Ignacy Trzewiczek


No. of Players:



A rather uncommon topic to be implemented within the scope of a "normal" boardgame is the siege of a castle. I am used to this theme both from the areas of tabletop wargaming and from Cosim games, but I cannot remember that I have actually seen a siege scenario played as a boardgame with a decent degree of complexity and playing duration. However, as it seems the Polish PORTAL design crew around author Ignacy Trzewiczek has seen both the potential of the theme and the lack of available siege games, and so they have chosen to create Stronghold, a siege game in which a horde of Trolls, Orcs and Goblins is trying to break into a castle defended by a bunch of frightened Humans.

The real eyecatcher of the game is the big, colourful gameboard which depicts part of a castle with walls, towers, courtyard and buildings, and a part of the outside area with the foregrounds and ramparts used by the attacking horde. At the beginning of the game no attackers are present on the board, but the castle is bustling with life. Marksmen, soldiers and veterans (coloured cubes) are manning all walls of the castle, and each wall section also has received a grey playing piece to represent the still intact wall. Quite a lot of markers are placed at hand both by the attacker and the defender, but most important to note at this point is the fact that all unit cubes available to the attacker (60 Goblins, 100 Orcs, 40 Trolls) have been placed in a opaque bag. During each turn the attacker will draw 14 cubes from that bag, and he will use these units for strengthening his siege.

A turn of the game is broken down into 6 organisational phases in which both the attacker and then the defender act, and after the 6th phase an assault takes place in which the combat situation at each wall section will be evaluated. Should the attacker succeed in the assault to break into the castle at one wall section, the outer defences of the castle have fallen and the game will end after the turn is over. If the assault was not successful, the game will proceeded to the next turn, continuing until the end of the 10th turn after which the defender will have won by default.

As indicated, the attacker receives 14 units from his bag at the first phase of each turn, and then he may decide what he wants to do with the units during the phases of this turn. As might be guessed, the units may be used for sending them towards the castle, and indeed the 6th phase allows the attacker some troop movements. Thus, for one dispatch order a fixed amount of troops may move one step from camp to a foreground, from a foreground to a rampart and from a rampart to a wall section. These movements are cumulative so that units from any of these locations may move forwards one step, but the accentuation here lies on the word "forward". Thus, a unit normally may not move backwards or sideways, and due to the roots-like structure which links one camp, two foregrounds, seven ramparts and nine wall sections a unit becomes more and more fixed to a certain wall section where it will fight. This already illustrates the fact that the attacker is in a demanding position of strategic planning, since he needs to plan his movements and attacks in advance because short-time reactions are nearly impossible if it usually takes three turns for a unit to move from camp to a wall section.

However, the movement of units only is the sixth phase of a turn, and before this all other phases need to be played through. All six phases share the common fact that any action taken by the attacker takes a specific amount of time, and so the attacker has to hand the defender a certain amount of hourglass tokens for any action he takes. After the attacker has finished his actions in a phase, the defender is allowed to spend the hourglasses for actions of his own, organising the castle's troops and using the castle buildings to produce defensive machines. However, whereas the defender has the same choice of available actions in each turn in every game, the attacker only has a limited amount of actions available for each phase. The rules actually list a broader choice of actions, but not every action will be available in every game because a specific set of phase cards was shuffled before the game, and the attacker was dealt a card for each phase, listing him his available options for a phase.

Still, time is not the only commodity which the attacker must pay to perform an action, and so each action also takes a specific amount of resources and labor to be performed. Labor must be paid for by discarding units, and depending on their fighting strength (Goblin = 1, Orc = 2, Troll = 3) the attacker must discard some of the units which he has drawn in the first phase. Thus, the pool of available troops to move onto the gameboard is declining with any action the attacker performs, and so he needs to balance his need to arm against the need for units acting as fighting troops. Resources on the other hand are gained for free in the first phase, but here the attacker also faces a limitation, and although the allowance may be increased by discarding an unit, the attacker must use his resources wisely.

In the phases two to four the attacker may spend time and units to build war machines, to produce equipment and to train his units. The rules list a variety of available options for each kind of action, and so the game knows war machines like the catapult, the ballista or the siege tower, equipment like ladders, banners or shields, and trained specialists like a fire master, a quartermaster or a drover. Tokens for all of these may be placed at different places on the gameboard, and so war machines usually are placed at the foregrounds or the ramparts, whereas training tokens must be placed at the ramparts and equipment at a wall section. As a result, training and equipment tokens are not associated with a specific unit, but instead they provide certain benefits to any applicable unit at that place, e.g. a fire master gives goblins at his rampart a possibility to conduct ranged combat or a drover allows the (otherwise prohibited) movement of units to an adjacent rampart, whereas a banner increases the total fighting strength of the attacker at a specific wall section by one or a ladder allows the attacker to place one additional units at that wall section. War machines which may be used for ranged combat are treated as a speciality, and so the attacker constructs a deck of two hit cards and five miss cards which he shuffles and places next to a newly constructed war machine. Whenever the machine fires, a card from the deck is revealed to determine whether the machine has hit its target, and whereas any miss cards are discarded after the turn, all hit cards are shuffled back into the deck, thus symbolizing the growing experience of the machine crew with its machine.

