Rising Lords Preview: Refined or Barebones?

Medieval turn-based combat tries to fend off stagnation in Rising Lords.

Medieval games have become synonymous with the RTS and turn-based genres, with the period’s volatile politics, modernity-shaping events, and rapid shift in leaders, nations and technology lending itself well to a meticulous balance of economy, morale, and tactfulness. With the medieval source material reserving a state of timelessness within this milieu of gaming, it makes it increasingly difficult for smaller, non-AAA variants to stand out. For a smaller game to not get lost in the margins of this cluttered genre, it must fall into one of the following categories: experimental or mechanically pristine. 

So comes Rising Lords, a medieval turn-based strategy game developed by a small, Cologne-based studio known as Argonwood. Rising Lords is its first title, born out of the overall aim of the company to “shake up stagnant game mechanics and infuse them with fresh new ideas.” While key components were missing from the code we were provided with, the short amount of content it displayed implied that Argonwood may well be on its way to achieving its overarching philosophy, albeit with a few missteps. 

Skirmishes in Rising Lords focus around simple combat, but the story mode and larger-scale matches promise to bring elements of the medieval agrarian economy into play, including taxation and farming. Matches are won by whittling down the opponent’s numbers, signified by a digit underneath each unit, or morale through strategy and tactics. Cards are dealt at the start of the game, forming a hand, with additional cards coming in at set intervals. 

Morale can be worn down significantly by slaying the opponent general and taking over their keep. Morale plays a crucial role in unit efficiency, with some cards being able to restore or boost morale when used at the correct moment. The interplay between the viability of each card and the tightly-designed gameplay is a highlight, with each different aspect of the game interweaving well. 

Key additions such as the story and scenario mode were absent in the current build, meaning players could only be exposed to short, skirmish-style matches against the AI. While it is expected that these missing modes will vary the gameplay and challenge more, the skirmish matches against the AI were a little too easy and simplistic. The title’s slow, card-based structure is made laborious by how little the AI throws at the player in terms of surprise or challenge, giving the pacing a somewhat metronomic quality; even in the most tightly-fought battles, Rising Lords is screaming out for a bit of pace and variation.

Despite the issues with pace, Argonwood has provided a solid foundation on which to build upon. Envisioning a tougher game in the story mode and in multiplayer, the central mechanic of cards mixed with a simple yet punishing board whets the appetite. The developer’s pen-and-paper experience shows in the variations in cards, which can, when forced upon players, lead to moments of ingenuity and tangible risk-reward play. Factors such as morale, terrain and fortifications have a significant impact on battle, with wins and losses defined by the dominance of one or all these factors. In our experience, a few battles were won purely as we manipulated the terrain better than the opposition, despite having a worse selection of cards and units. When pushed by potentially tougher AI or a human partner, Rising Lords’s compact board can be boundless in player-driven consequence. 

The art design does a good job in translating almost hand-drawn visuals with medieval tones and textures, with the design of the units straddling the line between faithful to the source material and cartoonish. The soundtrack and sound effects, too, compliment the game’s simplicity without being too over-bearing. Rising Lords gives off the vibe of playing a board game with friends, which is all delivered by its tertiary focuses on its visuals and presentation.

After playing Rising Lords, a key question comes to mind: is this game refined or merely barebones? The latter implies a project that has been meticulously designed to highlight its most important points, whereas the former indicates a title that is barely functional, almost skeletal. A lot depends on how the game’s forthcoming modes diversify the game’s palette, but with a few more months in the oven, Argonwood look likely to build upon this foundation to provide an indie answer to the decade-old problem of medieval’s video game stagnation.