Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Stronghold

Plays: 3Px1, 2Px1.

The Game

Stronghold tells the story of a siege, where a human castle is being attacked by a giant horde of monsters - goblins, orcs and trolls. You play attacker or defender, and you have all sorts of weapons, equipment, magical powers and special abilities at your disposal. The humans have a limited number of fighters. If they get killed, there are no reinforcements. If they get injured, the small hospital is understaffed and can only heal a limited number of them. The monsters have a constant supply of fighters. However, this being a siege battle, it is easier for the defenders to kill the attackers than otherwise. So despite the superior numbers, the attacker needs to manage his troops well.

The attacker gains wood every round. Wood and fighters can be spent to build all sorts of weapons and equipment, e.g. catapults which damage walls, ballistae which kill defenders, siege towers which help to send fighters to the walls. There is much to be done to prepare for the fighting. Much equipment need to be built to help your fighters. Eventually you will need to march your fighters to the walls and scale them to fight the defenders. To breach the castle, you need to overcome the attackers at only one wall section. The game then ends. However, you may not necessarily win. There are a number of ways for both attacker and defender to gain or lose points. Both sides start with some points, and throughout the game whenever certain deeds are achieved, both gain or lose points. So the game ending just means it is time for the final tally. Naturally, the earlier the castle is breached, the more points the attacker will have. The other ways of gaining or losing points are also much related to how well the attacker and defender have done. E.g. bonus score for attacker when breaching more than one wall, bonus score for defender for keeping the honour guards at their post (i.e. not using them to fight at the walls).

Game setup for a 3 player game. Two attackers, one for the left side and one for the right. Fighters and weapons can only be assigned to your own side, except for the battering ram at the castle gate, where both attackers can send fighters.

These phase cards show what can be done by the attackers at each phase, and the costs. Some phases have multiple cards, and you randomly pick one to play as part of game setup. This introduces some variety from game to game. Not all of the attacker's weapons / actions / magical spells are available in every game.

The victory points board. Black books are VPs for the attacker, white books for the defender. The attacker starts with 10 black books, and at the end of each round if the castle has not been breached one of them is flipped over to the white book side and given to the defender. This puts pressure on the attacker to breach the castle as soon as possible. The pictures along the edges show the various deeds that can be done to gain / lose victory points.

The defender's actions are all paid for by time - the defender's only currency. The defender gains this currency whenever the attacker does something - building siege engines, casting magic spells, marching troops etc. This is an interesting mechanism. It means the more effort the attacker spends on preparing for battle, the more time the defender also gains to prepare counter-measures. So the attacker needs to make sure he fully utilises his resources and not give the defender more time unnecessarily. The defender needs to be careful to preserve his fighters, because unlike the attacker, he has a limited number of fighters. Only one wall breach will cause the castle to fall, so the defender needs to address every single threat at the walls. After each attacker phase, any time collected by the defender must be spent immediately, so the defender needs to be careful how they are spent. The various equipment / activities that time can be spent on can only be used once per round, so where to use it is an important decision for the defender too. Once used, it will only be available next round.

The game starts with a build-up / preparation stage, where the attacker decides what weapons to build, where to deploy them, where to mount attacks, and the defender needs to prepare counter-measures accordingly. Eventually attackers and defenders will clash at the walls. The attackers are under time pressure to breach the walls (the game lasts at most 10 rounds), while the defenders have to manage their limited resources to try to hold on for dear life as long as possible.

My catapult (round yellow token), with its deck of cards. When a catapult is built, the deck is constructed with 5 miss cards and 2 hit cards. When attacking, you draw a card to see whether you hit. If it is a miss, it is discarded. If it is a hit, it is shuffled back in. This means catapults will become more and more accurate as the game progresses.

Allen's side of the board. He had ballistae, which killed defenders, as opposed to my catapults which damaged walls. In the foreground, that square yellow token with five white skulls was played by Han the defender. This was a trap which would kill all (white) goblins that marched along this path.

The Play

I have played two games so far. The first game had Han being the defender, and Allen and I being the attackers. We made some big rule mistakes, which distorted the game significantly, so although Allen and I won, it was a hollow victory. Throughout the game we didn't even expect to win at all, because we were doing so poorly. We couldn't get our monsters onto the walls quickly enough and were eventually penalised for overcrowding our camp. We later realised we had played the movement rules wrong, causing a traffic jam. Quite a number of times Allen and I told each other that we felt like we were the pitiful defenders, as any fighters that we managed to send up kept getting wiped out by Han. What allowed us to win was the other big rule mistake regarding the battering ram. We breached the castle by ramming through the three layers of gates. The rule mistake was we we assigned more monsters to the battering ram than was allowed. So despite Han's marksmen shooting at the battering ram pushers, whenever one pusher died, another was immediately available to take his place. This made the battering ram unstoppable.