In contrast to the already mentioned phases the fifth phase may be used by the attacker to have his Shaman conduct temporary rituals. Thus, the attacker may decide to sacrifice a bunch of unfortunate Goblins (on an altar constructed in phase two), and for this sacrifice the attacker gains a specific action which will hinder the defender for the ongoing turn. The effects of the rituals range with their goblinoid prices, and so they may hinder the movement of the defender's units, make the usage of the castle buildings more expensive (in terms of time consumption) or even may lead to a backfiring accident in case the defender has installed cauldrons at a wall section with unit cubes.

As indicated, the sixth phase of a turn may be used by the attacker to move the units remaining in his stockpile (camp) onto the gameboard, and those units already on the board may be moved a step towards the walls. The amount of troops which can be moved off each space depends on the dispatch order chosen by the attacker, and once again the size of the dispatch order determines the amount of hourglasses which the defender may take and spend during that phase. In addition, the attacker also may spend an hourglass to issue some additional orders, and these orders may be placed face down next to one or more wall section, and they result in suicide missions for certain units or the arrival of an additional Troll from the ramparts.

But what can the defender do against the seemingly overwhelming might of the attacker? The sheer numbers alone seem very discouraging, and whereas the attacker has a total of 200 units in his bag the defender only has a meagre garrison of 41 units of which nearly all marksmen and soldiers are manning the walls at the beginning of the game. However, even though the odds seem to be clear, it must be kept in mind that the attacker needs to spend units in order to arm his troops with war machines, equipment and training measures, thus reducing the amount of troops available for fighting. Due to the time limit of 10 turns the attacker has to hurry both to arm up and to send troops towards the castle, and although he has some options to speed up the movement of his troops these options create hourglasses for the defender, and a good stockpile of hourglasses means that the defender can spend time on the creation of nasty surprises for the attacker.

The defender's most common use of hourglasses is the reorganisation of his troops by sending them to the different wall sections, but more interesting actually are the options provided to the defender by the different castle buildings. Thus, the forge can create cannons which will be installed on the castle towers or cauldrons against the different classes of attacking units which will be mounted on wall sections. The workshop of the other hand can reinforce the walls or the castle gates with wooden structures, and it may also be used for erecting platforms next to a wall section in order to make more space for defending units. A nuisance for the attacker are the scout headquarters and the cathedral because both of them offer the defender options to annoy the attacker, and so siege machines may be damaged by adding additional miss cards, traps may be laid for attackers units, sharpshooters can take out a specific unit and even a wall may gain an unearthly glare which deters the attackers for a turn. Regarding the strength of his troops, the defender's units have the same strength ranges as the attacker's (marksman = 1, soldier = 2, veteran = 3), and troops may be sent to the barracks to train them to go up a level. On the other hand all units wounded in a turn are placed at the hospital, and at the end of the turn two of these troops return to active duty on the courtyard whereas all other units still remaining in the hospital must be discarded.

Leaving the hospital aside, the actions in all other castle buildings must be paid by the defender in form of hourglasses, and here the restriction applies that the defender immediately must spend all hourglasses which he has gained after each of the attacker's phases. Thus, quite often the situation occurs that the defender has not enough hourglasses to finish a certain type of action, but since he is not required to finish the action within one phase hourglasses may be collected at any of the castle buildings. Such a collection of hourglasses actually represents the stepwise creation of a defensive measure or machine, and this rule may be used to the defender's benefit since he can prepare some measures in a way that they only need one more hourglass to finish. This gives the defender some possibilities to react quickly if he sees the attacker take a certain strategy.

Worth mentioning on side of the defender also are his two heroes - the warrior and the officer. Both of these characters may be moved between the different wall sections, increasing the total strength of the defender at that section. However, both of them also have a special ability which can be triggered by the use of hourglasses, and whereas the officer can hold a speech which increases the defensive strength at that wall section by up to four points, the warrior can make an excursion to kill one of the attacker's units at his wall section.

Each turn comes to its climax when the six organisational phases are over, and in the following assault the players first will use their ranged weapons before melee takes place at each of the castle's wall sections. Ranged combat is conducted by war machines and castle marksmen which are not occupied in melee, and usually these weapons inflict unit losses on the other side. However, the attacker's war machines also may result in the removal of castle walls, and on the long run the breaking of the castle's structures will weaken the defender's position. When all ranged combat was conducted, the strength ratios of the attacker and defender will be determined at each wall section, and here several factors are taken into consideration. Apart from the strengths of the units fighting at a wall section, the attacker adds up additional points for a banner (equipment), Goblins' rage (an order) and for a Shaman's ritual. The defender on the other hand adds to his unit strengths one additional point for each stone wall or wooden wall reinforcement plus additional points for a Hero present at that wall section. Both totals then are compared, and the player with the higher total wins the melee at that wall section, forcing the looser to discard units with a value corresponding to the difference between both strength values.

