Going medieval with Stronghold Kingdoms
Hello to all our new readers, and welcome back to those who have been following ZAM's bi-weekly column, The Free Agent. Our mission, as always, is to answer the question "Can gaming REALLY be free?"
In our last episode of the Free Agent we hopped onto the PS3 to try out Dust 514. It was one of the rockiest starts we've had on the Free Agent, but there was some merit there in the end. Check out the full Episode 6 article for more details on that.
This week we get medieval, with the MMORTS from Firefly studios, Stronghold Kingdoms. This one's been around a while; starting with open beta in 2010, which in F2P land is practically full release. Almost three years later, Stronghold Kingdoms continues to thrive and release new content.
In fact, to celebrate Independence Day, Firefly brought the new USA1 server online on July 4th. This server takes all the medieval goodness of Stronghold Kingdoms and plunks it right down in the middle of the 48 States (sorry Alaska and Hawaii weren't included). Catapults and pikemen laying siege to Seattle, who'd have thunk it?
Now on with the show!
Stronghold Kingdoms is a real-time strategy game with a truly massive scope. But the beauty of it is that Firefly Studios doesn't just toss you into the fire, in fact when you take the reins over from the game’s tutorial and begin managing you humble little village it's easy to forget that you are playing along side thousands of other players in one of several historically located medieval kingdoms.
As your village expands and you begin to explore your parish you discover you are not alone after all. Your parish is a bustling community of gamers all on its own. You branch out and establish a new village or two, increasing your influence in your parish, or even in a neighbouring parish.
As you continue to play and gain ranks, whether through military prowess, underhanded diplomacy, clever economic strategies or even acts of charity, you could eventually find yourself being voted in as Parish Steward, managing not only your own villages but now also the parish capital.
As the parish Steward it is your responsibility to look out for the needs of your own villages and all the villages in your parish, defending against threats from both inside and outside of your parish. You become keenly aware of the relative strengths and influence of the parishes around you, reaching out ever farther. You begin to realize that your little parish is only one of many in a much larger county.
Before you know it, you are an active participant in the politics and general goings on of your entire county. And the cycle continues. Perhaps you gain enough favor and reputation to become the Sheriff of your county. Forcing you to expand your vision beyond the confines of your own County, for you are now only one small county amid those making up your Province.
For those truly skilled the next step is to become Governor of a Province, and from there King of an entire country. (Oddly enough it's an interesting mix of democracy and monarchy as, like all leadership positions in Stronghold Kingdoms, you are voted into this most paramount position). It would be far beyond the scope of this article to attempt to explain the near exponential layering of detail, intricacies, plots, drama and overall responsibility that each new level of leadership entails.
But I hope I've painted a picture for you of how slowly but surely Stronghold Kingdoms goes from being barely beyond its essentially single player forbearers (the Stronghold Series) to a sizeable multiplayer experience, to a massively multiplayer game. Of course if the thought of trying to micro-manage thousands of other players doesn't appeal to you, then by all means simply work toward developing your own villages into thriving, productive cities.
Either way, somewhere between those two goals is so much content that I could scarcely mention all of it. I spent countless hours just trying to build the absolute best castle defenses with the resources on hand, seeing each new wave of attackers as a challenge to do better. Through technology trees, and careful trading and development I honed my defenses into an impenetrable bastions of medieval might.
Stronghold Kingdoms will likely appeal to several types of gamers: fans of medieval kingdom building and castle building sims, fans of games with rich real-time diplomacy, fans of games where your armies crush those weaker than you, fans of social gaming, fans of being the good guy, fans of being the bad guy, okay so really just about anyone.
The graphics are... adequate, the interface is... reasonable, but the wide scope and breadth of appeal is... remarkable. And all that absolutely for free!
But before we herald this somewhat under-sung title as the holy grail of free-to-play games, I must unfortunately confess a most heinous and evil sin. I played Stronghold Kingdoms extensively during open beta, and after only a week of play I spent $10 on it. Heresy to be sure, but in my defense this was over a year ago, long before I became the Free Agent.
It's not that you need to spend money to unlock content, or that you need to spend money to get "the best" items in order to get the edge on your competition. It's truly NOT a pay to win game. But for a game like Stronghold Kingdoms the drive to spend real money is all about the offline features, which they remind you of everytime you logout.
In their help doc/wiki page they divide the benefits of Premium Tokens into two categories, Game Features and Offline Features. So let's take a closer look (on page two) at the features available through what Firefly calls 'Premium Tokens'.