Stronghold’s Invasion Missions Are Terrible

Stronghold is an RTS from the early 2000s about building and defending a castle. The economy is modeled very closely building-for-building, so you have wheat farms that have to be placed on arable land (often, in motte and bailey fashion, less defensible than non-arable land atop hills or the like), who bring the wheat to mills that grind wheat into flour, which goes to bakers who bake bread that your peasants can eat. To make swordsmen, you need iron mines placed on iron deposits, which are different from stone quarries, and then an armorer to make plate armor and a blacksmith who’s switched to making swords, not maces. This means that the vast majority of buildings in and around your castle are economic buildings.

The details of the economy are totally ahistorical, as the example of full plate armored swordsmen as a staple unit of high-tier lategame armies shows, but the zoomed out vibe is very accurate to building and defending a castle. You want to get as much economic activity as possible inside the walls of the castle, but because certain buildings, especially farms, can only be placed on certain terrain and are also very large, you probably won’t be able to wall them in completely. So you compromise by putting them in the shadow of your walls, within bowshot of nearby towers stuffed with archers or crossbowmen to prevent attacking armies from doing too much damage from them.

And then a fifth of the singleplayer campaign ditches all of that, giving you a big old army and telling you to use it to storm an enemy castle. You have no way to replace lost units, almost nothing to do with any resources you’re given (and you may not be given any), and in one of these invasion missions you’re up against a castle that’s sufficiently well-garrisoned that you cannot hope to win except by exploiting the AI. The missions are both very hard and throw about 80% of the game mecahnics in the garbage. At least when Iron Harvest did this, they had the decency to give me a skip mission button.

Worst of all, two of these missions are used for the two most climactic moments in the game’s story: When you kill Duc Truffe, the thug who murdered your mentor figure halfway through the plot, and when you kill Duc Volpe, the tyrant who killed your father as part of a plot to overthrow the kingdom clear back in the backstory. And they already had a perfectly good solution final showdowns with major villains! You defeat Duc Beauregard in a castle-vs-castle map where you have a castle and he has a castle and you have to defend against attacking armies while building up one of your own to take his castle. This is how Stronghold’s multiplayer works, and the only time they feature it in the singleplayer campaign is in one mission against a middlingly important villain, giving the most narratively important villains much worse confrontations.

While the standalone expansion Stronghold Crusader is very well regarded and adds several very welcome tweaks and rebalances, Stronghold 2 and 3 and Legends and Warlords were all flops. Between the poor performance of the sequels and the baffling lack of focus on their own core gameplay for the climactic moments of their campaign (which has a fair bit of attention paid to it, so I don’t think it’s because the whole singleplayer game was an afterthought), I have to wonder, did the Stronghold devs have any idea how to make a good video game, or did they just get super lucky on the first one, had the community holding their hand for Crusader, and then everything after that was a cavalcade of tears and failure? I got all the Stronghold games together in some bundle or something, so I guess I’ll see at some point.

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