Let's Replay: Stronghold

Release Date
19 October, 2001
PC, Mac
Real-time Strategy
Single Player
Firefly Studios
Take 2 Interactive, God Games

When I first played Stronghold back in the early 2000s, it seemed like a huge step forward for strategy games. Having cut my teeth on the Age of Empires series, I had grown used to suspending a certain amount of disbelief. No, actual medieval battles weren’t limited to two hundred per side, and no, food wouldn’t actually function like any other resource such as wood or stone, but what else could we expect? These were games, after all. It wasn’t until Stronghold came along that I realised how much more was possible.

Coming back to Stronghold after so long was a little bit of a shock. The beautiful graphics I remembered are now quite dated, the music seems more repetitive than before, and the pace feels just a little bit slower than more recent games. Happily, within an hour all of this melted away and I began having as good a time with it as ever.

If you’ve never played it (and boy have you been missing out), Stronghold is a cross between a medieval city builder and a siege warfare simulator. You need to carefully balance economic growth with military development, because neither can survive without the other. More than once I’ve won battle after battle but ended up losing overall because I just didn’t have a strong enough economy to keep replenishing my troops.

It might not look like much, but this castle is all but impenetrable.

The first thing I noticed about Stronghold was the realistic way resources are handled. While lumberjacks can carry planks of wood on their shoulders, stone needs to be hauled by oxen. Food stocks dwindle over time as your population feeds, so you need to ensure you’re always producing enough to keep the people fat and happy.

Popularity is another factor I had never considered, and it’s central to Stronghold’s gameplay. If you halve rations and raise taxes, the people will grow to hate you, and if your popularity drops low enough, they’ll leave your settlement for greener pastures. This also opens up opportunities, however, as the more liked you are, the more you can get away with.

A simple strategy is to overproduce food so you can provide extra rations, and then raise taxes and use the gold to buy whatever else you need. Similarly, you can provide ale and churches to make the people happy, and then build torture devices to scare them into being more productive. As your population grows, however, they will require more of everything to get the same bonuses, so expand at your own risk.

A diet of bread and cheese, eh? Remind me not to approach this castle downwind.

While building a medieval city is fun enough, combat is where Stronghold really shines. Designing and defending your own castle is a terrific feeling, and one that relies on careful strategy to pull off. In addition to walls and towers, you can build moats, ballistae, mangonels, spike pits, war dogs, pots of boiling oil and my personal favourite, pitch ditches. Fire a flaming arrow onto that as your enemy approaches, and they’ll be burned to cinders in no time.

Unit types feel distinctive and very well balanced. The archer, for example, is the backbone of any defensive strategy. Fast, accurate and even more effective when firing from height, a few dozen archers can easily whittle down all but the most heavily armoured soldiers. Conversely, the maceman is a solid foot soldier that can bash through weaker units, buildings, and even stone walls, in short order. Even the lowly spearman (little more than a peasant with a pointed stick) has an essential role to fill, pushing enemy ladders from walls, digging or filling in moats and drawing archer fire away from your more valuable units. And you won’t just be managing a hundred or so units; some battles have seen me leading a force of over 1500 soldiers of various types, all of which had to be skilfully managed in order to secure victory.

Plan your attack, as mindless rushes rarely go well.

Stronghold has an impressive array of game modes on offer. In addition to the military campaign, your war options include dozens of extra missions in the form of sieges and invasions, many of which allow you to either attack or defend. For the more economically focussed, there’s a short campaign, several resource missions and free build. And if all that isn’t enough, multiplayer and a map editor are also available. Even if you only play each mission once, there’s plenty on offer here to keep you busy for a long time indeed.

All up, Stronghold was a brilliant game when it launched, and even thirteen years later, the magic is still there. I would recommend this at full retail price, so the fact that it’s selling for so much less denies any of you an excuse not to play it.

Play it for: Epic sieges, satisfying economic management, and timeless charm. One for the ages.

Note: For this article, I replayed Stronghold as the HD edition available on Steam, to ensure I wouldn’t encounter any compatibility issues. But let’s get one thing straight here: the HD is just tacked on to the name for show. This is the exact same game that launched over a decade ago, albeit supporting higher resolutions and operating systems.

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