Image Source: Hooded Horse

Manor Lords is At Its Best When You Zoom In & Slow Down

Having never played Age of Empires or Total War, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect going into Manor Lords, which has been described as a blend of those two franchises. But say the words “immersive sim” and “medieval city-builder,” and I’m all in. I got to check out the early access build of Manor Lords last week, and I’ll say this much: it’s scary how easy it is to just waste away in front of a computer messing around in this game.

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The goal of Manor Lords is simple. Build a settlement, gather resources, expand, and eventually bring the entire map under your rule. Things start off on a small scale, where you’re tasked with building a few burgage plots to house five homeless families, but after that, your settlement growth becomes exponential. Before you know it, you’re gathering all sorts of resources like raw materials and food, and you’ve even got a little marketplace going for your workers to sell excess goods.

Fast forward a little bit more, and suddenly you have an alehouse to entertain your citizens with, and a bunch of plowing fields and breweries giving you a steady supply of crops and mead, running like a well-oiled machine. Like any good city-builder, Manor Lords presents players with a gameplay loop that feels so satisfying to play, and you’re always looking forward to getting that next major resource that could take your settlement to the next level.

It’s remarkable how in-depth and granular everything feels, too. What makes Manor Lords feel different from your typical city-builder is the ability to zoom in on your settlement and look at what everyone is doing. Families serve as a foundational building block of Manor Lords; without families, you can’t get anything done in your city. They’re the one element that makes everything tick.

Zoom right into your settlement, and you’ll be able to see what every individual person is doing at any given time. Command them to build a burgage plot, and you’ll see family members hauling resources with the ox, walking along the roads to the construction area, and lay everything out brick by brick. Assigned workers at a hunting camp will go out into the wilderness in search of wild animals, and you’ll even get to see them skin and clean their prey before hauling the goods back to a granary or the marketplace.

It feels like a very simple feature, but it makes all the difference in the world. Being able to visually see the actions of every worker makes Manor Lords feel more tangible. This isn’t just your typical city-builder game where you throw a bunch of resources and money around to watch a new building or structure magically pop out of thin air. You’re actively assigning resources to a given project and watching it get built from the ground up.

This, to me, is the biggest selling point of Manor Lords and what makes it so special. As someone who usually rushes through her turns in Civ because I just can’t wait to see my next big wonder get built, more often than not I found myself slowing down and watching the slow-paced medieval life of my families play out right before my eyes. It’s very calming and therapeutic to watch them go about their day, and it’s now a feature I wish were in more games of this genre.

There’s also combat in Manor Lords. If you play on the default difficulty setting or higher, you’ll eventually run into bandits, and even armies from other lords. You can then put together a militia with the male members of your families and start arming them, and combat plays out like a mini Total War sequence when you engage with an enemy unit. And yes, you can zoom in on that as well if you want a more intimate look at the action.

It’s not all sunshine and roses, of course. I should point out that Manor Lords is still in early access, and the version of the game I played is still very much incomplete, with plenty more blanks to fill out. There are policies and development trees that slowly open up to you as your settlement expands, but the policies feel very barebones right now, and there’s pretty much nothing you can do with the development section at the moment. There are also various little hiccups, like certain building descriptions just showing up as blank text, and the fact that the game is just not very good at explaining some of its systems.

For instance, the Approval system is an incredibly important one, as it determines how happy your families are, whether they succumb to banditry and revolt, and whether you can expand your population. And yet, past a cursory description of what Approval does and affects in the Help section of the game, there’s no other information about what actually influences it. I’d gotten to a point where my Approval rating was stuck at 45%, which meant that my population couldn’t grow, and it took some finagling and trial and error to finally figure out how I could get it to increase again. With how dense of a game Manor Lords can be, it would certainly be helpful if the game were more forthcoming and transparent about its systems, and properly filling out that Help section would be a great first step.

Still, these little frustrations I had with the game weren’t even close to enough to hampering my enjoyment. These are things that can be worked out in time as well, and I can only imagine how much more complex and nuanced Manor Lords will be once it gets its 1.0 release. It’s clear that Manor Lords still needs a lot more time to cook, but even in its early access phase, this is a game that city-builder fans should absolutely keep on their radar.


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Author
Zhiqing Wan
Zhiqing is a History undergrad from the National University of Singapore. She started playing video games in 1996 when her dad introduced her to Metal Gear Solid, Silent Hill, and Resident Evil -- and the rest, as they say, is history. When she's not obsessing over Elden Ring and Dark Souls lore theories, you can find her singing along loudly and badly to Taylor Swift's latest bops. Formerly the Reviews Editor at Twinfinite, she joined the Escapist team in 2024. You can reach her at [email protected].