Review

Stronghold Kingdoms Review (PC)

There’s a fine line when it comes to free-to-play games. Offer your customers too little and you end up with a glorified demo, offer them too much and they’ll never pay - leaving you with an expensive project to maintain and little hope of turning it into an ongoing business past that initial influx of players. Stronghold Kingdoms is Firefly Studio’s attempt at getting that balance right, offering up a rich massively-multiplayer strategy game with some serious monetisation hooks for those that want to invest. And for the most part, they get it absolutely right.

As you might have guessed then, Kingdoms is - at its heart - a medieval village management game and castle builder, in much the same spirit as its predecessors. You’ll pick your starting location from anywhere on a semi-realistic map of the UK and get down to business mining resources, attracting new citizens, trading goods on the marketplace and researching your way to power down a massive tech-tree on which - even after a couple of weeks of play - I’m still barely scraping 50% completion.

A proper stronghold

To start with though, a thorough tutorial covers all the essential basics. You’re offered up a simple plot of land for your newly-crowned village, and you’ll soon be up and running with a few wood cutter’s huts and stone quarries, allowing access to basic resources with which to build more advanced structures. It should quickly become apparent at this stage that placing your buildings is of absolute paramount importance, which each section of land offering up different efficiency rates for various structures.

In general, placing your wood-based buildings near the trees and your stone or iron-based structures near the rocks will suffice, but it’s key to learn micro-management at this stage rather than later on. Building and research queues are limited to one a piece unless you’re shelling out for a ‘premium’ token to unlock a five-slot queue in either, but fortunately prices are low enough to keep that within reach of most players (7 days of premium works out around £1.60 at current rates). That single research queue can be utilised for as long as you’d like of course, but once you start hitting the 2-3 hours it takes to build units later down the tech tree, it becomes a no-brainer to subscribe when you need to. Crucially, the pricing doesn’t feel oppressive.

The other essential component in the monetisation of Kingdoms comes in the form of a card system that grants players temporary boosts to any number of areas of gameplay, such as speeding up traders or adding a quick stash of fish or weaponry to your reserves. Whilst these can be safely ignored for the most part, it’s a decent system for experienced players that need a quick fix for their chosen base-building plan, and they represent a good boost for newcomers wanting to try out new things quicker than they otherwise could. Packs of cards can be purchased and then traded back or swapped out for something more suitable, and again the pricing is fairly pleasant, working out at around 40p for a 5-pack containing gameplay boosts that can last for up to a day at a time.

Once you’ve balanced those elements and gotten into a build rhythm then, progress will be familiar to anybody that’s played a base-building strategy game before. Decisions have to be made about which goods to produce in order to sell them for a profit at the market, whether to build another structure in your village, whether to spend the cash on making your existing production facilities more efficient, or whether to research and gain access to new technology. The pacing of those actions is inevitably slowed down to a crawl in order to cater for the existence of a huge online world in which everybody is vying for power, but rather than becoming a frustration to the singleplayer components, the online interactions are what ended up keeping me checking in every day.

You won’t see all of this

I can’t stress enough just how alive the presence of other players makes Stronghold Kingdoms feel. Scaling out from your village reveals a mass of other lords tending to their own villages in your area and beyond, and it’s the deep ties into the local economy and political alignments of each region that make for the most interesting long-term gameplay mechanics.

Selling goods, as a basic example, is set on a supply-and-demand basis in each local marketplace. Just last week, somebody flooded my parish with thousands of units of cheese - which was enough to render my stock essentially worthless. Sure, I could send my traders further afield but that costs time as they trundle across the map, so why not try diplomacy instead? One quick message later and we’d both agreed to produce a specific type of food to sell to our local market, and we’d also agreed to assist should any other players come rolling in to raze either of our villages to the ground.

And believe me I needed that assistance, as castle management - as it turns out - was never my strength. As the second pillar of gameplay, sitting alongside your village is a barren piece of land on which to design a suitable stronghold utilising carefully-siphoned resources from the village economy. Other players and AI troops can attack this whenever they like (military and weaponry form another key part of the research tree), with a loss meaning you’ll either lose resources, troops, defences or honour (which acts as XP). Frequently you might lose a little of all the above, but sometimes, as I found out to my cost, it’s everything.

