I’m a newcomer to the Stronghold series. It turns 20 this year, so I’m a little surprised I’ve spent little to no time with the franchise. Still, I’ve always been curious. When I was a youngster freshly cutting my teeth on RTS games, I was a big fan of setting myself up defensively to weather enemy attacks. The Stronghold series is all about setting up large defenses, and throwing your own soldiers against the enemy’s fortifications.
Stronghold: Warlords is a real-time strategy game with an emphasis on defense and a moderate amount of economic management. You don’t have workers or peons to construct your buildings—instead, if you meet the requirements (money, materials, etc.) then the structure will be instantly constructed. You do have a manpower pool you must pull from and maintain, and that comes in the form of peasants that you must appease. Diplomacy also plays a role, especially when it comes to the titular warlords you will encounter—when a warlord is captured, or convinced to join your side, you will get a bonus, making them strategic points to fight over on the battlefield.
This is the first Stronghold game to feature East Asian themes. Conquer Chinese cities with Japanese Samurai. Play as the Mongol hordes as you burn and pillage. It’s not only an interesting new theme for Stronghold, but it’s also an exciting new era of weaponry. Instead of your normal siege weaponry, you are now able to command and control gunpowder-based weaponry to lay siege to cities, or to obliterate enemy attackers.
As you may well know, Stronghold has traditionally been about laying siege to cities while managing your own city’s infrastructure for war, and general wellbeing of its population. The siege gameplay is fun, and larger battles are impressive to behold, especially with the black powder weaponry. It’s great watching a horde of enemy approach my walls, only to get blown up by cannons and shot by archers.
It’s not enough to crush your enemies, though–you must also ensure the contentedness of your people. The happier they are, the faster peasants can be brought in. These peasants are your workforce, and also your potential soldiers. A happy populace means more soldiers and faster production. City management is robust, though not as interesting as the siege gameplay: build structures to entertain your citizens, or strike fear into the hearts of those that behold them. Decrease taxes and increase food supply to make your citizens happy at the cost of output—or put down your boot, and make the populace suffer in the name of war.
Warlords add an interest additional dynamic to the battlefield in Stronghold: Warlords. The warlords act as a sort of strategic point to conquer. Each warlord has a unique perk and specialty. Some warlords can help militarily, while others specialize in diplomacy or in resource gathering. You can take warlords by force by attacking their tower, or you can use diplomacy points to bring them to your side without bloodshed. Capturing a warlord gives you access to their unique perk and specialty. You can also issue orders to your warlord in the form of edicts. These can be resource boosts or even military help.
While Stronghold: Warlords isn’t the mode visually impressive game, I love the all of the detail. When you hover over buildings, you can see your workers doing the jobs for those buildings. Millers will be turning a grinding stone, while fletchers craft arrows. I wouldn’t say the graphics are necessarily impressive, but these little touches really make Stronghold: Warlords feel alive.
There are a few different ways to play Stronghold: Warlords. There is a skirmish mode that lets you get right into the action, and a free build mode that works as a peaceful way to just build—though resources and money are still a consideration. There is, of course, a head-to-head multiplayer mode, and even cooperative play options. But the meat of Stronghold: Warlords is its story-driven campaign mode. There are five campaigns to play through, each representing different nations, and each with their own objectives. One of these campaigns is purely based on economic success, while the others are more traditional, military-oriented affairs.
Stronghold: Warlords has some potential for deep strategic gameplay, but most of the time I found that using larger forces was often better than even using upgraded units. I’m sure that wouldn’t hold true for a human player min-maxing their settlement’s happiness to wartime productivity, but against the AI, most of the game’s systems felt more like dials to turn up production than deeply strategic decisions. Also, I’ve been playing real-time strategy games for a quarter of a century, and I still have to manually remove units from harm lest they let themselves die.
I enjoyed my time with Stronghold: Warlords, and really enjoyed building up large fortified cities. But as a city builder it feels like it needs more, and as a real-time strategy game it ultimately feels a little archaic. Still, it has some great attention to detail, and the potential for some large-scale battles in a siege style gameplay you can’t find anywhere else.
Stronghold: Warlords is available tomorrow on Steam.
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