The late 1990s and early 2000s were a golden era for strategy and management games of all kinds. Whether you wanted to build ancient Rome, fight your own version of World War II, or establish colonies in another star system there was at least one game to suit your purposes appearing on the shelves. One way for developers to compete in this crowded market was to combine and hybridise strategy genres - as British developer Firefly Studios did with their first game, the enduring success Stronghold.
Firefly were well-placed to advance the fusion of city-building and real-time strategy gameplay. Their founders, Simon Bradbury and Eric Ouellette, had both worked for the successful developer Impressions Games, which had been acquired by Sierra in 1995. There, they had worked on the successful Caesar series of city-builders and the medieval strategy series Lords of the Realm. These would each be a strong influence on Stronghold, which was developed in a single rented room in South London and eventually released by Take 2 Interactive in October 2001.
Stronghold proved to be a major success for the fledgling studio, and sold very strongly in the US, UK and Germany in particular. Its synthesis of city-building and RTS elements wasn’t completely novel - owing much to Lords of the Realm II (1996) - but was very well executed. Set in a pseudo-historical version of early medieval Britain, Stronghold tasks players with managing feudal economies, building fortifications, training troops, and eventually freeing the land from four powerful “Tyrants”, each named after an animal: the Rat, the Snake, the Pig, and the Wolf.
Strategy games have often struggled to find a distinct personality - take for example Total Annihilation (1997), with its near-identical robot factions. Conversely, personality and humour have long been a special strength of British developers, and Firefly were no exception. The game’s handful of characters have knowingly absurd personalities, from the cowardly Rat to the stupid and cruel Pig. Players know they are managing their economies successfully when the hooded advisor, a constant presence in the user interface, declares that “the people love you, sire!” All of the woodcutters, bakers, children and even cows have names and, when clicked on, will share their views on the issues of the day.
As Napoleon purportedly said, “an army marches on its stomach”, and in Stronghold a strong economy is required to succeed. As with the city-builders made by Impressions Games, the options for agriculture and primary goods differ between missions. For example, cows can be raised on land which is not lush enough for the cultivation of wheat. If key commodities are not available, an excess of others can be built up for trading purposes. One mission in the campaign revolves around supplying friendly monks with a large quantity of stone; one way to help accomplish this is to tear down the existing stone fortifications, and replace them with simpler wooden ones, because trees are plentiful in the area.
The economic management is simpler than in a full-blown city-building game, but still throws up interesting challenges - especially in a short economic campaign provided alongside the primary mission structure. Normally, systems of farms, workshops, quarries, and mills are a means to an end - a way to create mighty castles able to withstand an enemy assault, to raise a formidable army to mount a siege of your own. Again, the combat is simpler than in other RTS games of the era, with fewer unit types and fairly basic commands. The pace is also relatively slow compared with, say, Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 which was released the previous year. However, the emphasis on siege warfare gives Stronghold a very distinctive feel especially because the gameplay is so freeform. Castles can be built in numerous ways using unique combinations of fortifications including walls, towers, gatehouses, killing pits, burning pitch traps, and catapults.
Strategy AI was not in an advanced state of development in 2001 but just because the Tyrants are stupid does not mean their armies are not threatening. In the Stronghold campaign, enemies often have superior technology and economies, meaning that novel strategies will be needed to blunt their assaults or bring down their castle walls. For example, pikemen wearing plate armour are largely impervious to attacks from archers; but allow them to reach a wall topped with engineers wielding boiling pitch, and they can be scoured from the castle by fire. On the other hand, an enemy castle with multiple layers of thick stone walls can still be breached with a careful combination of tunnelers, siege equipment, and infantry well-placed to charge at the first sign of an opening.
