The Mount & Blade franchise is the work of an indie studio in Turkey, TaleWorlds Entertainment. It is a terrific game as well as a terrific history lesson, one the best examples I know of an educational game that is just superbly fun as well as imparting information and stirring curiosity for its subject matter.
Mount & Blade boasts a handful of unique play experiences. One of them is its excellent riding and mounted combat. The sandbox gameplay is also well done, with many different approaches to play; the game will congratulate players for a variety of achievements, rather than encouraging one particular path to “winning,” but satisfaction comes from watching your own plans come to fruition.
For me, though, Mount & Blade’s glory is its no-frills portrayal of the medieval European world. If you’re looking for magic, dragons, and huge swords with novelty blades, this isn’t the game for you. You’re lucky to find a piece of equipment in Mount & Blade that isn’t ragged, rusty, bent, or otherwise showing wear; when you do find a plain sword in decent shape, you’ll hang on to that sword for hours and hours of play.
Which brings me to the reason I’m dedicating a whole post to Mount & Blade: if you want to learn about medieval life through gameplay, this is a terrific way to do it. Warband will show you real weapons and armor, but it will also teach you how to use them, why their differences matter, and when one is more useful than another. Because its fighting mechanics are more subtle than those of other adventure RPGs, where a player makes an attack using a single keystroke or mouse click, fighting with a sword is very different in M&B from fighting with a spear or an axe.
But the details of medieval weaponry are only the tip of the historical accuracy iceberg. The game also portrays realistic (if cursory) scenes of village and town life, where villagers are generally poor – especially during war – and townspeople pursue trades and grumble about prices. Unlike your standard RPG, where vendor trash can be sold off at any shop, the businesses in Mount & Blade have limited funds, depending on the prosperity of their town, and they won’t buy more from you than they can afford. Want to sell armor to peasants? Forget it. Peasants have food and, on occasion, raw materials for sale, but they almost never have money. When peace has lasted for a long time in any one area, villages will prosper, though they are always vulnerable to bandits.
Mount & Blade does a very keen job offering its wealth of information to players rather than forcing it on them, both by making flavor text optional reading and by integrating historical details into play. It’s such a solid model for historical gameplay that several of its fans have designed mods to recreate various periods. The latest one to be officially adopted into the franchise is Viking Conquest, which portrays the British Isles and northern Europe during the dark ages. Where Warband took historical medieval Europe and transposed real details onto an invented map with invented factions, Viking Conquest overflows with attention to historical detail, including a real map and real names and titles for Anglo-Saxons, Picts, Gaels, Britons, Frisians, and Norsemen. From the painted designs on characters’ shields to the regional linguistic fidelity to the proud descriptions local mayors will give you of their towns’ histories, playing Viking Conquest is like strolling (or rampaging, as the case may be) through an enormous history book, while some of its residents try to kill you.
If you’re interested in medieval Europe, if you enjoy well-crafted game systems, and especially if you want to experience a shining example of educational gameplay, give the Mount & Blade franchise a try. Viking Conquest is quite a bit more difficult than Warband, so have patience with the learning curve and do practice fighting in the arena before taking on a band of Northmen on your own.