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The game features a 3D game map, although camera movement was limited to rotating the map in 90-degree intervals and 8 pre-defined levels of zoom. Only the map itself is three dimensional, people, trees and other game objects where comprised of sprites. The game also features a fairly advanced "artificial life" engine. Each person seem to have a mind of their own and will go about his or her job, fishing, farming, shepherding, collecting wood or making items without any input from the player. On death, citizens and soldiers alike would rise heavenwards in angelic form. You also have a query tool that can be used to see the name, sex, age, allegiance, vital stats, hometown and equipment for any given person you click on.The game was created by Peter Molyneux, a computer game designer and game programmer, responsible for the well known God games Populous and Black & White, among others, as well as Business Strategy games such as Theme Park, Theme Hospital and most recently, The Movies. While you cannot form the land, your actions can still have some limited effect on the environment. For example if you deforest a big area the weather pattern will change and more rain or snow (depending on season) will fall, making movement slower.

You start out on each map with a small number of soldiers, and maybe a few towns already under your control. To win the map you need to tip the balance of power completely to your side (represented by a scale below the mini-map), by conquering all (or at least most) of the towns on the map, and kill any opposing captains. Once a town is under your control you can draft the locals into your army and take on bigger towns or enemy armies. Some of the bigger towns also have neutral captains and if these survive the battle and you conquer the town they come under your command as well. You can only control as many armies as you have captains so it's important to keep them alive, if a captain is killed his army is disbanded and his surviving solders go back to their town of origin. Unlike your main army which the main character commands, the subordinate captains have a "lag" time. The further away from your main character they are, the longer it takes for orders to reach them. When issuing orders via your captains, a useful and sometimes amusing feedback is provided: the affirmative voice sample is played at a pitch that signals the wisdom of your commands.

Food is the single most important resource in the game, the expression "an army marches on its belly" is very true in Powermonger, therefore it is often smart to not to draft a whole town's population into an army, because an empty town will not produce food (or more people). Aside from friendly towns you can also slaughter wandering sheep (by ordering you army to attack it), barter food from neutral towns, or kill an enemy captain and pillage his food supply. Aside from manpower and food towns can also provide equipment. Townspeople will occasionally make stuff, but to speed things up you can order an army to "invent" at a friendly town. Depending on nearby recourses, what posture your army is set to (passive, neutral or aggressive) your men will then go to work collecting recourses and make items. As the more useful items can usually only be made in one or two towns on any given map these have great strategic importance.

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