This being our first game, we the attackers learned quite a number of things the hard way. There is much variety in the weapons, magic powers and other special abilities. None of them are complex by themselves, but since there are many, a new player can easily forget about some of them. I had forgotten about the cauldron of goblin poison, and had a bunch of my goblins killed when I foolishly sent them to a wall which still had a vacant spot for goblin poison. The traps that Han placed on the various paths on my side of the board also greatly restricted the movements of my goblins, more or less neutralising them.

Our (attackers) effort felt rather futile. It seemed that whatever we do, Han would then apply the appropriate counter-measure to stop us. I guess this was partly due to how we had misplayed the movement rules, and also because we were not making the most of our actions. I think we needed to coordinate our attacks better. Every action done should have a purpose and not be an attack for the sake of attacking. Well, it was our first game so we were still experimenting.

Our overmanned battering ram in our first game. We should not have been allowed to deploy that red troll here as a backup pusher. Han had 4 white marksmen in the two towers shooting at our fighters.

Red cubes are strength 3, green 2, white 1. Walls (grey sticks) count as strength 1 for the defender. I had played that big red token with a white square in the middle. This boosted my (white) goblins to strength 3 but would kill them. However Han played the goblin poison cauldron (white cylinder) which killed all my goblins before they could fight. Epic fail...

Wooden walls (brown sticks) could be added to increase the wall strength.

My second game was a 2-player game against Han. I still wanted to play attacker, this time with the correct rules. I was probably a bit too conservative. I hesitated to send fighters up to attack, because I knew that if I didn't have the numbers, the fighters that I sent up would get wiped out easily. So I preferred to hold back and build up more before launching the attacks. It was only Round 7 or 8 that we had a proper fight at the walls. The delay was also partly due to me sending fighters to man the battering ram. I did have good strong attacks at quite a number of walls. However Han managed to hold on by using the Unearthly Glare special ability to freeze fighting at one wall section where I had the best attackers, and then assigning his men to defend the other walls under attack.

I only managed to breach the castle using the battering ram in Round 10, the last round. I guess that is a small consolation for me. I least I did breach the castle. Han won 17:10. We did a rough calculation. For the attacker to win, he probably needs to breach the castle around Round 7 or 8. I still don't have a good, coherent attack strategy. I need to play this more to do better.

This was my second game. No fighting at the walls yet. I was amassing my fighters before ordering them to rush to the walls at the same time. The blue round token with a golden bow and arrow allowed my (white) goblins to shoot Han's (white) marksmen, so by now he had transferred his marksmen elsewhere and assigned (green) soldiers instead to guard these two walls.

I only manned my battering ram after fully building it. I manned it with four orcs (2 hit points) and two trolls (3 hit points). Han's four (white) marksmen could only cause 4 points of damage per round, so I could let two orcs take the hits, and still have the remaining fighters inflict 4 points of damage to the castle gate, because I would still have 4 manned battering ram sections.

The two red round tokens with a skull and a green arrow in the foreground are my no-traps tokens. They prevented Han from placing traps along these two paths. I only had 3 such tokens, so it was impossible to protect all paths.

Fighting finally broke out. I had lots of (green) orcs storming the walls. Han had (red) veterans and (green) soldiers defending the walls, plus also the Warrior (green cylinder) who added to the strength of the fighters at that wall section. Han had two cannons here (yellow round tokens), but cannons could not target fighters already at the walls. They could only shoot at fighters further away.

All four wall sections were under attack. The big red round tokens with white question marks are special ability tokens. They are placed face-down so the defender won't know which is which. There is one token each which give special abilities to the attacker's goblins, orcs and trolls respectively, and two dummy tokens which are used for misleading the attacker.

Things were very quiet on the other side of the castle. Han had many marksmen here, and I didn't have enough fighters to assign here. If I only sent a few fighters, they would all be shot dead before they reached the walls. So, I didn't bother sending any.

The whole castle.

The battering ram was now at the 3rd and last gate.

That long white bar is the Unearthly Glare token, which Han used to freeze fighting at this wall section. I had 4 trolls (strength 3) and an orc (strength 2), and they all just stood around stupidly, confused by the spotlights from the heavens. What a waste!

