Many of the earliest PC games had their roots either in war board games or with the Dungeons and Dragons, pen and paper gaming. What that meant was that the bulk of “serious” strategy games were probably in one of three categories; The Second World War, The American Civil War, or The Wars of Napoleon. Conversely, if a game had kings and swords in it, it was also extremely like to contain dragons, magic, and princesses.
Lords of the Realm, released in June of 1994, therefore was something of a novelty. It had castles and knights in armor, but there was no magic. Battles were between armies using only the technology of the time – ranged arrows and crossbows, or hand-to-hand combat using an array of weapons.
The original release was followed by Lords of the Realm II, a sequel covering pretty similar ground. The rapid pace of improvement in Windows gaming circa 1995 meant that even a year or two could see a big improvement in things like graphics and user interface. I’ll speak of them largely interchangeably, as I had some difficulty getting the original to run on my system and, anyway, Lords of the Realm II is all-around much closer to meeting present day expectations for a PC game.
The other innovation of this time was the Real Time Strategy genre. Dune II was released at the end of 1992 and through 1993 (depending on the platform) and began popularizing the genre where battles were fought in running time, commanded by the player’s clicks on screen. By the time that Lords of the Realm II was released, the massive franchises of Command and Conquer and Warcraft had seen their initial releases.
In this context, Lords of the Realm stood out (but was, again, not unique) in that it combined the tactical fighting with a strategic layer. In the turn-based strategy level, the player was responsible for creating his offensive (armies) and defenses (still armies, but also castles) capabilities to be used in battle. He also had to manage the economy – food, money, and the raw materials (wood, stone, iron) necessary to sustain that army. In this sense, it was a predecessor to the genre eventually dominated by Total War (Shogun Total War was a year 2000 release).
Indeed, one contemporary review of Lords of the Realm II discussed its promise of combining the best of Civilization II (1991 for the original, although Civilization II was out 9 months before Lords of the Realm II) and Warcraft. That review seemed to suggest that Lords of the Realm II didn’t quite live up to that promise. One way to appreciate the title 22-years on is to consider it within the context of the environment in which it was released.
The Lords of the Realm series is now available and easy to get running through outlets like Steam and GOG. On those platforms, you can now read modern reviews of the games, presumably written within a modern context. Surprisingly, some of those reviewers tout the game’s merits as a stand-alone entity. It’s hard to take that too seriously. Yes, we can fondly remember how the limited technology of yesteryear focused gameplay on important strategic elements. With no 3D animations or complexity-for-complexities’ sake (put in when the computing power is there), the strategy elements may well have had more thought put into them than what we’ve come to expect today.
But don’t think that Lords of the Realm is going to “stand up” to a modern title. The Real Time Strategy portion saw rapid development in the years that followed making the battles in Lords of the Realm primitive, not only in graphics, but in gameplay. I can deal with the pixelated, top-down rendering of my units. I had forgotten about the computers struggle with path-finding for these early games, and the annoyance of having to nurse units around obstacles. Likewise, the strategic layer – nostalgia aside – has been vastly improved in the interim. The management of your economy very much reminds me of the 1999 title King of Dragon Pass. While that game is not constructed as a strategic layer for turn based battles, the management (while similar) has a lot more strategic depth than Lords of the Realm.
The way the graphics are rendered in Lords of the Realm II, it does not capture with the built-in tools for Windows. So, unable to take my own screenshots, I’ve borrowed some from around the web. I don’t think my own brilliant gameplay demonstrates any features that aren’t visible in random players’ screens from throughout the years.
I’ve mentally placed this game in the Second Baron’s War. Technically its starting point is several years too late to really be historically simulating that conflict. Further, the lack of concrete ties to history mean that it could represent many succession wars that took place during the thirteenth century. One might imagine it representative of the Great Interregnum and the struggle to be crowned Holy Roman Emperor taking place in that time. Or even the fight for the crown of Sicily. The first in the series explicitly has you choose a campaign for England or Germany. Nevertheless, the game seems to be themed pretty “English” to me and therefore, despite the lack of real historical context, I place myself in the politics of 1260s England.
