This title deviates from prior entries in the series by offering a more streamlined interface and approach to gameplay. Diplomacy plays virtually no role in the game, and micromanagement of units is scaled-down to a great extent. In addition, there are only two resources in the game; gold and mana, as opposed to the many varied resources found in most strategy games of this type, which is needed to produce certain units. Perhaps the most notable instance of streamlining is the combat system. Rather than having multiple units battling it out at once, combat is one-on-one, similar to a collectible card game. A player will choose which unit they wish to send into battle, and so will the computer (or the other player in multiplayer games). The units will then battle to the death, with no retreating. Once a unit is killed, the player or computer sends in another, and so on, until one side is victorious. Surrender is not an option during or between battles. Spells can be cast before or between battles that will help to increase the chance of success. Groups or "stacks" of units can number up to eight for traveling parties or up to sixteen units for cities.
The basic flow of the game consists of producing units in cities, based on the amount of resources currently available to the player, and then sending those units out to conquer other cities and/or explore ruins, while learning spells along the way. The amount of time it takes to produce a unit, move a unit to a place on the map, and learn a spell is determined by a specified number of turns. For example, a weak unit or a common spell make take one or two turns to produce or learn; while a powerful unit may take as much as four turns to produce and a rare or "arcane" spell may take as much as sixteen turns to learn. While the player is performing these steps, the opposing player(s) are as well. As many as eight players can play a game at a time. These can be any mixture of human or AI players. The game ends once all but one warlord (player) is defeated. The object of the game is to capture enemy cities, which will result in more resources and units. Cities come in four levels and can be upgraded at the cost of gold. A higher-level city can produce more powerful units and is more-resistant to enemy sieges. The player can also explore different ruins which dot the map, which can yield great amounts of experience points, magical items which can be used by hero units (discussed below), additional resources, or additional combat units. Depending on the surrounding buildings a player's capital city has, quests may become available which consist of the player clearing out four random ruins on the map as steps towards a great reward. These can help increase the power of a player's army.
Races and Units
There are eight different races in the game: Knights, Empire, Elves, Dark Elves, Dwarves, Dragons, Undead, and Demons. Each of these races has six types of units, each of which has a counterpart with the other races. These unit categories could be classed as: Infantry, Archer, Cavalry, Siege, Creature, and Hero, in order of how many turns it takes to produce them. Infantry are typically the cheap, weak units. Archer units can fire projectiles, and are best used as backup for other units, as they can still fire arrows as support even when they are not the active unit. Cavalry units are mounted riders who have a good range of movement out of battle, and are more powerful than infantry in battle. Siege units are most useful when attacking a city; they can stay in the "back row" (i.e. not active units) and fire projectiles at a city's walls in order to destroy them and prevent them from firing arrows at the active unit. Creature units are generally large and/or powerful fantasy creatures which are more powerful than cavalry units; they are also often flying units, which have the best range of movement on the map. Hero units are powerful units which can make use of magic items found in ruins to increase their skills. They also have a special "leadership" ability which can increase the power of other units. These categories are loose, however. While all units correspond to each other, some races have units in these slots which deviate from these categories. Units can gain experience points, and thus can gain levels, making them more powerful and allowing them to increase their special abilities. However, even a very powerful unit can be defeated by weaker units.
Each of the units has the characteristics of their race. For example, the nature-oriented elves have treants, unicorns and elven warriors as units, while the undead have skeletons and liches as units. The races also have distinct architectural styles in the looks of their cities. Each race has a strength or weakness compared with another race. This means that certain races while facing other races will have an advantage. Each character (warlord) a player makes has to have a certain "favored" race, which means that the character will produce only that race's units in his/her cities. If a player conquers the city of another race, they can produce those types of units, but depending on how opposite that race is from their favored race, it will take longer or shorter than it would for their own units.
The player's character is called a warlord. The player chooses one of 33 portraits to represent their warlord when they create it. The player must also choose two types of specialization for the warlord, based on their combat preferences. For example, picking "combat" and "combat" will result in a non-magic-using warrior. Picking "combat" and "nature magic" will result in a ranger, and so on. The warlord can only enter direct battle when their capital city is under siege. Naturally, they are the most powerful type of unit in the game. In a normal game, when a warlord is defeated, all their cities become neutral and up for grabs, and they leave the game with generally a few experience points. These can be used to advance levels for the warlord, and allow the player to either add on a building (from a finite amount of types) which gives some benefit to future campaigns. For example, adding a certain type of building might increase the amount of gold (necessary to produce new units) a player earns per city. If they do not wish to add a building, they may choose to increase one of four skills for the warlord. Warlords are persistent characters which can be used in an infinite number of campaigns.
Warlords IV uses pre-rendered 3D sprites for its unit and city graphics. It also uses particle graphics for various effects. Despite this, the game has an overall 2D look to it. The graphics may appear to be a bit primitive for 2003. However, the gameplay is the main selling point for these types of games.
The game has a basic, looping background music track, which is not distracting. It is reminiscent of the music used in the Lord of the Rings films. There are appropriate sound effects for battle and unit management, and many units have unique battle cries and death moans.
Warlords IV contains a map editor which allows a user to design their own world maps to play on. Various types of terrain features are available, and the interface is user-friendly. Four sizes of maps are available (50X50, 75X75, 100X100, 125X125) based on the amount of squares on the map's grid. Up to 50 cities, 100 sites (surrounding buildings which can produce resources and other effects), and 50 ruins can be placed on the map. The cities and ruins are given randomly-generated names, but the player can enter in their own or keep randomly-generating names until they find one to their liking. The designer of the map also determines the level, capital status, garrison, and income of the cities. They also determine the number of players that can play the map at one time, and the race restrictions, if any.