This review was originally posted on nerdbloggers.com.
Some of the most epic and memorable scenes in novels and movies have involved the siege of a fortress. The story of defending one’s home against overwhelming odds is one that resonates deeply in the human spirit. These stories span time and setting, and have been told throughout history. The timeless fantasy world of Middle Earth saw a climactic siege in The Lord of The Rings
, when the capital of Gondor was rushed by a sea of enemies. Ancient Greek mythology is full of these stories, shown to enthrall audiences even in modern times by the success of the blockbuster movie 300
, and its bloody, violent retelling of the siege of Sparta. Akira Kurasawa also brought siege to feudal Japan in his final epic theatrical masterpiece Ran
. Siege makes for exciting and tense storytelling, and it’s no surprise that it invokes those same feelings when presented in a game.
In 2009, game designer Ignacy Trzewiczek brought siege to the table with the board game Stronghold
, a non-symmetrical game of siege and defense, where one player uses his limited resources to defend his stronghold against the seemingly unending horde of Orcs, Trolls, and Goblins controlled by his opponent. The invading player uses his massive army to build siege equipment, cast destructive spells, man the ramparts, and ultimately scale the towering walls to breach the stronghold. The defending player must valiantly defend his keep by utilizing his limited time and manpower to train men, repair damage, build traps, and position his dwindling forces to effectively turn the tide of the incoming army. Whoever ends the siege with the most glory is the ultimate victor.Stronghold
was published in limited quantities during its first print run in 2009, and quickly sold out, leaving many prospective players wishing for a copy of their own. In 2010 Valley Games
picked up publishing rights to the game, and began a second printing, incorporating a few rules changes targeting some balance issues, and including a rewritten manual to address concerns over readability in the first edition. After a few minor scheduling setbacks, the Valley Games edition of Stronghold
hit retailer’s shelves in March of 2011.
At first glance, the game Stronghold
may seem like a typical Euro style worker placement game, and in many ways it is. There are preprinted spaces on the board where players put their pieces to accomplish different tasks, the game box contains what seems like a million wooden bits (319, all hyperbole aside), and the winner of the game is based on whoever has the most victory points. But, delving further into the game it becomes apparent that there is more to Stronghold
than meets the eye.
First of all, unlike most games, players in Stronghold
do not start out on equal footing; the defender starts with all of his pieces on the board, and the attacker with none. In fact, the spaces that each player can occupy on the board, the actions that they may take, and the rules that they follow during gameplay are all completely different. It is almost as if both players are playing different games that come together at the wall that segregates the board. The Valley Games printing of Stronghold
even comes with two separate manuals: one for the invader, and one for the defender. This non-symmetrical structure fits the game theme very well, giving the defender the feeling of being trapped inside a falling fortress, while the attacking player feels like he has the support of an army of thousands behind him.Stronghold
also embraces direct conflict and randomness, things not found in typical worker placement games. Randomness can be found at the start of each game turn, when the invading player randomly draws troops from a bag; and also when using siege machines, where success and failure is determined through the draw of a card. Another non-Euro aspect of Stronghold
is found in the confrontation that permeates the game; even though each player plays with different rules, practically every decision that one player makes will affect the other player directly. It is through this direct conflict, random elements, and tight integration of theme that Stronghold
really blurs the line between “Euro” style games, and “American” style games.Components:Game Board – Stronghold’s
foldout game board is deceptively large for the size of box that it comes in. It is beautifully illustrated; one of the most visually compelling game boards that I have seen in a while. The stronghold and its surrounding grounds are richly depicted on the game board in a top down view, with squares and circles on the delineating where units can be placed. Starting positions for the defender’s pieces are noted on the board itself, making the setup of many small pieces very easy.
There is a second smaller board called the “Glory Board” used for scoring. As the game progresses, glory tokens are added, removed, and moved around the glory board to represent the current victory points each player has amassed.Tokens –
The double-sided tokens are vividly colored and printed on nice quality cardboard. There are a large number of different tokens, and their use and meaning may not be immediately obvious to the first time player. The first few games there will be a lot of flipping through the manual to see what certain things do. Luckily, there are two manuals in the game, one for the invader, and one for the defender. This means that players don’t have to fight over the manual to determine the purpose of the many tokens, and as a result, the game doesn’t drag too badly during the first few plays.Wooden Bits –
There are a TON of wooden bits in Stronghold
– 319 in all. These bits represent invading and defending units, the walls of the stronghold, resources, boiling caldrons, and time. The invading and defending units are represented as colored cubes. The sizes of the cubes differ for the invaders and the defenders, with the defenders having larger cubes. Aside from the size difference, the cubes for both sides come in three different colors as well: red, green, and white. These colors represent the different unit types, with red cubes representing the strongest units, followed by green, then white being the weakest of the three. The walls of the stronghold are represented by long skinny “sticks”, similar to the roads found in The Settlers of Catan
. Grey sticks represent stone walls, and brown sticks represent wooden walls. The resources used by the invader are represented with brown cubes, and the cauldrons that the defender uses to burn the invaders are represented by colored discs.
