Thursday, 2 August 2012

Stronghold first impressions

Stronghold is a board game covering a desperate battle between an invading host of orcs, goblins and trolls on one side and the human defenders of a castle on the other side. The eventual outcome is not really in doubt as the defenders can not get any reinforcements, but there is glory to be found in a quick victory for the attackers or a drawn-out defence for the humans.

Defender forces in starting positions. White squares are marksmen, green are soldiers. There are no veterans at the start. The red and green circular markers are the officer and warrior, two special defender units.
 The game can be played with 2-4 people, for our first game it was myself as the defender and my good friend Roberts as the attacker. Unlike a game like chess, the board, pieces and possible actions in Stronghold are asymmetrical. Defenders have the protection of high walls and strong gates, with various specialised buildings for assisting the defence. They use hourglasses generated by attacker activity to complete those actions.

The attacker has an off-board supply (where new units are drawn every turn), a camp (where units go if they are not used for something), two foregrounds where they arrive for battle and several ramparts where they move to attack the walls. The foregrounds, ramparts and walls on each side of the board are connected together but units cannot cross from one side of the board to the other.

Stronghold comes with two 20-page rulebooks, two boards, over 240 unit cubes, various tiles and more than 100 cards. This can be quite daunting even to veteran gamers, however the rules do a good job in illustrating what each piece is for and how it all fits together. There is also a basic game variant which uses only a subset of the possible invader actions, meaning that it is not necessary to immediately master all aspects of the game.

One weakness to be aware of is that the turn order overview on page 2 fails to mention an important point: the defender gets two hourglasses and one stone wall section each turn. This is only mentioned on page 7 under hourglasses and actions. It would have been useful to have a printed reminder on the phase 1 card for this as it is easy to overlook in the rules or to forget during game play. At a guess, people who report that the invader has it too easy has probably missed this rule.

Having navigated the rules and figured out which pieces go where, the next step for us was to remove the stuff that isn't needed for a 2-player basic game. This included the haste tile, all trebuchet and siege tower markers, the battering ram components, many tiles for rituals, training and equipment and a lot of phase cards. Doing this really cut down on the confusion level and I'd recommend everybody to do this as step one.

A variety of markers used in the basic game: the defender has placed a pole and a cannon (both yellow) and the green circular marker is an orc cauldron. The red shield, banners and bridge are invader equipment. The swirly marker is a gale ritual and there is a cover protecting the rampart (top right). Two trolls are on the wall section and about to fight two soldiers and the Warrior special unit.
One note here - the phase cards of the basic game identifies the actions available to the invader, however the summary on the back of the invader rulebook fails to highlight those same actions. It would have been helpful to have a star marking the basic game actions in the same was as they cards are marked.

The camp cards are also insufficiently distinct and caused a minor amount of confusion initially. A clear '2 player' or '4 player' mark would have been appreciated although it wasn't hard to figure out which card was right for us.

Setting up the game was very easy. The board is helpfully marked with colour-coded dots that indicate where each unit goes. A minor inconsistency is that there are no equivalent marks on the glory board for the 10 glory initially given to the invader.

Play then proceeded with the invader drawing phase one units and resources, after which nothing happened for a long time. This is one of the quirks of the game as the player is confronted with limited resources which are to be used over the next five phases and even a seemingly simple choice such as 'do you want sacrifice a unit to get additional resources' leads to immediate analysis paralysis for an inexperienced player.

If you are the defender, you may want to go get drinks and snacks. Experience will no doubt reduce the amount of delay here, but at least as far as the first game was concerned 'fast paced' would not be an accurate description. This is unfortunate because a large part of the defender tactics are reactive, meaning that you can't really do much planning of your own.

Once this hurdle had been cleared, each phase proceeded with reasonable speed. Actions used up resources and units for the invader while generating hourglasses for the defender. The latter were then used up by the defender in various ways to counter the threats posed by the invader. As the defender must use all hourglasses after each phase, there is a constant back-and-forth exchange of activity. This compares favourably with games that had massively long turns for each player.

Defender has placed two cauldrons, a wooden wall, a troll trap and a cannon as well as moved a veteran and a soldier to the courtyard, ready to reinforce any wall section. One stone wall has been destroyed (lower left)
 There is no fog of war so all pieces are always known, with the only uncertainties arising from drawing hit or miss cards for siege machines and from the unit draw at the start of each turn. Tension therefore mostly arises from the creation of multiple threats and the limited resources available to counter them. The stakes are high as a single breach will win the game for the invader, leaving no margin for mistakes.

For a breakdown of each phase, see the next post in the series.

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