Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile is a city management game from Tilted Mill Entertainment. Now, if you’ve never heard of Tilted Mill before, that makes sense because this appears to be their first game. However, their staff includes a good chunk of the people who developed the Pharaoh / Caesar / Cleopatra games, and so Tilted Mill isn’t exactly a newbie developer. (Their staff also includes somebody who worked on Barbie’s Pet Rescue, but overall the good seems to outweigh the bad.) Oddly, even though I review a lot of strategy games, I never played Pharaoh et al -- they all came out before I started reviewing games, back when I played maybe 12 games per year rather than 50 -- and so I can’t really compare Immortal Cities to those earlier games. I can just tell you what you get to do in the game, and whether it’s any fun.
As the name suggests, in Immortal Cities you play a pharaoh, and you manage an ancient Egyptian city. Or, rather, you hope to manage a city one day, because what you usually start with is nada. So you tell your subjects what buildings to construct and where, and then they scurry around to get the work done. For example, early in the game you have to build your palace, which gives you a place to live, and which also allows you to place six farm houses. Then you place those farm houses somewhere near the Nile (where the best farming soil is). Then you place some shops, so you and the farmers can buy things; a few noble estates, so you can add more farm houses; homes for brick makers and layers, so you can construct bigger and more complex buildings (like temples); and more.
About 90% of the game is deciding where buildings go. That doesn’t sound very exciting, but there are some nuances. Consider the brick makers and layers. You want to put brick makers near the Nile, because that’s where the clay is that they use for their bricks. But the brick layers need to pick up the bricks from the brick makers, so you don’t want to put them too far away from your city. So how do you compromise? And how many brick makers and brick layers do you hire? Those are things you have to work out as you play.
The other 10% of Immortal Cities falls loosely under “management.” There aren’t a lot of resources to worry about in the game. Food serves as both food and money, and other things, like copper and incense, just let your shops create better merchandise, and so they’re optional (but useful). That means you just need to make sure all of your people have enough food (so they can eat and buy merchandise) and that your city provides the services (like healthcare and religion) that the people need.
Complicating the area of services is that some jobs (like being a priest or a scribe) require that the worker be educated. You always start a scenario with at least one educated worker (who you’ll typically tell to work in a school to produce more educated workers), but you’re limited to four educated workers when you start, and the only way to gain more is to earn “prestige.” You get prestige from feats like improving your palace, winning a military battle, or building a pyramid, and those things are difficult to do early in the game. Since your educated workers are responsible for (among other things) collecting taxes, running temples, running hospitals, leading your military, and overseeing quarries, it is hugely important to earn prestige so you can increase your workforce. It also means that the early part of the game is the most difficult, as you try to spread your limited educated workers over as many jobs as possible. Sadly, there is a balance problem here, and while scenarios start off difficult, once you clear that initial hurdle, they get pretty easy. You can go overboard with educated workers to meet every one of your citizen’s needs, no matter how minor.
Immortal Cities comes with a “grand campaign,” where you select five scenarios out of a possible 15. The scenarios are evenly divided between “easy,” “medium,” and “hard,” but you’re allowed to mix and match the five that you select you to play. However, those 15 scenarios are also available in stand-alone form, and since there isn’t anything linking together the scenarios, and since nothing carries over in the campaign, I’m not sure why it’s even there. That said, the scenarios do a nice job of varying the objectives (in one you might have to use your military to take on some unruly neighbors; in another you might be more interested in building monuments), and they take somewhere around 5 hours each to complete, so Immortal Cities, with its 15 campaign scenarios and 5 strictly stand-alone scenarios, has a ton of potential playing time.
I played about half of the scenarios in Immortal Cities, and while I enjoyed them, the game does have some rough spots. First and foremost, Immortal Cities isn’t the most exciting game around. Events are always trickling in, and you get to do things like watch your laborers build pyramids, so it’s not boring so much as just slow. You’ll spend a lot of time doing things like waiting for your brick layers to finish an upgrade to your palace so you can get another point of prestige so you can hire a scribe so you can earn more taxes so... That is, you might have to sit there and stare at your computer screen for long periods of time. I’m generally a patient player, but even I ended up watching TV a lot when I was playing the game.
Immortal Cities also has some interface issues. The most annoying is that the game doesn’t go out of its way to show you where resources are. Coupling that with the fact that scenarios start at 6am (when it’s dark), and it can be difficult to plan out where your city should go, just because you can’t tell where anything is. In some scenarios I knew that there was a tin mine (for example) on the map somewhere, but even after careful hunting, I couldn’t find it. Immortal Cities is also missing some helpful summary screens. If you see that your people are unhappy with your religious services, you’ll only be able to walk your way through the list of malcontents to see what they’re having a problem with. That’s fine when it’s a few people, but it’s not a lot of fun when it’s 90. I’d like to see a page where all the complaints are listed (so I can sort them or at least see them all in one place) or summarized (so I can see, for example, that 50 people want to worship Ra and can’t, and so I should add a new temple or shrine right away).
Overall, Immortal Cities is a nice game but not a great one. It’s slow-paced and thoughtful, it looks nice and it’s polished, and while it has some problems here and there, none of them are major. It’s just that nothing about the game made me say “wow!” I also have the suspicion that if I were to continue playing it, the scenarios would start looking more and more alike, and I’d start having trouble thinking up new and creative ways to develop a city. So you twitchy-fingered action game fans should definitely stay away from Immortal Cities; others might want to take the game for a spin.