Stronghold Preview

Can this city-builder best established games from veterans like Maxis and Impressions?


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Stronghold takes place in the period from A.D. 1066 to 1400, an era in which castle construction is at its peak. With an exact time period to model this game after, FireFly Studios is going to great lengths to make sure that the various aspects of Stronghold are as historically accurate and realistic as possible, but the developers stress that they don't want you to worry about the finer points of running a castle. At the start of a scenario, you're given a number of limited resources - such as stone, wood, and iron - and a few general peasantlike units with which to build an initial set of structures for your castle and to gather more resources - this should sound familiar to fans of traditional real-time strategy games. After instructing your first units to secure stone or lumber, you can build the stockpiling area, a structure that serves not only as a depository for resources but also as a source of information with its visual cues that show how plentiful or depleted your resources are. For example, if you build a structure that requires a significant amount of wood, the stack of wood displayed within the stockpiling area shrinks. While this feature loses its usefulness as your city grows and gains more resources, it gives a good indication of what kind of detail you can expect from Stronghold. In addition, with city growth comes a surge in population, and while having more people in your city to command may seem beneficial at first, it can make your main objective all that much more difficult to complete. FireFly Studios quickly points out that building the biggest castle isn't necessarily the best strategy to use since a larger castle means a larger population, as well as a larger area that you need to protect from any potential enemies.

You Can't Please Everyone

A game that requires you to build a castle and defend it from enemies can be difficult as it is, but Stronghold adds another element - the happiness of your citizens. If the people living within your realm are unhappy, their willingness to work, fight, and stay loyal to you decreases, causing your castle to fail. But with that in mind, Stronghold gives you a number of opportunities to help improve your relationship with the people. Anyone who plays city-building strategy games knows that one of the best ways to keep your people happy is to keep taxes low, and Stronghold is no different. As long as you keep the taxes relatively low, the citizens of your castle are happy. But, of course, a situation may arise, and it may call for you to raise money as quickly as possible; and the only alternative may be to raise taxes. So, you must find other ways to keep the citizens happy if lowering taxes is not a viable option. Thankfully, Stronghold presents a number of different options.

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One ingredient to keeping people happy is food. When you're in the initial stages of building your castle, a message constantly flashes across the screen and tells you that there isn't enough food to adequately feed the population; and since your castle initially doesn't have any food-producing capabilities, you must build a trading area or a market within the city. After you build this structure, a trader with a donkey appears near the outer territories of your castle and actually travels down to the trading outpost to signify that you can now buy additional food for the people of your castle. The trader continues to travel through the roads of your city and even through the individual aisles of your stockpiling area, which, FireFly Studio hopes, gives a better idea of how alive your castle becomes. Now that you have food, you can disperse it to the people of your castle; and you can give additional food bonuses to your citizens at other times, which make them even happier. For instance, you have the option to give additional amounts of food or free ale to the people. Either of these methods is a great way to improve your approval rating, but if you give free ale, be prepared to watch some people walk through the streets of your castle in a drunken stupor. The current build of Stronghold is still early, so at present, a basic number scale from one to 100 that sits atop a portrait of a peasant is the only indication of how happy the population is. However, there are plans to make this feature more robust.

The Best Offense Is a Good Defense

Though Stronghold may seem as if it's nothing more than a real-time strategy game, it's not because you can't actually control individual peasant characters once you assign them to a task, like in a real-time strategy game. Most of Stronghold's real-time strategy elements surface on the battlefield, where you can take control of individual units and tell them where to go and what to do, but the primary strategy in Stronghold is to build up your castle's defenses - and there are a number of ways to undertake such a task. The single most important defense your castle possesses is its walls, and as such, you can build as many walled areas as you like and reinforce them as you see fit. With reinforced walls, it makes it much more difficult for your enemies to take your castle in a direct attack, and the bigger your walls are, the more troops you can have to patrol and defend them. Of course, you run into a familiar problem with city growth. A larger city requires more troops to defend a larger area, which requires more money; whereas a smaller castle needs a much smaller number - something you must keep in mind even in the early stages of your castle's development.

