Celebrating its 20th anniversary in 2021, the Stronghold series has long been in need of reinvention. Having battled through the medieval era and gone crusading a few times over, Stronghold: Warlords turns its gaze to East Asia and the tumultuous wars and uprisings that defined its millennia of history.
Working through the campaign, the game tells the stories of various rulers and dynasties as they rise to power, battle against adversity, and ultimately succeed or fail. From Thuc Phan in what is modern-day Vietnam, through to the Jin dynasty’s construction of the Great Wall of China, and then the coming of Genghis Khan and the Mongols, it does a great job of mixing things up from mission to mission. One mission might focus purely on infrastructure and resource management, another might give you a large army with which to assault a stronghold, or you have the series’ signature mission type that blends everything together, trying to build up a fortress, secure its supply chain and also fend off increasingly challenging waves of enemies.
These are, essentially, puzzles in management strategy form. You have a very specific scenario with a peculiar map layout, starting situation and some kind of restriction on what you can do. The difficulty here is quite high, so unless you’re doing the right thing at roughly the right time, chances are you will fail and have to restart. On a handful of occasions, it was my defensive set up that was lacking, on others it was that I was running out of time to draw in a particular objective resource. It does a decent job of teaching you new gameplay ideas and gradually introducing each concept, but brace yourself for some difficulty spikes – there’s at least several hints provided for each mission.
Switching to the skirmishes and multiplayer is a bit of a shock to the system. Suddenly there’s acres of space for you to use, and it’s here that the Warlords can really shine. These are the main new innovation to the series’ long-running medieval warfare formula. Warlords are dotted around the map, filling in some of the blank space between the rival players and AI, and lying in wait with a small standing army to defend them.
Capturing them extends your sphere of influence a little and gives you a chance to spend diplomacy points to demand a tithe. Depending on the animal symbol that represents them, they offer different things to your economy, whether it’s food, wealth or more troops. Upgrading them is key, because once you’ve battered your way through the soldiers guarding them, they’re practically defenceless until you have them build their own castle walls.
Aside from that, there’s the typical ebb and flow of Stronghold. Set a steady foundation for your castle’s economy to sustain churning out troops and siege weapons – these are as glorious as ever, whether it’s a mortar that will obliterate walls and enemies with huge cannonballs, gunpowder weapons like the rocket launcher, or everyone’s favourite rotting cow-flinging trebuchets to spread disease. It’s a war of attrition, especially as a map’s Warlords become heavily fortified bulwarks to any advances.
Minor things grate as you dig deeper into the game. The visual stylings of the Asian setting make for a refreshing change of pace for the series, but there’s no real distinction between any of the leaders in the game. They have their place in history, but they all share the same units, the same progression of buildings, the same potential battle tactics.
I also find it annoying that you can’t set waypoints and multiple jobs for soldiers, making the missions where there are ruins for you to clear out a chore to deal with and stymying your attempts to flank and advancing enemy to strike at their siege weapons. Then there’s the overly simplistic formations, which for some baffling reason think that mantlets go behind the soldiers that they’re meant to protect, and units of different speeds, while your long-range siege warfare will be hampered by the ability of players and AI alike to simply click to repair a structure when enemy units are a certain distance away.
Should your settlement be struck by fires (whether that’s being attacked by enemies or simply because the level has decided to spam you with them), it’s a pain in the bum to deal with. You can build water buttresses to try and quickly put out fires, but these have to be manned at all times by two workers, and worse, it will not always be the case that the closest firefighter with a bucket will actually go and put out a fire. All of your firefighters standing idly by a few feet away because some lad is running from halfway across the map. Meanwhile, your workers will merrily walk into the raging flames and get fried alive. Some campaign levels just decide to spam you with random fires, seemingly for the hell of it. Oh, and I wouldn’t mind Strongholds embracing the ability to pause and fast forward time, as found in many strategy management games.