Monday, December 14, 2009

Review: Stronghold

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I love the mix of Medieval/Renaissance and fantasy themes to create great dramatic battles, such as those from the Lord of the Rings books (though the movie expanded on them; the siege of Helm's Deep/Battle of the Hornburg takes up a good chunk of Peter Jackson's Two Towers movie, while in the book, it is resolved in just a couple pages). And further still, I do have some very fond memories of playing Crossbows and Catapults as a kid. So I would say that I am rather biased towards the subject matter at hand.


The Overview:


The box depicts a scene from the siege already in progress. 



Box contents.



Stronghold is a deep fantasy battle game that involves a bit of resource management and a sort of abstract form of worker placement as well. Players are on opposing sides, playing as either the Defenders of the stronghold, or the monstrous Invaders. However, the clash isn't exactly the classical siege with an ending determined by attrition, but rather this is a quick and brutal clash as the invaders try to quickly force their way into the stronghold.

The game is for 2-4 players and takes about 90-120 minutes to play. However, the game ends as either 10 turns pass or as soon as the Invader breaches the stronghold and enters. So, if the Invader breaks into the castle quickly, the game can be dramatically shorter. More players would also extend the game time, but 2 hours seems to be a good estimate to figure your play time from, adding or subtracting time based on experience with the game and number of players.

The game runs over 10 turns, each with 6 action phases followed by an assault phase. During each phase and turn, the Invader will be preparing and readying an assault on the Defender and the Defender will be reacting to it. This makes the roles in the game very different. The Invader will be playing a long strategic game, while the Defender will be reacting to each of the Invader's moves throughout, focusing more on the immediate.

Each side has units of comparable strength (The Defender has Marksmen, Soldiers and Veterans at a strength of 1, 2 and 3 respectively, while the Invader has Goblins, Orcs and Trolls of those respective strengths). The Defender's units begin on the board placed along 9 different wall sections of his Stronghold, each beginning with 2 stone wall sections each that add to their defense. There are also a few more units that are inside of the stronghold at special locations within the building. The Invader does not begin with any units on the board, but starts each turn by drawing random units. He then needs to take actions to move them from the camp (off of the board), to one of two foregrounds (which act as gathering areas which are outside of the range of most of the Defender's attacks), then from the foregrounds to one of the ramparts (which are closer to the walls and a staging area that is in range of the Defender's marksmen), and finally from the ramparts to one of the nine sections of wall (where they engage the Defenders units on that wall section, in hopes of breaking through and invading the castle).

Each round, the Invader collects resources to use to produce the siege machines or equipment available to him (such as catapults, ballistae, shields, ladders) and can train his troops for certain bonuses and can have his shaman sacrifice some of his goblins to complete rituals that affect the Defender. However, each of these actions takes time, which is not on the Invader's side and gives the Defender more time to prepare a defense. This is represented by the Invader's actions costing resources and units, and each unit spent gives the Defender one "Hourglass". The Defender then can bolster his defenses, train his troops or send out scouts to lay traps along the Invader's paths by spending the Hourglasses he has accumulated. It may sound a little abstract, but it isn't really. It is a genius little mechanism that represents the urgency for the Invader to make a quick, hard assault. The more preparation work he takes, the longer the Defender has to prepare. The Invader may really want to create another ballista before storming the wall. however, that may give the Defender just enough time to finish crafting a cauldron of boiling oil that would take out all of his goblins along a wall section, so the Invader decides to press ahead quickly to try to catch the Defender more off-guard. I really enjoy this mechanic of the game.

This continues for ten rounds, or until the Invader breaches the wall and storms the stronghold, ending the game. Each round that ends where the Invader has not breached the stronghold, he gives one of his 10 starting Glory Points (the game's victory points) to the Defender. Even if the Invader breaches the stronghold's walls and ends the game early, victory is determined by who has the most Glory. This, again, presses the Invader for a quick assault, as he gives away his victory points each turn. It may seem a little odd that the Invader may break through the stronghold's defenses to end the game, but still lose if it took them too long (meaning the Defender has more Glory Points), but consider it that the slow assault gave the Defender enough time to retreat his lord and villagers out of the stronghold, so while the stronghold was lost, the Defender's men survived. Or, think of it as though the Defender lost, he retained his honor and glory throughout and the battle becomes something of legend which rallied the rest of the nation's forces. To the Americans, the battle of the Alamo was lost, but remains a historic piece of American legend because of the perceived glory of those who held their place and has been a long-standing rallying cry.



