|Interaction||Components & Design|
You stand on the ramparts as the sun rises in your back. Your long shadow touches the savage encampment that has sprouted outside your gates overnight. Violent war banners rise above crude tents. War machines loom behind them, equally crude but no less destructive for it. A pit opens deep in your stomach at the sight of the monstrous armies. But this is not the time for fear. Fear can come later, when the fight is over. Then you can shit your pants about what could have happened. Only one thing counts now: The Stronghold can not fall. You take a deep breath and sound your bugle. This is the time to fight.Ignacy Trzewiczek’s Stronghold is an iconic asymmetric game. The attacking player controls the invading monster hordes, the defending player the valiant defenders behind their walls. More players are not an option. The defender’s walls give them a great advantage, and to win they only have to keep their walls unbreached for seven rounds. To balance the scales the attacker has full control over the pace of combat. The more he does before the assault at the end of each round the more time the defender has to prepare, too.
Dare you stand on the wall? How to play Stronghold
A game of Stronghold lasts no more than seven rounds. It may end earlier with a victory for the attacker. If the attacker doesn’t win before the end of round seven that means victory for the defenders. The rules don’t say exactly why that is, but at a guess that is when the defender’s reinforcements arrive.
Each round has up to six phases, and it’s this “up to” that starts to give you an idea of Stronghold‘s depth and variability. Phases one and six, Supplies and Maneuver, always happen. The other phases depend on the attacker’s action cards they’re currently showing. To start with, that will always be three cards each from phases two and three, Machines and Equipment. During the game, some of these cards will be replaced with cards from phase four and five, Training and Rituals.
Those phases don’t mean much in the actual game. The action cards mean a lot, but the phases are just a way to order the actions. The attacker must go through his action cards ascending from phase one to phase six. They can choose to skip cards and entire phases, though. Actions, no matter in which phase, have two kinds of costs for them: wood and units. They’ll have a steady supply of wood each round, so this cost doesn’t hurt too much. Units, however, means they spend goblins, orcs, and trolls from the same supply as their troops on the battlefield. And that supply doesn’t get replenished.
The real cost for the attacker paying units is worse, though. Every unit they pay gives the defender an hourglass token, meaning it gives them time for their own actions. The defender doesn’t care about phases at all. They get time tokens after every action the attacker spends units on and assign them to their defense projects immediately.
Have fun storming the castle – attacker actions
Time for some details! What can the attacker do with all those actions they may or may not take? Well, first thing every round they take their Supplies action. They receive fresh wood and units, then they make the big strategy decision. As part of the Supplies action they may replace any number of active phase two to four action cards with others from their reserve. In the blink of an eye they can turn their whole attack plan around.
Then they just follow their line of action cards. Phase two is called Machines and every phase two action builds some sort of war machine. Shocking, I know. Ballistas kill defending units on the wall. Catapults and Trebuchets destroy the walls themselves, with some differences in the details. Mantelets protect attacking units from Marksmen on the wall while Siege Towers guard against a variety of other surprises the defender can put atop his walls.
In Phase three, Equipment, the defender can manufacture useful things that provide passive bonuses when placed on the battlefield. Banners give their units more strength, Bridges protect from Traps the defender can place, and so on. Phase four, Training, has more diverse boons. Removing a miss from one of your siege engine’s hit/miss deck with an Artilleryman is pretty sweet. (On a side note, I really want the Drill Sergeant as my personal trainer: if he can drill a Goblin into becoming a Troll he should be able to make me lose some weight. )
Phase five, Rituals, brings powerful surprises to bear. Each Ritual lets the attacker place three tokens, one target token and two bluffs. When an event triggers one of those tokens either nothing happens, or the Ritual’s unpleasant effects strike. For instance, a Gale ritual makes sending defending units to the wall take more time. But which wall? A Demon haunts one of the defender’s buildings and will kill a defender unit when that building is activated. But which building. Rituals are powerful tools for denial and deception – plus it’s fun to watch the defender sweat before he reveals a token.
And then, finally, phase six, Maneuvers and Orders. The other phase that will always happen. The attacker may perform a minor maneuver and/or a major maneuver, which just means he may move different numbers of units through the different zones of the battlefield: from the Ramparts to the Walls, from the Foreground to the Ramparts, and from the off-board Supply to the Foreground. The order is important, moving units in this order means no unit can advance more than one station with one maneuver action. Orders are one more kind of token to prepare a surprise for the defender, each order with a special effect for one type of attacker unit. And then we’d finally get to that brief and exciting part where fighting happens – if we had any clue what the defender did up this point.