Grey and black discs are used to track time as a resource. Using time as a resource is an interesting game mechanic, and a core part of the game. For every action the invader takes, a certain number of these time resources, or hourglass disks, are generated and given to the defender. The defending player then uses the hourglass disks to purchase actions. The invading player dictates, through his choices, how many hourglass resources the defending player will be able to use.
Although the wooden components are nice, there were a few pieces in my game that did not have a uniform shape. With so many small bits, I can understand how it would be difficult to thoroughly QA them all, but a few of the smaller invader cubes in my game were more rectangular than square. This could pose an issue for some game groups, because the invader blindly draws his troops from a bag at the start of each turn. If a player can tell what kind of troop he has in his bag based on the shape of the cube, he has the potential to skew gameplay in his favor. Luckily only a few of my cubes were like this in my copy, and I don’t really foresee this being a problem for most players.Cards –
The cards, like the other components in Stronghold
, are well illustrated. They are printed on a linen stock, and look nice. My only complaint is that they feel a bit “dead”. Most high quality cards have a spring to them when they are handled, but the cards in my copy of Stronghold
handle a bit like damp cardstock, and I worry that they will get bent from handling, as cards are shuffled frequently. I’m sure putting the cards into card sleeves would help alleviate concerns over the durability of the cards.Bag – Stronghold
comes with a velvet textured bag from which the invader’s troop cubes are drawn. This is a nice addition that really increases the visual appeal of the game. Valley Games could have easily required the players to use a cup or bag of their own, like games such as Arkham Horror
do, but the inclusion of the bag makes playing Stronghold
feel that much classier.
All in all, I’m very happy with the components in Stronghold
. I enjoy bringing the game out to admire, play with, and interact with the bits; and there is a certain aesthetic beauty found when looking at a game in progress.Setup:
Setup in Stronghold
is pretty simple. First, the glory board is set up. This is the board that tracks victory points (called glory points in Stronghold
). The defenders start off with 14 victory points, and the invader with none. This will change quickly as the game progresses, as every turn that passes, a victory point will move from the defender, to the invader.
The invader tosses his small unit cubes into the cloth bag, takes five resource cubes, and finds the stack of phase cards corresponding to the number of players in the game. He will then select from these, the phase cards that will be available for the game. The phase cards are illustrated with different actions that the invader can take, with one card chosen for each of the 6 phases that make up a game turn. Each card has different actions, spells, and machines on it, so not every kind of action will be available in every game. This random setup step is nice, because it adds some variety to each game, while still giving the invading player a modicum of control.
The defender then sets out his unit cubes. Placement of each defending unit is marked by a colored icon that is printed on the game board. The defender places his units on the corresponding icons, places two stone wall components on each wall section, and takes four hourglass tokens.
All other game components are put within reach of the players, and the game is ready to begin.Gameplay:
board is separated into several areas. First of all, the wall of the stronghold separates the inside of the keep and the outside of the keep. The defender’s units stay inside the keep, and the invader’s units stay outside of the keep. In addition, the board is separated into left and right sides, by the barbican, or castle gate. As a rule, units cannot cross the barbican. The wall of the keep is further divided into “wall sections”, and the area outside of the keep into foregrounds and ramparts. There are movement rules that dictate how units move between these areas, but both the invader and defender can spend resources to take actions that allow them to bend some of these rules.Stronghold
is played over the course of 10 turns, each turn containing 6 distinct “preparation” phases, followed by an “assault”. During the preparation phases, the invader will spend units and resources to stage his siege. Whenever the invader takes an action, it generates a number of “hourglass tokens”. These tokens represent the time that it takes for the invader to accomplish his actions. The hourglass tokens are subsequently spent by the defender to take his actions in the second half of the phase. The defender must spend all of the hourglass tokens generated by the invader during a given phase. This may seem like it gives the invader a lot of control; after all, he is the one who determines how many hourglass tokens the defender will be able to use. However, there is a balance to this mechanism. While the defender can chose to spend his hourglass tokens on any available action, the invader is only able to take the actions depicted on the current phase card, limiting his options.
