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The Egyptian National Character

December 28th, 2010 by Troy Goodfellow · 6 Comments · Feature:Nations, History

What this is about, including full list.

Like China, Egypt has a long history. Unlike China, it had a sustained near consecutive period of glory that makes it easy to stereotype and pigeonhole. Egypt’s greatest monument – the Great Pyramid of Giza – is synonymous with Egyptian glory and majesty.

Egypt is the nation of builders.

You see this everywhere in historical strategy games about Egypt. Though the pyramid builders of Egypt were hundreds of years before Ramses turned Egypt into an imperial nation that would project its power beyond the Nile valley, the greatest of the pyramids set the standard for Egyptian construction teams. Temples and statues and obelisks and carved friezes – all are well beyond human scale because they were constructed to honor a god – the Pharaoh himself.

What most people think they know about Egypt is similar to what they think they know about Rome. It’s a bit of a blur and there is an assumption that things were almost always the same. The Egypt of Khufu, however, was not the Egypt of Tutankhamen. There were no great chariot armies for Khufu, for example; they were introduced by Hyksos invaders. But the misunderstandings and mistakes still capture something very true about ancient Egypt. It was a society that was centered on its religion, the Pharaoh was the incarnation of the sun god, and if the sun god wanted a big ass temple complex, it got built.

Egypt, of course, has over a hundred pyramids – not just the Great Ones. (This, by the way, is why we know aliens didn’t build them – we can see Egyptian engineers perfecting their technique). And even the post pyramid tomb phase, when they pretty much dug holes and stuck kings in them, is full of grandeur in the burials. The monuments both reminded the average Egyptian just how powerful his god-king was and served as propaganda for visiting foreigners. The glory of Egypt was renowned both long before it became a regional power and long after it could really do anything.

The consistent uniformity of making Egypt a monument civilization in strategy games is obvious, but also striking. Both the rulers in Civ 4 had the Industrious trait, which meant wonders got built faster. Civ 5’s Egypt gets a similar 20% bonus to wonder building; play Egypt with some marble and the Aristocracy policy (another 33%) and you will be a wonder machine. Rise of Nations also gives Egypt construction bonuses – wonders are cheaper, you can build two per city instead of one and you can build them an age earlier than other factions. This plus the farming bonuses makes Egypt an early powerhouse in that game. In Rise and Fall: Civilizations at War and Age of Mythology, Egypt can build monuments that contribute to, respectively, the nation’s glory and religious power.


Age of Empires is the outlier, for obvious reasons. Since building a wonder is a victory condition, it probably makes no sense to give Egypt a bonus here, and none of the factions in Age of Empires get major building bonuses except for those related to towers and walls. Egypt gets a gold harvesting bonus and stronger chariots – which are more than enough.

Still, the running theme for Egypt in strategy games is clear: Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.

The pull of Pharaonic Egypt is so strong that both games and popular culture tend to see ancient Egypt as one long procession of pyramids and kings wielding the flail and crook of the great Nile kings. That is why you end up with historically ludicrous chariot armies in Rome: Total War. In the name of variety (After all, do we want yet another pike and horse army?), the entire Hellenistic period of Egypt – a time of Greek rule – is tossed aside, even though some of the most famous Egyptian wonders (the Library of Alexandria, the Great Lighthouse) were built by Greeks. Ancient Egypt has become so identified with the Egypt of “The Ten Commandments” that the fact over a thousand years separates Hatshepsut and Cleopatra is conveniently elided in favor of giving people the gloriously alien culture of the former, and not the eccentric hybrid culture (Egyptian and Greek) of the latter.

It’s appropriate that a nation of builders comes most alive in those games that emphasize the scale of Egypt’s accomplishments in the world of construction and engineering. Two of the very best city builders every made – Pharaoh and Children of the Nile – take Egypt as their focus and do it credit.

I’ve probably written more about Children of the Nile on this blog than any other city builder. I reviewed it for Computer Games Magazine five years ago (Has it been that long? I still miss that mag…) and it remains my favorite historical city builder by a mile. It and Pharaoh both tied things to the Nile, whose live giving floods made Egyptian civilization possible. What I did not really appreciate in my review, but which I do now is how Children of the Nile captured the national scale of the monument building.


In both games you could quarry the stone and marble you needed or trade for it. The difference is that in CotN, you had to pay for expeditions to find the resources. So your city planning was tied to a rough type of empire building. Emissaries would go to Lebanon and negotiate cedar deals so you could build yachts for your nobles. Your army existed to clear the way for more granite or basalt to find its way to your city. You had to plan your docks to receive these goods. Every historical city builder makes your city the centre of the universe; Tilted Mill forced you to go out and gather what you needed from the periphery before the goods would show up on your docks.

This was the true nature of Egypt. Thutmose III’s great campaigns and Ramses the Great’s punitive expeditions notwithstanding, ancient Egypt summoned the wealth of the world to its doorsteps and made its glories there. There were no great monuments built in her vassal or tributary states, no large trophies to commemorate squashing the little guy, no Egyptian colonies or settlements or even governors. Egypt consumed the wealth of the Near East so it could build statues and temples and tombs worth of the conceits of a god king at home, where the Nile gave life and marked the seasons and whose failure would mean months of earnest prayers.

It remains one of the most exciting and interesting of ancient cultures and one that has been mostly well served by game designers.

But if you want to talk real empire, you have to turn to the next entry. Coming up, jolly old England.


6 Comments so far ↓

  • The Chinese National Character

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  • Wolfox

    Great article, as always. I’m also glad to see your love for Children of the Nile – it’s a great city builder, indeed.

  • Budo

    Great article as always Troy. I was on the fence about Children of the Nile, and your discussion tipped me over the edge. It’s on sale at Steam (enhanced edition with the Alexandria expansion pack) for just a little over $3!

  • Chris Floyd

    I’m absolutely loving this series, Troy. I look forward to the later installments!

    I know you did a show a while back on city-builders. How about a classic game analysis of the Impressions games? Maybe get someone from Tilted Mill, if possible, and you can talk Children of the Nile as well. CotN took me some time to warm up to, but you’re right, it’s such a totally different kind of game it really pays off.

    (On the other hand, I recently got CivCity Rome from Steam for $.99, and it goes the other direction: standard and familiar. That’s fine, but I’ll tire of it soon. On the other other hand, Grand Ages Rome has proven a little too unusual for me to get hooked. Probably I should spend more time with it, like I did with CotN.)

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