Why do we build the wall, my children – defender actions
The defender receives hourglasses after the attacker’s every action. They have to spend them immediately, but they can collect hourglasses on each of their various defense projects. This makes it a bit harder for them to react to surprises because they have to commit resources as soon as they get them and cannot shift them later. It also means the attacker knows what they are and aren’t prepared for.
Most defender actions are grouped by buildings. In the Forge they build Cauldrons, which destroy one type of attacker unit at a wall section, or Cannons, which destroy everything further away. From the Workshop come various upgrades to the walls, like Poles to push attackers from their ladders, and the ability to repair damaged wall sections. The Scouts’ Quarters have the defender’s more underhanded options: Traps kill enemy units as they move across the board, Malfunctions disable siege engines, and Spies make attacker actions more expensive.
If all that’s not helping, how about a little divine support? At the Cathedral the defender can pray for just that and receive powerful aid like the Marksmen Blessing that lets all their archers on one side of the stronghold focus their fire on one location instead of only shooting at places they each can reach by conventional rules. Or they can pray for Unearthly Glare, the single most expensive effect in the defender’s arsenal, that completely shuts down the fighting at one wall section.
That only leaves us with two simple buildings. The Barracks upgrade units, plain and simple. The only wrinkle is that the unit has to be in the barracks to be upgraded, and if a unit is in the barracks that unit is not on the wall defending the stronghold. All the Guard House does is find and evict an enemy saboteur. Those guys make actions at the building where they’re stationed more expensive, so throwing them out is kinda important.
Two things the defender does are not tied to any buildings. One is movement. Oh boy is movement a pain when playing the defender. You watch the attacker’s units stream across the plains in masses while you pay one precious hourglass to move a unit from the Barracks to the Courtyard, another to move that unit to a Wall, then another to move one more unit from the Hospital to the Courtyard… I’m not saying it’s unbalanced, but movement is incredibly frustrating for the defender. You’ll never have enough people were they need to be. I guess that’s realistic for the scenario, but hell is it frustrating.
Defender cards are the other thing. They give the defender some powerful one-time options, but they come with a price tag. In return for that one spot of help they weaken the defender in some way for the rest of the game. Essentially, they’re burning important resources to save their life, but the resources that were supposed to last all game are gone.
Finally, to battle!
After all this preparation the assault at the end of the round is quick and brutal. Cannons, siege engines and marksmen who aren’t engaged in melee combat fire and deal damage. Cauldrons and Poles do their part, attackers orders are resolved, and then it comes down to numbers. On each wall you add up strength from units other relevant bonuses for attacker and defender. The stronger one destroys opposing units with total strength points equal to the difference between their strength totals. If the attacker wins a melee combat by more strength points than the defender has total strength on that wall then they breach the stronghold and win the game.
Still on the fence about that wall? Our Verdict
Phew, sorry for that wall of text. The How to Play section got a bit long on that one, but at least for me knowing how to play is the most important factor to decide if I want to try a game or not. How about you? Do you enjoy the rules explanation part, or do you just skip to the verdict. Let us know.
Anyway, the biggest takeaway from all those rules is that Stronghold is a surprisingly simple game. The attacker goes through their action cards from left to right and whenever they take an action that costs units the defender gets time to take some of their actions. And the actions are all simple, too. Put a Trebuchet on one of the spaces for it. Put a trap on a path. Replace a unit with a stronger one. Super simple stuff.
Only the sum of the parts is not simple at all. There are many different actions, and you should know them all in order to use them to win. And not only your own, your opponent’s, too. Actions have specific counters, so you have to be aware which actions your opponent is preparing so you can have your counters ready. Conversely, know which counters your opponent has ready to go so maybe you don’t walk right into them.
What helps against what, and how your own abilities go together is a bit of a learning curve, but a very satisfying one. Stronghold is not completely without luck, there are the siege weapon decks you draw from, and the attacker draws random units from a bag, but mostly when you win it’s because you plain played better. And there are plenty of ways to play well. You can have many satisfying victories – or almost equally satisfying defeats – against an appropriately skilled opponent. Really, losing Stronghold is still a lot of fun. I should know. I lost literally every single test game we played. Yes, I know what literally means. I stand by my choice of words.
That’s also my comment on game balance, always the big question in asymmetric games. I lost every single game, no matter which side I played on. But most defeats where close calls. Losing in the last round, or getting my walls breached by a single point of strength. Stronghold is incredibly well balanced, even though the two sides play very differently. One almost completely reactive, the other almost entirely proactive. And yet both are equally challenging and equally fun to play. Wow.