Hands-On: Stronghold: Warlords

It can be really hard to show off a strategy game in any sort of demo form, simply because strategy games are usually lengthy affairs that require elaborate tutorials just to get you up to speed. That’s not a bad thing, but it means that most of these games rather defy the ability to just drop you down into something in the middle of the game and have you go to town.

Obviously, it’s in a developer’s best interests to try just the same, which is where I wind up with Stronghold: Warlords. The demo that I got to try out was, yes, very much built to be shown off at a demo station, quite possibly with an associated handout to explain how things were supposed to work and what controls to use. This was in the comfort of my own home, however, meaning that there was no such handout; there was me, sitting here and doing my best to figure out how it works.

Fortunately, this is not my first rodeo. Unfortunately, it was very clear from a glance that this was a rather complex rodeo, and it was being performed on animals I did not recognize with functions that were unfamiliar.

In the big picture, Stronghold: Warlords is the latest in the Stronghold series, which is billed as a castle simulation and strategy game. You take control of your castle, manage it effectively, and then send your troops off to deal with enemy castles or other threats while fending off your own attacks. Warlords adds in a new feature in the form of AI Warlords flanking your territory, whom you can diplomatically engage with.

The demo in question pits you in one corner of the map with two unaffiliated warlords and one working with your main target, who has three walls standing between your troops and him. Thus, your goal is clear; get to the enemy lord and insert a pointy bit of metal into his breathy bits. As you do.

Of course, to do that you’ll be best served by getting yourself some allies. And this is one of the first thing the demo asks you to do, by demanding loyalty from one of the unaffiliated lords and then getting reinforcements with gunpowder siege sent over to your castle.

This is not a complex interaction. Diplomacy raises naturally over time, and you spend it to demand loyalty, then to enhance or request items from the other leaders. For example, you can spend Diplomacy to ask your ally to send an attack against your enemy, but you don’t actually control the attack… which makes it a useful way to send out someone else to soak up attacks when you really want to get your siege into place.

Of course, there’s also a lot more complexity at play at the same time. It took me a bit of fumbling around, for example, to find the option that actually allowed me to build additional military units. That’s not a fault of the game, exactly, just the nature of the strategy game; as mentioned before, these are complex machines with lots of moving parts. Coming in cold, I was sort of flailing about and wound up losing lots of troops when I didn’t need to.

In fact, there’s a lot of stuff that isn’t quite clear from this demo alone. For example, rice (food for your people, naturally) is a resource to manage. But I’m not sure how much management you need to do. Indeed, most of the work of resource management seems to have been automated for the demo… but I’m not sure if that’s because the demo didn’t want you concerned with it or if it usually just hums along with some pretty basic prep work. Both are conceivable.

My suspicion is that if I were familiar with the prior games, this would be clearer to me. Alas, I am not, and also going back through those would kind of be beyond the scope of this hands-on.

Fortunately, based on what is actually on display for this demo, it’s more of a trivia question than a vital concern. Whether you normally need to do more prep work or not, the castle you have here is positioned with just one point of access, and you can thus start getting a handle on the specific quirks of the game. For example, “construction times” aren’t a thing. Choose a building, choose where you want it, there it is. Want some troops? They pop right out. The slowdown comes entirely from having the resources to make more, not from waiting around once you have the resources.

Once you get to the point of having fun storming the castle, of course, you have a lot of options. Attacking doesn’t seem to be a matter of just marching up and clicking “attack,” with various units having different ways to deploy. The gunpowder siege engines are powerful at blowing down walls, for example, but they’re slow-moving, and if they get attacked they’ll blow up. (This is bad for everything around them, like if you had them parked in the middle of your castle, for example.) Horseback archers are great for making hit-and-run attacks, but not so much for breaking through castle walls. Archers up on towers are tough to approach slowly. You get the idea.

The result is… honestly a bit more complex than I could suss out entirely over the course of a 20-minute demo. It requires a very different framework of thinking from other RTS games; a lot of games try to make sure that a range of units is useful, but this one definitely plays in hard to the idea that each unit is meant to do something specific rather than serve multiple functions.

You also have a fair number of things you can do; for example, your troops can attempt to climb towers to take on archers perched therein, or you can try to topple the tower and deal with them that way, depending on your troop composition. Your troops can move aggressively or defensively depending on your situation, and you can opt between multiple different formations.

How effective is all this? I can’t tell you that yet. Again, it’s a brief demo that’s chiefly showing off the grand sweep of the gameplay. What I can say is that it definitely succeeds in painting a picture of a game with its own sort of cadence and speed. It’s too little hands-on time to be certain that the final product will be good, but it certainly managed to pique my interest.

And if you like the idea of managing a half-dozen resources and the fine details of individual buildings within your personal stronghold, well, this game leaves just about everything else for dead. Just be prepared to pay close attention to the tutorials.

Stronghold: Warlords is slated for release at some point in 2020 on Steam.

Preview copy provided by Firefly Studios for PC. Screenshots courtesy of Firefly Studios.