The Theme:

Stronghold has a lot of theme for a strategy game. It's not like your usual fantasy game where you are focused on and playing a character and get into that way. Instead, this is a siege and assault of a castle. You feel the pressure mounting as the Invader when time passes and you haven't breached the walls yet. There is a palatable tension there. And as the Defender, you feel the intensity of the attacks as you have to rush to defend the various wall sections under assault, trying to determine which is under more threat when you divide up your limited resources and defenses. You may know that this section of wall will eventually collapse, but can you hold it long enough to get enough Glory to still win?

And here is where the strength of the game really shows. You get this sense of theme and urgency from the roles while playing with little cubes to represent your figures. They aren't sculpted minis with dynamic poses and faces, but little wooden cubes. Still, the intensity of the game is strong enough that the Defender's cubes are archers and militia men, fighting valiantly and holding a section of wall that is doomed to fall. The Invader's forces are small cubes, but they turn into hordes of orcs and goblins rushing up to the ramparts and walls, cheering as a few powerful trolls make it past the Defender's archers to join them at the assault on the wall.

My powerful ballista and catapults aimed at the walls are just a deck of hit and miss cards with a cardboard counter on top of them, but the theme of the game still makes it appear menacing as it sits there. My battering ram is nothing but a few cardboard counters at the front gates of the stronghold, but I dare a player not to chant "Grond! Grond! Grond!" when he gets all of the sections laid out and ten strong orcs and trolls positioned around it.

Don't expect the components and bits to pull you into this game like a Fantasy Flight game does. Instead, it is pure game play that will pull you into this one and make you feel the theme.

There are also other means of gaining glory for the Invader and Defender in the game that are interesting game mechanics, but also create so much more theme for the game. For the Invader, they range from such actions that make for such a glorious siege, such as completely destroying two sections of wall, having four trolls at any one walls section, having units at seven different wall sections at one time or having sacrificed 12 goblins in rituals during the course of the game. He also gets bonus Glory Points for breaking through the gates with the battering ram and for breaking through the stronghold. The Defender, on the other hand, begins with 4 bonus Glory points on each of 4 inglorious actions. He can, however, sacrifice the glory by being less than honorable and taking those actions. Barricades gives the Defender +4 Hourglasses to use in his Workshop and allow him to use the actions in the Workshop twice that turn. Shameful Negotiations buys the Defender some time (+3 Hourglasses), but at the dishonor of raising the white flag to try to talk to the monstrous hordes of the Invader. On Last Legs lets the Defender choose a building and lets him take the actions there a second time and reduces the cost of everything there by one Hourglass, but shamefully overworks his men and commoners in the process. Lastly, the Defender can Open the Dungeons, shamefully releasing prisoners from the dungeons, but gaining a Veteran and Soldier to use in defense. These aren't just a means of gaining some extra resources, but a moral decision that will cost you Glory as you give up a bit of honor to perform them.

And finally, the defender starts with two soldiers defending the stronghold's banner. They are the Guard of Honor and they are in the middle of the courtyard, instead of on the walls defending the stronghold. After the sixth turn, the Defender gets one bonus Glory Point at the end of every round that they remain there. The Honor Guard do nothing. They are there simply guarding the banner of the castle. The castle walls are being taken down by catapults and trolls are tearing through the marksmen on the walls, but they stand there at the banner, holding their position. The Defender can at any time move them out to defend the walls, but then sacrifices the extra glory they would get at the end of the round. This is such a beautiful mechanic to the game and pulls everything of the theme together. There is glory in protecting the banner and flag, but does the necessity of protecting the walls take precedent? Do you stand proud as the defender, holding up your glorious banner in pride, even at the risk of losing the castle? War is a dirty business. But is the glory of being honorable worth it at the cost of losing the castle? This is what makes the game's theme so strong, in my mind. These little mechanics add so much thematic depth to an already great strategy game.



