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Manor Lords has a secret strategy game rival, coming soon to Steam

Manor Lords and Frostpunk 2 are coming, but another medieval builder, discussed exclusively with PCGamesN at GDC, is proving a stiff rival.

Bellwright Steam strategy game: Two warriors in Steam strategy game Bellwright

In any strategy game and city builder, there is a level of disconnect between the player and their virtual populace. From a commanding top-down view, you carefully design and manufacture a flourishing little civilization, but the intricacies and the daily lives of your townspeople constantly remain a mystery. Likewise, in RPGs, you’re often the chosen one, saving the world solo thanks to your unique magical powers and superlative martial prowess. With Frostpunk 2 and Manor Lords, two of the most anticipated new games of 2024, on the horizon, another, less-known medieval game is putting a unique spin on a bold combination of genres. Coming soon to Steam Early Access, the game’s director speaks with PCGamesN at GDC in San Francisco, and shares some exclusive new images of what could be this year’s PC sleeper hit.

Bellwright is a city builder, RPG, and survival and strategy game rolled into one. As a would-be rebel leader, your job, initially at least, is to scour the picturesque medieval world and slowly recruit people to your cause. You need builders, farmers, lumberjacks, and soldiers, and you’re primarily responsible for designing and overseeing small settlements in a bid to catalyze a revolution. Locate sympathetic civilians, pick a decent spot for a town, and then direct your followers to perform building and maintenance tasks while you set out into the wilderness in search of more acolytes.

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Everything is fully simulated – if you order one of your citizens to collect wood, they will go to the forest, chop down trees, and bring them back to the homestead – and it all takes place at ground level. There is no omniscient top-down view; no fussy, intricate menus. Walk through town, decide where you want a new house or village hall, and lay the blueprints with the click of a button. In time, you will cultivate an army and take on the draconian, antagonist kingdom. But it’s the little moments in Bellwright that truly matter. The new screenshots, shared exclusively to PCGamesN, provide a look at Bellwright’s beautiful fantasy world.

Bellwright strategy game: A village from Steam strategy game Bellwright

“There was this discussion in our team about whether we want to allow a camera that lets you zoom out, so you can see everything more like a town builder,” director Florian Hofreither tells PCGamesN, during Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. “But we decided against it, because at that point, you’re just an average town builder. There are other games that do that part and do it better.

“We made the game slow, but we’ve filled that slowness with a lot of content. We didn’t want to just make it grindy, so although we slowed down everything, we filled the spaces in between with a lot more tiny things you can do. We believe totally in respecting the player’s time. We also believe that if things move too fast in these kinds of games, they don’t feel like enough of an achievement.”

As your towns grow, you can recruit more soldiers and forge them better equipment. The eventual goal is to create a ferocious standing army, comprising 40 or more distinct NPCs who you can lead into battle in real time. Combat is inspired by Mount and Blade and, to a lesser extent, Ubisoft’s For Honor. You don’t just mash the attack button and occasionally heal. You need to block, weave, and time your strikes accordingly.

Likewise, your NPC troops will fight and brawl alongside you, as you locate enemy forts and castles, and take them by force, one by one. The pace of Bellwright depends entirely on your preferences. If you want to play peacefully, and focus on generating a thriving economy and network of towns, the game won’t rush at you with battles and encounters. On the contrary, if you want to automate a lot of that management game-style work and get right into the warfare, that’s an option, too.

“There were a lot of arguments in our team because some would want it to be more a military simulation where others would want to focus more on the building,” Hofreither says. “But I didn’t want to take away the complexity, and we arrived at a system where you can automate one side to focus on the things you want. Also, NPCs could easily die before, but I didn’t enjoy that. We had a mechanic that you could replace them anyway if they died, but it felt fundamentally wrong.

“So we did something that was basically a game changer, and made it really hard for your soldiers and NPCs to die. Similar to how you as a player don’t truly die in a videogame, they can get knocked out and get wounded, and need to recover for a day or so, but they very rarely actually die. This really changed how you play the game. You can get out there more, take risks. You will take some losses, but before it was like ‘oh, I have an NPC who is dead. I’m going to reload.’ We wanted the continuity where you continue playing even when you take a loss.”

Bellwright strategy game: A hero traverses the landscape in Steam strategy game Bellwright

The entire world of Bellwright is handcrafted: “I used to be big into the whole procedural stuff,” Hofreither says, “but the more I played games, the more it started to feel repetitive.” You can also play the whole game in two, three, or four-player co-op, and collaborate on building a pastoral civilization and guerilla military.

The key, however, is your connection to your people. As well as all their behavior being fully simulated, Donkey Crew, the creator of Bellwright, has devised a smart system that makes everyone feel more alive and tactile. Citizens who are collecting food will carry it in their hands. Lumberjacks will walk back to town with a load of logs on their shoulder. You can literally see what everyone is doing.

“One of the toughest things has been the readability,” Hofreither explains. “If you play a town builder, you’d normally expect a top-down view and NPCs with little icons above their heads. While we do have that to some degree, a big struggle has been the readability of your settlement. And yeah, you can make menus. But you don’t want to be looking at menus all the time.”

Bellwright Steam strategy game: A hero looks over a forest in strategy game Bellwright

Nevertheless, compared to Manor Lords, which sits at number two on the Steam most-wishlisted chart, Bellwright is still flying under the radar at number 60. Coming soon to early access, the initial launch of the game will allow for hundreds of hours of content. Hofreither explains that while early access is a practical necessity in the modern gaming market, Donkey Crew also wants to make it worthwhile, similar to Larian’s approach with Baldur’s Gate 3.

“I don’t want to [do early access] but the current economic situation means it’s simply impossible to make a game like this from the beginning to the end, from scratch,” Hofreither says. “I’m really happy about how Baldur’s Gate 3 has kind of paved the way for professional early access, like how early access is supposed to be, and that’s what we’re striving for. What we have here are hundreds of hours of content, depending on how you play. If we were to find a publisher for this kind of game, that no-one has seen before, it would cost millions upfront.”

We’re still waiting on the early access launch date for Bellwright, but Hofreither says Donkey Crew is in the process of “polishing things,” and that the game’s initial release is “really just around the corner.” A limited playtest is also available to some players from Wednesday March 27 to Saturday March 30. You can apply to join right here.

Alternatively, take a look at some of the other best medieval games, or maybe extend your strategy ambitions a bit further with the best 4X games on PC.