At that time, England was engaged in yet another struggle between the powers of the lesser nobility and the power of the king. There were a number of ways in which Henry III incurred the ire of his barons, many involving the compiling of debt which would have to be paid, ultimately, by the English nobility. By 1258, a group of leading nobles pressured Henry into signing an agreement establishing rule through a privy council overseen by a thrice-yearly parliament. While Henry suffered under this reduction in power for 3 years, he eventually had first the Pope and then Louis of France declare that he was not responsible for honoring his agreement, due to his divine right.
By 1264, this turned into an open revolt, lead by the organizer of the 1258 Parliament (sometimes referred to the “Mad Parliament”, due to its disruption to the Monarchy), Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester. The first critical battle of this war was the Battle of Lewes, on May 14th, 1264. At that battle Henry’s forces were defeated and the King, himself, was captured. Henry was not deposed, but he was once again forced into the government outlined in the previous agreements. One might imagine, however, a number of ways he could have been removed from the throne, sparking an actual succession war.
For our Lords of the Realm game, we’ll just go with that.
The scenario above seems to fit the mechanics of Crusader Kings II quite well, and I am disappointed to find that no scenarios start in this environment. Of course, as I have already lamented, Crusader Kings isn’t particularly suited to replaying an episode of history. The structure is there – vassals demanding a change in government, you the king reversing those changes, and then a civil war between the various factions of the government. But the odds that the game would choose the historical path are probably slim to none, assuming things like having the French king adjudicate the English form of government wouldn’t flummox the engine from the get-go. I’d actually be really interested in trying to use the event system to create such a thing, but I expect it would be a huge amount of work.
So instead, I will try an even less realistic approach and play through that basic scenario in Lords of the Realm II.
The above screenshot shows a basic view of the strategic layer. The map is divided into counties and each county will have a town center, a castle (if built), farms, and several industrial resources. Your population must be balanced between the production of food and industry. Industrial production can be activated or not. So above, the peasants who are not working to raise cattle are working to harvest wood. It is from that population that armies are raised. Converting peasants into soldiers (including knights – so much for historicity) creates an army, which will cost upkeep. It also removes those peasants from being able to produce for the economy, as well as detracting from the “happiness” of those peasants remaining. The happiness is also influenced by taxes, food rationing, and dramatic political events (e.g. change of ownership of the county).
It’s a slightly complex, but still comprehensible, economic system that ends up being reasonably fun to play with. I talked about this when I dug out my copy of Imperialism 2. The original Imperialism came out a year after Lords of the Realm 2 and went further into the “economic” game weeds. As I said then, this portion of the game presents as a puzzle which requires that the gamer learn the balance, and vigilantly maintain that balance, as a prerequisite to supporting his victorious armies in the field. It makes the games “challenging” for sure and was part of what made them popular back in the day. But it goes against the design philosophy of today’s games, where the focus is on directing players straight towards the meaningful decisions and removing the tedium.
Lords of the Realm 2 did simplify some of this from the original. As the player, you set economy via a fairly limited number of sliders. It appears that there is some computation going on behind the screen to allocate the players food-versus-industry setting into the details of those two categories. In fact, sometimes it seems necessary to “jiggle the handle,” to shuffle some setting back and forth, to force a recalculation of the actual allocation behind the scenes. For example, when there isn’t enough iron to produce armor, the computer will reallocate blacksmiths to work in the mines, but you need to give the engine a kick so that it knows to do so.
It actually feels like a “light” game by today’s standards, but it also needs to be remembered the game starts out easy and ramps up the challenge. As a player, you start out with a single opponent, some decent starting resources, and a limited economy manage, even at the end game. Winning a “level” sends you on to the next challenge. The design again emphasizes the placement of this title as a “computer game” and not a “historic wargame.” Nonetheless, I’ll continue to plunge ahead treating it as something of the latter.
