Okay – hopefully you read Part One of my look at Mount and Blade/Warband. If so, you’ve got an idea of what the game is about and got a taste of the combat portion. Now it’s time to look at the shiny parts of the game: selecting, fighting with and leading your band of warriors to conquer your foes!
I LOVE troop combat. Throughout the game, you are building up your band with cavalry, infantry and/or archers. You start out solo and begin recruiting with the first quest. I’m not sure what the maximum band size is, but I’m at 249 in one of my current games (it went way up from just over 100 when I started my own Faction). And I have over 300 more soldiers garrisoned in cities and castles I control, some of which I can draw upon to change the makeup of my band.
On the map, you can choose whether to encounter other units or try to avoid them (they may chase you down, though). If they are hostile, you can choose to fight, pay them off or surrender. Usually, you’re looking for trouble and you fight.
At game start, you can choose to allow quitting without saving, or to require saving before quitting. If you decide on the latter, if something bad happens, you’re stuck with it. You can’t just quit and reload: no do-overs. And bad things happen a lot. If you are defeated, you can lose your current band and have to start over. I don’t play hardcore. If you do, pick your fights VERY carefully.
The battlefield is determined by the terrain on the map: could be desert, forest, frozen tundra, whatever. Your band and the enemy are often relatively distant and you get to issue orders to each of your unit types. I tend to look for a hill, set my archers atop it and tell them to ‘Hold This Spot’ and put the infantry and cavalry in front of them. Then I tell everybody to ‘Fire at Will’ (Poor Will. He gets wailed on). There are a limited variety of orders to give, in a couple different categories. But they are more than enough in the speed of combat. And you can pre-set some orders before the battle begins with some Mods.
I wish there was a pause feature, so I could issues orders to set up my units more effectively (i.e., like ordering the cavalry to a flanking position at the start of combat). There’s not much time to issue orders with enemy knights charging at you.
When combat starts, your troops attack (or wait, or follow you) as commanded, on their own. You do not control individual units. So the archers are raining down arrows as the enemy infantry crosses an open field towards you. Then the cavalry thunders down the hillside, kicking up dust, while your infantry follows behind. Meanwhile, you have your lance out and join your cavalry, charging at an enemy archer and killing him with a thrust in the back.
You can change your orders during the fight and you can choose to fight or watch. I usually get severely wounded (or my horse does) and I move away from combat, often hanging out with the archers – they’re the punters and kickers of melee combat. But just as in football, you need them.
I really enjoy these types of battles. Early on, you have to be careful who you fight (sea raiders, who roam the area occupied by the Viking-like Nords, always beat me at the game start). At present, my band can defeat an enemy Faction army of about 150% my size. When the battle is over, you have the opportunity to take prisoners if anyone was knocked unconscious instead of killed. You can try to recruit them to your band (dicey at best) or sell them for cash to Ransom Brokers. That can become a lucrative trade. And sometimes you capture the enemy lord. You can capture him and his Faction will eventually offer a fair amount of money to get him back.
You also get to claim any items left on the battlefield, which can be used to either upgrade your gear or that of your companions, or you can sell them for much-needed cash to merchants in the cities. If the enemy had any prisoners, you have ‘freed’ them and you can hire them into your army. That’s a valuable source of troops – especially later in the game when you want more accomplished enlistees, not untrained villagers.
Another type of combat is a siege. You can be either attacking or defending a castle. Sieging a castle is easier in conjunction with allies in your Faction, but you can do it on your own. You and your band use ladders or siege engines to try and get a foothold inside the walls and defeat all enemy units. When that happens, the settlement changes to the color of your Faction, which now controls it. If you are a mercenary serving a Faction, your Faction ruler assigns it to one of his vassals/followers. If you have sworn your sword to that leader, you can request that it be assigned to you. That may or may not happen. More on that later.
The first time I sieged a castle in Mount and Blade and took it (I lost a few times before that), I knew I was hooked. Units tend to clump together and they don’t attack and defend very strategically, but it’s still a blast. And I know that the sieges are being significantly improved in Mount and Blade II: Bannerlord, which is in development.
Your band of troops is the backbone of your success in Mount and Blade. From the first villager you recruit, you are on the path to defeating your foes and conquering their settlements. It’s up to you how you want to put together your band. You can stick with just one Faction’s troops (which I find less fun) or mix and match them. In one game, I used only Vaegir archers and Nord infantry. When I had about sixty troops, I was unstoppable against reasonably sized opponent bands. The archers rained arrows from above while the Nords charged forward and just tore up anybody that got in their way.
And it’s not just Factions. I’ve tried all kinds of mixes of cavalry, infantry and archers. My current band (120 troops) is entirely cavalry. Now, I’ve got a whole bunch of infantry and archers in the garrisons of my two cities, so I can change things up. But most of the cavalry are high level and they’re a wrecking crew.
