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Manor Lords – Early Access Preview

Manor Lords Preview Screenshot Showing City Surrounded by Trees

The eagerly awaited city builder Manor Lords is about to hit Steam Early Access and I’m here to discuss how it feels. It kicks off with a medieval setting that revolves around growing a manor system from just a few tents. You’ll need to develop your village into a functioning society while adapting to the changing seasons. But depending on your scenario, you may have to deal with annoying bandits via RTS combat. This creates a fun genre hybrid where you’re occasionally snapped out of the city building into more action-heavy gameplay.

With that said, most of your time is still spent developing your economy and meeting the needs of your people. So while you will need to fight off bandits from time to time or contest another lord’s territory, you won’t be doing it often.

As such, let’s dive into the challenges of creating your manor surrounded by burgage plots. If you’re like me, you may not be familiar with burgages. These are typically narrow plots of land people could rent from a lord. Aside from living in those burgages, residents could also conduct business which becomes a large part of Manor Lords.

Manor Lords Screenshot of a Few Tents

Since each scenario starts as just a few tents you’ll need to take advantage of nearby resources to develop your village. This revolves around finding water, food, and supplies to continue building. I enjoy this initial phase as I’m setting the foundation for what will become my sprawling town. Depending on what’s available I may want to create a large farming village or a mining town reliant on trade instead.

Unlike many city builders where you build on a grid layout, Manor Lords gives you a little more freedom. Burgages don’t follow a basic square shape that you simply place down. You can instead pick each of the four corners to create any shape. The game tries to push you toward the long narrow designs that are more historically accurate. But, you can create irregular abominations.

This is how each Manor Lords village takes on a unique form. If you just want a basic row of houses, you can do that too. But you’ll need extra room to take advantage of productive workshops. And in doing so, you may unintentionally create a rhombus of a house. Once you have one rhombus, the next house snowballs into a bizarre layout. This is how you end up with a Frankenstein village that feels more organic.

Manor Lords Screenshot of a Small Village

Before you can place a ton of burgages, you’ll have to fulfill the needs of your limited population first. You’ll need a source of firewood which is easy since there are forests everywhere. Then, you’ll need a source of food which often relies on foraging berries or hunting animals. Depending on your region, you may want to focus on one more heavily. This is because resources are far apart and your people transport them in real-time.

Having a limited population means you only have so many people to work the many necessary jobs. While combat is more action-heavy, the city management side has moments of high activity as well. Every building that requires workers needs an entire family assigned to it. The one good thing about this is that you can freely move families between different jobs. This is where Manor Lords gets hands-on as you frequently shift workers around. 

People who love to min-max will feel right at home. You don’t necessarily need to operate at max efficiency all the time, but there are plenty of opportunities to try to. Especially when you have inactive farmers during the offseason. There’s no reason to keep them on that job when you can shift them to refining items like timber to planks.

Manor Lords Winter Screenshot of a Town

As your village expands, you’ll need to fulfill all sorts of jobs. This leads to more complex needs and tougher goals to reach. If you want to take advantage of upgrades known as Development Points, you’ll have to grow your settlement. This is where the game motivates you to continue building and upgrading burgages. But once you do, you’ll need to build a church, a tavern, get clothing, more food variety, etc.

Manor Lords opens up as you realize you can’t just rely on that batch of berry bushes nearby. Even in a scenario without combat, the difficulty of a complex town is clearly present. Creating clothes requires getting hides from hunting, turning that into leather, and then crafting that leather into shoes. Over time, you’ll need several production chains that can be tough to pull off. Especially if your population hasn’t grown enough to meet new demands.

I love the active gameplay that comes from this struggle of managing a small settlement. However, Manor Lords’ current early access state does a poor job of onboarding new players. There isn’t a separate tutorial so you’re thrown into the deep end with tooltips to guide you instead. These are limited and rely on you doing something to trigger them. Therefore, many players are bound to start a scenario and have no idea what to do.

Manor Lords Bakery Burgage Needs

Even if you’re someone familiar with city builders, you still have to learn all the new buildings. And it can be intimidating since most of them are immediately available. I spent the first 20 minutes reading different descriptions and opening the Manor Lords’ encyclopedia to learn what to do. While it all eventually clicked, that may be enough to turn some players away. Unfortunately, another problem of the early access state is missing descriptions that add to the confusion. I’m sure these issues will be resolved later throughout development. But currently, you’ll frequently end up in situations where you don’t know how something works without experimenting.

Another issue I foresee impacting players who may not have time for long sessions is that buildings look too similar. I jumped into a save a day later and struggled to find certain buildings. So I can only imagine if you’re someone who plays for a couple of hours here and there. While you do end up with beautiful towns surrounded by nature, you still need those gamey overlays and features. Otherwise, it’s easy to get confused.

Now that I’ve spent most of this preview discussing city building, let’s do a quick look at the combat. Dealing with bandits that steal your resources is always small-scale so it’s nothing too intense. But when you dive into larger battles that have a couple hundred troops, it’s a lot more interesting. You’ll need to track different factors that impact your troops’ morale and effectiveness. While also utilizing those same factors against your enemies.

Manor Lords - Large Field Battle

This can be as simple as fighting from the high ground or flanking a group of enemies to make them panic. However, you can also give your troops stances like “Stand Your Ground” to double their defenses. One of my favorites is using a stance that lets the enemy push forward to lead them into a trap. Stuff like this makes me excited to see how much more in-depth the battles will get. Especially with the promise of cavalry and the superior siege engine, the trebuchet.

Manor Lords has a lot going for it right now even if it’s got a bunch of jank and the occasional odd bug. I’m not one to mind seeing typos or file names popping up. These are minor issues that don’t impact the game and we all know they’re bound to be polished out. More than anything, I can’t wait to see what Manor Lords becomes.

Manor Lords was provided by the publisher via a Steam code.