While the economic portion of the game has its charms that garnered positive attention at the time, contrast the experience to Crusader Kings, or even a non-simulation like Civilization. In those games it is often obvious that war is expensive and rarely pays for itself. If possible, I try to get myself into peaceful stretches where I can build up my economy instead of throwing resources away on battles. In LofR, and the similar games of this genre and time, there is nothing but the battles. One can’t really focus on building an great economy and ignoring the battles, because the computer will bring the fight to you, like it or not. In one three-way scenario, I tried making an alliance with one of the factions only to find his army taking my counties while still allied with me!
I don’t yet know how deep the “campaign” goes and this is also just the basic game and not the expansion. So while the gameplay seems a little simplistic, it does provide entertainment value as it progresses. Remember that at the time of the game’s release this was a tier-one title and was considered quite deep and complex. It also made the top 20 in computer game sales two years after its release, making $3 million in sales that year. Total sales were about 10X that during the games prime.
So back to that initial scenario. You have only four counties to ultimatetly deal with and start with one of them under your control. See the screenshot below and the mini-map in the upper corner of the picture for this initial configuration. As I alluded to above, this means the economy really isn’t that complex. Armies are also fairly limited, with perhaps 400-500 men being a game-dominating army. Its all quite manageable and would even be more so were not the interface, both at the strategic and tactical levels, kind of primitive. As I stated above, the economy requires more micromanagement than I’d prefer and the RTS battles require controlling individual soldiers (although they can be roped together into a group). This is before hot keys, so control is rudimentary and occasionally not what you would expect. But all things considered, it doesn’t hold up too badly.
One oddity, compared to similar games is the way the warfare, as it draws out, slowly destroys the land over which you are fighting. On an easier level, I first noticed it with my computer opponents. In most RTS or 4X games, the course of the game sees you building gradually stronger armies both in size and composition. Maybe it comes through technology or maybe it is through just better units and more “upgrades.” Here, I started to see the opposite. The first enemy army I encountered was pretty formidable, but subsequent armies began to sport higher and higher concentrations of peasants and lower numbers of quality units. By game end, I could easily build similarly sized armies that simply outclassed the enemy. On harder levels, I find myself in the same trap as the enemy. Fighting over lands results in the destruction of their economic value. War means reduced population, unhappy populations, and a growing shortage of the wealth and materials necessary to equip your army. I find myself fielding more and more peasants and also fighting enemy armies similarly composed. Perhaps it is my own poor game play, but in this, the “simulation” seems accurate. Medieval warfare wrecked the lands over which it raged.
One design decision, and one that was probably common in games at that time, is happily no longer part of the modern game. Remember, this was the time when game started releasing on CDs rather than stacks of floppies. That, combined with the standardization of Windows APIs, meant that it was easier to include nice looking graphics; both stills and animations. Using that, and drawing from the computer game’s role playing game heritage, a favorite user interface became the “room.” Look at the main view in the above screenshot. To designate the product of a county’s blacksmith you must engage in a multi-step process. First, if the blacksmith isn’t working, you find the blacksmith on the main map and click to activate his production. Next, you find the county’s village on the main map and click on it, which displays a detailed graphic of how the villagers are allocated to different tasks. On that screen, find the blacksmith’s yard and click on that. Doing so takes you inside the blacksmith’s shop (above) where, by selecting from the weapons hanging on the wall, you task the blacksmith with forging a particular weapon.
That path is cool to navigate the first couple of times, and gives you more of a first-person feel. But as you’re engaged in playing, the immersion factor goes away, and its just a bunch of extra actions, first hunting for the right location and then “drilling down” through the menus. Add to that, each turn has multiple screens to navigate through. For example, after you’ve manufactured these weapons, you can then go to the army screen (mercifully included on the main interface – it’s that shield and helmet under the “www” in the lower right corner), where you build your army by picking weapons hanging on the wall. If you don’t have a particular weapon available, it won’t be there on the wall. Conceptually, kind of cool. User interface-wise: tedious.
