A Video Game Break: Manor Lords

A couple weeks ago a history professor on X "influenced" me into picking up Manor Lords, and I've been able to steal away and play a few (6) hours. What he said in his review is true, and originally I was going to tweet my review, and say that on the whole I liked it, but as I began writing, more came out. I realized I did not, in fact, like it, and now there's blog post.

I would even go so far as to say, skip Manor Lords and pick up Foundation instead if you're looking for a medieval city builder.

I fully understand that Manor Lords is in early release (I got Foundation in early release), and Manor Lords' street view is incredibly cool and cozy, but on the game side (vs the professor's history side) it's not scratching the itch.

The game play and flow feels incredibly "borrowed" from Foundation. In part that's to be expected. They're both medieval city builders, and they both have a system for placing a building and then adding sub-buildings. Some overlap is natural. So initially I thought my dissatisfaction was purely due to early release: a lack of information panels, and a lack of direction to critically necessary menus for "upgrades". But it's more than that.

I dislike the fundamental choices in the game.

In Foundation your big choice is "Will my city be a 'worker', 'church', or 'military' city?"

Then you can specialize your monastery as a wine maker and pilgrimage site, set all the bells to different notes, and then ring them in different orders to play songs as the peasants and monks go about their day....

A monastery in Foundation. You can place each piece and build it like legos.

In Manor Lords however, the "major choices" are things like:

  • "Do I want the sheep I buy to be able to reproduce?"
  • "Do I want my people to be able to make charcoal from firewood?"
  • "Do I want my people to be able to grow apples?"

And if your people can't grow apples, then the town cannot plant rye or irrigate their crops. I don't understand how those things are linked. I don't find these to be interesting choices. Why do I need to spend a "point" on my so the peasants and pile dirt and light a fire? 

To be clear, the problem is not that it's limited, and that a point must be spent. It's that the point spending feels completely disconnected. Maybe there's a rigid mercantile system at the root of this that will be introduced later, but it doesn't feel like it. The tech tree unlocks feel incredibly random, and it seems like the locks were put in place strictly to artificially limit growth and extend play time.   

The sheep thing especially bothers me. A lot. In large part because it kills the immersion. The whole thing with herd animals is buying a few and letting nature take its course for a few years. But I also understand directly that this is being done as a game mechanic issue to help control the trade system. It also bugs me that the sheep are only good for wool, and they cannot be turned into meat if winter catches your town unprepared.

Manor Lord's real differentiator imo, is that every peasant house can specialize and produce things too. One house can raise chickens and sell eggs in the market. One can grow vegetables. And if you spend the upgrade point, one can grow an apple orchard in their back yard.

Because the housing plots are semi-free-form, you can give a house a very long backyard, place it right next to the road, and then zoom in to ground level and walk down the sunny orchard road in your town. Not gonna lie, that's incredibly nice. As houses upgrade you can also turn them into things like bakeries, blacksmiths, and tailor shops.

But one option, Raising Goats, encapsulates my problems with the game.

  • Goats only produce hides.
  • Obviously, to get a goat hide, a goat has to die.
  • A dead goat is made of meat.
  • Meat is a food source in the game.
  • But goat's don't give meat.
  • It's possible that the houses raising the goats consume the meat as food and don't go hungry, but there's nothing that says that's happening, or if there is it wasn't clear and obvious.
  • Regardless, the larger issue is that the "tech tree" seems to directly undermine having goats.

You can build a hunting lodge to hunt animals from the forest.
Hunted animals provide meat and hides.
You can spend a point in the tech tree to lay traps for animals in the forest and passively produce meat.
Then spend another point for the animals in the forest to passively produce hides.

And trust me, I get that there are tradeoffs. I also get that there's a "stink" system that's coming to the game. Goat farms in town will likely stink and lower values around them, and passive hides from the woods surely will not.

However, there's nothing to indicate just how good the passive traps will be, and how many "goat houses" those points spent will replace. Because it's such an expensive choice (you seem to only get points when the town officially levels up), it feels like there's going to be an "optimal" choice, but it can't be determined without hours of play and testing.

But even so, the big "game choice" at play here is: "Do I train my peasants to lay traps in the woods? Or do I enable my sheep to reproduce?" And I just don't think that's interesting. Foundation's choices are interesting. "Will I spurn the king and align my town with the Pope?" That's got some "heft" to it. And then the choices trickle down neatly "I've aligned with the Pope, so it's time to build churches, meaning I need tons of stone, and I also need to decide if I want to make the monastery men only, or mixed, or set up a convent instead and pull all the women out of the town."

I hope that as early access continues, the developer will discover more ways to differentiate his game from Foundation. And I really hope that the tech tree unlocks become more meaningful and interesting.

In the meantime, if I can steal away anymore time for video games, I'll be playing Foundation.


An Quick Aside on Information in City Builders

Oh hey, it's like two blog posts for the wait of one.

Sierra's city builders (namely Zeus and Pharaoh) are top notch, incredible, and pretty much can't be beat. Even now 20+ years later. The myriad of ways in which the creators of those games figured out how to present information was frankly amazing.

City builders usually have tons of different resources. And typically there are bunches of menus to show you what you've got. They can easily become like playing spreadsheets.

However, with Pharaoh, and Zeus in particular, you could see exactly what was going on with your most important resources by looking at the city itself. The granary building (pictured above) has 8 holes. Each hole can hold 100 units of a food type. The food type visually sticks out of the top of the building so you can see how much, or how little of the food you've got in that specific building.

As citizens upgrade their houses, they naturally want more of a variety of food types when they go to the agora. You can click on a granary and limit the types of food it will accept to help manage what types of food end up where.

You can also do the same with warehouses. Warehouses could be limited to only accept marble, or grapes, or olives. Or a limited assortment of goods. By doing this, without opening any menus, you could visually inspect your city and come away with a rough feeling for how certain industries were doing. What do I have a surplus of that I could trade? Or do I have a ton of raw materials I could turn into finished goods?


You can see a number of warehouses in the upper left corner. It's clear as day that this city has a ton of grapes. You don't have to open an info panel to know that. It's just there. And imo, it looks good. Part of the reason they're able to do this so well is because they're clearly not trying to make things "realistic". 

Information is at the forefront. And the stylization and abstraction make it wonderful. I don't need to see 100 amphorae of olive oil. 1 amphora can represent 100 just fine.