Dale Yu: First Impressions of Stronghold Undead (2021)

Stronghold Undead

  • Designer: Ignacy Trzewiczek
  • Publisher: Portal Games/Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2
  • Age: 14+
  • Time: 90 minutes on the box, about 2-3 hours in real life
  • Played with review copy from Stronghold Games

stronghold undead

From the publisher: Stronghold: Undead is a re-balancing of the original Stronghold: Undead expansion for the second edition of Stronghold that is now a standalone game. It includes a new board with new paths to siege the castle, undead mechanisms, and more ways for both sides to secure their victory!

The Necromancer leads an undead army toward the stronghold walls. A powerful artifact lies within the stronghold. A magical item imbued with immense energy. The Necromancer’s powers are weakening, and his magical essence is fading with each passing moment. He will regain his powers if he manages to take the castle by storm and claim the artifact. Thus, if the undead army succeeds in breaching the stronghold within eight turns, it will capture the artifact and attain victory. If not…well, if not, the Necromancer’s powers will fade completely and the undead army will turn to dust.

As with many Portal (Ignacy) games, the game revolves around the story.  The original version was released in 2010, and while I never played that version, there was apparently some discussion about the balance of the game; though despite those issues, there was much love for the game – enough so that the game was re-done and re-released via Kickstarter to a fair amount of fanfare.

In the 8 round game, the humans defend their Pearl Keep while Arkhton’s undead army tries to breach the walls and take over the stronghold.  The huge board shows the human area behind the walls of the fortress, split up into 7 different areas.  The Defender has three decks of cards to use – Cannon, Crossbow, and Panic.  On the other side of the walls/gate, there are areas for the undead army to gather and attack.  The invader randomly gets spell cards (green, red and blue – 6 each) to use in this particular game.  

In each of the 8 rounds, there are 5 phases to play through

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Phase 1: Supplies – The invader gains Mana (based on the round chart) and the Defender gets 2 hourglasses (well 10 in round 1 to give them a supply).  The Invader also can choose to draw a Mana card to get more mana but this could give the Defender more hourglasses or defensive units.  More mana can be gained at the Altar of Death, but again, the Defender will also get a bonus hourglass for their side if this is used.  The Invader then gets a chance to switch up the composition and/or order of the cards in their spellbook (again the Defender gets a bonus hourglass if this happens).  Finally, the Defender now gets to spend their hourglasses – to activate actions in buildings, move units or activate Priest orders (See all the hourglass spaces on the board).  The Invader’s mana pool will be used later to cast spells.

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Phase 2: Spells – The attacker then casts spells – going in order from left to right down the row of spell cards. For each spell cast, there is a mana cost in the upper right corner that must be paid. Additionally, the defender gains hourglasses equal to the mana spent. After spells have been cast, the Invader can now activate tiles (that arose from Spells) – paying one mana for all the tiles produced by a specific spell.  Mark the active tiles with yellow activation crystals.

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Phase 3: Maneuvers – The invader draws 14 random units and puts them in the Camp, and then the Invader decides to do a Minor Maneuver, Major Maneuver or both.  Echoof these allow different units to move towards the stronghold.  As you will probably have guessed, each of these choices will give the Defender more hourglasses.

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Phase 4: Assault – Now that all the pieces are in place, it’s time to fight. First the Ranged units fire and then the melee combat happens.  There are 12 different steps here, nicely outlined on each player’s player aid.  As Invader units are defeated, they are simply removed; as defender units are defeated, they are placed in the Hospital section of the stronghold.  Once all the fighting is done, one unit in the hospital is automatically healed and moved to the courtyard, and one additional unit is healed per hospital bed that has been built.  Finally, look at the panic track, and draw one Panic card for each level greater than 0 – read the card out loud and follow the instructions.  Once all the cards are read, reset the Panic level to 0.

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Phase 5: Cleanup – check to see if the Invader has won (i.e. have their units breached the Stronghold) – if not, remove all the yellow activation crystals from tiles, reset the spell cards in the spell row, remove all the hourglasses from the board in the stronghold, and move the round marker to the next space.  If this is the end of the 8th round, then the defender wins!

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My thoughts on the game

Well, I haven’t ever played the original, so I can offer no comments on this “new” edition versus the old.  I should also probably also start my comments by admitting that asymmetrical 2p games are normally not my jam – but with the relative isolation caused by the pandemic, I’m finding that I am playing a LOT more 2p games than before; so I’m expanding my horizons a bunch, but I really don’t have a lot of experience to compare to.

From my relative newbie perspective, the game is interesting.  I have had a chance to play both sides, and I did miserably as the Invader.  The rules do suggest that the more experienced player take on the role of the Invader – in part because the Spells are a bit more complex to use well.  I like the way that each of the games has been a bit different due to the random selection of spells drawn for each of the three types – and I think the Invader has to be more nimble to try to figure out what the best strategy is based on the special actions provided by the different spells.

There is an interesting back and forth between the sides, and the Invader has to know how to use his forces wisely.  So many of the action/spells/maneuvers/etc grant Hourglasses to the Defender – so you had better make sure that you have a good plan because each time you do something, you make the defense stronger at the same time.

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The job of the Defender is a bit more straightforward, as (at least from my standpoint), the strategy doesn’t change much. It’s tower defense all the time – see where the attackers are coming from, and then figure out how to repel them.  

I don’t know if this is due to my inexperience with the genre, but our games (that go the distance) take a lot longer than the 90 minutes on the box.  There is a decent puzzle in figuring out where to move the pieces and how to fight stuff – and though i’m normally pretty fast at games, it just took me awhile to figure out how to do the things that I wanted to do.  There is a fair bit of calculation and re-calculation as pieces move around and players have to figure out what the relative status of forces are at each section of the wall.  Also, once battle finally happens, it takes awhile to run through the whole process – but I think that’s more a factor of our inexperience rather than the game.  If we continued to play, I don’t know if we’d ever get it down to 90 minutes, but for now, we’re definitely not in that time range.

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As the game is asymmetric, each side has it’s own set of strategies that need to be explored. The rules give a few suggestions for each side, and in our limited plays, we’ve even started to figure out new plans and ways to defeat the enemy.  This facet of the game certainly lends an advantage to those who are more familiar with the game, and even after my first few games,  I feel like I would have a significant advantage over a rank newbie.  

Given the way that I play games – wanting more variety in titles as opposed to focused play of a limited number of titles – i’ll never be a great player of Stronghold: Undead. But it was a interesting way to spend a long weekend, and I feel like the game still has a lot to explore.  Whether or not I get there remains to be seen, and that decision might be made more by the virus than myself.  But, if I can talk my opponent to continue playing, it might be interesting to continue our duel, even if this isn’t my usual sort of game.

Until your next appointment

The Gaming Doctor

About Dale Yu

Dale Yu is the Editor of the Opinionated Gamers. He can occasionally be found working as a volunteer administrator for BoardGameGeek, and he previously wrote for BoardGame News.
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