The tagline for Portal Games is “Board games That Tell Stories”, and in my experience, they do a good job in delivering a story to tell during game night. Neuroshima Hex spins a tale of a standoff, each side getting stronger and stronger with each passing turn, until a climatic battle takes place and razes both sides. Robinson Crusoe is a story of a couple of shipwrecked survivors and how Mother Nature is just going to take their day from bad, to worse, and Stronghold 2nd Edition is basically Helms Deep in a box. Invaders are crashing against the stronghold walls, and if they get through, it’s game over for the defenders.

Otter has owned Stronghold 2nd Edition for years, and has failed to get it to the table until now. Between the dearth of 2 player game nights and the challenging rule book, it’s been a bit of a joke that he’s been enthusiastic to play it, but just hasn’t been able to actually carve out the time to do so.

Well, it’s finally happened. Otter and I gathered on a random Friday and finally broke out Stronghold. And here’s my story.

Leading up to game night, both Otter and I watched the 41-minute-long Watch it Played How to Play video, which was extremely helpful in getting us up and running. Otter had also printed out several additional player aids, a FAQ and Errata from the Esoteric Order of Gamers, which were helpful to reference while we were playing.

Rules for days, baby

So let’s set the stage. Stronghold, designed by Ignacy Trzewiczek and Published by Portal Games in 2015 is a 2 player game about invaders attempting to breach the stronghold walls. One player takes on the role of the invaders, orcs, goblins, and trolls as they flow onto the map and crash against the castle walls, while the other player takes on the role of the defenders. The Marksmen, soldiers, and Heroes attempt to shore up their defences and thwart the invaders plots.

I took on the role of the defenders, who start in a very good position. With marksmen and soldiers lining the walls, and nary a chink in their defence, things start out looking pretty good for the defenders.

The gameplay of Stronghold involves the invading army choosing actions from their row of cards, spending their resources to build siege weapons, deploy equipment, train specialists, preform rituals to cast spells, and finally, manoeuvre their troops into space. Each action they take may cost them units, representing taking a unit out of combat to play the role of support. For every action the invader takes, the defender gets some hourglass tokens that they can spend to shuffle their units around, train troops, forage defensive weapons like cannons and cauldrons, send scouts to sabotage the invader’s plans, and visit the cathedral to deploy tactics that will change the course of battle.

The invaders can’t even reach the walls until the end of the second turn, making the defender feel powerful for the first few rounds. Some invaders move in, and you fill them up with your arrows, felling 3 or 4 invading units. It’s pretty satisfying to have 5 invading units move into a rampart, only for 3 of them to immediately perish.

They need to be close to get to the walls, but that’s when they’re the most vulnerable

The ramparts serve as staging areas where the invaders muster their forces before making their push to the wall. Any invaders that push up to the wall are safe from arrows, but then engage in melee combat, where the defenders have an advantage. Each wall section provides a single point of persistent strength, along with some heroes serving as backup, and some towers providing further persistent strength. When melee combat is assessed, both sides tally up their strength value, and the difference between those strength values is called ‘the advantage’. The player who won the battle gets to remove units from the other side equal to the advantage. If the invaders’ advantage is more than the strength of the units on that wall segment, they breach the stronghold and win the game.

While the invaders have a lot to overcome, they only need to penetrate the wall at a single point to claim victory. The defenders have 7 wall sections to protect and if any of them fall, it’s game over. Almost every staging area can reach two separate wall sections, and the invaders have some significant movement available to them. A minor movement lets them move 5 units from every space, while only giving the defenders 3 time tokens.

As I said before, the first two rounds felt good as a defender. I erected a cannon and blasted a red troll out of the rampart. My arrows softened up the march of the invaders, knocking them down to two orcs in each spot. The Invaders had a card where if they had a green orc in every rampart, they got to spawn a single cube in every section, suddenly dumping another 9 units onto the field. In the 3rd round, a few melee combats happened, two orcs self detonated to blast two wall sections away, removing their persistent benefit, while on the other side of the castle, the marauders were dodging my pole towers and bringing the melee combat to a draw. A draw at the wall is dangerous for the defender, as the invaders have a much stronger ability to push more units up to the wall to top the scales of balance.

This battle could go either way

By the end of the 4th round, there were 3 potential breach points. Two ballistas and a catapult with a ritual token threatened my units, and at this point, any unit falling prior to melee combat would end me. Two of the three wall sections held, but the catapult and wall-less section gave away the victory to the invaders.

Stronghold 2nd Edition delivers on Portal Games moniker. We played with the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers soundtrack on in the background, and somehow, the music would swell during pivotal moments in the battle. Unfortunately, I failed to hold out to the dawn of the fifth day, and neglected to use the unearthly glare to swing the tide of battle.

The balance of Stronghold feels balanced on a knifes edge. If one player suffers more misses than average, while the other player does better, that’s what will swing the game. I would be very interested to see a heatmap of which wall sections break most often for the invaders, or even talk to someone who has played Stronghold in depth and pick their brains. I lost at the end of round 4, I imagine I would have lost in each of the subsequent rounds had my demise held off for a round.

So many things to do, so little time

Both sides of the conflict have several ways to thwart the other. Defends have traps, invaders can build bridges. Defenders have marksmen, invaders can build mantalets. Invaders have orders, the defender can thwart one plot. Siege weapons can be built, but the defender can sabotage the siege weapons. Both sides have lots of options available to them, which makes for great variety.

The tempo of the game is almost entirely controlled by the invaders. The defenders’ role is almost entirely reactionary. As the defender, there was a lot that I really wanted to do, but the amount of time I have to do things is dictated entirely by the attacker, and while building another cannon would be really nice, I need to prioritize a cauldron on a wall segment right now.

Otter and I will be playing Stronghold again soon, but with the roles reversed. I’m very curious to see if he’ll be successful in stopping the invading horde, or, if the defenders lose twice in a row, if we’ll broadly proclaim that role is simply the harder side to run.

I built the poles, and they missed every time 😦