What is Manor Lords? The medieval city-building game that sold a million copies in a single day

MAY 07, 2024

Launched as if from a trebuchet at the end of April, Manor Lords is the latest in a string of explosively successful video games that have been released this year. Indeed, the rise of this unassuming-looking city-builder is arguably more impressive than the enormous launch of Helldivers 2, or the breakout Poker phenomenon Balatro. Developed largely by one person and releasing in an incomplete state, Manor Lords shifted a million copies in its first 24 hours on sale.

The scale of Manor Lords’ success is remarkable, but contrary to appearances, it hasn’t emerged from nowhere. Momentum around the game has been building for years, part of a broader surge in popularity for city-building games in general. There’s also more to Manor Lords than meets the eye, as its mundane medieval exterior hides a richly detailed, tangible simulation of feudal life.

What is Manor Lords?

It’s a city-builder, the latest in a long line of games traceable all the way back to 1989’s SimCity, with more modern examples including 2015’s Cities: Skylines. These games involve building and managing a settlement from an overhead perspective, planning road networks, creating homes for people to live in, organising public services, and generally trying to keep your citizens alive and happy.

But there are a few key differences between Manor Lords and these more traditional games. Most obviously, Manor Lords is set in the medieval era rather than modern times. You play a feudal lord granted a piece of land by the king, with the goal of building a town on it. You lay down dirt pathways, build houses for peasants to live in, create farms and fields for them to raise crops in, and eventually establish artisan industries like blacksmithing to support a military force.

That said, there’s a stronger emphasis on survival in Manor Lords. It highlights the challenge of subsisting in a pre-industrial society. As with real rural medieval settlements, the game revolves heavily around the seasons. Your villagers can survive for a while by hunting deer and foraging for berries, but these resources are limited and will grow scarce when winter comes. For a settlement to truly thrive, you need to turn the land to your advantage, ploughing fields, sowing seeds, and harvesting crops at the right times of year, ensuring you have sufficient stocks to survive the lean months. Simply getting the basics right is an organisational challenge. Fail to plan ahead, and your villagers will be starving and freezing before the year is out.

Why is Manor Lords so popular?

Manor Lords has been gaining momentum for several years through PC games storefront Steam’s Wishlist system, which lets players keep track of games they are interested in and gives developers some sense of the buzz around them. When Manor Lords’ developer, Greg Stycze?, revealed the game in 2020, he expected to receive around 14,000 wishlists. The week before it launched, it had amassed over 3 million wishlists, making it the most-wanted game on the service at the time.

Manor Lords also rose to prominence during a broader surge in interest for city-building games, particularly those with a survivalist bent. This began with 2018’s Frostpunk, which saw players building a city in a world covered in ice, putting them in the role of a dictator who had to make tough decisions to ensure humanity’s survival. The success of Frostpunk spawned a subgenre of games that pit players’ city planning aspirations against harsher climates and situations.

Other examples include Against the Storm (published by the same company as Manor Lords), which challenges players with building a society on a land slowly being consumed by rising oceans, alongside Timberborn, where players manage a metropolis built by beavers, and the upcoming sequel to Frostpunk, which builds upon the ideas of the game that started it all.

So is Manor Lords just capitalising on a trend?

The trend has certainly helped, but since Manor Lords has been in development for seven years, it would be unfair to say this. Manor Lords has several distinguishing features, too: its depiction of settlement building and social simulation is highly organic, designing a settlement that looks authentic is easy, and watching your villagers go about their daily lives entertaining. When you start building a new house, you’ll see your oxen and their drivers drag logs to the building site, while your villagers chat and mutter to themselves as they assemble the building plank-by-plank. Likewise, hunters will drag a deer carcass to their camp, prepare the meat for consumption, and then take it to market where other villagers can buy it.

There’s also a strategic layer that lets you exert your influence as a medieval lord. You can raise militias from your settlements, creating military units to fend off bandits and even fight the armies of rival lords. You can also use your growing power to claim more regions, giving you access to more resources and letting you build more settlements. It’s this delicate balance of scope and detail that has made Manor Lords so hotly anticipated.

Is Manor Lords worth buying now?

Manor Lords has released into Steam’s early access programme, which means that although you can buy it now, the game is not yet finished. In its current form, there is enough to see and do to justify the asking price, but there are clearly areas of the game that need improving or expanding upon. While the act of building your town has plenty to keep you occupied, the battle system and higher strategic layer have a lot of untapped potential. In addition, the game’s tutorials are very rudimentary, so expect to learn how to manage your village through trial and error. In short, you probably won’t regret buying Manor Lords now, but you also won’t miss out if you wait for the final version, expected to be released in about a year.

Any beginner tips for players looking to get into Manor Lords?

Rain can ruin crops and supplies, including the stockpiles you’re given at the game’s outset. One of your first jobs should be to build a storehouse and a granary to keep these initial resources from spoiling.

When your supplies are safe, priority buildings are a hunting camp and a foraging hut for food, and a logging camp for building materials.

Use some of your starting funds to buy a second ox for lugging logs around, as this will help speed up construction. You’ll need to build a second hitching post before doing this, else the ox might run away.

When you build a house (known as burgage plots in game) ensure to give it plenty of space at the back. This will allow you to add a secondary function to the building, like a coop where the residents can raise chickens. Chickens are especially useful early on, as they provide a small supply of eggs to add to your food stockpiles.

You won’t earn any passive income until you have a level two village, so pay close attention to what you need to build to achieve this.

You can start ploughing a field as late as June and still receive some harvest from it before the first winter. Just wait until November and then tick the “Harvest now” box to get the farmers to bring out their sickles.

Many buildings require a family assigned to them to operate, but you won’t need to use every building all the time. Foragers can’t do their job in winter, for example, so it’s worth moving them to other jobs when the berries aren’t growing. Conversely, farmers don’t work when crops are growing, so feel free to reassign them until the crops are ready to harvest.

Killing bandits and clearing their camps not only stops them from stealing your stuff, it provides a lump sum of cash that can be very handy in the early game. A militia of about 20 spearmen can fend off a group of bandits without too much trouble.

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