28 April 2018

Stronghold (1st ed.) board game review

Some time ago I read that Stronghold was like playing a "Helms deep" simulator - and it is. For those with little to no knowledge of Lord of the Rings, you have a siege with a dwindling number of defenders trying to survive long enough against impossible odds as wave after wave of attackers crash against your walls.

The game is primarily meant to be played by two players, but can be played with two teams of two players each. One side plays the human defenders, using archers, warriors and a few veterans led by two commanders manning the walls. The human defender tries to slow down the attacker by volleys of arrows, cannon fire, setting up traps along the paths to the walls, using hooks to knock down ladders and attempting to train up the combat level of his few soldiers to make them better. The pool of human defenders is very small, and if you level up an archer to a warrior - then you will have one archer less. Walls are strengthened with both additional layers of stone as well as improves log barricades. 

The attacker receives a random assortment of 14 goblins/orcs/trolls at the beginning of each turn. Several steps of the game beginning with gathering additional resources (wood), then building siege engines, performing magic rituals, moving troops on the board towards the walls and finally attacking with whatever you can trying to create a breach where you have at least one attacker left while the defender has no men defending a broken wall section.

What I really like of the game is how both sides are balanced in their actions. The attacker sets the pace, that is true, but the more actions and preparations the attacker performs, the more time the defender gets to prepare counter measures each turn. And however you end up doing your turn as the attacker, whether spending most of your newly arrived troops on building catapults, training commanders, creating shields and banners - or simply ignoring all the building steps and simply sending forth a horde of  crazed attackers - the defender still gets to react with enough actions of his own to make your attack difficult.

This balance is based around the so called "time tokens". Everything the attacker does during each step of each turn, gives the defender time tokens. Are you gathering more wood? The defender gets 1-3 time tokens. Are you building a siege engine? More time tokens for the defender. Equipping your attackers with shields, banners or casting magic rituals? Time tokens for the defender please! Did you ignore all building steps, then the remaining units need to enter the siege area of the board and slowly start their slog towards the walls. The more units you put on the board the more time tokens the defender gets!

On the opposite side, the defender attempts to use time tokens to enhance the defenses of the castle, setting up traps and artillery, moving units around on wall sections, training soldier experience and in other ways messing with the attacker.

Combat in the game is divided between using cards for siege engines and artillery, and using simple match where you compare combat strength of the attacker and defender when fighting on the walls. Attacking siege engines start with a small deck of 7 cards each, (5 miss and 2 hits). When firing each turn the attacker draws a card from each stack of attacking catapults, ballista's or trebuchets. If a miss is drawn, the card is discarded - symbolizing that the attackers aim gets better as the siege goes on. If a hit is drawn, you apply the damage from the siege engine, which could be knocking down parts of a wall, or killing one of the defending soldiers, sometimes both! The hit card is then shuffled back into the deck.

The defender uses a special attack deck of his own, marked with colors matching the different cubes of orcs, goblins and trolls. You target a section of the board and draw a card, if you draw a card and there is a cube matching the color - the attacking unit is killed. 

Traps kill a set number of attackers of a particular kind, each time the attacking player moves troops along a path with traps. This may divert some types of troops the attacker is sending, but sometimes the attacker may as well sacrifice a couple of his units just move along path anyway.

One the walls are reached you count the combat strength of the attacker and defender. White cubes are worth 1, green are worth 2, red are worth 3. Wall sections add additional strength to the defending side, and commanders can also boost strength or kill some attackers outright during the combat phase. Once you count the strength of both  sides, the losing side must kill units of equal strength matching the combat difference. If you lose by 3 points as the attacker you may for instance remove/kill 3 goblins or 1 troll. Obviously, as the attacker, you must soften up the resistance by knocking down walls, and also attempt at overwhelming the attacker with attacks on many wall sections so that the defender can't focus his strength in one place. Fortunately, you can also prepare orders for your various troop types, such as preparing explosives for orcs so that they can blow up wall sections, or whipping up goblins to become blood crazed and greatly increase their combat value for a single turn (before they die of exhaustion).

To reach the walls the attacker must also navigate several spaces on the board, that can only hold a limited number of troops. As you get close to the walls, the path narrows, and you can't move with as many units as you would want. Often you need at least 2 turns to build up a good strength at the wall.

This may not sound that difficult for the attacker as the goal of the game is to break through the walls, which you will do eventually. The difficulty of the game lies in breaking through the walls fast enough. 

Stronghold has a sliding victory track with glory points moving from the attacking side to the defender at the start of each turn if the defender still holds the walls. The attacker starts with 10 glory, and will lose 1 point each turn. The defender also starts with additional glory points that can be sacrificed in exchange for "desperate measures" to get additional time tokens. In turn the attacker, can get additional points fulfilling various "achievements", such as attacking 7 wall sections at the same time, having 4 trolls attacking a single wall section and so on. The additional victory points become very important for the attacker to balance the glory points lost each turn.

In the end the attacker will force the walls, but if the defender has more glory points on the  victory track, the defender still wins the game. There are a lot of other small things I have not mentioned, variants of cards and all the various traps and equipment pieces you can build, but by now you know how the game works in general.

My final thoughts.

Stronghold is a great 2-player game. However, it is a game where both players need to have the same experience level to fully enjoy the game. This can be difficult to achieve with new players, only becomes possible after a few playthroughs using the same role. Caroline and I played this game about 4 times before we fully understood all the possibilities. I played the attacker in all games, and she played the defender in all games. In our 4th game, things ran like clockwork - we knew how the cards worked, how the special abilities worked and how to efficiently play the game.  The first games, while fun, were a bit of a struggle. The rules are divided between two rulebooks, one for each side. Some things were difficult to understand and required you figuring it out during play. What we noticed is that the game can also suffer from "analysis paralysis", mostly on the defenders part as their options are much more restricted as they are both tied to, and rely on, the time tokens provided by the attacking player actions. The attacking side can plan a strategy and if you know what you want to achieve each turn, it can be a fast process on putting cubes on actions or pushing units around the board. The defender must figure out your intentions, try to call your bluffs, react to your attacks and prepare for the next turn. In many ways the defender has more to think about each turn.

Despite all that, I really like the game. It's also a solid 2-player experience. I own the 1st edition of the game, which I purchased from a used games group on facebook. After purchasing the game I was made aware of there being a second edition. Supposedly the second edition has streamlined a couple of things, and some components are more pretty (mainly units) - but I've read mixed things about the second edition and I have never played it either so I can't compare or recommend one or the other. I can only speak for 1st edition and say that I like the game and if you want a solid 2-player game then you should give Stronghold a try.

Final score 7,5 out of 10

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