Review - Lords of the Realm (DOS, 1994)

Lords of the Realm, fresh on the shelves from Impressions Software, is a visually appealing strategy game with a familiar theme: You're a major medieval noble with a poor county – a little grain, some livestock, and some peasants to work the land. By managing these elements, your goal is to become "rightwise king of all England," you might say – a concept that has fueled management-style strategy games since the earliest days of entertainment programming.

But Impressions hasn't assembled a buy-and-sell grain game with some graphic flash tossed on – far from it. That hoary premise has been fleshed out with a lot of imagination and obvious hard work . . . this is an interesting design. Lords of the Realm features not only management of your county, but – if you're successful – managing a whole kingdom county by county, complete with raising and supplying (and moving and commanding) armies and hired mercenaries. Add to this custom castle design and siege warfare, and a lot of nice presentation and strategic options, and you've got something that begins to look like Lords of the Realm.

I'd like to go on to say that the game features a gentle learning curve, starting you on simple management and moving you to more complicated things as your county grows, but no dice – the praise stops for a second, because the truth of the matter is that the game starts complicated and gets even MORE complicated as your county grows. Right from the beginning, you've got six types of fields (and what they don't or don't produce) to handle, and even your peasants' diet to plan. Do you want them eating grain, which is easily grown but prone to weather problems and not worth much for excess cash? Or do you want them eating sheep, which make good food but also produce valuable wool – when they AREN'T being served up as take-out Souvlaki, that is. Whatever you do, avoid eating those darned cows. If you let them live and take lots of field space, they'll literally have your entire realm living on a diet of dairy products, letting you stockpile grain and wool for sale. And on top of eating habits, you've got to allocate peasants' worktime . . . some need to work the grainfields sowing and reaping, others need to do field maintenance, others need to be put to work as shepherds and cowherds. And others need to be mining metal, quarrying stone, making the stone into things . . . Fortunately, one of the many books that is supplied with the game includes a walk-through tutorial that will take you through the first turn or so and get you going. Also included is a very handy questions-and-answers list in the back of the same book. Lords of the Realm is an involved piece of work, and it takes work getting into.

The next and obvious question would be "is it worth it?" I'll offer a "yes" with a string or two attached. I'll cover the "yes" first – the strings I'll save for last . . .

For good reasons or bad, the hesitant affirmative has its source in two principal facts: The game is challenging and the game is engaging. The graphics and music are pleasant as well – thoroughly evocative of the medieval England in which the game is set. I could have stood for some of the images to be a little more distinct, but overall they're both varied and attractive, with lots of different announcement screens that you get to discover throughout the game – the ones for victory in battle are especially rewarding.

One of the niftiest aspects of the management strategy is that that there's no One True Path to victory. If you want cattle-heavy agriculture, that'll keep your populace well-fed and cushion expansion and conscription. If you go for sheep-heavy, it can bring in major and steady cashflow IF you're in a county along a popular trade-route . . . merchants travel from town to town, and each has different preferences as to what they deal in. This feature – and many others – makes the strategies for each county different, and WITHIN each county many different approaches can bring success. Also important is the number of bordering counties – a lot means plenty of opportunity for expansion, since most counties start neutral. But it also means you'll have to work harder to defend, and the temptation for early expansion is a strong one . . . Being isolated means less opportunities for commerce, but it also makes you a much less attractive target for the competing lords . . . and the computer plays tough, with each of your electronic opponents taking varying strategies.

And it's just plain SATISFYING to see your county – and then counties – do well. Watching the happiness index rise, the health-level stay high, and the population shoot through the roof feels good . . . and when you start getting into mining and other forms of industry, it's VERY rewarding. There's nothing like the feel of finishing your first castle – but don't be disappointed if you never get that successful in your first game.

Castle design is one of the nicer features of Lords of the Realm – you can custom design your strongholds in the game's built-in castle-building program, what is essentially a simple draw program stocked with wall and tower and keep and water symbols and the like. It's addictive as all get-out and I found myself taking long breaks from the flow of the game just to go in and see how cool I could make my castles. But beware extravagant designs – the computer calculates the manpower and materials necessary to build anything you come up with . . . and a super-castle might never be finished while the rest of the lords are building smaller keeps clear into Wales!

That's a taste of the "yes" – now for the no. The game is slow. Devastatingly, earth-shatteringly mind-blowingly slow. By the time the game gets REALLY interesting, it takes several minutes for the computer to manage the enemy turn-taking, and it's not busy THINKING – it's busy WALKING. Armies, once they're built, crawl across the map at a snail's pace, and that's at the fastest speed you're allowed to set the game to. It's literally torturous, and I found myself getting a lot of other things done between turns – it was too much to sit in front of the screen and wait. This is a real problem, since the speed-frustration is inversely proportionate to the nifty-index on the rest of the game. As the game gets good, the game gets slow. By the time the game gets great, you feel as though something someplace must be approaching the speed of light and warping your temporal perceptions . . . it's a problem.

The second biggest problem is the really the same thing in another arena. When it comes time to fight, you have two options – let the computer calculate losses and victory based on the troops involved – or play it out, directing your battles on the battlefield in real-time animation. DON'T EVER DIRECT BATTLES. YOU MIGHT NEVER ESCAPE AND COULD SUFFER SEVERE EMOTIONAL DAMAGE FROM THE RESULTING FRUSTRATION. Again, armies are reduced to a crawl, and it's rather like directing murderous hordes of slugs at each other from the opposite ends of a parking lot.

So, it's a mixed bag, but I still can't help but tilt my thumb upwards for this one – I'm not going to hitch a lift with my thumb like this – I'm in no danger of chipping a nail as it jams enthusiastically into the ceiling plaster, but I can test the wind . . . and the breeze blows nicely through Lords of the Realm. It's a strategy game that'll be dragging me back into it DESPITE the speed. Next time, I'll just bring some comic books along for the waiting . . .

Play the demo for this game in your browser