This process is repeated for each wall section, and if any wall section is left without defense (units and walls) while the attacker still have one or more points of the strength difference left, a breach occurs which means that the game will end after the turn. In this case all other wall sections still will be evaluated, and then the final victory will be determined.

Success in Stronghold is measured by the use of Glory points, and here the author has thought of a quite interesting system of how Glory points are awarded or lost. Several factors work together, and most of them will be recorded in form of cube-shaped markers on a Glory-board which depicts some colourful illustrations of different game situations.

  • At the beginning of the game ten Glory markers have been located at a holding area at the attacker's side of the Glory board. Each turn one of these cubes is shifted to the holding area of the defender, showing the success of the defensive measures and the growing anxiety of the attacking horde.
  • The attacker has boxes depicting four special situations like a combined attack of four Trolls, the sacrifice of the 12th Goblin or a "Grand Attack" simultaneously at seven or more wall sections. Whenever the attacker for the first time succeeds to fulfil the requirements of such a situation, he will receive a Glory marker which can can put into the corresponding box.
  • The defender on the other hand starts the game with four such boxes already containing a Glory marker. These boxes offer him bonus actions like additional hourglasses through parley or new troops by releasing prisoners from the castle's dungeon, but since they represent shameful, dishonourable deeds the defender will lose the Glory marker from the corresponding box when he performs such a deed.
  • Finally, the attacker gets additional points for breaking the castle's gates and for breaching one or more walls, whereas the defender gets additional points for keeping his Guard of Honour on their place at the courtyard for each turn after the fifth.
As you can see, both the attacker and the defender have several possibilities to influence their scores of Glory points, and sometimes the game will require a good timing of the attacker especially of the scores are close. I think that the Glory board is not only a great help to keep track of the current Glory rankings, but it also constitutes a record of the historic elements which occurred in the current game. In a way, this gives the story of the besieged castle a more authentic touch, and it adds nicely to the atmosphere of the game.

Some other elements also add to the game's atmosphere and playing depth, and most prominent among these are the rules for the battering ram which the attacker may construct to break the castle gates or the card decks which are assigned to each war machine. It is a nice twist that these machines home in on their target by discarding miss cards, while at the same time scouts of the defender can sabotage the machines by adding additional miss cards. Another nice possibility is the attacker's option to turn one or more of his phase cards permanently onto their backsides, thus loosing the normal actions associated with a phase but giving the player some bonuses for the final assault on the castle. This contributes to a feeling that the game is progressing towards its climax and fits in with the touch of following a background story which is created by the Glory board.

A bit of a strange feeling at first is created by the observation that war machines, equipment and training purchase by the attacker cannot be removed by the defender during the course of the game. However, this rule actually is needed to prevent a constant stalemate with the attacker purchasing something and the defender promptly removing it, so that the rules now require each of the players to develop his own strategy how to react to the opponent's measures.

Due to the unique set of options available both to the attacker and the defender the positions of both are rather different considering the skills demanded of the players. While it is rather nice to imagine the scenario of a brutish Orc-Lord sending his merciless horde against the castle of the steadfast King, the actual roles of the players make Stronghold a battle of skills between a dispatcher and a firefighter. Especially in the first few games the defender should be in a more comfortable position, since the game's time limit is ticking down in his favour and he is in the comfortable position to adjust his reactions to the actions chosen by the attacker. The attacker on the other hand faces the greater challenge in terms of strategic planning, since he must use his available options to arm his troops while at the same time organising the assault on the walls. A good timing is absolutely crucial, so that all elements of the attack can work together like a clockwork in order to beat the pitiless time limit. If a major assault fails in the second half of the game the attacker will be hard pushed if he wants to recover, and since he also has to keep an eye at the stream of Glory markers going over to the defender's side of the Glory board the attacker's general position is much more demanding.

The gameboard and the playing components provided by Portal are flawless, and after being introduced to the rules by a highly enthusiastic Ignacy Trzewiczek the playing of the game posed no real threat despite the somewhat long rulebook. It's great to meet an author who actually lives his creation with so much spirit, but even if Ignacy is not available the rules seem manageable so that the initial hurdle can be taken, and once you have done so you will be rewarded with a rather interesting strategic challenge.

Looking for this game? Visit Funagain Games!

[Gamebox Index]

Google Custom Search

Impressum / Contact Info / Disclaimer


Copyright © 2009 Frank Schulte-Kulkmann, Essen, Germany