Lords of the Realm is the best wargame I've ever played. Which is quite a good start, eh? It's set in medieval Britain (well medieval England and Wales, actually). You start out in control of one of the 32 counties, with the aim of beating the other five players (under either computer or human control) in the race to take over the kingdom.
There are four main strategies (of which you may be aware if you read our preview, of if you've any knowledge of the PC version) which you must adopt in order to do this. So let's examine each of them in turn.
The first is to win the respect of your own people. Food is the number one essential. You are provided with 16 fields which can be used either for growing wheat or grazing cattle and sheep, and you will have to assign a suitable number of your people to each.
The game is played in turns (obviously - it's a wargame), each turn representing a season, each season promoting or impairing your farming (obviously again - wheat needs to be sown in spring and harvested in autumn, livestock tends to be born in the spring but is prone to dying out in the winter).
Each season requires you to re-adjust your allocation of people: Crop rotation is important but will take place automatically provided you remember to let some fields lie fallow. A well-fed community is a happy community (the happiness of your people each season is the most direct method of seeing how well you are doing); a fairly-taxed community will provide enough revenue to spend o food (if you've had a bad year), beer (instant happiness points) or materials when a merchant comes to town.
Crop rotation is important
The second thing to worry about is your army - you'd better get one. Drafting untrained peasants straight in won't do their morale much good, the self-esteem of the villagers any favours, or an enemy much damage in a combat situation.
Far better to give them some weapons. But for even a basic sword you'll need to mine for iron and then allocate some of your folk into sword production - a lengthy process. You could buy you are unlikely to be able to afford a sufficient number. The option of recruiting mercenaries is also available - these are trained and armed, and won't affect the happiness of your peasants (understandably, no-one will be too pleased at the idea of National Conscription), but are expensive.
Building yourself a castle is concern number three, else just about anybody could walk in and nick your county. A small, simple abode will be about all you can manage early on - an outer wall and a keep, perhaps. The foundations will be laid, but for any building to take place you're going to need stone and wood.
Foresters and stone-collectors are therefore required, and these people need time to work out what they are doing. The longer you leave them, the more efficient they become.
So by now, each season you will have to move people between the various stages of agriculture and mining and collecting materials, your decisions based on the various reports given. The number of people required for agriculture fluctuates the most (harvesting takes hundreds, whereas watching over a growing field takes only a few), and although it's tempting to take people in and out of preparing your weapons and castle when you need them to tend to your field, this will reduce their efficiency.
Tempting to take people in and out
You can also think about moving your army into another county, but a county under attack will instantly conscript its entire population into an army in order to defend itself so your squadron is going to have to be pretty big. But win and you'll have an entire new county to start managing, a whole new sixteen fields to take care of and a big new green area to build a castle on. Goods can be transported between counties so you should be able to set up your second a lot quicker than the first. Your eyes can then turn to a third, fourth and fifth.
And when castles have been completed, you can try out a siege - a completely new option altogether (and strategy four in completing the game). (Although, talking of sieges, in spite of the hours and hours I put in, I still didn't come close to having one. They look great with catapults, battering rams and so forth, encompassing virtually a complete mini-game in itself, warranting its own manual. But I apologise for being unable to divulge any first-hand experience).
Yes, Lords of the Realm is a wargame. And it's a good wargame. And it's going to get a good mark. From us. Here. At AMIGA POWER. Who normally find this sort of thing terribly lack-lustre.
At an at-a-glance level, the basic mechanics of the game work fine. It's all icon-based, but icon-based in that I'd-have-no-idea-what-any-of-these-icons-meant-unless-I-looked-them-up kind of way. But that's no problem because you CAN look them up in the instructions, and once you've started playing they all make perfect sense. You are only given as many otpions as you need at the time (which is nice).
And the instructions are good too, only insisting that you read one short section before leaping in, leaving the rest of the manual for you to dip in to when you want to know a bit more about something specific. The graphics are clear, with neat little pictures breaking up the chunks of text, and the game runs at a good speed.
Not much ever seems to change
I do have some problems with Lords, though. My main gripe is that games just take ages and ages (and ages). In something like Populous (admittedly a different genre, but still the same idea - compete against someone else to take over a country) there are a thousand worlds to take over. It's pretty obvious whether you are winning or losing, and games are reasonably short. So if you try out a strategy and it doesn't work, you can quit and try another one.
But what happens if things to horribly wrong in Lords? If, after ten hours of playing, you suddenly realise that all your people are suicidal, your army is a joke and the blueprints for your castle haven't even come back from the punters? I can't see many people wanting to start from the beginning after one or two practice sessions, so re-loading saved games looks like it's the only option.
Also, having to play the game in turns can prove a little tiring, especially early on in the game when you've got your farming up and running, your army sorted, the foundations of your castle laid and your people mining away happily, and all you can do is to wait for a few years for something to happen.
And not much ever seems to change visibly. A castle may appear now and then, or a soldier, or an extra cow, but for the amount of work you do it would be nice to see a little more in the way of action.
Wargame fans often get a hard time of it. Admit you even know what 'WG' stands for and you'll be instantly branded a social reject, the chances of ever finding a partner of the opposite sex will never rise above zero, and you'll forever have to put up with people running up to you in the street and yanking the hood on your anorak (He jests, of course - Ed) but the biggest problem for WGers is a lack of decent WGs for them to play.
I said Lords is the best wargame I have ever played, and it is. Except I've never played Campaign, or Pacific Islands or Battle Isle, and I doubt it's as good as those. But I have played my fair share of not-so-good ones, including Caesar (the programmer's previous offering), and this is a vast improvement.
My problems with the game really should remain personal - of course a wargame should take ages, and be played in turns, and only have one 'level'.
But as long as they do, they are only going to appeal to wargaming fans. A fan of Populous, Mega-Lo-Mania or The Settlers who was introduced to this as his (or her) first wargame simply wouldn't see the point and I don't want to be the one to recommend it to them.
But to anyone who likes wargames - that's a different story. Play this one. Play this one with a friend. Play this one with up to five friends. Play this one over a null modem cable. Just give it a try.