Learning the Game:

Ah, if there is one flaw in the game, this is it. The rulebook is terrible. There are some timing issues that aren't well described and the dispatch actions explains the specific order in which units move from the ramparts to the wall, then from the foregrounds to the ramparts, then from the camp to the foregrounds; then the example in the book shows this happening in the reverse order. And regardless of the example error, the who dispatch order is a little confusing at first. I strongly suggest printing out and reading the most recent FAQ for the game and keeping it handy during your first couple plays.

There are reference cards included in the game that explain what the symbols for the Invader and Defender's actions are and are very important to make early games move swiftly. However, the Invader's icons are on one side of the card and the Defender's icons are on the other side. This means the card will get passed back and forth a lot during the game. There are three 2-sided reference cards included in the game each in a different language. I think it would have made more sense to alternate the language on the sides, so that the English Invader reference has the German Defender reference on the back and the English Defender reference is backed with the Polish Invader, that way everyone could have their own card in front of them at all times. It's a minor problem though. If you use BGG, I would assume and suggest that you would probably have printed out one of the uploaded reference cards there.

Still, once you've gotten all of the mechanics down, the game plays intuitively. Learning the specifics of the mechanics takes a game play or two. After that, things run smoothly. I imagine with the way the rules are written, most experiences will go like this: Play your first game. The Invader has no chance whatsoever of winning. Reread the rules and read the FAQ with context now in your mind. Realize what you did wrong. Replay the game and have a good game. After that, recheck the FAQ and find maybe a minor point or two that needs to be refined in your next game. Even after my first game of playing a few things wrong, the game made an impact on me though. I still wanted to play more and it gave me incentive to figure out the small issues.



The Components:

The components of this game are fully functional, if nothing to write home about. Units are represented by white, green and red cubes. Cards are language independent and completely understandable with their symbols. The board is beautiful and has a lot of set up information on it and it is very functional as well as attractive. All of the Defender's actions are listed on the board, as well as spaces for them to "spend" their Hourglasses to purchase more defenses.



The board is both beautiful and fully functional. 



The units may not look like much, but once on the board in the middle of a full siege, you'll be living and dying with a few cubes as they hold back the enemy. 




Cards like this detail what the Invader can create each phase... Unfortunately, a wheelbarrow is not listed among his assets. Then again, neither is a holocaust cloak. 



Now, while the components are functional and work completely fine for the game, I do need to bring up an issue that I have with them. There is a game pieces break down, but no illustration of which is for what. It took us a little bit to figure out the that the brown cubes that the Invader uses for his resources are the same cubes that the Defender uses for his wooden walls that he builds. They are identical in appearance, but you get 21 brown cubes in the game and need to deduce from the game pieces list that 16 of them are Resources and 5 of them are among the 28 total wall components for the Defender. This is further confused by the rules referring to the wooden wall components as tiles. Also, there is no component to mark the current strength of the gate on the gate's toughness track. These are minor issues, but are further confused by the poor wording in the rulebook.



Playing the Game:

After muddling through the rulebook and FAQ and your first game, everything then starts to come together. There is a larger learning curve for the Invader in the beginning because all of the pressure is on him and the timeliness of his success. The Defender just needs to react. This makes an interesting dichotomy in the roles. The Invader plays a heavily strategic game, while the Defender plays more of a tactical game, reacting to the current issues and threats. Through experience, the Defender will start to see ahead and can plan out his defenses based on what is available to the Invader, but there will always be a large level of reacting in his role.

Part of the Invader's strategy will be based on how to maximize his resources based on what he has available in each phase. There are six phases in each turn. Phase 1 and Phase 6 are set actions, but for each of the phases from 2-5 the Invader draws a random card (from a set of 5 for each phase) to determine the actions available to him in that round. That means that with this game, you may not have the battering ram available to you. You may be able to build a catapult, but not a ballista. You may be able to train goblin archers, but not be able to provide cover for your archers. This makes every assault different and the invader needs to formulate a strategy from the available actions to him.

