Those of you who know me and my reviews over the years have seen me gush over the Stronghold series many times, both here at GiN and in The Washington Post. There is something really satisfying about building up your kingdom from scratch, plotting every field, orchard, hovel, inn and industry within your village. Building a massive castle to protect your realm and stocking it with troops and traps is just icing on the cake. Of course it’s nice to march out and destroy those lovely castles that other people have put together as well.
Giving players the ability to design levels for that series of core games was a great idea, and really extended the gameplay value. However, in the end, the main game was always the same. Every few years I would go back and play the original Stronghold, either using my disks to install the game or downloading a copy from Steam, and it was fun, though it got a bit predictable.
So I was overjoyed to find that the Stronghold series was being reborn as an online only game, and one that was free to play no less. The whole thing is still in beta at the moment, but don’t let that stop you from jumping in and having a good time. Everything seems to be working properly, with only a few things needing a tweak here and there.
You start out as a lowly peasant, well, actually you start out as a village idiot and have to earn the rank of peasant, but you get the idea. You are given a tiny plot of land in the middle of a forest, one small dot in a huge world. You are given a few days of protection where you can’t be attacked by other players, though NPC bandits will come calling, so don’t wait to get your castle up and running.
There is a tutorial that walks you though the early steps of getting everything up to speed. It does a good job of helping you start growing food and getting a basic castle up. My one concern is that I think the tutorial needs to do a bit more. At the end of my tutorial I had a bunch of bandits coming at me on the main map, and my guide said something like "I am a coward so I am out of here" and ran off. Thus the tutorial ended before he told me how to fight. I did not know that your central keep would automatically fire at approaching enemies. Without any troops, I thought I was dead. I won that first fight, but could have built a more effective castle had I known more about the logistics. Also, I had no idea how to raise an army, or to trade with my parish capital or many of the things needed to be an effective leader. I had an advantage being a longtime Stronghold player, even though things work a little differently, but someone coming in from scratch may feel lost.
On to gameplay. In the original award-winning game, your castle and your village were basically the same thing. In fact, I would always try to wall off the peasant workers when I could to protect them from wolves and bandits. In the online version of the game, your castle and village are separate screens. In the village you build farms and inns and stone quarries while in the castle you try to put up defensive walls and other buildings to protect the core area in the center. Enemies always attack your castle instead of your village, but if they get through then they can steal your hard-earned honor points.
Some buildings have been simplified for use online, which is good. You used to have to create a chain of buildings to get bread for example. First you needed wheat fields. Then you needed a mill and finally a bakery. In Kingdoms online, you just need to buy one building which contains a field, mill and bakery in one little square. Also, only one peasant is required to work the entire contraption. There is a catch however. First, you need to research wheat fields in a separate menu. Then you need to gather a huge amount of resources to construct the building. Resource gathering is very slow, so you may need to wait a little while.
To be able to research technologies, you need research points. These can be obtained by promoting yourself, which requires honor, or by buying them, which requires gold. Honor is gained by holding banquets, very much like Stronghold II, or by scouting resource caches on the main map which randomly appear. As a bonus, resource caches give you that type of resource when scouted, so it’s a good idea to do that as much as possible. Gold is gotten through taxes, and also by trading items on the local exchange. But to trade, you need merchants, and for that you need a market, the correct technology and lots of wood and stone to build it.
There in lies the biggest problem I think Stronghold Kingdoms will run into if the beta goes forward as is without changes. Free to play online games generally give you a lot of free stuff up-front and then sell items that are a convenience. I think the ratio here is off in that respect. For example, I quickly ran into a situation where I learned about traders and how you can use them to sell goods. But to get one, I needed a market. For that I needed 2,800 stone, and had only a couple hundred in my treasury. I built more quarries, but even then, it would be days before I had what I needed. So I had a rather long wait, or I could play some cards.
I’d only played the game a few days, not nearly long enough to become hooked to the point where I would spend real money. For that, I would need to have built up a grand castle and a thriving town. I just don’t think Firefly is giving players enough of the free stuff to get them to become dedicated players before charging them. Take a game like Warflow, which I play all the time online. That game has a really good balance where you are at level 30 or so before you probably even start to consider purchasing stuff online. I think Stronghold Kingdoms needs to flatten that free/curve play a bit if they want to really get a jump on the massive competition in this market. The more they give initially, the more they will get on the back-end. Right now, there is too much danger that someone will become frustrated with the long wait times to get anything done, and stop playing before they really get into the game, and to the point where they would consider spending money on it. By contrast, once they have built something cool, they will want to defend it, and will spend money to do so.
Despite these nitpicks, Stronghold Kingdoms has a huge advantage over most online strategy games which I think will make it extremely popular. It’s a living world. Most games I play of this type have static cities and towns, and main maps that might as well be drawn on cloth. But here, everything is alive. You see your peasants running around in your cities and towns, trying to fill up your stockpile. You see your scouts racing across the main map trying to get to a resource spot before everyone else. You see armies and merchants moving from town to town and really do feel like you are a part of a robust online kingdom. I’ve never really gotten that feeling with any other game of this type. And those amazingly good songs from the main games, Gregorian chants and all, are part of the atmosphere. They can however be disabled if you happen to playing at work or somewhere that frowns on loud chanting and singing.
Also, you have the power to design things here based on your own imagination. Your town does not fall into little pre-set blocks. You can design it to look however you want. Same with your castle. Do you have an ingenious defensive plan that will confuse and trap defenders? Try it out because anything goes. Your castle and town really are your own. Feel free to experiment with it. That level of control is something many online games will envy, and players will really love.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that Stronghold Kingdoms has the most potential of any game I’ve seen in a very long time to capture a robust, mature audience of appreciative players. The learning curve is steeper here than in most places, but players will get a whole lot more out of it than almost any of the time-waster type games we all play. Kingdoms is a way to waste time for sure, but you will feel quite lordly doing it. And that is pretty priceless.