You can also hire troops in the city taverns. Think of them as mercenaries. These can get expensive, but they’re also of higher-than-starting levels. I mentioned earlier that you can hire freed prisoners when you defeat an enemy group. I have added several man hunters to my band this way. Instead of killing enemies, they knock them unconscious, which allows me to capture lots of prisoners for sale to ransom brokers. It’s an important economic tool for me.
So, you have a LOT of options for how you want to put your band together. I think it’s really the heart of the game and pretty much my favorite thing to fiddle with.
Serving a Leader
Once you have your band established (probably at least 30 troops, if not more), you might consider offering to serve as a mercenary for a faction. One big advantage is that any enemies of that Faction become your enemies. That gives you more opportunities to fight. You also will be able to loot and burn enemy villages, stealing all the items you can carry. And you can take enemy castles and cities by siege to become a part of your Faction’s domains. Of course, those same enemies will now attack you if they are strong enough. If your Faction and an enemy Faction sign a peace treaty, everything is forgiven and they’re neutral towards you. But you get to keep anything you took from them.
You get paid a lot as a mercenary. I haven’t mentioned that there is a weekly cost for maintaining your troops. I’m not sure what happens if you don’t have enough money: the band’s morale probably goes down and I imagine they leave you at some point. So, you always want to be making money – the bigger your band, the more you need. There are several ways to make money, including owning some businesses, so you have different ways to offset those expenses.
A drawback is that as a paid mercenary, your Faction leader will not grant you a village or let you keep a captured city or castle. If you play for a while, that often becomes a goal.
Once you’ve proven yourself to a Faction ruler (usually through doing quests and being a successful mercenary), you can swear allegiance to them and become a vassal. The immediate downside is that your mercenary pay goes away. And you may well have been relying on that to make your weekly budget work.
But you are immediately granted a village, which will usually give you a little income. And hey – you’re a lord! Somewhat. But when you successfully siege a city or a castle, you can ask for it as a reward. THAT is cool. Once you receive one city and one castle, the ruler seems to be wary of you amassing too much power and seems to turn down further requests (that’s when you rebel and form your own Faction!).
You can be summoned to join a Faction war party, which is usually okay. There’s some waiting around, but you get involved in some big battles and sieges.
Having received a gift from the ruler, the Settlement Management engine now comes into play.
A village is the smallest holding. You can do a few quests for the village elder, but mostly you have the option of spending money to build improvements. The manor lets you rest in the village for half cost, a tower makes looters take longer to pillage the town, etc.; none of the improvements are very exciting. I haven’t been interested in village management.
Next up is a castle. That’s a bit better, as you get to stock a garrison and defend the castle against sieges. The improvements options are about the same and have some impact, but not too much. Still, it’s cool to own a castle, and it gives you a base of operations: usually in enemy territory.
Once you get a city, then you’ve got some things going on. The garrison needs to be a lot bigger than for a castle. And you can appoint some officials who give you additional management options, from recruiting and training for your garrison to adjusting tax levels. To hold a city and also maintain a solid war band, you have probably established yourself in the game pretty well.
I recently decided to form my own Faction. I was taking castles and cities for the Vaegirs, who I was sworn to. But after I rescued a city for the third time, I asked to keep it. I already had one city and one castle and the ruler indicated I had enough power in his kingdom and gave me some money instead. Obviously, he feared me as Prince John feared Robin of Locksley.
So, I quit his service and rebelled. It was the first time I’d tried this avenue. After assuring the game that I wanted to take this drastic step, I became a new Faction (red), New Troy, and I became King Astyannaxx (I’m an Iliad geek). I lost the village which the Vaegirs had given me, but I now had two cities and a castle with an associated village. Of course, I was immediately at war with the Vaegirs, while everybody else was neutral towards me.
There are a whole bunch of new options available when you create your own Faction – most of which I haven’t explored yet. Diplomacy becomes an element, as you try to reach agreements with other Factions so that they won’t attack you. You have your hands full keeping your fledgling Faction unconquered. You can appoint your companions to positions of power and lords from other Factions may ask to join you. Ah, patronage!
And of course, you can declare war on other Factions! I’m new to this separate Faction thing in my current game, so I’ve played a plethora of hours of Mount and Blade without doing this and the game was a blast. But ruling a part of the map and carving out my own chunk of Calradia certainly appeals. I own two of the four Vageir cities, which isn’t a bad start.
I’ll be exploring the Faction Management options in coming sessions. My first city is in the heart of Vaegir territory and I think it’s going to be hard to hold if I’m warring with them. Or if the Nords get aggressive (Vikings, raiding and pillaging – can’t imagine!).
A note on one of my favorite mod features: The Floris Expanded Mod has boats! You can buy a boat for 50,000 denars and set out with your crew. You can sail around the coastline to the land of an enemy Faction, find a spot to land, raid a village or two and sail away with prisoners and plunder.
