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Review: Stronghold 2nd Ed.

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Stronghold Box

Ah, the castle life. You’re secure, living behind your solid walls. Inside your fortress, you’ve got a church, hospital, livestock, gardens, and all kinds of workshops to provide and produce everything you need to keep you healthy and happy. It’s no wonder, then, that there are some on the outside who covet your lifestyle and hate you just because you have what they don’t. So you can’t be surprised when a horde of orcs, trolls, and goblins shows up to take over your happy little domain. Well, maybe you can be surprised (most people would be if such an army showed up), but you’d still better be ready to defend yourself.

How It Plays

Stronghold is an asymmetrical two-player game. One player is the Defender, attempting to defend his medieval fortress. The other player is the Invader. Her horde of goblins, orcs, and trolls are trying to take the fortress from the Defender. Stronghold is a long and involved game, so I will not even attempt to list and explain every rule, action, and phase. Instead, let me just give you an overview of what the game feels like.

The very basic synopsis: An entire game of Stronghold consists of no more than seven turns. During each turn, players alternately take a series of actions which are determined by the cards in play. After every Invader action, the Defender has a chance to take his actions. Once all Invader and Defender action phases are complete, the assault begins, using the weapons and troops placed during the action phases. Once all combat is resolved, a new turn begins. The game ends immediately if/when the Invader breaches the Stronghold, even if all seven turns have not been completed. If all seven turns are played and the Stronghold isn’t breached, the Defender wins the game.

A little more information: The Invader’s actions all revolve around preparing for the assault on the fortress. These include gaining supplies, building siege machines, equipping and training units, invoking shaman rituals (because, you know, orcs gotta pray before combat), maneuvering units into position and issuing orders to those units.

The Defender, on the other hand, uses his actions to prepare/conduct his defense of the fortress. The Defender has the use of the buildings inside the fortress, so his actions may include building weapons and fortifications in the forge and workshop, training scouts, placing marksmen and sharpshooters in the spires of the cathedral, training troops in the barracks, and healing units in the hospital.

Stronghold Board 2
The gorgeous board.

Each Invader action takes place over a period of time, and time is represented in the game by hourglasses. After each action, the Invader gives the Defender a number of hourglasses equal to the amount of time required to complete that action, plus any extra hourglasses required by the action card. (Actions can be completed more quickly by using stronger units, but slower units require more time, thus increasing or decreasing the number of hourglasses that your opponent receives.) The Defender then spends the hourglasses he receives in order to complete his own actions. Note that he must spend them all.

Play goes back and forth until all actions are completed. At that point, combat begins. Ranged combat takes place first in the following order: Cannons, siege machines, and, finally, marksmen. Once ranged combat is complete, melee combat begins. Cauldrons, poles, orders, and strength resolution all are deployed during melee combat.

After melee combat is complete, the strength of the Invader and Defender units is tallied and compared. The result is called the “Advantage.” The player with the lower strength loses the combat and loses units equal to the Advantage. Those units are either killed or moved to the hospital (Defender only). If the Advantage is higher than the overall strength of the Defender, the Invader breaches the Stronghold and the game is over. Otherwise, a new turn begins. If all seven turns pass and the Invader has not breached the Stronghold, the Defender wins.

Take a Strong Hold on This One, Or Let It Go?

Let me start out by saying that I never played the first edition of this game, so this review will not attempt to compare or differentiate the two. This is a review of the second edition, only.

I’m a fan of two-player asymmetrical games. If both sides play very differently, then I’m thrilled to bits. My favorites include Claustrophobia and Raptor but, as great as those games are, I was hoping that Stronghold would deliver a heavier, meatier experience. Boy, did it ever.

As I noted above, there is a lot going on in this game. Whichever side you’re playing, you have a variety of troops and weapons to manage and move. This is great in the sense that you have a lot of important decisions to make, but it’s also punishing because failure to optimize even one aspect of your play can have disastrous consequences. This is the type of game you play when you’re alert and ready for a brain workout. It isn’t the sort of thing you bring out on a weeknight when you’re half tired and not paying full attention.

Stronghold Boards
Some of the building boards.

It’s also not a game that you sit down to learn and play on a whim. Honestly, the rule book isn’t the greatest. You will probably want to head to BGG and watch a couple of play-through videos, and you really should download the updated rulebook and errata as they make learning a bit easier. You can crack the game, but prepare yourself for an investment of time.

It’s also not a quick game. The box says 45 – 90 minutes, but I think that is overly optimistic. While you’re learning, expect games to last at least two hours and some may go as long as four. Once you’ve fully grasped the game, you may be able to get a game down to ninety minutes if both of you are equally experienced and not at all AP prone, but you should prepare for two to two and a half hours. Additionally, setup is a bit fiddly and getting everything placed will add to your time.

Speaking of AP, this game brings it out in spades, especially in the later turns. There is so much going on, so much to check and double check, so many different things you can do and strategies you could deploy (but at the same time, you don’t have enough actions to do everything you want to do, so you have to sacrifice some things), that your brain is likely to scramble, if not outright hit the wall. Some people will find this glorious. Others will hate it. Your tolerance for brain pain and your likely opponents will determine whether this is the sort of game you will love or hate.

Stronghold Cards 3
Action cards

However, for all that this game can be tough to learn and might fry your brain, you will be rewarded with a deep, thematic, thinky game if you’re willing to put in the time.

