Simulator games breed a strange
ambivalence. Back when it was just Sim City, people could enjoy playing guilt-free because
whenever someone asked how you could waste so much time building imaginary cities over and
over, there was always the Im- just- replicating- what- city- planners- do-and-
therefore- its- a- learning- exercise excuse. Besides, anybody who had ever sat down
with Sim City understood the obsession that soon overtook them. There was the recurring
question that haunted every waking and sleeping hour: how can I build the perfect city?
quality, despite peoples better judgment, has been an innate part of every good sim
title since. When the people-simulator The Sims came outthe logical extension of an
industry in which it makes sense to tell your character when to peenone of my
hardcore gaming friends would admit liking it. If you got them drunk, however, you would
learn how obsessed they had become with getting their Sim a position as godfather of a
crime syndicate, or how they could build the perfect house. The fact is, almost everybody
obsesses over a good sim for the first month, after which they either continue tinkering
or the game lies forgotten on a dusty closet shelf. With this precept in mind, Firefly
Studios presents Stronghold, a castle sim thats part real time strategy and part
medieval fortress simulator.
And, like most sims, youll probably obsess over Stronghold for a month or
so. First theres the military campaign, in which your father was trying to negotiate
the release of the king when he was slaughtered, while you and your forces were beaten far
back into the neutral lands of a kingdom full of counties. On the way to claiming
vengeance for your fathers death, youll fight the Rat, the Pig, the Snake, and
the Wolf, rulers whose demeanors resemble their eponymous animals and who all want you
dead. You begin this campaign battling crop-stealing rabbits and packs of wolves,
assembling wooden strongholds while keeping your people happy and your granary stocked.
Eventually youll lay siege to massive fortresses, using catapults and tunnel diggers
to maximum advantage, as well as defending fortresses with boiling oil and flaming arrows.
On the way you just might rescue a king.
youll try the economic campaign, in which you race to stockpile money and goods
while building a stronghold you can defend from bandits, plagues, and the occasional fire.
This campaign casts you as an underling to the king, who assigns certain tasks like
replenishing the castles armory or growing wheat for the royal larder. Theres
less focus on war here and more on keeping people both productive and happy (which
dont often go hand in hand) while protecting your goods from thieves and natural
disasters. You will find yourself, for instance, recruiting spearmen to defend the wheat
farms from hordes of vicious bunnies. Unglamorous soldiery to say the least, this is
nevertheless vital work.
are also the usual multi-player options, in which you can lay siege to friends
castles over LAN or internet. Theres also a setting in which you just get to build a
castle without fear of attack or disaster. Youre provided a variety of maps that
offer the chance to improve the design of historical castles, or maps that have all the
resources necessary to build the perfect castle. Once youve constructed these
fortresses you can post them on the internet, where other Stronghold players will download
your castle and then storm it, giving you a score based on how well it held. Oddly enough,
this setting was one of the most fun, as the absence of conflict provided a welcome calm
after the often stressful conditions of the campaigns.
war campaign is at times extraordinarily stressful. In one notably difficult scenario, you
have to storm a castle and then raise 5,000 gold pieces while defending from constant
attacks, all the while recruiting and paying your defense soldiers from the very gold
youre required to hoard. I played through this scenario at least five times before
setting it on Easy (where you only have to save 3,000 gold) and barely surviving. There
are other, more difficult challenges ahead, and sometimes the exhilaration of the
challenge threatens to lapse into plain old frustration. However, this frustration is part
of the addictive quality of sim games because it presents a problem that you will
consciously stop thinking about, and youll go about your normal day, assuming
youve given up, when out of nowhere some new strategy will occur to you. You will
burn with the need to try this strategy.
than these moments of difficulty, game play is blameless. You look down upon a terrain of
forests for woodcutting, stone heaps for quarrying, marshes for pitch digging, and iron
reserves for mining. From these resources you gather materials to build your castle,
patiently waiting to finish the inner curtain as ox loads of stone gradually roll in. But
theres never a dull moment if youre doing your job. There are always new
woodcutters to make, farms to plant, wells to dig. And there is the perennial threat of
attack, forcing you to decide whether to use your stone reserves building soldiers
barracks instead of finishing that protective wall. After brigands overtake you because
you dumped all your wood into building apple orchards, youll probably just start the
mission over (fortunately available on the Options menu). Chances are youll replay
many missions at least once. But game play is smooth enough that your joy doesnt die
until the fourth or fifth time through.
Unlike some castle sims, Stronghold doesnt require you to commit time or
resources to actually constructing walls and buildings; they just appear where you click
them. This must have been a difficult decision for the game designers because on one hand
waiting for your materials is hard enough without also having to wait for the walls to be
built. On the other hand, theres something strange about throwing up a stone tower
and a second curtain in front of the army that just appeared on your horizon. In the end,
this was the right choice. Waiting for walls to be built might have pushed over the edge a
game that sometimes flirts with tedium.
Of course, the detail of the medieval war craft in Stronghold more than
compensates for any tedium presented by the building process. Because Stronghold
isnt just a castle sim, its a complete castle-and-siege simulator, with
catapults, portable shields, tunnel diggers, ladder bearers, boiling oil, mounted knights,
and a scribe that complains whenever you raise taxes or halve rations. You must recruit
and disperse troops in the most efficient manner possible while simultaneously keeping
your people happy enough that they dont leave. Its enough to occupy the most
active minds for hours. At times the scribe suggests that you eat a snack or take a
nap a reminder that you have a living body outside the game, and you have been
Stronghold doesnt offer dragons or wizards or other fantasy fare.
Its a simulator of real life in a particular historical period. It simulates a
simpler time when war was fought in the open, with obvious targets and easily
distinguishable enemies. If someone was catapulting your castle walls, they were the bad
guys and you poured boiling oil on them. That kind of nostalgic representation of conflict
is one more reason to enjoy Stronghold; its a look at war when lines were clearly
drawn, presented to us in a time when enemies are anything but obvious. If youve
ever fancied yourself a general; if youve ever been enchanted by castles and the
epic battles they inspire; if youre anything like the man in a video I watched
during my high school unit on King Arthur, who was obsessed with designing the perfect
castle and had spent a decade cribbing ideas from various Saxon and Norman fortresses; or
if youre just hungry for a fight that begins and ends in one sitting without anyone
actually dying, then Stronghold will not disappoint.