The six invader preparation phases are as follows:Phase 1, Supplies –
In this phase, the invader receives new units and resources. He randomly draws 14 unit cubes from his bag and gets 5 resources. The invader can also choose to trade in one of the unit cubes for more resources; the strength of the unit he sacrifices determines the amount of resources he can gain. Choosing to take this action will give an hourglass to the defender, so the invader has to weigh his options based on his need for resources, the possible advantage he is giving to his opponent, and the impact of spending a unit that could offer manpower during the siege.Phase 2, Machines –
It is during this phase that the invader can choose to build one of the many siege machines available in the game by spending resource and unit cubes. Once an invading machine is built, it cannot be destroyed, and stays in play for the rest of the game. The machines that are available will be limited to those that appear on the phase 2 card. These can vary greatly, and all have different advantages. Both offensive and defensive structures can be built, and the cost for each varies.Phase 3, Equipment –
Like the machines, equipment cannot be destroyed once it is created. Equipment affects unit movement and effectiveness, allowing units to do more damage, or bend the movement rules. Like machines, equipment takes both unit cubes and resources to build.Phase 4, Training –
Training actions also have permanent effect on the game, and like the previous phases, allow the invader to modify his movement and attacks. Training actions do not cost resources, but have a fairly high unit cost instead. Most of these actions affect units in a particular rampart, but the saboteur action allows the invader to affect the cost of the defender’s actions.Phase 5, Rituals –
While all of the previous phases have a permanent effect on the game board, rituals have effects that only last through the current turn. Like training, rituals do not require resources, and use only unit cubes as a cost - a price the flavor text in the rulebook justifies as ritual sacrifice. Most of the rituals either do direct damage to the defender, or increase the cost of the defender’s actions.Phase 6, Dispatch –
In this final phase, the invader moves his units. Any units that the invader has not spent on actions in the previous phases can be moved onto the game board. There is a limit to the number of units that the invader can move, and leave in certain areas. During a deployment, the invader can move his unit cubes one step towards the wall: from the foreground to the ramparts, the ramparts to the wall, or onto the board from the camp. Deploying units will generate hourglass tokens for the defender, so it can be to the invader’s advantage to limit the number of units deployed. If a unit is not moved onto the board during a deployment, he remains in camp, and can be used in a future deployment. The unit cannot, however, be used to buy actions on the next turn. The invader might be tempted to hold onto his troops to starve the defender of hourglass tokens by limiting the amount of units deployed, but he must be careful; if the invader has too many units in his camp, they begin to generate hourglass tokens for the defender.
The second part of the dispatch phase allows the issuance of orders. Orders are actions that the invader can take which resolve during the assault. Orders require the sacrifice of an invading unit already on the board, but the effects can be powerful. Issuing orders does not create any hourglass tokens, unless the invader takes advantage of the special “classified order” option. For the cost of an hourglass, the invader can place his orders face down so that the defender cannot see what orders have been given. When using the classified order, the invader has the opportunity to place a blank order that has no effect onto the board, this adds a bit of a bluffing element to Stronghold, and can make or break a strategy. The defender will have to take both hidden and visible orders into consideration when moving his units, and this is paramount, because unit placement is critical.Defender Actions:
Although the invader is limited to certain actions during each phase, the defender is only limited by the number of hourglasses he has to spend. The defender must spend all hourglasses earned during a phase, but he does not have to outright buy an action at once. He can place hourglasses on the board, as partial payment towards a certain action, and complete the payment on a different phase. This forces the defender to think ahead about what he wants to accomplish, but also anticipate his opponent’s strategy. The invader can moderate the number of hourglass tokens he generates based on the defender's play, and may leave the defender without the resources to pull off his plan.
The defender’s side of the board is made up of six “buildings”. Each building contains spaces for several actions that can be bought: the forge allows him to build offensive equipment such as cannons and cauldrons which do damage to invading machines and units; the workshop builds defensive equipment that helps protect from the invading horde; the scout’s quarters build items that directly affect the invader’s unit movement and machines outside of the stronghold; the cathedral creates effects that can stop combat in certain areas, improve the defender’s marksmanship, or thwart enemy orders; and the barracks and hospital buildings are used to train units to make them stronger, and recover units that have been lost in battle.
Apart from the buildings, the defender also has two hero units he can control, which move around the stronghold to support the defensive units on the wall, and give combat bonuses.The Assault:
After the deployment phase, the assault begins. This is where the majority of the action occurs during the game. There are three main parts of the assault: Ranged attack, Melee combat, and the battering ram at the barbican.Ranged Attack -
During the ranged attack, the defender fires any cannons he has towards the invading units at the ramparts. Cards are drawn based on the number of cannons fired, and units are removed from the board based on the results. The more cannons the defender has, the better the odds of doing big damage.
