Siege Warfare is Fun!
Stronghold, from Firefly Studios, combines elements of real-time strategy combat with economic micro-management. It’s something of a retro game nowadays, having been released in 2001 but has spawned three spinoff titles since: Stronghold: Crusader, Stronghold 2 and Stronghold 2: Legends.
There are two campaigns in Stronghold: the military campaign and the economic campaign. There is also a free-build mode and a multiplayer option. In the military campaign, players take the role of a young Lord who must fight to unite England and Wales against a tyrannical overlord and his cohorts; it is here the game excels and the campaign features twenty levels of increasing difficulty. The economic campaign is something of a let-down, featuring a handful of timed missions in which you must acquire certain amounts of produce or gold, or reach certain criteria to complete the missions.
The early missions in the military campaign serve as a form of tutorial into the game and provide a far better option than the actual game tutorial option for learning the game. As the campaign progresses you’ll come face-to-face with your enemies, the Rat; the Snake; the Pig and ultimately the big, bad Wolf. For the early part of the game, you won’t be troubled by your enemies as you begin the game slowly – building simple settlements and gathering food or clearing an area of wild animals. It’s relatively simple fare and your options are limited in terms of buildings and troops you can have, but as the game progresses you gain access to other buildings and troops necessary to the game. However, the power balance is a little off in the early levels and your enemies – starting with the Rat – have greater numbers of troops as well as more types of troops, whereas you begin the game with only a few archers. These are generally good enough to get you through the early levels, but once the game starts to gather pace it gives off an ‘in at the deep end’ feel as previously unknown troops and buildings options come into play, which for the first time, can be daunting if you don’t know how to operate them or utilise them properly
The micro-management element of Stronghold isn’t so involved or deep that it detracts from the other aspects of the game and Firefly has struck a reasonable balance between the two. On each map (except for Siege missions) you start off with a stock castle to place on the map or are provided with a castle ruin which needs to be repaired. From here you can allocate townsfolk to undertake various roles in building your economy, from chopping wood to baking bread and making swords and shields. Most maps will involve trying to strike a balance between generating enough food and raw materials to keep villagers happy while keeping the supply chain for weapons operational and building troops to combat enemy forces.
The Stronghold game interface is one area where I had a gripe with however: it is clunky and ill-designed with no logical structure. Given that in the game you need to not only build a balanced economy, but also build a defensible castle and recruit troops, it stands to reason that such options should be easy to find. This isn’t the case however, with some structures two or three levels down in a sub-menu you have to click through to reach. To build a tower, for example, you would need to click on the Castle tab followed by the tower tab and then select your desired tower – 3 clicks. Building weapons stores and troops are similar. To build weapons and troops, you need an armory and barracks, which are both in the castle tab, but weapons manufacturers have their own separate tab. It would have made more sense to have them collected under the same tab; food options are similar in that farms and food manufacturing have different tabs also when it would have been easier to keep them together.
Troops, when made, can be grouped together or sent on patrol, or ordered to adopt a particular stance. However, once grouped, clicking on a single soldier removes him from the group altogether. And, if you group your entire army together, or merge separate groups, the groupings are lost which make strategic decisions that much more difficult. For example, if you group together a unit of archers and a unit of crossbowmen and then split them up, you need to drop a unit from the group and regroup it separately, rather than the group remaining so.
But perhaps the biggest gripe is building walls. The game’s isometric view means you aren’t allowed to place buildings or objects in areas you can’t see on the screen even if the desired location is perfectly valid. So any area blocked by a wall, or building can’t be built upon without having to resort to rotating the map to gain the proper view. When throwing walls up quickly this can lead to gaps in the wall which the enemy can gain access to your castle through if you don’t notice the gaps and plug them. Pressing the spacebar does drop the walls so you can see, but this is like taking a hammer to crack a walnut. You also can’t build walls on areas that are occupied by other terrain, such as trees or rockpiles and you can’t build walls across rivers. And in some maps, while you can dig moats, there isn’t always the function to build a drawbridge to cross – a curious oversight.