The detailed battles also have some nice features, compensating for the datedness of the interface. The terrain is randomly generated. Sometimes a battle is fought across a large, open field and sometimes there are obstacles, to movement or to line of sight or both. Some maps have rivers and bridges that must be crossed, although this seems to have little relation to the terrain on the strategic map. Sieges are resolved on maps where a castle has been included – the design of which depends on to what extent you’ve upgraded your castle back in the strategic game. The siege interface was where I really saw the extent to which Medieval Total War borrowed from this design. Like M:TW, to lay a siege, you pick what types of siege engines you need to construct (in this case, catapults, battering rams, and/or siege towers). A certain number of strategic-level turns is then required to implement the construction. At the end of it, the castle is assaulted where not just your armies, but the constructed engines, take part in an RTS fight. The look feel and tactics are really very much like Medieval Total War, and even M:TW2.
Advancing through the campaign, the difficult does quickly ramp up. More enemies and more towns means more complexity, but not necessarily more depth. Furthermore, as you move from scenario to scenario, the calendar resets and there is no real continuity, no “story.” It’s nothing special about this game, I was a Heroes of Might and Magic II fanatic at the time, and those campaigns were structured the same way. Having won one challenge, you then start over – build an economy, a castle, and an army up from scratch to take control of another chunk of land. It’s standard stuff, but any feeling that your actually part of a larger world does tend to get quickly squashed.
The reality of the Second Barons’ War was a political struggle that dragged out over decades but, warfare-wise, was concluded by two major battles. In 1264, the rebel forces under Montfort’s command prevailed at the battle of Lewes, capturing King Henry, Prince Edward, and King Richard (King of the Romans and Henry’s brother). Within slightly more than a year, a second battle saw a victory for the king, the death of Montfort, and (after a few more years of sporadic fighting) a re-balancing of royal power.
Back in the original Field of Glory, I am once again playing a user-designed scenario, this time depicting the historical Battle of Lewes. As an anti-monarchist in real life, I chose to take the side of Simon and the Barons.
Having done so, the battle’s setup seems a fair representation of history. Henry started that morning with his back to the town of Lewes facing an lesser number of enemy, but situated on the high ground to the north and west of town. As Henry attacked, his forces became divided and his assault broke apart against prepared lines defending a slope.
As might be expected given the background, this scenario quickly became dicey. While my original plan was to engage starting from my right, my over-eager left charged into battle without orders. But while that left wing did better than expected, my right wing’s performance left much to be desired. As the fight wore on, I found the battle trending slowly towards a conclusion that would not be my favor.
To me, at least as important as the victory at Lewes is that the battle resulted in the capture and ransom of King Henry and his son Edward. Whether by dumb luck, normal statistics, or something special in the scenario design, the fortunes of these digital armies hinged upon the status of their leaders. While Lewes was a military defeat for Henry, it was the fact that the rebels held, in their persons, Henry and Edward that made this battle so definitive, and resulted in Simon governing, at least for a couple of years.
Field of Glory doesn’t actually export the narrative that details the disposition of individuals in a unit. However, combat resolution does entail a number of different factors. The result of combat could be simply a decline in combat effectiveness of a unit. Additionally, that effectiveness may be from actual combat deaths (as opposed to organization and morale). Finally, it is possible for a leader to be killed or incapacitated during a combat resolution. In game terms, an icon of a Roman helmet pops up and no more is ever said. It does have fan out into gameplay, however, as the death of a leader may also reduce morale and effectiveness of a unit going forward, under that leader’s replacement.
So it was on turn 7 as I engaged the knights led by Edward, I saw that little white helmet pop up. Then, on the next turn, against the force led personally by Henry (and rather successfully I might add – I had little hope of breaking it), I again saw the little white helmet. With their king down, his retinue of knights fled the field causing much of the royalist center to falter and retreat.
Over the next several turns the tide of the battle had shifted. What had seemed like an inevitable defeat slowly swung to an inevitable victory.