Height advantage gives bonuses to your units in both offense and defense. Since they're higher up than the enemy, there's a much greater chance that weapons like arrows can strike enemy units, and since your units are higher than the enemy, their long-range weapons have a much smaller chance of hitting your units. In fact, FireFly Studios notes that if an enemy army fires a barrage of arrows at your castle, you can actually see 80 percent of those arrows strike the castle walls while the other 20 percent barely manage to make it over. With this in mind, Stronghold gives you the ability to build towers along the castle walls, which is great for strategically placing archers during an enemy attack. Enemy troops need time to set up ladders so that they can scale your castle walls, but while they are, your archers can shoot their arrows and do a serious amount of damage before the first enemy troop even makes it over. There are also different units, such as pikemen and knights, which can patrol the castle walls and actually push the ladders off as the enemy tries to climb up. Stronghold is different from other real-time strategy games because the battles don't primarily take place on the open fields - they take place within the walls of your own castle, which, needless to say, makes the battles a little more tense than they have to be. But you do have opportunities to go on the offensive and draw the battle away from the castle walls.

Battle Tactics

Placing soldiers on top of towers and reinforcing walls are some of the basic strategies for combat and defense in Stronghold, but there are some rather interesting ways to defend your castle and go on the offensive. One of the enemy's most powerful strategies for entering your castle is tunneling, or undermining, which is the technique in which soldiers dig a tunnel outside the city walls until it reaches an area directly underneath a specific portion of the walls. Once the enemy soldiers reach that point, they destroy the tunnel supports with explosives or just regular fire, which then causes the ground to cave in and the wall to collapse, giving the enemy a welcome mat into your castle. You can even watch the tunnel progress as ground becomes distorted with small hills. The easiest way to block tunneling is to build an object in front of the tunnel, such as a moat or an actual structure, which will cause it to collapse before it can reach the castle walls. Because almost all structures are built instantly (the only object that takes time to build is the moat), it seems as if tunneling becomes a worthless strategy rather quickly.

Even though most of your time is spent defending the castle from attacks like tunneling, there are opportunities to go on the offensive. One of the nice aspects of having an extensive line of walls surrounding your castle is that it gives you a chance to attack your enemy from behind by placing a secret wall entrance somewhere. If the enemy is concentrating an attack on the eastern side of your castle, you can build a secret wall on the northwest side and then gather a large group of knights to move through the secret entrance. Then you can have them circle around the enemy, attack from behind, and take out the archers or any remaining soldiers. Keep in mind that the enemy can also use this tactic against you to simply draw your forces away from the castle so that they can launch another attack from a different side, which was previously guarded by the group of knights.

It's difficult to see what exactly is taking place if your castle is under attack from an angle. With the default camera view, the camera can rotate around and let you see any areas that are normally blocked. You can also zoom out to get a better look at the surrounding area, and you can zoom in to get a closer look at battles or to just observe what the citizens in your castle are doing. Or you can keep a closer eye on different resources. FireFly Studios hopes that the smaller details help convey the sense of realism that it is trying to convey with Stronghold.

A Long Way to Go

Though Stronghold isn't due out for at least another year, the current build of the game is fairly impressive; and there's more to come. Immediately starting a game reveals how much detail Firefly plans to include - trees sway in the wind, citizens walk around drunk in your city, jesters can be seen juggling in different areas, shop owners interact with traders. Zooming in on individual buildings makes them transparent, so you can see what's going on inside. If you want to see if there are any people in the bakery or if the owner is currently in the shop, you can zoom in with the camera and take a look. Even though the game is two-dimensional, Stronghold has many three-dimensional aspects, such as varying terrain, hills, and sharp cliffs, which impact the way the units move. And you can switch the default camera angle to get a better view of events that may otherwise be obstructed with it.

Stronghold's biggest draw is the blend of real-time strategy with city-building, and since neither completely dominates the game, the game is open to a much wider audience. The city-building elements give you a chance to build your castle, maintain it, and keep your people happy by monitoring taxes, food, and other details, but there isn't an excessive amount of micromanagement. The same applies to the real-time strategy parts of the game. Yes, you defend your castle in the same way you would defend a base in a real-time strategy game, but unlike a traditional strategy game, Stronghold strays away from rewarding the player with the most military units. If you have a solid strategy for defending your castle (or attacking one, as is the case with Stronghold's multiplayer) but not many military units, you can still win the battle.

There are parts of Stronghold that are lacking, but they should see significant improvement in the months leading up to the game's release. The maps look rather dead at the moment, with just hills, trees, and still water, but FireFly plans to add waterfalls, wild animals, and more to give the maps a much more vivid look. How the citizens of your castle interact with wild animals, like possibly hunting them for food, is still unclear. Additionally, the user interface is rather plain at the moment, but once again, there are plans to improve its functionality and give it a better look and feel - for example, the approval meter is currently just a number that indicates popularity, will be replaced with a detailed graphical icon. FireFly Studios and Gathering of Developers want to crack into the city-building and real-time strategy genres, and it looks as if they won't have any trouble doing so with Stronghold.

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