The main combat campaign takes place over 21 missions. Given the emphasis on castle building, the mission designs put the player in a much more defensive stance than most strategy games. In fact, the first several missions feature no offensive actions at all. Instead, Firefly’s scenarios are designed to gradually introduce the principles of economic management, while small forces sent by the Tyrants attempt to disrupt production. The more aggressive missions appear later in the campaign, and are significantly more difficult in part because less is expected of the AI, which can mostly relax behind its walls and towers. While a campaign map is shown between missions, the scenarios are undertaken in a linear sequence. Still, it is satisfying to push the Tyrants into their last boltholes and finally destroy them. The once-mighty warlords who spent the early missions taunting the player are left whimpering in vain for mercy.
One reason why games from Stronghold’s era maintain their appeal after many years is that their 2D graphics have dated much more favourably than the 3D games of the time. In 2001, many strategy games had moved partly or fully to 3D engines and these often feature visuals which look muddy, lacking in detail and unclear to modern eyes. Firefly Studios were fortunate to have very talented artists working on Stronghold, and its lovingly created graphics are one of the game’s strongest features and a key component of its unique personality.
While the art for the environments is fairly functional, it is in the structures that Stronghold’s visual style comes into its own. There are a large number of buildings that can be constructed, and with a few exceptions these look distinctive and suited to their purpose. Impressively, many buildings have a cross-section feature which allows players to see what is happening inside, be that the brewing of ale, the milking of cows or the production of longbows. These animations are very intricate and a pleasure to look at, and very similar to the ones done by Impressions Games for their city-building series of games like Caesar III, Pharaoh, and Emperor.
As in those games, the workers in various industries each have their own distinct look and while not subject to direct control by the player, move around the castle to the buildings they need to visit for their jobs. The difference is that these “walkers”, as they are known, are not limited to a system of roads used by Impressions Games, but instead wander more freely around the environment. This provides a slightly more anarchic feel, which perfectly suits the squalor and chaos of the medieval period, compared with the more orderly environment of ancient Rome. Over time, castles gradually become hives of hectic activity and are a real wonder to observe - provided battering rams aren’t hammering at the gates.
Sound is another strong element of Stronghold’s presentation. The voice acting is of a much more comic tone than heard in most modern games, which makes a refreshing change. The distinctively British humour is present throughout, as troop types come from specific regions of the country - for example, archers are all Geordies, and tunnellers are Welsh. The combat units each have very specific sound effects which soon become readily recognisable. The clattering sound of enemy crossbowmen preparing their weapons is particularly intimidating en masse. Fortunately, the sound design prevents players from becoming overwhelmed - should you want to hear a cow moo contentedly, you can always click on one.
An engaging soundtrack is always a critical element of city-building games in particular, in part because of how absorbing and time-consuming they can be. For Stronghold, Firefly Studios took on the services of Robert L. Euvino who had worked on Caesar III and did a fine job on both the sound effects and the score for the game. His work contributes significantly to the immersive medieval atmosphere, and he began a long-running association with Firefly, working on subsequent entries in the series. Not bad going for a man who started out his career with a one-man exotic animal show he called “Reptile Rob and the Party Animals”.
Stronghold is a game which arrived at the right time. In 2001, the market for 2D strategy games was still strong, and the Firefly Studios team had the experience and expertise to make their first project a major success. Numerous sequels have been made, most notably Stronghold: Crusader which shifted the action to the Holy Land during the time of the early crusades. The map editor included with the games was one factor which led to the emergence of a healthy community, and numerous fan scenarios have been made to complement the one-off missions which were included with the original Stronghold.
In 2012, Firefly released Stronghold HD, a light-touch HD “remake” which implements modern screen resolutions. With this welcome development in mind, the studio’s first game is easy to recommend today. The campaigns are well-designed and challenging, and the highly detailed 2D art is a pleasure to watch in motion. The game will appeal most to those who are fond of both city-builders and RTS games, because Stronghold’s fusion of these brings together some of the most compelling aspects of each. The game’s refreshing sense of humour and the lasting appeal of the game to its long-running community are the jewels in the Stronghold crown.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.