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Children of the Nile revisited

October 8th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

To gear up for Caesar IV (which I haven’t gotten yet), I reinstalled Tilted Mill’s last game, Children of the Nile. I do this from time to time for both review and remembrance because it is a good way to get a handle on a developer’s feeling for the material and to refresh your memory as to what in a new game is actually new. Before I reviewed Magitech’s Takeda 2, I replayed the original Takeda and Strength and Honour. Every new Ensemble or GSC release is preceded by at least a few hours of intense revisiting of earlier titles, either for good (Age of Mythology. Yay!) or ill (Cossacks II. Boo!). This is probably not normal practice, and I’m not even sure I recommend it. But it does give me more opportunities for blog posts.

It’s been about a year since I last played Children of the Nile in any serious way. In my February 2005 Computer Games Magazine review I wrote that it was “a daring attempt to rethink the entire city-building genre” and that “never has a city seemed so alive, its citizens so lifelike.”

Once you break yourself of the mindset that trade is about money and that taxes are for a treasury, you find this new way of playing much more satisfying. When your Pharaoh dies, has his organs ripped out, and is stuffed in a cedar box, he can rest easy knowing that he has presided over the kind of of kingdom gamers have been waiting for.

I settled on a 4/5 score because of some path finding and economic problems, fixed in the subsequent patches. It’s still too slowly paced for some gamers.

The more I play it, though, the more I love it and the less inclined I am to speed it up. Children of the Nile is, in many ways, like Sid Meier’s Pirates!. First, it’s a very leisurely title that encourages you to sit back and enjoy all the visuals. In Pirates, it’s stuff like the dance moves and ships sailing in the distance. In Nile, it’s mourners carrying a sarcophagus to a nearby tomb or monkeys running in the streets. Second, just like in Pirates, it’s quite hard to reach a fail state. If your economy collapses, it will eventually get going again. Your kingdom’s health is inextricably linked to the flooding river, so as long as there are seasons, there will be an Egypt. In both, success is defined by the player as much as it is by the scenario goals. Third, and most importantly, it is a convincing representation of what it purports to be.

Let me unpack that for you. Pirates is about pirate movies and carries off that conceit brilliantly. Cartoonishly acrobatic swordfights, beautiful girls, revenge for a separated family, treasure buried all over the Caribbean…all pirate movie stuff and Pirates makes it work.

Children of the Nile, more than any other historical city builder, feels historical. More than that, it feels 4000 year old historical. Beautiful temples rub shoulders with laborers huts. Life is tied to the seasons. The gods are deeply important to your people, but more important when things start to go south. Your wealth is measured in status and prestige and the size of your educated court, not in how much money you have.

Is this an accurate description of Ancient Egypt? Not sure. I’m more of a Greek and Roman guy. But it is a world so distant that it has to play differently than all the other Impressions games which become one big theme in my brain. Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom didn’t play that differently from Pharaoh or Zeus or Caesar III. It could have been about the Aztecs for all the difference the theme made.

The slow pace works in this alien world. The Nile is timeless, the seasons move on and your Pharaoh will eventually move to the land of Anubis. If it feels like the game is taking forever, it’s OK because the game is about forever; the eternal rhythm of society that drove early civilization. There is little upward mobility; farmers may eventually become nobles, but their hut won’t have a series of renovations like in the three Caesar games or Glory of the Roman Empire. Ancient Egypt is a society where roles are assigned and then carried out. This game is about the Pharaoh – his prestige and his legacy. But all is built on the barley and wheat surplus.


One Comment so far ↓

  • Darius K.

    Tilted Mill is a Boston-area developer, so I bought the game but never really devoted much time to it. I should fire it back up and give it another go!