There are certain designs in the MMORTS genre that have frankly started to burn me out. I was a bit worried that I had reached my tolerance point and would not be able to stomach another city-builder until I had put some time between me and my latest preview or first impressions. It's an amazing genre, and as I have argued before, it's more MMO than most MMOs. As in many genres, successful design is copied. The ironic thing is that all of these copies often dilute the market, making it worse on everyone. As much as I love the genre, I am a bit sick of running into the same design, stereotypical settings, and mechanics. Of course, we cannot take these copies and paint the whole genre with a terrible brush; if we did that, all of MMOdom would be in trouble. Still, I'm sick of it.
Luckily Firefly Worlds, maker of Stronghold Kingdoms, has a very persistent "PR ninja" who made a point to poke at me on Twitter. Usually, we funnel all PR contact to our lead editors for organization purposes, but hey, I can't resist a nice voice and a lovely looking game... and I have a high tolerance for fun people.
I had actually played Stronghold Kingdoms before but never gave it much time. I stopped before the tutorial was over and didn't look back. Designers, let this be a lesson to you: You will probably lose a lot of players if the first 30 or 40 minutes (or maybe less) of your game is not that engaging. In hindsight, the tutorial in Stronghold Kingdoms could be much more engaging. But hey, the devs also need a new website to replace the hideous, dated-looking current site, but I'll let them figure that one out.
Unfortunately there was no way to pick up the tutorial where I had left it. Another mistake, if you ask me. As you can tell by the embedded video below, I had a nice time but was confused during much of the livestream. If it hadn't been for my usual helpful chat room, I would have been more frustrated. And yes, I know that there is a wiki that answers all or most of my questions, but as I've said a million times, I signed up to play a game, not to figure out how to play a game. A wiki is helpful but should never, ever be considered a tutorial. Eventually, though, my experience started moving forward, and I began to really enjoy myself.
The basic mechanics of the game are nothing new. I didn't play the old Stronghold games much, so I cannot comment on how this online version compares to those, but the MMO comes from the basic school of "build, create a town, grow, join with other people, manage, fight" that so many of those other boring and bland MMORTS titles come from.
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That's where the similarities between Stronghold Kingdoms and the rest of the pack end. Well, sort of. Many of the designs in the game aren't truly new, but it's the way that the whole package comes together that puts Stronghold Kingdoms squarely on my "toy game" list. To clarify, a "toy game" is one that makes you smile, one that makes you feel as though you are playing with a contained plastic piece of happiness, and one that is a joy to log into. You never log into a toy game, sigh, and say, "I guess I'll just grind." Some of my favorite toy games are RuneScape, MilMo, Die2Nite, Spiral Knights and others. It's easy to pick up and play a toy game... that should explain it.
Not only did I build my town, but I had to be conscious of where I placed my buildings in order to keep them efficient. I watched as my tiny citizens worked away in old-school graphical glory. My town was growing, finally! But I needed scouts really badly. I had a mission to scout out some pile of random goods in the area, but I couldn't quite tax my people to pay for the scouts yet because their happiness (and my popularity) would drop. And it it dropped, I would attract fewer citizens. Fortunately the game also features a neat collectible card system that impacts the game in a "fair and balanced" way, for those of you who care about things being fair and balanced. I paid around $7 US for a completely optional month of premium time and used some of my coins to buy a pair of packs. What was within one of the packs? A card for a pair of scouts! I was even able to trade in some of the more useless cards for something else that worked better. It's a nice, simple system that really isn't necessary but just works nicely all the same.
I sent a mail to my powerful neighbor and asked to join in the coalition or guild that ruled my local area, and he obliged by sending an invitation and a stock of goods. Great, I was already making friends -- friends who had armies.
I kept building more and enjoyed the simple research tree interface. Thanks to my premium account, I was able to queue up to five skills to learn and started to concentrate on my infrastructure and farming. The military would have to wait. Things were starting to buzz now; my town was humming along nicely. Sure, I was attacked a few times by roving NPC bandits, but my walls held them off, mostly. Those same walls had to rebuilt using a separate castle screen that allowed me to literally lay out my castle walls. If I was attacked, I was able to watch as the crowds of attackers set upon my fortress. I could speed up the animation and even watch attacks on the much, much larger castle of my parish. The battles are simply animated but impressive to watch. There is a surprising amount of depth to the battles, and the NPCs really have a nice AI behavior. Knights charge, fighters are flanked, and little soldiers died, a lot. I loved watching the animated battles; they're just another layer in this game.
Here's another kicker for you: Stronghold Kingdoms runs wonderfully not only on my basic dual-core notebook with an onboard chip but on my touchscreen netbook that has a dual-core and two gigs of RAM. Actually, I preferred to play it on the touchscreen; everything felt more engaging, and the developers even smartly included a game mode that works well with basic graphics chips. I carried my tablet around the house while watching enemy peasants slam themselves against my flimsy wooden gates.
To sum up, I think there are obvious reasons that Stronghold Kingdoms is doing so well on Steam. I'm not Steam's number one fan, but the popularity of the service obviously has something to do with the game's success. And Stronghold Kingdoms is a pleasant blend of old and modern. It feels like a fun older grandparent who not only is keen about technology but also uses old-school moxy to show up those lousy youngins who couldn't design themselves out of a basic wooden fort!
Each week, Rise and Shiny asks you to download and try a different free-to-play, indie or unusual game, chosen by me, Beau Hindman. I welcome any suggestions for games -- drop me a note in the comments or email! You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook!