When I first installed Stronghold Kingdoms, it was with bated breath. The botch job that was Stronghold 3 was still fresh in my memory. As such, I was more than a little skeptical that Firefly would manage to get free-to-play right. I started the game completely expecting to be shutting it off in disgust after just a few hours.
Yeah, in case you haven’t guessed, I’m going to be playing this one for a while.
Although Kingdoms shares a lot in common with its predecessors, it’s also got a lot of mechanics that those familiar with base-building mobile games will immediately recognize. For one, everything in Kingdoms takes time. At first, the amount of time it’ll take to construct a building or research a particular tech will be relatively minimal. As you progress, however, the time (and cost) of construction will crawl gradually upwards, until you’re waiting several hours to build something. In addition, there’s also a host of achievements which will net you resources for their completion. Naturally, all of this leads to building army to attack other players, all while shoring up defenses to prevent players from hitting you.
Military action – which plays out without any real involvement from the player, as per the genre – isn’t the only thing you’re going to have to manage. While working out the logistics of your army, you’re also going to have to build up your village, ensuring a variety of different foods and resources both to keep your stockpiles up and to keep your villagers happy. After all, ensuring your population enjoys your rule is the only way to gain Honor, which allows you to level up and unlock more research points. All of this is pretty basic stuff for a base building game, of course.
Where the game really shines is in interaction with other players. Your village is set up on a realistic map of whatever region you’re playing from. Zooming out will reveal hundreds (perhaps thousands) of other players managing their own villages, forming their own alliances, and building up their own armies. Because of this human element, each region actually has its own economy and political climate, with each local marketplace having its own supply-and-demand. There’s also a very real sense of intrigue to your interactions with other players; you might, for example, bribe someone to attack a rival, or threaten other players in your parish with military force when it comes time to elect a leader.
Now, there’s also a bit of a hardcore element to Stronghold Kingdoms. While many attacks will result in a loss of resources, a few rare instances will see your entire village razed to the ground. In such a situation, all you can do is pick up and rebuild (preferably somewhere else). You’ll keep your Honor and research, but everything else will be gone.
Where freemium comes into play is through the use of cards, which can be played to give you anything from a small boost in resources to a huge reduction in build or research time. While these cards can certainly net players a small advantage, they’re definitely not necessary to play the game. In other words, Firefly’s done a rather admirable job of integrating free-to-play into Stronghold Kingdoms.
The game definitely isn’t perfect. There’s a bit of a learning curve even after the tutorial, and tooltips don’t always display as much information as they could, while build times end up being downright excruciating at higher levels. Still, those who’ve the patience will find themselves a fine medieval castle building game, complete with just the right level of political intrigue.