An excellent medieval strategy, marred slightly by tedious micromanagement
"Lords of the realm" captures the essence of medieval empires, paving the way for the likes of "Total War" series. After conquering a county from peasants you need to balance between crop production, herding, shepherding and keeping your farmlands fertile. While your counties strive your subjects gain morale and multiply in numbers, until you can spread resources to creating stone, wood, iron and arms. The former two are used to build castles, while the latter two to build weapons and conscript armies for your cause, to protect your lands and expand your territory. Mind you, there are five other lords in England doing the same, and they all race to be the one and only ruler.
The county management has been made top notch, enabling you to order your peasants to various tasks with ease. You'll instantly see the would-be-results of your decisions enabling you to do some ahead planning. That you need, since how fast your population grows depends on their health and happiness, and conscripting armies eats straight away from your working force while lowering the general happiness of your county.
The morale aspect of the game is well designed, and expanding requires some thought in resource planning, with longish waiting periods for your subjects to multiply in numbers, while having to secure there is enough food for everyone including your armies. While you can move resources from a county to another the wagons take a long time to travel (and can be subject to attacks), and while merchants can give you what you need instantly, there is no guarantee one'll be in a county the exact moment you need him. Luckily you'll have your share of statistics to flip through, so you'll be forewarned if for example the grain storage is not enough to feed the population until next harvest. As a last resource you can order half, or quarter, or no rations at all to be eaten, though this will always lower the morale of the people and make some of them die or emigrate elsewhere. The peasants can and will get fed up if you manage your counties poorly, and if population killing revolts are not enough, they might not only dispose you from the county sheriff's seat, but also create an army of thieves to roam the countryside.
The battles are an optional feature of the game, giving you the possibility to let the computer calculate the outcome for heavier (more realistic) casualties. If you step up to the challenge, the battles are carried out real-time unlike the rest of the game, on fields with small units depicting 10, 20 and so on men - a true predecessor of "Total War"! The only tactical advantage in the game is marsh (which, ironically, is missing from at least "Shogun - Total War"), which is fatal for any unit walking through it while being showered with arrows. Even though the action does not happen in turns, you can pause at any time to give your orders - my favorite way of RTS being done.
You have a wide selection of troop types at your use, and building an effective army is part of the fun; would you rather use archers with a third more range, but third less killing efficiency of crossbowmen, or perhaps mix both? Or would you conscript multiple smaller armies from several counties and risk reduced morale, or a large army from one county and risk the army mutinying and turning into yet another band of thieves? 13th century England has a few roads which are the preferred method of travel, but you can move wherever you want. If your armies are loyal enough, you might spend a year advancing through the countryside, circling behind your enemies' defenses and besieging a castle before they have time to react. Other strategy made possible by the game engine is razing the county, as all fields are visible on the main map, and also destructible. Several small bands of mercenaries could literally bring a county to a halt within a year, which might lead to the former lord losing his county without you even having to attack him. Naturally, conquering the same county would mean many years of you repairing the damage you yourself have done.
The last aspect of the game is building castles - a county is conquered by simply attacking the town centre, unless it is protected by a castle, which must be besieged. The game features a nice little design tool, which - while not as refined as in "Castles II" works quite well. The game also shows you a pseudo-3D-view of your castle, which is also used during sieges. While sieges are automated after preliminary planning during each turn, the design works well enough and resembles what I might think a siege would be in real life.
So here you get it, a medieval economy simulation, a medieval warfare simulation and a medieval castle design tool all in one. While no single aspect of the game is enough to raise cheers on it's own, combined they make for an entertaining, functional and amusing "light strategy". Prepare to spend a little time on this, though, since the only victory rule is to destroy all other lords, and none of the other lords like surrendering. Conquering the whole of England takes about 20 hours minimum.
While managing a single county is a breeze, the interface of this game has one fatal flaw - no flipping. This means you have to back out to main map every single time to manage another county, and with 32 counties up for grabs this will get frustrating during the later stages of the game. You can hire stewardesses to run things for you, but they touch nothing but the amount of farmers - this means, no production possible for the managed county. If you DID allocate workers for production and then never check back, the stewardesses won't touch them, and suddenly you have a famine on your hands due to harvest season requiring pretty much all the peasants in the county for that single task. The fields in a county also have a tendency to dry up due to exploitation, and no stewardess will allocate workers to re-fertilize the area. Suddenly your county has no lands to keep their cattle or sow seeds on, so you're required to move resources, buy crop from merchants and tend that single county like your own child for the next few years in game time. Some automated helpers with better AI definitely would have helped. In a similar way you get all kinds of statistics on a county - how much grain was produced, eaten and stored, how much cattle was gained, lost, eaten or sold, how much population was gained or lost and due to which causes, in case of immigration or emigration which county it concerns, and even a graph depicting the population development during the last 50 years. But none of these for all counties combined, for these there's only a number in the main menu and whether it was up or down from last year. You get a special page where you can view all your armies, or castles, or counties in a list, but you can't jump straight to the problematic target from there. The interface definitely should have been streamlined more, now it frustrates with unnecessary extra bother.
The music in the game consists of nice medieval MIDI-melodies with one grave mistake: on the county info pages each page has it's own melody, which begins as soon as you open it. With a - say - couple of a dozen of clicks for a single county, while comparing information and making decisions this is true murder. As the sounds in the game are otherwise sparse, I opted to turn off the volume after a while.
Continuing on the subject of AI, each of the computer players are assigned a name ("The Knight, The Countess, The Bishop" for example), and multiple plays will unfortunately show they have the same personality each and every time, letting you catch on to them in an instant (though, this same flaw affects for example Sid Meier games, too). The computer players do use advanced strategies like razing the countryside or evading defenses advancing through the fields instead of the road, but very rarely compared to how effective the strategies are. The diplomacy model of the game is a joke: you're allowed to make one flattery, threat, taunt or alliance offer to one competitor each turn. In reality, however, you only need to flatter until you get your alliance offer approved, and then betray your ally when the time comes. The taunt supposedly invites an AI to attack you (in order to easily break from an alliance, for example), but in reality I saw this to have very little effect - alliance is broken the instant you enter your ally's border. Threatening has no real use either as anything else but a declaration of war, but you don't need to declare war to attack anyone, the AI does not for example pull his troops after being successfully threatened, and none of the AIs can surrender, anyway. I often receive messages from the AIs claiming their troops are simply passing through my lands while going elsewhere, but since they're razing my countryside and attacking my troops at the same time, these messages seem like something that was supposed to be implemented in the game, but never was.
The battle AI is not much better, the enemy troops mainly wait for a while and start moving towards your troops. The computer does not try to circle around marshes and never pulls it's archers behind one, though this all is excusable considering the slow pace the units walk on the field, and the nature of 13th century battles being a straight forward clash of manpower.
The Bottom Line
While not a good choice for a crognard or anyone wanting a totally realistic experience, "Lords of the Realm" is an entertaining entry-level-option for anyone wanting to cope with empire management and warfare. The castle design is a nice plus, and while the AI is not totally competitive the game gives a little challenge especially on the harder difficulty levels. The only truly marring experience hits you after about half of the counties are conquered, wherefrom you truly need to cope with the frustrating interface. Not the best of the bunch, but well done anyway.