With the release of Warlords, the Strategic Studies Group (SSG) lived perfectly up to their name. This game could be called the grandfather of turn-based strategy. It is set in the classic fantasy land of Illuria, with eight players fighting for domination of the realm. The goal is easy: defeat all opponents to become the sole ruler of the land. There are different races like humans, elves, dwarves, orcs and others, all typical for a classic fantasy game. Some of the elements are even reminiscent of Middle Earth, from which the programmers probably borrowed one idea or another, even if there aren't any hobbits... Warlords can be played with up to eight human or computer players with four difficulty settings.
At the beginning of the game, you are in control of a single city, where you can build troops and send them out to conquer further territory. While most of the cities can build standard units like light and heavy infantry only, some places can also recruit better troops, which make them extremely valuable. These fantasy units usually are stronger and faster than normal ones, or they have special abilities. However, the most important units in the game are the heroes. These cannot be built, but emerge from time to time at one of your cities. These special units can explore the ruins and temple sites, which are scattered all over the map. When they are victorious, they may gain strength or find some artifacts. As a reward, you may sometimes even receive mythical units like mighty dragons, which are able to fly and take other units with them. The heroes are crucial to your success, especially in the later stages of the game when they have gained some power, and should therefore always be protected by other units.
The combat model is quite simple: every unit has a certain strength value, which is added to a dice roll. In battles, the weakest units always attack first; heroes go last. There are several factors that modify the outcome of a battle, e.g.; territory bonuses, modifications for heroes, and artifacts or special abilities. When a city is attacked, the defender receives a bonus based on the defensive strength of the city walls. Never-the-less there seems to be a large random factor in it, as sometimes even light infantry is able to beat a much stronger opponent garrisoned in a fortified place.
While expanding your borders is quite easy during the first few turns, as there are lots of neutral cities with weak defense, it becomes more and more difficult to conquer further lands with the commencing game. The computer players understand quite well how to defend their more important cities. Sadly, this also leads to the shady sides of the game, as the AI is not very clever overall. This miserable AI combined with the fact that there is only one map in the game create the dilemma: even on higher difficulty levels, the computer players always follow the same routes and strategies and become very predictable after some games. However, it will probably take a couple of hours until you reach this point.
The game is completely controlled by mouse (or keyboard, if you prefer), and controls are easy to understand. You can group units by moving them onto a stack and then double clicking it. Units can take orders such as improving city defenses. These options are accessed via a drop down menu which appears on the upper side of the screen. There are also some very practical functionalities which make your life easier: you can relocate your production from one city to another, which saves a lot of time, as you can bring your reinforcements to the frontier without having to move them manually around the map. In addition, you can assign them a defender status, which means that these units are skipped until you manually reactivate them.
From a technical point of view, Warlords is basic, even for the time it was made. There is no music and only a few sound effects. The graphics are functional and could have been more detailed for my taste. However, they have a resolution of 640x400 pixels, which was above average in 1990. The game runs pretty good in DOSBox and with VDMSound. In DOSBox I had to set the cycles really low to avoid sound interrupts.
Being an absolute reference to the strategy genre, I rate Warlords with 4, mainly because of the plain graphics and sounds, and the lack of more maps. The successor fixes these issues, but this part is the real classic!