Stronghold fits, in a slightly uncomfortable sort of way, into the God sim pigeonhole. You take the part of a ruler with up to four vassals whose aim is to conquer new lands and rise through the ranks to the dizzy heights of Emperor. Along the way you grapple with both economic challenges and other races who view your rise with something less than sympathy.
The prince and the pauper
The game is based on the characters and system used in DSD and, as with any D&D' game, your first task is character generation. The key character is the leader who starts off as a Baron/Baroness and your success is measured by their promotions. However, you are allowed up to four other party members each of whom youre able to control. Their help is absolutely essential.
Each character has the standard collection of attributes; Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom - you know the sort of thing. Its also necessary to select each characters alignment (Lawful, Neutral, Chaotic). This is especially important in the case of the Baron since the alignment determines the overall game objective (from rising through the ranks to destroying everything else on the screen). As well as alignment theres the small matter of race; theres the usual mix of cleric, fighter, mage, elf, dwarf - you know this sort of thing too. The best strategy is to mix your party since the troops of different races have different skills. Make sure at least one is a mage or youll end up like I did on my first time of playing: everything going hunky dorey then one of my valiant sorties into enemy territory comes up against a gang of vampires. Cant be harmed by non-magical weapons says the screen in smug mode. Bye bye valiant sortie, bye bye any hope of world domination, says I in defeated mode.
Little house on the prairie
However, before your armies can start rolling across the plains to do battle with your foe you need to build up the economic base to support them. Remember the old adage: it takes ten civilians to keep one soldier in the field (or something to that effect). After placing your Barons castle (or stronghold if you will) and the subsidiary keeps of his four companions, its time to build like an ant on acid.
Initially youll be able to build housing and farmland which will encourage your subjects to breed like rabbits and also generate some income for you. As your lands and population increase you can start building more ambitious structures such as bazaars, granaries, vaults, towers, walls, inns: the list is endless... well thats not strictly true but its certainly far too long for me to bother to type them all out. The various structures can provide further income, more food, better training or simply, but importantly, more storage space. However these structures can also prove to be a drain on your own purse. If you run out of money youll no longer be able to maintain buildings which will start to crumble away and eventually collapse. The same willhappen if you dont station at least one unit on the same screen as a building.
Wealth of nations
The short term aim of the game is to produce a thriving, nay booming, economy with surplus food and housing so that your population continues to grow and cultivate more land. This involves planning ahead. Since land is less productive during winter, in order to get through those difficult months youll need to have stored away plenty of food and gold. This means having built plenty of storage facilities as well as producing plenty of surplus during the blissful months of the long, hot summer. Remember at primary school when you learnt that story of the ant and the field mouse and how one had a merry old summer and starved in winter while the other worked all summer and so survived the winter?
Well little did you realise that this fable was laying down the basic tactics for Stronghold. Thats the power of Aesop for you. As with most games of this ilk, success in Stronghold is initially measured by the popularity of the Leader. To achieve promotion to higher ranks your popularity and amount of buildings have to reach certain levels. However, there are short cuts, which leads us rather conveniently onto...
Arms and the man
While youre happily building up your region, ploughing through back issues of House and Garden and discussing interior design with a slightly effeminate chap called Lucien, other forces are at work. They too are building away, throwing up what passes for housing in the world of evil doers.
Unless youve opted to play as a Lawful character your ultimate success is going to depend on wiping out these guys. Even the fact that youre a do-good Lawful type isnt going to stop them taking potshots at you so, since the best form of defence is attack, youd better go piling on in there.
God is on the side of the big battalions so your best action is to amass a substantial army (having ensured that there are enough units left at home to maintain the buildings and iron the curtains) and launch it at your opponents citadel. Your control over actual combat is minimal to the point of non existence. All you are really able to decide is where your units go and even then theyre a bit wayward. The battle itself is a complicated matter of hit points and armour ratings because in its heart of hearts...
This Is an RPG
As I said at the beginning, Stronghold is based on Dungeons and Dragons and this shows not only in the types of character, both good and evil, but also in the gameplay itself. The game is turn based and also regards the play area as divided into invisible blocks. For much of the time you can, if you wish, ignore these elements (turn-based for instance does not mean you have to wait for the computer to make its moves) but to really play the game to its full you must, at the very least, be aware of them. For example, for proper planning you need to know that one unit of stored food will feed one unit of population for one turn.
Anyone of advanced years who has a leaning towards medieval games will probably remember Castles from Electronic Arts: one of those eagerly awaited but, in the end, slightly disappointing games. It involved - surprise, surprise - building castles and fending off those of a Vandal leaning. The graphics were really sweet but in the end the game fell down (like most of my castles) because it was too easy and too limited. Stronghold Tacks the top notch graphics of Castles but, in terms of gameplay, it wins hands down.
If Id been told that someone had attempted to mix Castles with D&D", Id have expected it to fall between two stools: too RPGish for the unconverted; too simplistic for the D&D" buff, but then thats the sort of tired old cynic I am. In fact the game works extremely well. It's not without its flaws: the use of pyramids to decide the relative efforts expended on building, training and recruitment has a lot in terms of novelty value but is somewhat imprecise. More seriously, the game can occasionally be a bit slow and action will completely halt while everything updates. This is particularly noticeable during combat which is very stop-start. The graphics are also rarely more than reasonable and there seemed to be a problem with some onscreen messages: occasionally Id be informed that units were being defeated when they were nowhere near combat. However, all this pales into insignificance against the shear ruddy addictiveness of the whole thing. I can see its faults, I wince when people tease me for playing it, but I just cant get enough of this game. Its strength is that, even if things are going badly, you can just about hang on in there with success seemingly within your reach.
At first glance, or even first read, Stronghold is not the most exciting game in the world. All I can say is that I cant stop playing it. And its not just me. People completely unconnected with PC have been known to sit in the office until two in the morning on a Friday just playing it. Whatever else it is, Stronghold is horribly addictive.
Processor: PC compatible, P-100
OS: Windows 9x, Windows 2000 Windows XP, Vista, Win 7, Win 8, Win 10.
Game Features:Single game mode