Manor Lords
Screenshot via Siliconera

Preview: Manor Lords Is a Small-Scale City-Builder

There’s been several attempts at spicing up the city-building genre of late, from the roguelite elements of Against the Storm to the mining layer of SteamWorld Build. But while Manor Lords has strategy combat and ox-based infrastructure, what I’m really enamoured with is the flexible plotting system that lets me build the organic-looking, mud-hovel metropolis of my dreams.

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As an overview, Manor Lords is a medieval city-builder (more of a town-builder really) about to launch in Early Access, and while rough in places I can already see plenty of potential. The meat of the gameplay is gathering resources and building amenities for your villeins, who can later be upgraded to artisans for crafting more advanced goods. The game suffers from a slow start as you are limited by your available villagers and the need for Oxen to transport timber to each construction site, but there’s soon plenty more to manage. As your town grows you’ll be able to expand into other regions and form a trade network of villages, eventually raising a militia army to take care of bandits or rival lords encroaching on your rightful territories.

Manor Lords Heraldry
Screenshot via Siliconera

But before you even get to any of that, there’s and important question to answer: what coat-of-arms do you want to create with the surprisingly in-depth heraldry editor? It can be a little inflexible and fiddly, but it was a real surprise to see so many options for such a small part of the game. In fact, Manor Lords has several opportunities to add personal touches, like manually renaming or equipping your retinue or planning the layout of your manor. The options aren’t always as varied as in the heraldry editor, but I found this focus on small details to be a real strength for the game.

This comes through in the aforementioned plotting system as well. While most of your actual production buildings have your usual fixed footprint, in Manor Lords houses (or burgage plots) have a 4 point plotting system that can curve along roads and other buildings, facilitating much much more naturalistic house placement. You can still make a very methodical, square grid of regimented houses if you want, but theres a lot more room for freeform placement and filling unsightly gaps in your town. Make a plot big enough and you can even build extensions, or workshops. You could give all your villagers a little garden to grow veggies or raise chickens to supplement your food supply, or just pack them in like sardines to save on space.

Manor Lords Burgage Plot
Screenshot via Siliconera

Again, there’s a finickyness to it that means sometimes the game can’t find anywhere to place a house in an otherwise enormous plot, but I can forgive a little early access jank when a feature makes simply putting down houses a creative endeavour. And taking a step back to view your village from above (or with the ‘visit’ feature, that lets you walk around in third person!), you really start to appreciate the variance in shapes.

While there’s a lot to like in Manor Lords, there are other issues too. While the tutorial can be helpful, if you miss or need to check anything then the help tab is very barebones and and doesn’t tell you important things like what resources can be used for. It can also be difficult to identify the cause of production bottlenecks (it’s usually a lack of transport oxen) and I couldn’t find a way to see all my incoming and outgoing trades on one screen. I also had a few recurring problems with notifications recurring even after i’d dealt whatever it was notifying me of, as well as an irritating bandit camp that wouldn’t disperse after I defeated all its inhabitants. I lost so many berries to those ghost-bandits…

Screenshot via Siliconera

As for the combat, it works in a similar fashion to the Total War series. But despite being a long-time fan of those games, I was actually less intrigued by this than other aspects of Manor Lords. In my time playing, I mainly had access to a handful of militia units pitted against small forces of bandits, so I didn’t get to see what kind of depth the system would hold at higher levels. That said, having to provide your own equipment and manage when you take men away from other jobs to go fight provide interesting restrictions even early on. There’s also game modes that promise much higher aggression from foes, so I’m interested to give them a try once I’m more confident in my town-building skills.

I’m actually quite excited to see how Manor Lords looks a little later down the line, it’s already a fun little city-builder even in this early state and some of the placeholders suggest interesting features to come. It’s not one of those games that reinvents the wheel, but the changes it does make are impactful and with a little polish it could become a real gem.

Manor Lords will release in Early Access on April 26, 2024, for PC via Steam, GOG, and the Microsoft Store as well as on Xbox Game Pass for PC. An Xbox console version is also planned.

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Elliot Gostick
Elliot is a staff writer from the mist-shrouded isle of Albion, and has been covering gaming news and reviews for about a year. When not playing RPGs and Strategy games, she is often found trying (and failing) to resist the urge to buy more little plastic spacemen.