After the cannons fire, the defender fires his siege machines to damage the stronghold walls. Each siege machine has a corresponding deck of cards, from which a card is drawn to report either a hit, or a miss. In the previous phases, the players have the opportunity to use actions to manipulate the cards in these decks, so the accuracy of this attack depends greatly on the cards in the deck.
Once the damage from the siege machines have been resolved, the defender can use his marksmen units that are not engaged in melee combat to attack the enemy on the ramparts. This threat really forces the invader to choose carefully where he deploys his units. Any goblins still alive after the marksman attack have the opportunity to fire back, as a last ranged attack before the melee begins.Melee –
The defender starts off the melee by using any cauldrons he may have built. These cauldrons are color coded, and will kill only the enemy of the same color. How these cauldrons are placed by the defender will affect where the invader deploys his units, allowing the defender a way to manipulate the siege to his advantage. After the cauldrons have been used, the defender may use any poles he has built to push invading units from the wall, before the invader’s orders are finally resolved.
Any remaining units on the wall will engage in melee combat. This is calculated by adding the strength of all of the attacking units on a wall segment (plus any bonuses), and comparing to the total unit strength of the defenders, and any bonuses at that segment. The side with the largest strength is victorious, and the defeated player must remove a number of units whose combined strength is equal to the difference. If the defender has lost units in combat, he may move two of them to the hospital building to use in future turns, but any units above that are removed from play.Barbican –
Finally, if the invader has built a battering ram, damage is done to the stronghold gates.Winning:
After each turn in the game, one glory point moves from the invader to the defender. However, there are ways for the invader to gain extra glory points, and the defender to lose them. For the invader, gaining these bonus points involve showing acts of force, such as breaching multiple walls at once. Unlike the invader, the defender does not have many feats which gain him glory points; instead he has the option to gain extra hourglass tokens, at the cost of glory points, by using desperate measures.
If the invader destroys all walls and units at a wall segment, or completely destroys the gates, the stronghold is breached and the game ends. It is likely that the invaders will breach the stronghold, so this alone does not win the game. Instead, the number of glory points that each player has collected are compared, and whoever has the most is declared the winner. If the defender manages to steel the stronghold for 10 turns, however, it is an automatic victory for him.Conclusion:Stronghold
is a lot of fun. Its non-symmetrical gameplay leads to some very interesting decisions, and a unique feeling of give-and-take. Even though both players have different choices to make, and it may seem that the invader has an advantage at first, the game is surprisingly well balanced. A player that foresees an imminent victory can find a crafty opponent has turned the tables on him within the span of a single turn. Stronghold
has staying power built into its gameplay; by limiting the actions available to the invader in each game, it remains fresh and interesting, both for the invader and the defender. Aside from the variability in actions, there is also a lot of depth to Stronghold
. It will take several plays before the impact of actions are truly understood, and longer to begin using them efficiently.
Although there is randomness in Stronghold
, its impact on the game is greatly mitigated by the actions that players can take to steer the cards in their favor. I never felt like I was at the mercy of the randomness, but instead knew the calculated risks I was taking. In order to succeed, Stronghold
requires a well-planned long term strategy and it rewards tactical planning made turns in advance.
effectively merges Euro and American game mechanics, the winning condition left a lot to be desired for me. The victory point model works great in many other games as a method to avoid player elimination, but in Stronghold
it weakens the visceral nature of the win. The Invader can break through the castle walls and presumably lay waste to the stronghold, but the defender can still win the game because he has more victory points. This is a major disconnect from the theme of the game, in an otherwise tightly integrated package. Stronghold
is, at its heart, a two player game. Since player elimination isn’t really a concern, a more direct winning condition would have fit the theme much better. Perhaps the glory points were included as a way to better integrate multiple players into the game, but I feel that it weakens the experience. Stronghold
has rules for up to four players, although I only discussed the 2 player rules. To me, the rules for three and four players seemed tacked on, and just didn’t shine the way that the 2 player game did.
There are quite a number of rules to learn in Stronghold
, which some may find fiddly. I briefly glossed over the rules, but all of the actions have subtle nuances, each with different limitations and advantages. The manual goes into detail about how each action works, but there are so many different things that can be built and done that it can certainly feel overwhelming. The separate manuals for the defender and invader were almost a necessity to smoothly deal with this complexity.
In conclusion, Stronghold
is a visually stunning game, with unique non-symmetric game mechanics that successfully bridge the gap between different game styles. Even though I’m not thrilled with the winning condition, the gameplay itself is extremely rewarding, and contains a surprising amount of depth. Stronghold
shines as a two player game, and I expect that it will be played a lot when I have a few hours to kill and a willing partner. Whether you sit on the Ameritrash, or the Euro side of the board game fence, there is a quite a bit to enjoy in Stronghold
, and I whole-heartedly suggest giving it a play.