The Thoughts

Stronghold is very thematic, rich and detailed, despite using mostly Eurogame mechanisms. There are no dice; battles are deterministic. So it is very much about how to outsmart and outmanoeuvre your opponent. The luck element is low. There is luck in the card draw in some weapons firing. There is luck in what fighter type the attacker gains at the start of a round, but the number of fighters is fixed. And that's it. Because of how battles are deterministic, over-analysis may bog down the game.

To play well it is important to be able to plan ahead and to anticipate what your opponent may do. It is important to make good use of your resources, and to have a coherent and efficient approach. When taking an action, you need to consider whether you are creating a weakness that your opponent can exploit, and whether the action can be easily countered by your opponent. There is a bit of a game of chicken when you prepare for the battle. When you commit, e.g. building a catapult at a particular wall section, your opponent will know where to apply counter-measures. However if you don't commit, you may be wasting your resources and wasting time. Both sides hope to get the other side to commit first, so that it will be easier to plan counter-measures or workarounds.

I have a feeling that playing the attacker will be more interesting, because there is more freedom to plan and strategise. The defender seems to mostly need to react to what the attacker is doing, and there are less opportunities to take initiative.

Don't be intimidated by the many components. They add much to the thematic feel of the game. The game flow is quite simple. Although there are many small rules, they are all thematic and none of them are complex by themselves. I think you need to play the game 3 or 4 times to fully appreciate it. You need to be able to digest the various small rules first, before you can strategise well and use your actions efficiently.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

Finally, a Stronghold review. :) I'm getting this game by the end of the month, but I'd like to know your opinion on the scalability. Since this game is mainly for 2 players and only have 2 sides to play with:

- How was your 3 players game went?How's the experience?
- How does it compared with your 2 players game?

Regards
Damien

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

The 3P game (rules mistakes aside) went quite well. Attacker side being played by two players meant some restrictions imposed on us, e.g. we could only manage our own side of the castle. We also needed to coordinate between ourselves well in order to be effective in our attacks. I have only played 2 games, which I think is insufficient to get a full grasp of the game, but based on my initial impressions I think the 3P game is as good as the 2P game.

Cecrow said...

I love the look of this game, and the powerful theme. Have always enjoyed this sort of scenario when it crops up in other games (eg War of the Ring), it's a perfect one to make the focus of a game all in itself.

Warhammer39999 said...

Have you gone back and played this again? I just picked it up after hearing about it on the d6generation, and we played it three times, but it seemed horribly lopsided in favor of the attackers. In our three games, we breached on turns 6, 4, and then on turn 8 (after goofing around). There has to be something we're doing wrong, but I can't for the life of me figure out what it is.

Warhammer39999 said...

Whoops, forgot to sign up for follow-on comments.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Unfortunately I have not revisited Stronghold since the first few plays. In those games that I did play, it was the defenders who seemed to have an advantage. But the defender player was a strong player, so maybe it's just that I was a poor attacker. :-) One mistake that we made was overstaffing the battering ram. You cannot assign more fighters there than there are slots. Maybe one way to check whether you missed any rule is to check how you breached the castle.

Warhammer39999 said...

I've heard from multiple sources that the defender had the advantage, so that's why I'm scratching my head. As for how the attackers won, it was generally a cause of killing the archers with our goblins/ballistas, and then winning through various methods (the quicker kills were with the battering ram, but we also breached the walls normally). I'll see if I can't dig up some help from BGG, thanks for the reply.

P.S. You sir, have a tremendous game collection. I'm amazed.

Anonymous said...

I have played this game 3 times, I was the attacker each time. I think the defender is completely overpowered to the point where I didn't enjoy the game. Defender archers can shoot anyone but attacker archers can only shoot other archers. Since the Defender can move his people anywhere anytime archers are useless. Special orders are also useless since the defender can nullify them. It is nearly impossible to attack multiple walls at once so even if you place them in secret he can easily guess which one you are going to use. The attacker has to give up units to build anything and the defender gets time tokens so its like the defender gets a double penalty for every action. The catapults have mostly miss cards so they usually don't hit anything whereas the defender gets mostly hit cards for his cannons and he has a much larger firing range. The differences go on and on to the point where I felt anything I did was futile. Pass.

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

Maybe try playing the defender and see whether the game feels unbalanced. I still have not revisited this game myself. I don't remember it feeling too lopsided.