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Manor Lords early access review - a beautiful, ambitious city builder

As a city builder, Manor Lords already offers hours of enjoyment - but so much of its promise remains out of reach in Steam early access.

Manor Lords early access review: a soldier on a horse overlooking a medieval town.

Just after my town’s first winter, I experienced something that nicely summed up my time with Manor Lords. The snow was melting, villagers were enjoying the town’s new church, and there were new stalls up in the market square selling goods from the armorer and tailor. However, dire tidings were on the spring winds: an enemy army had been spotted in the nearby wilds, and they were marching our way. I rallied the militia and formed them in a ragged line just outside of town, where they stood and watched as a gang of bandits was chased out of the county by a large company of mercenaries, all of whom completely ignored my tiny town and its ordinary little people.

Perhaps those mercenaries will return one day, and maybe when they do my tiny levy of spear-wielding peasants will have grown into something more dangerous. Manor Lords is a city-building game packed full of promise, but as it starts out in early access, much of that seems quite a long way off. Systems for trade, town development, negotiation and diplomacy, and real-time combat are all indicated in the early access build, but we’ll have to wait and see how those function when they arrive down the line.

Manor Lords early access review: a small town being erected, wood being chopped, in the middle of a field.

For the time being, however, we’re left with one of the most charming city-building games I’ve ever played. Manor Lords is a delight to behold: the visuals are realistic and organic, and they allow me to zoom in to street level where I can watch my villagers go about their daily lives. The food vendor at the market is selling game caught in the nearby forest, while another family carries baskets of stone to the trading post. Our long-suffering ox, Edres, can always be found lugging timber to a construction site somewhere in town, where a family might be putting up a new home or workshop.

It’s hard to overstate just how good Manor Lords is at evoking a very convincing sense of place, not only in the town that demands most of my attention but in the wider countryside as well. Angling the camera up a bit so that it’s parallel with the ground, I can look out across rolling hills covered in trees, grassy fields and valleys, and along winding dirt roads that disappear into the next dale.

Manor Lords early access review: a small medieval town with a church, several houses, and a merchant stall during winter.

In Manor Lords, you begin with a plot of land nestled among many similar parcels somewhere in the medieval countryside. You’ve got a couple of wagons’ worth of starting supplies, one trusty ox, and five families huddled in tents by the side of a lonesome road. Ultimately the goal is to transform this pastoral landscape into a seat of power, the epicenter of your demesne, from which you will command great armies and conquer faraway provinces.

However, this is not going to happen overnight, or even within the first couple of years. Manor Lords is a low-and-slow kind of city-building game, and its plodding pace helped sell me on its rustic setting. Each time I wanted to build a new burgage plot or homestead for one of my families, I had to wait and watch as someone went and fetched Edres, led him to the storage shed, and lashed him to one of the logs I’d stored inside. Then Edres would make his way to the build site, one hooved step at a time, before dropping off the log and heading back to get the other.

Manor Lords early access review: top-down view of the country side in Manor Lords.

Everything in Manor Lords works this way. Building things requires specific materials, all of which need to be sourced and delivered to the job site. Construction also requires labor, so someone needs to be free to dedicate their time to the task. If you want to produce iron slabs for the smithy, you’ll need to dig ore out of the ground, someone will need to take it to the bloomery, and someone there will need to refine the raw ore into workable iron. Each material and commodity has to be touched and carried by hand to wherever it’s going to be used – it’s a very detailed and thoughtful simulation on that level, one that respects not only the value of the materials and goods themselves but the labor and time devoted to producing and gathering each one.

Over the course of the first in-game year, I ran into some minor early access-related issues here and there – placeholder text for upgrade requirements, for example, or village development options that have not been implemented yet. These only became severe once I had progressed past the first year, but they’re notable to the point where I want to stop playing Manor Lords for the time being. My town is now big enough for an actual manor, but alas, the castle designer isn’t fully working yet. There are ways to take over neighboring territories, but I need a castle and influence to do that. I can’t really grow much more without the resources found in those pristine lands, so my militia remains understrength and under-equipped.

Manor Lords early access review: a small band of soldiers wearing armor and carrying basic spears and shields.

So, as much as I’ve enjoyed my time with Manor Lords so far, this feels more like an extended demo than a full game in early access. I’m excited to see how the RTS combat feels in practice, on a field with a full complement of well-equipped soldiers. I’m keen on using the diplomacy system, which involves writing letters to rival leaders by dropping paragraphs onto a sheet of parchment. I want to get a fully functional trade network set up, one where prices feel more dynamic and rational. I want to build a great castle with towers and a curtain wall and an outer bailey, man it with archers and footmen, and see if anyone dares to come try to knock it down.

These are all things that Manor Lords can only gesture at for now, and if it’s the battlefields or castles you’re after, you’re probably better off waiting on this one. For the time being, though, it’s a beautiful and mechanically impressive city builder that still has plenty of room to grow.