As far as I know, the actual outcome of the battle was considerably less dramatic. The defeat of Henry’s own retinue was not the moment the battle turned, but rather it was something that came at the end of a battle that had gone against him. Thus the evaluation of whether this result “matched” history is one of great interpretation. I’d like to think that, playing as Simon, I captured Henry and Edward and did match the historical outcome.
Another interpretation is that the “white helmet” actually meant the leaders were killed. What might have been the historical outcome if both Henry and Edward were cut down at Lewes? Who can tell. But it does open up the possibility that by 1268 the crown of England would be entirely up for grabs, as the introduction to Lord of the Realm II posits.
The fruits of Montfort’s victory would prevail for barely more than a year. Roughly one year after his capture at Lewes, Edward I (in a rather amusing tale*) escaped from his captors. In August of 1265, Edward led an army which forced Montfort into battle at Evesham.
The victory of Edward at Evesham was more strategic and operational than tactical. Simon’s son, also Simon, was tasked with raising a new force to help counter Edward. Enward, in turn, defeated the parts of Monfort’s army in detail, first catching and crushing the younger Simon’s forces while unprepared. Subsequently at Evesham he managed to trap the elder Simon’s army in a bend of the Avon river, as Simon was moving to join the younger’s army, not knowing that Edward had already scattered it. Montfort was forced into battle on a field of Edward’s choosing and was outnumbered by perhaps 2:1. Montfort attempted a bold attack to try to shatter Edward’s center, but given the situation any stratagem was perhaps doomed to failure. Montfort was killed on the field of battle and his body mutilated by Edwards troops.
One might not expect this to make the best tactical scenario but, nevertheless, a user-made scenario for Field of Glory is available. In contrast to the previous, this shows some of the weaknesses of the engine.
First (above) is a sketch of the battlefield for perspective. Edwards superior numbers face Montfort from the Greenhill, some heights to the north of Montfort’s position. Meanwhile, a contingent of Edwards army, under Baron Mortimer, blocks Montfort’s escape over the bridge back across the Avon. One might speculate whether fighting his way out against the lesser forces could have been successful, but it appears that Simon, realizing he had been outwitted, decided that the honorable thing was to fight Edward in open battle.
Compare and contrast the drawing with the Field of Glory representation of that same battlefield (shown in the screenshot above). The image is focused on the view surrounding the Bengeworth bridge and the location of the Abbey. If your eyes are up to the task, the mini-map shows this view in the context of the Avon river horseshoe bend itself.
Although an attempt was made to faithfully reproduce the terrain, I think this is a good case where Field of Glory simply fails to convey any sense of “there”. In particular, the scenario-building tactic of creating terrain walls was used to construct the Abbey proper. I don’t know whether this was meant to model the defensive advantage of a walled abbey and surrounding village or it was done this way simply to constrain movement (and particularly AI movement) through “urban” terrain, but it does create a nonsensical battlefield feature that detracts both from the aesthetics and the game play.
I’m quite sure that a gallant charge up the hill at Edward, à la Simon, would leave me dead and mutilated, as it did my historical counterpart. Given the digital battlefield as it is, I decided to use the terrain to limit the numbers advantage of the enemy, forcing him to fight it out on a very narrow front. Meanwhile, that frees up some of my army to engage the blocking force on the other side of the river. As the scenario is created, I have control over the bridge proper and, therefore, I am able to transfer units back and forth across with relative ease.
In the end, the scenario timed out and produced a draw. Unlike the Lewes battle, whose alternate outcome invites speculation, I see this result as entirely an artifact of the way the battlefield was constructed.
Of course, none of these games are particularly connected to this history. Instead, consider it an opportunity to do a little reading into a chapter of English history that just isn’t that well known.
*As related by simon2014.com, roughly a year after his capture at Lewes, Edward escaped his custodians. Edward challenged his minders to a day of horse racing and, once all of the horses had been worn out, he took the last fresh one and made off to a waiting party, sent by the Welsh Marcher Lords (who were in rebellion against Montford’s government).