The Ancient Art of War is a real-time strategy game based on the very basic elements of war: unit types, formation, and strength. The game is set in ancient battle-style times before the use of gun powder, consisting of the three basic unit types of that period: the light armored but fast 'barbarians', the heavily armored but slow 'knights', and the ranged 'archers'. A fourth non-combatant unit type is also available: 'spies', which is only available under certain campaign rule settings.
The game consists of different scenarios to choose from, each with a different geographical setting, difficulty setting, visibility setting, and victory condition setting. Some settings may be subject to change by the player.
Gameplay is represented in two major areas:
- The first is the tactical/political map, which visualizes geographical and terrain elements from a top-down perspective. Here the player can coordinate, position, reinforce troops, and also command them to attack, defend or ambush enemy troops in a real-time setting. Time may be set to pause, faster or slower to make battle plans easier.
- The second is the combat screen where one group of soldiers fight another group of the enemy. A squad consisting a maximum of 14 soldiers will fight according to their set battle formation and will act only on the player's real-time battle commands (e.g. attack, forward, retreat, etc.).
The difficulty levels are represented by eight opponents, which include the Greek goddess of war Athena, a stereotypical Russian-Soviet commander named Crazy Ivan, as well as the historical characters Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Geronimo, and Sun Tzu as the hardest opponent. Each opponent has a different fighting style of combat and strategy.
The game also comes with a construction set which allows the player to create own campaigns: From the story, rules to the map editor. In this game editor, the player can also tweak troops to the player's liking, such as default troop formations.