There are two ways with which to attempt avoiding having your village razed and requiring a fresh start (research and honour levels are kept in those instances, meaning you can boost through the initial base-building stages quickly). One of which is to design a castle with sturdy defences and plough money into troops to guard it, and the other is making sure you don’t annoy anybody nearby. Unfortunately new players may well make the mistake of doing neither of those things (as I did), resulting in rather irate local opposition that may well teach you not to scout their village without permission or to vote against them when it comes to running the local parish. Lesson, learned.

Of course in that instance you could just move somewhere nearby and plot revenge by carefully acquiring a mass of troops. You could also move back to the same area and attempt diplomacy, or you could pick up your bags and move to a different part of the country altogether, picking a different ‘class’ as you make your way down the tech tree and making fresh mistakes as you go. The variation is fantastic, and there’s a whole lot to keep strategy veterans happy in that regard.

A somewhat congested village

Unfortunately though, it’s those long wait times that might also turn them away, and anybody that doesn’t get sucked into Stronghold Kingdoms’ player interaction may well find a fairly dry base-builder with excruciating pauses between being able to make new units or buildings. If you don’t fill that time with exploration, scouting, player communication and plotting, there’s not a whole lot to recommend here that goes beyond any of the decent singleplayer titles.

In my opinion, that’s the essence of the game, and once you pull back the map view and realise that there are hundreds of real-life players around you, the possibilities quickly become enticing. There are a whole lot of things I want to try over the next few months playing Stronghold Kingdoms, and it’s gotten its teeth into me such that I’m ploughing a little time into it at least three times a day and not feeling cheated for any of the money I’ve spent. For a free-to-play title at the very least, that has to be mission accomplished.

Best Game Moment: Figuring out that you shouldn’t blindly scout an enemy village

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Comments

By herodotus (SI Herodotus) on Jul 21, 2012
herodotus
Without wishing to be involved, or to play with other online gamers this is basically the original with a few enhancements to the system, in other words.
That's enough of a reason for me to give this a try AND interract with the other real life kingdoms around.
At least there won't be a cheating AI that does not seem to have the same build ques I have to slow them down.
Still looks visually good as well. Thanks Emmanuel for an excellent and fun review.
By Bibleman (I just got here) on Jul 23, 2012
Bibleman
Where can I download the game?
By sadico (I just got here) on Jul 31, 2012
sadico
La comunidad hispana del juego es: http://www.strongholdkingdoms.es/

Saludos!
By GuiltBeforeInnocence (I just got here) on Aug 14, 2013
GuiltBeforeInnocence
If you're a loner and have tons of time on your hands, no family or friends and a lot of money to spend with no responsibilities in life then this is the game for you. Long, drawn out and expensive to play once you get hooked. I've known many a player who just sits home playing day in and day out dumping hundreds of dollars a week on this game from their welfare or unemployment checks. It's a pay to play game, no ifs, ands or buts about it. And every time a new card update comes out they make cards that were more popular before almost impossible to get and you get more of the shitty cards than ever before. It's a hook line and sinker game and they know exactly what they are doing to make the max profit. They even launch multiple worlds within weeks of each other because they make the most at the beginning months of each new world.And whatever you do do not have your family members create their own accounts on the same computer or IP address. Stronghold terms and rules contradict each other. You can register multiple accounts and even play them but you cannot help each other. The game won't allow it but, if you're running tokens on all accounts then that rule doesn't apply. Piss someone off in a war or fight and they report you and Firefly bans everything and you lose all the hard work and money you put in. They don't investigate, do not contact you, they just ban you without question and there's nothing you can do about it. I know people cheat but it's unfair of them to do this without so much as an investigation.
By Osgodby (I just got here) on Nov 29, 2013
Osgodby
Agree absolutely with the above comment. Dont play this game.
I got razed many times and played in three worlds. The business model will suck anyone - over the long term you will spend a lot of money - you have to buy crwons in order to paly - you dont buy card packs you are left in the dust - game strategies are out of balance - those who win are the ones who buy 100.00 card packs and more -- like I said for people who want to spend money then its for you, BUT it is NOT FREE as advetised. So if you are playing in the Italy world right now, the unbalance is in the monking and unlimited interdiction. Apparently there is an unlimited supply of Faith points. Constant interdiction by players, then monk storming, the faith points would be exhausted, but are not. So any other counter strategy is basically void. Why not: 1. no permamnant interdiction, you have to be out the same hours you are under ID. 2: You can interdict in the field Monks (that is realistic - i.e. assassins. 3: You can intercept armies with yours in the field - battles were not always fought sieging castles. 4: And you can hijack supply routes by capturing traders as they are on the map. Just a few examples to viable counter-strategies for other strategies.