A Helm’s Deep Simulator
For all those who watched The Two Towers and thought they could do a better job of defending Helm’s Deep — and all those of us who were black-hearted enough to think the same thing but in favor of the Uruk-hai — the sparkled-up second edition of Stronghold is your game. It’s got humans. Orcs. A desperate battle to either hold out until the eighth hour or claim the fortress before reinforcements arrive. The only real difference is that both sides are competent.
Want to competently defend a medieval keep? Step One: Use more than arrows.
Possibly the best thing about Stronghold is its stubborn determination to provide as many tools as possible to accomplish your goal, regardless of whether you’re the orcish invaders or the plucky human holdouts. Let’s say you’re on the offensive, but the “good guys” have been using marksmen to great effect, bringing down your trolls before they lumber to the walls. Well, there’s a cure for that. A few of them, actually. You could set up mantlets at your main staging areas, which are basically just gigantic wooden shields. Voilà — or, in orc-tongue, gnashRUUG — no more arrows. Or you could use ballistas to skewer those archers right off their perch, provided you’re okay with a few goblins giving their lives in service of your dark lordship.
Walls getting you down? Why not try returning the favor? Trebuchets and catapults can crush their stones to dust, though they generally take a while to home in on their target. Or, if your guys are getting baked by cauldrons of scalding oil, why not just ride forward aboard a siege tower? There are magical rituals to cast, adding dashes of chaos all over the fortress, ladders and sappers and bridges and poison—
And all the while, the defenders aren’t slouches either. They’re busy cobbling together new defenses, like scaffoldings for loading extra guys onto the walls, cannons for blasting orcs from afar, and jabby poles for poking down at incoming enemies. Too many rocks being lobbed your way? Send out sabotage crews. The enemy has been relying too much on a single devastating option? Raid it to make it harder for them to use. Your wall is breached and you don’t stand a chance of holding back the green tide? Have your wizard pull a Gandalf and blind the enemy for a round.
Best of all, while this grab-bag of different options does require that both players front-load quite a few rules in order to understand how to counter each other’s moves, everything is handled with gratifying intuition. In essence, it all comes down to time. Action by action, the attacker rallies his forces, constructs equipment, conducts rituals, marshals his soldiers down into the ditches and ramparts — all the little details of overseeing a siege — and then, for every minute of time spent, passes hourglass tokens to the defender, who then spends them on repairs, training, moving heroes between danger spots, and so forth. The result is a wonderfully herky-jerky tempo that veers wildly between ominous tubas and heroic trumpets. A new siege machine is built; the defenders repair a wall. An orcish war banner is raised over the western gate; some soldiers are trained to fight more effectively. A trench is dug to avoid cannon fire; goblin-killing traps are positioned along the enemy’s main approach. It’s a system that allows for both slow-burning tension and dynamic reversals of fortune, such as when the defender begins investing in a long-term project only for the invader to skip most of his actions and go straight onto the attack.
After the invader has had his fill of preparing for war — and once the defender has hopefully not squandered what little time she was given — the assault begins in earnest. There’s a good bit of calculation involved, all of it simple addition problems: “My two spearmen plus a marksman plus another marksman in the adjacent bay window, plus the weaker hero,” versus “One troll plus a war banner plus a bunch of goblins with a rampaging bonus, and an extra orc on the ladder,” and so forth across the two, four, six, however many sections of wall are being assaulted that round. It isn’t quite as compelling as the stormy-skies uncertainty of the buildup, but it manages to be tense all the same thanks to the fact that the invader only has to get past the beleaguered defenders in a single spot. If they manage that, it’s game over, bye bye city.
The assaults are doubly exciting because every little change has far-reaching implications. When a siege weapon fires at a wall and misses, that means that its little deck of accuracy cards just increased their chances of landing hits later on. When a cannon blasts a massed group of greenskins from afar, that means it might have taken down the same troll that would have been called forward into the breach a few seconds later. When a clutch of spearmen valiantly fall in defense of their home, that means most of them won’t be available next round. Every blunted blade or chinked armor might mean victory or defeat on the next push, or the next, or the next.
I never played the original edition of Stronghold, so I can’t attest to what has changed in this iteration. All I can say is that this is tight, tight, tight stuff. The opposing force always seems overpowering, no matter which side you’re on. As the squishy humans, you’ll see a pack of trolls waddling around to a lesser-defended wall and wonder how in the heavens you’re supposed to hold on for four more rounds. As the orcs, you’ll watch wave after wave crash and break on the castle stones and desperately search through your action cards for new tricks.
Perhaps most importantly, the game’s total commitment to its asymmetrical approach means that it absolutely nails the feeling of its setting, for both the invaders and defenders. Playing one feels entirely different from playing the other, and even though the game easily consumes two hours, they’re both interesting enough that it’s hard to only play one side in a sitting. That’s if your heart can handle it; mine often can’t. And if I had to identify a major downside for the game, it’s that I just about go into cardiac arrest every time I play it.