The player is a Non-Entity General whose opposite number is a historical or mythological tactician, such as Caesar, Alexander, Athena, or the ultimate challenge, Sun Tzu himself. The three unit types follow a Tactical RockPaperScissors model: archers beat knights, knights beat barbarians, and barbarians literally beat archers. Strategy incorporates many of the topics discussed by Sun Tzu, including supply lines, morale, and Geo Effects.
There were two sequels, The Ancient Art of War at Sea and The Ancient Art of War in the Skies. The authors, Dave and Barry Murry, along with their sister Dee Dee Murry, would later go on to create the Manhunter Adventure Game series.
Tropes featured include:
- Anachronism Stew: Regardless of campaign setting, from Zhou Dynasty China to Sherwood Forest to Custer's Last Stand, the graphics, gameplay, and possible opponents are identical.
- Attract Mode
- Captain's Log: Introduces "Running the Gauntlet" in War at Sea.
- Capture the Flag: Taking all of the enemy's flags is an Instant-Win Condition.
- Color-Coded Armies: The black and white sides' soldiers are Palette Swaps.
- Defog of War: Some scenarios give you spies, who can observe the enemy over long distances. They look like barbarians, but can't put up a fight.
- The Drunken Sailor: Your crew in War at Sea. If you lose, it's "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?" If you win, it's "Pass the grog, matey!"
- Easy Logistics: It's up to you how easy they are: supply line length is one of the difficulty settings.
- Epigraph: Each match begins with a quote from Sun Tzu.
- Fog of War: Also an optional difficulty setting.
- Foreign-Looking Font: The title screen on some platforms used Chinese-esque lettering.
- Friendly Fire Proof : Averted. Archers frequently hit their allies from behind.
- The Game of the Book
- Gameplay Automation: The computer resolves engagements automatically, unless you choose to take command yourself with the "zoom" feature.
- Geo Effects: Forests, mountains, and water interfere with troop movements, to an extent determined on the pre-game options screen.
- Here There Be Dragons: The overworld maps in War at Sea are fancifully decorated with sea serpents, Neptune, etc.
- Hit-and-Run TacticsGERONIMO uses hit and run tactics but doesn't like to be caught in the open.
- Joke Character: Each game has one (with a Punny Name) as its easiest opponent: Crazy Ivan, Thor Foote, and Helmut von Spike.
- Level Editor
- Public Domain Soundtrack: "What Shall We Do With a Drunken Sailor?" in Sea; "It's a Long Road to Tipperary" in Skies.
- Units Not to Scale: The icon for a unit is a single man, who looks like a giant next to the icon for a village.
- Victory Pose: Surviving soldiers grin and raise a fist in the air.
- Wooden Ships and Iron Men: The setting of War at Sea.
- Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: War at Sea has "Ye Olde Options Shoppe."