Be a Dog, Be a Bast
One of the things I most appreciate about Alf Seegert’s work — at least across the slight handful of his games I’ve played — is how he takes very relatable and approachable concepts and transforms them into something more. Take Dingo’s Dreams, for example. It’s bingo, the very same one your grandma plays for day-glo pens with puffy feathers sticking out the end, yet in Seegert’s hands it becomes one of the breeziest light titles of the year. Or Fantastiqa, a deck-building game that embraces its whimsical side with such abandon that it’s hard not to like it.
Heir to the Pharaoh is Doc Seegert’s latest game, and also his greatest by a significant margin. So let’s talk.
A couple months back, Eurogamer published an article on the ancient Egyptian game of Senet. The central question was deceptively straightforward: why did these people play a game that for all intents and purposes seems sort of boring? Leaving aside the obvious — that nobody actually knows the rules of Senet, let alone whether it was a gambling game (because gambling can make very boring games very fun) — one of the easiest lessons we can draw from the whole endeavor is that board games have come a really, really long way in the past few thousand years. Crud, they’ve come a long way since Settlers of Catan appeared twenty years ago.
If nothing else, Heir to the Pharaoh excels at feeling reminiscent of some half-remembered ancient plaything. You’ve got a simple grid, which becomes increasingly dotted with structures as time progresses; a pyramid that soars ever upwards; score counters that chase each other around the perimeter of the board like Senet counters. And in this case, it embraces its status as a gambling game — or at least as an auctioning game, in which both players wager for the affection and assistance of the gods. The comparison is stronger than it might first appear. Even the artwork feels perfectly Egyptian, right down to its use of hierarchical proportion — the technique where figures get bigger as they grow in importance — which factors into the game itself, with the pyramid towering over obelisks over sun temples over shrines. “Bigger is better” might sound obvious to us today, but the Egyptians were some of the first to codify that concept into art, and Heir to the Pharaoh is clever enough to run with it.
Here’s the idea. Two players only, one cast as Anubis and the other as Bast. The Pharaoh has pledged his kingdom to whichever of the two gods pleases him most. To this end, there are any number of ways to catch Pharaoh’s eye, whether by building up the pyramid, setting up shrines, paying homage to the passage of the sun, or collecting matching sets of cards. At first glance — and especially a first glance directed at the full two pages of game setup — the whole thing can seem a bit much, the very worst of Euro point-salad gameplay in a setting before salads had even been invented.
Fortunately, the whole thing glides by as smoothly as the Nile out of flood season. Each round features a set of auctions: a god appears, both players get to play a single bid card, and whoever dedicated the best bid gets to pick it up. Simple, right?
Not quite. For one thing, none of the gods are what you’d call simple, at least not without engendering their wrath. Every god is vital in some way, and it’s up to you to assess how vital. It might seem like Geb & Nut, the god-pair who let you claim that round’s monument token, are the most giving of all deities. After all, the bulk of the end-game’s points are counted by who owns the most monument tokens. See, while controlling a monument itself doesn’t net you anything, the token beneath it does. Every monument your tokens are pointing at with their little arrows at the conclusion of the game will award you points, and it’s possible to leap up by a breathtaking amount if you’ve dominated Geb & Nut throughout the game.
With that in mind, Seshat might seem worthless. She’s the one who lets you place the monuments on the board. If your opponent is going to take control of that monument anyway, why bother? Glad you asked! Since each token is different, it’s possible to position a monument so that it doesn’t matter in the slightest that your opponent will control it. Better yet, place it so that one of your own monuments is pointing at it, while it itself scores nothing! Brilliant!
Meanwhile, the other gods offer bonuses that only seem insignificant until the game clicks into focus. Ra lets you add little tokens around the edges of the board, nothing special — until the end of the game when they’re worth a whole lot. Ptah lets you claim monument cards, worth pitiful single points at first. But build up a set of them and you might pull in a whopping five or seven points at a time. Even Pharaoh gets in on the action, prompting a multi-round bid to build a level of the pyramid. While it isn’t necessary to be the guy who contributed the most to the pyramid, I’ve seen more than one game come down to it.
Best of all, once a full round of bidding and the fulfillment of each god’s actions has taken place, all the cards you spent this round are passed to your opponent. This means it’s entirely possible to prosper one moment only to find your deck fallow the next, or spend your weak cards to hobble your opponent’s next turn.
I haven’t even talked about the Animal Magic cards, which let you alter the rules of the game for the span of a single auction. Appeasing Wadjet or erecting monuments atop magic tokens (another reason to love poor underappreciated Seshat) gives you access to these beauties. Want to play a turn where the lower bid wins? Or pick up a super-value pharaoh card? Or add an extra something to the bid for the pyramid? There’s a card for that. A healthy stockpile of Animal Magic cards means your opponent can’t rest easy even when she’s holding great bids. And while these are fun take-yous at first, the game really comes alive once both players are well-acquainted with what might appear. Then each face-down card has the scent of danger lingering around it. Should you really bid your 10 when your opponent might swap your bids? Or are they just trying to psych you out? As with the best auction games, it’s more about playing your opponent’s expectations than merely laying out some cards.
Seriously, this is great stuff. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Heir to the Pharaoh. From a mind like Alf Seegert’s, I ought to have shown more faith. This is a tight, clever, brisk, artistically brilliant, and never-dull game for two that I’ll be happy to call mine for years to come.