Game Name – Stronghold
ESRB Rating – N/A
Genre –Real Time Castle Simulation
Educational Values – Sequencing, Strategic thinking, Patience, Resource Management, Planning Backwards, Analysis
Platforms – Windows, Mac OSX
Where to buy – Good old Games, or Steam
Would we buy it? – Stronghold is an older game, but for $2.99, you would be doing yourself a disservice not to buy it.
About the Game
Stronghold is a game from the early 2000’s that holds up surprisingly well. It was one of the first (if not the first) castle simulators out there, and it did a really good job. The military campaign is fun and engaging, with an interesting story that makes you actually care about each of the missions as you fight your way across England to reclaim each county for the deposed king. If you do not want to run through the military campaign, you can always stick to the economic campaign, or the independent economic missions, or best of all, the Free Play mode where you can just build a castle and the surrounding buildings at your own pace just for the enjoyment of it. Be warned, though, you may end up spending hours just making sure you have enough wheat farms and mills and bakers to make bread for your peasants.
The gameplay, controls and mechanics for fighting were poor even in its day. In fact, I never finished the military campaign because Stronghold did not have several basic mechanics which were considered standard for real time strategy games and I found that frustrating. Playing through the military campaign again, I realize that the developers focused so much on the economic side that the fighting suffered. And that is ok. Games like Starcraft are awesome, and the fighting in them is top-notch, but we can learn more from Stronghold’s tech tree and economy than we can from how quickly you can hit a hotkey. Once I accepted that the military campaign relies heavily on an understanding of the economic side of things, it all clicked. Most Real Time Strategy games have you go down a specific path each time. You choose “Air Attack” or “Turtle” and ignore all of the other buildings and units in the game outside of your chosen strategy. Stronghold forces you to take a balanced approach to every engagement. It forced you to take into account the distance between you keep and your forest, or your stone quarry, or your farms. It forces you to keep your peasants happy and fed, or they leave you and you end up with buildings empty.
A tidy little village.
What the Game Teaches Us
One skill that many Real Time Strategy games help develop, but Stronghold excels at is Sequencing, or Planning Backwards. What that means is setting a goal and identifying the steps required to get to that goal and the time each step will take. Here’s an example from Stronghold. I need to defend my castle against an enemy attack. To do that, I need archers. To train archers I need bows. To build bows, I need a fletcher. To hire a fletcher, I need money. To get money, I need to raise taxes, which makes people angry. To placate my people, I need to increase their rations. To increase their rations, I need extra food coming in, so I need extra bakeries and extra wheat farms, and extra mills.To run all of those buildings, I need more people in my village, which means more housing, which will require wood…. And it continues like that until I have identified exactly what I need to build, and in what order to be successful at training archers in time to help defend my castle. Just reading through that paragraph I almost went cross eyed, and while it may seem overly complicated, the game will bring you along gradually. To the point where after a few rounds, you are automatically building out your economy with an eye to stocking up your granary, or providing your weapon smiths with the means the need to practice their craft.
Sequencing is an important skill in the real world. Being able to take a large goal and break it down to smaller steps is a vital aspect in higher order critical thinking, project management, etc. Sequencing is a skill that is difficult to conceptualize for many people, but playing Stronghold will develop and build that skill without your even noticing. Going back to Bloom’s Taxonomy, Stronghold exercises a gamer’s Cognitive domain up through Analysis and Synthesis. As a gamer fully understand the game and the mechanics of it, they will be able to swap out tactics and concepts to achieve their goal. For instance, you want to make your peasants happy by building a tavern. Do you A. build a hops farm and some breweries first? Or B. build the tavern and a marketplace to trade for beer? Either of these tasks will accomplish your goal of making your peasants happy, but you have the option to choose which is more appropriate based on your current circumstances.
Good thing you trained those archers!
General Feelings on the Game
Stronghold is over a decade old, and while I have some good memories of it, I remember distinctly the flaws. The underdeveloped fighting, the problems with the controls and mechanics, the low resolution graphics, etc. But the economic aspect of it always stood out sharply. When I saw it for $2.99 I decided to take a walk down memory lane. I am glad I did. When I realized that the game did not want to focus on the combat, and to just enjoy the building and maintaining a castle, my experience with Stronghold took off.
Stronghold is deeply flawed in some ways, the tutorials do not cover some of the advanced tactics, and I had to run a couple of Google searches to figure out how to use the tunnelers or build a moat. Also, it shows its age in the graphics and some of the controls, but the music is top notch, the campaign is fun, the economic mechanics are rock solid. Best of all every time you enter the game, it says, “Welcome, Sire, your stronghold awaits!”. I just can’t get enough of that. Oh and on December 25, it will wish you a Merry Christmas!