at all, which I like. But each play will be different, thanks to a random setup of five boards that control your AI opponent’s actions. You can also flip some to their harder side to control the difficulty.

During setup you can see how many actions the AI will take each round (3-5). While a little scripted, this does mean passing is still an interesting decision for you. You flip over a jar on the AIs turn and use its three depicted resources to cover action spaces or fill in spaces on its boards (each board is set to a resource colour at the start of play). Again, this keeps up the tension of not knowing what action spaces will be left. But also gives you interesting decisions, as you can see what actions it may have coming up.

Overall, I found it a really engaging experience. A game only last 30-45 minute, which is great for having to operate an AI too. And it wasn’t that fiddly, especially as you sometimes have decisions to make in terms of what to get the AI to do. I’m no solo game expert, but personally this is one of the better ones I’ve played.

The four sides

These are me, plus three fictitious players drawn from observing my friends and their respective quirks and play styles.

  • The writer: It’s the little things that make Pharaon stand out. A good example is the pharaoh bonus. Each player starts with one Noble card. The first player to pick up another Noble card, while also being on step two of the burial track, gets to become pharaoh. For this you get seven victory points, and the pharaoh token. It’s a little thing really, but you can see people compete over it – and it’s usually gone in the second or third round. But it adds a nice little subplot to the game.
  • The thinker: The game’s BGG complexity rating of close to three surprises me. The rules are incredibly simple to pick up and the strategies soon present themselves – although admittedly it takes one end-game scoring to really see the full scope. It is also more tactical than I would usually like, as available actions soon begin to diminish. But the game offers a really solid mental workout, especially considering the playtime. Thumbs up from me.
  • The trasher: Resource management doesn’t exactly get me going. But the way limitations work here kept me engaged throughout. You can try and suss out your opponents by regarding the resources they have left. But then an action may see them trade three resources and gain a few points – plus a completely different set of three resources! Constantly shifting sands like this keep me interested. So while it wouldn’t be a pick for me, I’d happily play Pharaon some more.
  • The dabbler: I was sceptical when I saw this hit the table. A million components plus a 12-page rulebook equals alarm bells! But it looked great and I liked the theme – and the actual rules were only four pages, including a bunch of pictures. Most of the rules are things such as setup and clear explanations of all the cards and symbols, making it a great gateway game too. Play is quite tense, thanks to short turns and pressure to get the actions you want. But I really like it!

Key observations

There are some complaints that the game is your typical point salad conversion game. I think I’ve already addressed this: yes, it is – but it’s a damned good one. But no, originality isn’t a strong suit for Pharaon.

A few players complain you can’t build up enough resources for satisfying turns. I don’t get this at all. Only one action in the game costs five resources, while many give you back as many/more than you start the action with. It’s easy to have four or so actions in a round and have plenty of resources left over. In fact, unless you play very poorly or go for a high spend/low action total tactic, you’re more likely to be worried about all the useful action spots being taken up.

Others call the game bland and that it lacks immersion, seemingly due to the theme-less nature and lack of interaction. I guess these people – who crop up time and again – are entitled to their opinion. But why criticise a game for not being something it never claimed to be? It’s like getting angry with an over for failing to keep your food cold. Get a grip people… It’s just a stupid criticism.

Conclusion: Pharaon board game

I often bemoan the fact games lack originality and consequently feel a bit of a hypocrite praising Pharaon. There’s nothing new here under that bright Egyptian sun. As I read the rules I was sure it would be a disappointment, which is probably why it ended up at the bottom of my Essen game review pile. But what can I say? It won me over on my first play and I’ve enjoyed every game since.

What Pharaon does so well is create tension, making it feel like a race. The short play time helps, as well as only having five rounds to complete your goals. And I’m a sucker for any game that really encourages you to look at what you think your opponents are about to do. It’s a definite keeper and may well turn out to be my favourite new release from the (admittedly rather average) Essen 2019 crop. Especially when you add in the thoroughly enjoyable solo mode and the fact it works fine right up to five players.

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