Castle building sims have been few and far between. From the handful of titles that have graced shelves over the era of computer gaming, very few were memorable enough to be recalled today. Of these, the one that stands out was Lords of the Realm 2. The design team hailed from the heyday of the reign of Sierra and became known as Impressions Studios. They would go on to create more empire sims including Caesar 3. Firefly Studios is the original crew from Impressions and they’ve gone back to their roots to create an entirely new castle sim in Stronghold.
Stronghold returns to the era of Lords of the Realm. Castle building, maintenance, economics, and military strategy all weigh heavily in the goals and strategies you’ll need to employ in Stronghold. The game itself is broken down into four game options: the economic campaign, the military campaign, single missions (which range from user designed scenarios and predefined games to historical castle scenarios), and a free build mode. Each option is well thought out to give the game a little more flavor. The only thing I really dislike about the options is the order that they’re shown on the main menu. The economic campaign should definitely be listed before the strategic campaign. It is definitely geared toward starting out and familiarizing the gamer with the game. It does mention at the end of the tutorial to play the economic campaign first, but for many gamers, tutorials get thrown to the wind as they go and tear into the game.
The game itself relies on a resource system. Each resource type, from wood to foodstuffs to weaponry, requires workers and buildings for processing the resources. Wood is gathered from forests, which is in turn used for building facilities. These facilities could then be a fletcher, to make bows and arrows, or a bakery or a farm. Most of the strategy relies on the ability to manage these resources and make sure there’s enough to fulfill goals for each scenario. The majority of the economic campaign scenarios focus on gathering enough supplies to meet the mission objectives. The military scenarios are mostly focused on managing resources just to survive the mission.
The game itself plays very well. The population mills around the castle, carrying out their daily tasks. The character animation is pretty well done, showing a lot of detail, but I do wonder about the overall quality of the graphics. It has great detail, but is still not up to par with today’s games. Knights and Merchants is very close to the level of graphics seen in Stronghold and while it’s colorful, it’s just not overly realistic. The campaign modes are simplified to be very linear. The economic campaign is relatively short, eight or so missions, while the military campaign has around twenty. I somewhat wish that the military campaign was a little more dynamic. There is a progress map that shows which counties are controlled by who, but the missions do not let you decide which county you’d wish to attack or do a mission for. This is one aspect that could have been improved more, say like Emperor’s dynamic territories, to give the game a much more diverse field, instead of just plodding along. Lords 2 was somewhat dynamic back in its day. Stronghold should be as well.
The military combat is not too bad, though very much simplified. The quantity of units is good and the ability to control them is fairly sound, so it does give a decent battlefield performance. Most of the game has you as the defender (at least in the campaigns), so much of your unit development is for protection of your castles. In addition to the units you use to line your walls, there is also a great need for these walls to hold against your enemies. Castle building becomes a great importance. At your disposal are towers, gates, drawbridges, and engineers to create an impervious or at least deadly fortress to your enemies. While your archers and crossbowmen rain arrows down on to the enemy, pitch pits and boiling oil help to make barbeque out the enemy’s troops.
Like its predecessors, Lords 2 and Caesar 3, management is the key to Stronghold. It’s kept relatively simple, so the micromanagement is kept to a minimum. Keeping on eye on the resources available is definitely the smartest course of action, while building the correct defenses allows you to better manage those resources. Stronghold is a very interesting game; a game which has no equals, not because it’s that outstanding, but because there’s been so few games that can fight for the title of castle sim champion. For those of us out there that enjoyed games like Lords of the Realm 2, Caesar 3 (and it’s offspring), or Knights and Merchants, Stronghold brings some innovation, and some rehash of games of old, back to the gamer.