Stuck Inside With is a new series where, since we’re all stuck inside, we venture off the beaten path to explore other parts of the gaming world. This week we’re looking at Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord.

The thing about Mount & Blade is that it’s difficult for people who are just coming into the series to figure out the appeal. Consider this: graphical fidelity has never been what you’d characterize as a priority of the series; characters stare dead-eyed at the player during stilted, repetitive conversations; the world map is awkward, the economy is obtuse, and the battles are brutally difficult.

It’s a wonder anyone gets past any of these hurdles.

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As someone who’s been on the Mount & Blade bandwagon since the ground floor (back when Zendar was the only town in the game), I’m here to tell you that it is absolutely worth it. There are zero other games I can think of that really simulate being right in the middle of a gigantic medieval battle. You’ll absorb charges in a shieldwall with your men-at-arms. You’ll nail headshots mid-gallop while riding through a forest at night. You’ll desperately hack at attackers climbing up a ladder while sieging your castle. You’ll drive the point of your lance right into a king’s face during a tournament. It is completely unparalleled and I love it to death.

Which is why the early access release of Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord, which has somehow been in development for eight years, was greeted with such fanfare. For folks who are curious about the hoopla but find themselves intimidated by starting out, here’s everything you need to know to not immediately get wiped out by bandits.

Stick them with the pointy end

Bannerlord offers a quick tutorial to get you familiar with the basics, but the actual ins and outs of combat can be difficult to master. Your weapon attacks and blocks in four basic directions: left swings, right swings, overhead swings, and thrusts. In order to actually block an attack without a shield, you’ll have to learn how to read the direction your opponents are attacking from and block accordingly, which takes quite a bit of practice.

Once you do that, you can do more advanced moves — reading an opponent’s thrust, sidestepping without parrying, and conking them in the head never gets old — but here’s a quick tip if you find yourself stuck in a parry-attack-repeat combo. When it’s your turn to attack, quickly hit the parry button when you’re in the middle of a swing or thrust. This will cancel the attack and generally will result in your opponent biting on the feint and starting their own attack. You can then quickly attack them again. Bizarrely, this works on both AI and human opponents, so even a passing familiarity with how to feint will put you one-up on your opponent.

Gather your party before venturing forth

Now that you know how to out-duel anyone, it’s time to take on some enemy parties on your own, right? Wrong! This is a mistake, and it comes from watching too many movies where enemies attack the hero one-by-one. Enemies in Bannerlord aren’t geniuses, but if you make the mistake of taking on too many of them at once — and by “too many” I mean “more than three, sometimes even just two” — then they’ll alternate their attacks and make it extremely difficult for you. For new players, this is usually where they bounce off the game, as it doesn’t feed into a hero fantasy, but it’s easy to remedy. Go to a village, recruit some peasants, and throw them into the meat grinder train them into a loyal group of skilled retainers. Or at least stand in a battle line with them when you’re hunting down looters.

Cowardice

Once you get a small crew up and running, you may feel like you can start to take on stronger groups of bandits. This is also a mistake, because bandits in Mount & Blade games can be extremely strong. Say you’ve got a group of 20 militiamen and you’ve rolled over some looters in the early game, and you’ve decided to wander over to the lands of the Khuzait Khanate. Fifteen Steppe Bandits approach you, and you feel confident that you can wipe them out.

That’s when you realize “Steppe Bandit” is another phrase for “basically a Mongol horse archer” and you flail about while they ride around you in a circle, filling your men full of arrows and laughing at any attempt you make to get closer. This is an inadvisable course of action. Be wary of any group of named bandits until you’re rolling with a legitimately strong warband. Forest Bandits will chill on a hill and fill you full of longbow fire, while Sea Raiders will march up to you and smite you in the head with an axe while your attacks bounce off their (frankly) unrealistically-good armor.

Speaking of armor …

Turtle up

You can swan about Calradia killing bandits for quite some time, but you’ll never make the big bucks that way. Fortunately, diplomacy is not particularly advanced at this point in medieval history, and the eight warring kingdoms are constantly getting into wars. This is very bad for the good people of the greater realm, but it’s great for you! Find a kingdom you like which seems to be doing well and sign up as a mercenary. Then, tag along with one of their armies and watch as your battles go from twenty-man scraps to thousand-soldier slugfests. If the going gets rough, and your general gets in a fight with an army three times his size, maybe go on a “scouting” mission elsewhere so you don’t get captured with the rest of them (see the section on “Cowardice”). If you manage to acquit yourself well, maybe you can become a vassal and own your own castle or town. Then you can really ramp up your personal army, and you can finally employ the greatest weapon of any general:

The art of war

F1 gets the attention of your entire army. F3 orders them to charge. Most players just press these two buttons over and over again, but Mount & Blade in general and Bannerlord in particular allow for extremely detailed tactical management. You can order your troops into a phalanx. You can split your archers, sending groups to different hills and engulfing opponents in overlapping fields of fire. You can lead your horse archers in an end-around the enemy army, drawing away their attention before ordering your heavy troops to smash them when they least expect it.

Experiment, find out what works, and you’ll soon be able to take down much larger forces. Basically, you should look at what the forces of the living did in “The Battle of Winterfell” and do the exact opposite. Seriously, siege equipment IN FRONT of the infantry? Charging light cavalry unsupported into a mass of zombies who have no formation to disrupt or morale to deplete? Archers not firing until like halfway through the battle? I could have handled that battle easily AND I probably could have saved Dolorous Edd.

If all else fails

Bannerlord still not grabbing you?

Here’s a partial list of mods I’ve seen for its predecessor, Mount & Blade: Warband:

  • One that let you fight through the Lord of the Rings trilogy

  • One that let you play through Game of Thrones from literally any faction

  • One that changed the entire map to the city from Gangs of New York and replaced weapons with things like cudgels and shillelaghs (seriously)

  • A bunch that make the game into a Napoleonic-era clash of gunpowder armies

  • Several that create their own original fantasy setting, letting you fight giants and dragons and the like

  • Mods that overhaul the setting so you’re in an entirely different area of the world, like Sengoku-era Japan or medieval Southeast Asia.

  • Thousands of mods that tweak gameplay, improve graphics, or just make the game as weird as possible.

The modding community for Mount & Blade is probably the most active and dedicated I’ve ever seen. Even if you can’t look past the (honestly not that bad!) graphics and the weird interface, you can be confident that, given enough time, modders will take the game and make it into something you couldn’t even imagine. That’s the real beauty of Mount & Blade — it’s the best sandbox since Minecraft.