More fun is running down another boat (usually a sea raider) and fighting a battle, just as you do on land. And you can pick out boats that have prisoners on them. This is a valuable source of higher level troops later in the game. I use boat raids to get 40 or 50 new troops, head back to the dock, then go to my city or castle and assign them to the garrison. It’s expensive, but it’s superior to trying to recruit villagers. And you want to build up that garrison quickly, as the Faction you took the settlement from often tries to get it back shortly thereafter. I don’t think I could have established my Faction without this strategy.
Be careful. If you fall off the boat while boarding an enemy vessel, you will drown and lapse into unconsciousness.
I haven’t even covered everything in the game, such as courting the opposite sex. You can marry, increasing your faction ties. And then you can throw a Festival (which I haven’t done). One mod let me sabotage a lord’s attempt to woo another lord’s daughter. Which allowed me to try and win her favor myself. The whole thing seems to involve learning poems from bards in the taverns. But it’s just one more game play option you can spend time on.
I love linear games. Wind me up and send me on the quest. Diablo, the original Neverwinter Nights, Dark Sun: I’ve played far more than my share. Mount and Blade is NOT one of those games. You don’t hit an end point (I guess you would if you eliminated every Faction, but that seems unlikely).
But you can set goals for yourself while you’re playing. Build a band entirely of Nord Huskarls. Or mix and match a certain combination of troops. Conquer a castle from every Faction. Get to 50 troops, then 100, then 150. Declare ‘war’ on the man hunters and attack all the ones you see, freeing the slaves (that might not go so well: there are a lot of man hunters). Work your way up one Faction, quit, and ascend near the top of another one. And of course, in Warband, creating your own Faction and building it up is basically a plot goal.
The game is a giant sandbox, but that doesn’t mean you have to be aimless. It’s wide open for you to go about playing the game the way you want to. Since I enjoy the war band building aspect so much, I spend a lot of time building up my troops and looking for fights to win. And once I had a castle (and then, a city), I was dumping troops into the garrison, then going out and getting more for my war band.
Now that I’ve got my own Faction, I’m trying to figure out a strategy. One city is in the heart of Vaegir territory, the other is on the southern edge. Then further south, surrounded by two other Factions, is my castle. I tried to form an alliance with the Nords, who are to the west of the Vaegirs and often fighting them. The enemy of my enemy is my friend type of thing. They declined my offer. I have zero security at the moment.
And since I wasn’t at war with anybody, I decided to stir things up by taking a Swadian castle that wasn’t too far from my southern city. I did, and that castle and associated village became part of my Faction. The Swadians were pissed, declared war on New Troy and immediately looted one of my villages. So I ran down to of their war bands and crushed them. It’s on!
And the Mods, which I talked about in Part One, also give you other options for goals. Prophecy of Pendor has some additional enemy factions (like the Cult of the Snake) that form armies: you can try to vanquish them. I started playing Perisno after I began this post and the Zann Invasion is great. My elven nation is trying to hold the Asian-cultured invaders off while I try to hunt down their warbands in the field. And I’d assume that reclaiming the Holy Land is a valid goal for crusader mods. I remember trying to conquer France as England in a Hundred Years War mod. Didn’t happen.
Graphically, M&B is well behind the times. That doesn’t bother me in the least, but it is a valid criticism of the game. If you need flashy graphics in your games, this isn’t the one for you. The graphics get the job done, and the different Factions have different environments, but this is not a great-looking game by any definition. It does appear that the M&B sequel will have significantly upgraded graphics.
But the depth of gameplay in M&B is almost unmatched. You can pick and choose which aspects you want to get involved with. You might like trading. You might instead want to focus on guild master quests. You can go around entering tournaments, which involve lots of player combat (without your war band). You might have no interest in Settlement Management (sometimes, I feel like Conan at the beginning of “The Phoenix in the Sword”), so you can just completely ignore that part of the game.
It’s a testament to how much stuff is packed into M&B that you can skip significant parts of the game without diminishing the gameplay. And you can start over, decide to change how you build your band and what you want to do and you’ll have a different experience. And the mods offer fresh settings and features with each new game. I’d love to see a mod with the nations and units from the Conan tales!
Mount and Blade/Warband offers first person combat and large scale troop management, with different cultures providing troops and environments. That is an appealing stew. Even though there is not a specific quest line and endgame, it’s the just about the most enjoyable game I’ve ever played. And I’m not nearly done with it.
Since writing this post, I started playing The Last Days, a Mod that totally converts the game to The Lord of the Rings. You can stand atop Minas Tirith, invade Moria and even play as an uruk hai. It’s pretty cool for a LOTR geek like me.
Bob Byrne’s ‘The Public Life of Sherlock Holmes’ column ran every Monday morning at Black Gate from March 10, 2014 through March 20, 2017.