The learning curve in the beginning is steeper for the Invader, especially since the available actions change every game. The Defender's actions are set in what is available, though some of them may not be used since they are reactionary to the actions and the availability of actions of the Invader. Still, there is a learning curve as the Defender, as you need to know the best reactions to the Invader's options. But the Invader needs to see the big picture while the Defender just needs to holds out. Early on, the game will favor the Defender. But it begins to level out with experience of both players. I would suggest introducing new players in the role of Defender first. A more experienced Defender and a less experienced Invader is much more unbalanced than the other way around.



Scalability:

The core of the game is a great two-player game. You can play it with 3 or 4, but the game really is best as a two-player game. In a three-player game, two players take the role of the Invader, each assaulting a separate side of the castle. This game more strongly favors the Defender because the Invaders really need to coordinate their assaults and actions. The four-player game has two Invaders and two Defenders. However, the Defenders' need for coordination is even more demanding than it is for the Invaders. The Defenders each have their own sides to protect and their own Hourglasses, resulting in that one Defender can block the actions that the other defender needed. This set up strongly favors the Invader. So the game scales, but with favoring one side or the other. This may still work, however, if you have players of differing experience and skill levels. Still, I would consider this game as what it shines as: a two-player game.



Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She is not a big fan of direct conflict games, however, and this game is all about direct conflict. Still, out of the games that I play that have direct conflict, this one probably bothers her the least, but she is also a fan of the medieval/fantasy setting. She prefers the reactionary tactics of the Defender and dislikes the longer strategic thinking of the Invader. But still, she has a good strategic and tactical mind, despite her dislike for direct conflict. She plays a good defender and has even come up with a few very devious strategies to use against me.

She doesn't mind the game, but doesn't love it like I do. So my evenings are laid out with me deciding exactly how many games of Pandemic or At the Gates of Loyang (her current top choices) that I need to play with her before I've accumulated enough capital to get her to play Stronghold with me one more time.



The Pros:

*Beautiful board that is also incredibly functional.
*A good flowing gameplay once the rules are fully understood.
*A theme that does not ebb and flow from the components or figures, but rather from the gameplay itself.
*Attention to small details, such as the Honor Guard, that make the theme so powerful.
*The variation in Phase Cards for the Invader means that you cannot just use one set strategy every time you play and also creates different games with each play.
*Gripping and intensity of the turns is felt on both sides: the Invader feels the pressure of needing to rush and breach the castle quickly, while the Defender feels the threats pulling him to many different small holes in his defense.
*The game's roles differ; one is strategic and one is tactical, giving players with different preferences a means to satisfy their desire.
*Just a great game setting.



The Cons:

*Poor rulebook makes what is really a rather intuitive gameplay broken and awkward for your first play or two.
*Poorly described component list (part of the overall rulebook complaint).
*Some people may dislike that the different sides have different learning curves.
*Some people may think the components aren't flashy enough (though drawing Invader's pieces blindly from a bag means they need to be uniform in shape and size), even though they are fully functional.
*Game length may be a little long for some.
*Euro players purchasing the game simply because it contains 262 wooden cubes, 35 wooden disks, 23 stone markers and no dice will be sorely, sorely disappointed.




Overall:

Stronghold is a beautiful game experience. It is a deep, action-filled conflict game. There are colored cubes, wood and stone resources, no dice and a rulebook that comes in three languages, but it is not a Euro game. This game is a longer battle game and it is fully glorious in its presentation of what it is. For the Invader, it's not just about breaching the stronghold; it's about doing it quick and harsh enough with as many brutal assaults as possible to gain as much Glory for your conquer to become a siege of legend. For the Defender, it's not just about keeping the Invader out; you can still win if breached, provided that you hold out with as much honor and glory in tact during the assault, being remembered and heralded throughout time as Glorious heroes who never lost their honor even as the worst happened. If this game is on your radar, you are probably the kind of player that will enjoy this. It has been a long time since I've played a game like this one that has me thinking about strategies well after my last game has been played and rethinking what I could have done better. I am making plans to play games that my wife enjoys just to get this one to the table again quicker while still getting it to the table with my other frequent game partners. I strongly endorse this game and hope that you remember, regardless if you are the Invader or the Defender, it is about the glory of your actions and securing your place in history.


9.5/10

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