The most interesting part of the game for me was the time mechanic. As the Invader, every action you perform takes time. Once an action is complete, you must give the Defender the number of hourglasses equal to the amount of time required for your action. The Defender then spends these to do his own actions.

If you use stronger troops to do the action, they get done in less time and cost you fewer hourglasses, whereas slower troops take longer and cost you more hourglasses. The question for the Invader is: How many hourglasses are you willing to give your opponent? Also, how many and what kind of units do you have to spend? If you only have slow units, is it worth the time cost, or should you hold off on that action until you can complete it faster? 

Stronghold Tokens
You have plenty of tokens and “stuff” to play with. (Your orcs, trolls and goblins are in the baggie.)

This whole mechanic makes perfect sense and is very thematic. If you were really trying to overtake a castle, moving your forces around, training them, etc. would all take time. And, while you’re out on the field messing around, the Defender is watching you and taking a similar amount of time to set up retaliatory actions and suss out your strategy. If you can get things done much faster, you may have the element of surprise on your side and pressure your opponent to do things much faster and possibly make more errors. If, however, you’re out there taking your time, you might craft a solid offense, but your opponent will have also had more time to plan his defense. Stronghold, just like commanding a real siege, isn’t simply a matter of blowing through your actions willy-nilly. You need to consider how much time it’s going to cost you, and whether or not it’s worth giving any extra time to your opponent. There’s a lot of tension there.

In fact, everything is tense in this game. This isn’t a relaxing game. You will want to do so much, but you will only have the resources/time/troops to do only a few things each turn. What do you do now, and what can wait? Where do you move your troops? What weapons do you build and where do you place them? And, gee, it sure would be be nice to know what in the world is your opponent going to do, because if you knew that, you’d be able to get around him! You will tear your hair out. It’s all in keeping with the theme, though. You really do feel like you’re either invading or defending and you feel the stakes ratchet up each turn.

You will also stay engaged in the game, even when it’s not your turn. Even though the game leads to a lot of AP, that’s not necessarily a bad thing because while your opponent is over there tearing his hair out, you’re on your side of the table watching everything he is doing and tearing your own hair out planning your next turn. This isn’t a game where you can (or will want to) go get a snack while your opponent does their thing. You want and need to know everything that they are doing, so you will pay attention and your brain will keep churning.

Stronghold Misc.
Hourglasses, wood, weapons and more buildings.

I think the game feels very balanced overall. I would say that it seems like the Invader wins slightly more often, but it’s not something that a very skilled Defender cannot overcome. It’s just that the Defender has very little room for error which, if you think about it, again feels thematic. While I’ve never laid siege to a castle, it always seems that in books, movies, video games and, heck, even history, that the Invaders have a bit more of an advantage, either because they have a larger force, are more motivated, have better/more weapons, have surprise on their side, or have access to resources outside the castle that those inside the castle cannot manufacture or replace. Defenders have to do everything right and still they may lose the battle.

Finally, Stronghold is very re-playable. You’re not going to have cracked every strategy after two games and be ready to give it up. There is some randomness in which action cards are drawn each game meaning that no player can always deploy the exact same strategy. (There is a standard set of cards that are recommended for your first few learning games so that everyone can get familiar with how the game works without being overwhelmed by options. I recommend using them. After that, though, you’re on your own.)

The fact that it is asymmetrical is the biggest contributor to replayability, however. Even if you think you’ve mastered playing as the Invader, when you turn around and play as the Defender, everything changes. And I mean everything. Nothing feels the same when you switch to the other side and it’s like learning a whole new game. That alone should keep you busy for many, many games.

Stronghold Cards 2
Invader objective and defense plan cards. (Love the backs.)

Overall, we really enjoyed this one. I will admit that the learning was frustrating. We pushed through it, though, because I knew it needed a fair review. I’m so glad we did. My advice is this: If you feel frustrated after a game or two, give it a few more plays and make sure you take advantage of the resources on BGG. It will stick eventually and then you’ll be able to make a fair judgement about its suitability for your group.

I’m in an interesting place in my gaming these days. I’ve always been more of an Ameritrasher and a light gamer, but I’ve found myself drifting more and more to the Euro side of the pool lately, and swimming in the deeper end. Stronghold satisfied all of my current cravings. The art, the tension, and the theme feel very Ameritrashy and really draw you into the siege. However, the mechanics are very much classic mathy Euro. And the game is heavy. Maybe not Die Macher heavy or as heavy as some Splotter titles, but heavy enough for someone looking for a solid challenge, or a step up on the difficulty meter.

I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a challenging, two-player experience, as long as you have to time and inclination to put forth the effort required to learn and appreciate it. I would also say that the ideal purchaser of this game is someone who will play it with the same person repeatedly. It isn’t a great game to constantly introduce to newbies because you’ll never get to experience its full depth if you’re always teaching it. However, if two friends or a couple play it together often and learn and progress at the same pace, wow, you’re in for a treat.

iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Stronghold games for giving us a copy of Stronghold for review.  

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Summary

Pros

Solid combo of Ameritrash theme and Euro mechanics.
Truly asymmetrical as both sides play differently.
Feels very thematic with lots of tension.
Good replayability.

Cons

Rule book isn't the best; requires time and effort to crack.
Setup is fiddly.
Long play time plus high learning curve limits the audience.

8.5 Very Good

I like games with tiles/modular boards that set up and play differently each time. I'm also one of "those people" who likes dice and revels in randomness.

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