It occurred to me fairly early on in my time with Stronghold: Warlords that I wasn’t really all that au fait with Asian siege warfare. It’s not as prominent in the cultural consciousness as European Medieval Warfare – after all, Firefly Studios‘ Stronghold series started in this era, and managed to eke seven games out of it, including with two set during the Crusades, in the sandy deserts of the Middle-east.
The change of locale brings with it a light change in some mechanics, but this is still Stronghold. Missions see you build castles, build forces, and either survive waves of enemies, or take out an opposing law. As much as the details change, the surface remains the same, but some of those details do add interesting texture.
As an example, one change is from the staple food of bread, to rice. It sounds like a banal change, but having rice be such a basic staple changes the pressures that logistics had in prior Stronghold games. Early entries that featured bread as a staple food, required you to plant wheat fields, build multiple granaries and bakeries, then have them all working together in unison to make sure you had an ample supply of bread. Rice is just rice. You place paddies down, and you farm it. It takes a little while to get going, but there’s no supply chain.
At a base level, this means getting your settlements up and running is easier, but it also causes issues that when you’ve got enough resources to ensure you are filling bellies, there isn’t much work needed to maximise efficiency, and economic tinkering doesn’t appear to have much depth to it.
Matters are complicated by the tax system however, which sees you turning the screws on your population’s purses whilst increasing rations and improving housing quality in order to keep them happy. Whilst the simplicity of food production isn’t too challenging, ensuring you’re getting the most out of your populace for the least amount of effort is definitely where the meat of the challenge is.
Everything about this is handled by a very simple – some would say outdated – UI but it’s nice to be able to instantly glance at a number in red and know you need to increase production, or see a big green smiling face, and know your populace is happy.
It ends up being fairly helpful, as most of your time will be spent futzing around the map working out your diplomacy, and applying military pressure where needed. The titular Warlords system adds a wrinkle of complexity that’s welcome: each map is populated with various Warlords with animal epithets. Each one gives a bonus, and can be conquered via military might, or through the expenditure of Diplomacy points, which are generated through expensive buildings in your castle.
The Mouse warlord will be able to give you rice in exchange for diplomacy points when conquered, and will improve the speed of your rice farmers – he’s easy to conquer through military pressure, but resistant to diplomacy. The Tiger will buff melee attack numbers, and for a lump sum of diplomacy, will send an army at a target of your choosing, but taking him over will require a lot of troops or a hefty amount of diplomacy directed his way.
Having these bastions on the map is interesting because it lets you see the real-time effect of the power struggle between you and your opponent, who will inevitably spawn small armies to go after Warlords that are neutral, or that you’ve taken back. The tug of war is satisfying, especially when you steal a key Warlord to give yourself the buff you need to leapfrog their progress.
Other times they are part of a simple puzzle you need to tackle in order to beat a timed challenge: one mission saw me needing to hold out for a month as a flood forced my opponent out of a city. In between us was a well defended castle held by the Turtle, and on my flank economic Warlords got on with their duties. By rushing the Turtle with diplomacy I was able to put a wedge in-between us, and build up my defences in peace before his final push.
Missions make use of these Warlords well, often tasking you with taking them before tackling your main opponent, and then giving you free reign on how to best approach this. Sadly combat is let down by sluggish units and poor AI. It takes a long time to build an army – like with food, each weapon needs to be made and stored – and even longer to get them into position.
It isn’t rare for them there to stand around doing nothing, even when in their aggressive stance, or to see archers wander blindly into enemy troops whilst single mindedly trying to route towards a specific target you’ve set. Sieging is also let down a little by there just not being quite as visceral as its Medieval counterparts. You’ll still be using mangonels and ladders to tackle walls and towers, but the lack of focus on moats, murder holes, and pouring hot pitch onto pikemen make it all a little less bombastic than it’s Western set precursors.
Presentation wise, Warlord isn’t the prettiest game in the world, but it is clear and functional. It’s always a joy in Real Time Strategy games to usher your wee guys around, and if they were a tad quicker, and a little smarter it wouldn’t feel quite so middle of the road. One nice touch is how everyone is a named character, including your peasants, and even your pigs: later on you’ll gain access to explosive oxen that you send on suicide runs against troops who have names like Medium Rare and Generalisimoo.
In the end, Stronghold: Warlords isn’t doing a whole lot to differentiate itself from the pack. It’s comforting, and fairly plain, like the staple food of rice really. It needs more flavours, but there isn’t a huge amount of tactical seasoning on offer here. The Warfare and Economic campaigns are fun, though the latter features more combat than I’d like, but I wanted something more by the time I was done.
For those so inclined, there are harder difficulty modes, and the option to dip into online multiplayer to challenge real people in a race to efficiency, but the core mechanics of the game seem too streamlined to give this title real longevity – which isn’t so bad, you’ll get a good 20 hours out of the campaigns at least, and probably another hour chuckling at the names of all your pigs and oxen.
‘Stronghold: Warlords’ is now available on PC and Mac.
Strongholds: Warlords is a simple, but fun RTS game that transports its medieval siege warfare to Asia with mixed results. Some core mechanics have been simplified for the worse, and control of units feels as clunky as ever, but the whole package is entertaining, and the Warlords feature adds some nuance that keeps missions engaging.
- Warlords feature adds new tactical angles to each mission
- Attention to detail makes building your castle and force charming
- A fresh aesthetic for the series keeps things novel
- Simplicity of resource changes takes depth out of the economic game
- Armies are still tough and awkward to control
- Asian setting doesn’t lend itself brilliantly to siege warfare
- Graphics are a little underwhelming