Nowadays, there are countless “castle simulator” games to choose from. However, in 2001, Stronghold was the granddaddy of them all!
Of course, in the nearly two decades since that release, the castle simulator genre has exploded. And there have been quite a few sequels in the Stronghold series. That leaves the question — is the original still worth playing?
A Tale of Two Games
If you’ve never played a castle simulator, you may expect this game to play like the original Warcraft. However, that estimate is only half right.
Technically, Stronghold is two games in one. There is the military aspect that most people focus on (and, to be fair, all of the advertising focuses on), but there is also the city-building aspect.
In addition to getting servants to build and train your units, you must also find ways to keep those servants happy. This can come in the form of giving them more food, lowering their taxes, and other entertaining options.
To be completely honest, the city-building element is pretty basic. But it helps make this game feel like more than just another hack-and-slash medieval adventure.
Every good RTS makes players face hard choices. And this is an area where Stronghold really shines.
For example, you must be able to balance fending off attackers and keeping your people happy at the same time. However, there is a pretty literal cost: you might lose out on money when keeping them happy and be unable to train some much-needed reinforcements.
Such nail-biting moments are relatively rare. But they help to highlight the full potential of this game.
Keeping It Simple
When it comes to combat and city management, Stronghold is a pretty simple game. And that serves as a double-edged blade when it comes to the game’s accessibility.
For example, many people avoid RTS games because they find them complex and confusing. Memorizing different unit names and build orders and tactics all at once is a lot to ask of any gamer!
In its simplicity, Stronghold manages to be very accessible to players who are unfamiliar with castle simulators and the entire RTS genre. However, veterans of these games and this genre might find the game too simple for their tastes.
Stronghold has a campaign mode. However, it’s a campaign you are unlikely to play more than once!
That’s because the campaign never really puts its foot down on the pedal until the very end. Things start out nice and easy and stay that way for a while, thanks in large part to the simplistic A.I.
However, the campaign often limits which kinds of units and structures you can build, and it does this well past the point where you’d expect the training wheels to come off.
The end result is a campaign that feels like a glorified tutorial, but does a poor job of introducing you to things like combat.
The combat in this game is another mixed blessing. It is sometimes novel in its design, but then boring in its execution.
Let’s just assume most gamers have never experienced an actual castle siege. So, at first the novel ways you defend against an encroaching army (such as using piping hot oil) are pretty exciting!
However, things eventually descend into the simple matter of clicking on your guys and then clicking on the enemy.
And the relative lack of units and unit complexity, combined with the difficulty of moving large numbers of troops, often makes combat feel like a drag.
Earlier, I talked about the very basic, very limited campaign. And you’d be forgiven for asking the natural question: why do people still like this game so much?
The short answer is that the multiplayer mode is a lot of fun. In the hands of a human opponent, all of the problems that come from simplistic A.I. go away.
Unlike the campaign mode, multiplayer mode lets you play with all of the various units and buildings in the game.
If you get bored of the official maps, you can always create your own. Alternatively, you can download one of the many custom maps that users continue to publish.
Ultimately, the multiplayer is what keeps Stronghold fresh.
So, it all comes down to this: do I recommend playing Stronghold? Sadly, the answer is “Not really.”
If you’re a hardcore castle simulator fan, it might be fun to visit this bit of gaming history. And if you’re already a member of Stronghold’s community, it’s nice to see that there is more community content than ever before.
However, there are better simulators out there, including some of the sequels to Stronghold! If you really want to scratch that castle simulator itch, I recommend playing those games instead.