Stronghold is a real-time strategy series with a storied legacy that spans two decades with the first game releasing back in 2001. Each game in the Stronghold series brings something new to the table for RTS fans to enjoy, and Stronghold: Warlords is no different.
Taking the 'castle sim' to East Asia, Stronghold: Warlords lets you recruit and command cooperative AI called warlords. Not only will you be able to strategize around a variety of different warlords during each campaign mission in Stronghold: Warlords, there are 31 campaign missions on offer in the game alongside other features like multiplayer, skirmish, and free build modes.
With so much content to dig into, it makes sense there'd be questions that pop up regarding Warlords and the future of the Stronghold series. To help shed some light on the development process of Stronghold: Warlords, we sent a batch of questions over to developer Firefly Studios who were kind enough to walk us through the ins and outs of Stronghold: Warlords.
If you're wondering how Stronghold: Warlords compares to previous Stronghold titles, why the team picked East Asia for the game's setting, and more, read on for our full interview with Firefly Studios!
Stronghold: Warlords | Interview with Firefly Studios
How many are working on Stronghold: Warlords and how long was the game in development for prior to release?
Firefly is a moderately-sized company of about 30 total, with 10 developers working on Stronghold: Warlords and others supporting multiple projects including our MMO Stronghold Kingdoms.
Did the team face any challenges with the game’s development due to the pandemic? If yes, how did you overcome these challenges?
While we wouldn’t call ourselves ‘indie’ we’re definitely on the smaller end in terms of headcount, especially for a studio doing real-time strategy. As such we were among the lucky ones, in that we were small enough to avoid the technical challenges some of the bigger studios faced.
We were also lucky in that our Warlords team is already quite dispersed geographically. Pre-COVID we already had our programming lead in the states, who is out there with one of our co-founders. Marketing is based in London along with design, code and art.
Testing, some art and production is handled from our Scottish office in Aberdeen. So when the pandemic hit all that really happened was our London team dispersed slightly. We were all so used to what was effectively remote working that it didn’t impact us immediately.
The longer term impact of COVID was definitely felt toward the end of development. When kids can’t go to school and staff are stuck at home, the situation obviously becomes more difficult.
We were really only able to overcome these issues because we own the IP and, as a self-publishing developer, we had the freedom to delay until we were happy with our launch version. Luckily as a PC developer most staff also already had a decent enough home setup! So we managed to avoid some technical challenges on that front too.
Should gamers play other Stronghold titles first, or can they jump right in with Stronghold: Warlords?
We try to design each Stronghold game with new players in mind, as well as 20 year veterans of the series. It’s a delicate balancing act between giving long term series fans enough depth, complexity and challenge and creating a game that won’t scare off newcomers.
If someone loves the city builder/RTS niche, wants a new game to play and has never played Stronghold before we obviously still want that person to have a good time. With a series that’s lasted two decades there’s a lot of variety in there and we try to make each title unique.
If someone played Crusader they’d have to change up their tactics significantly in Stronghold Legends. Likewise if you’d played the original Stronghold coming into Stronghold: Warlords would require rethinking tactics with the new warlords system in mind.
We try to offer something new each time while keeping as much of the core Stronghold appeal as we can, so that both Stronghold veterans and genre fans have some new gameplay to learn.
Ultimately if you’re new to Warlords or any Stronghold game you can take it slow with the tutorial, first few missions and of course Free Build mode, which just lets you build to your heart’s content!
Adding to that, what’s one thing gamers unfamiliar with the Stronghold series should know before they play Stronghold: Warlords?
All Stronghold games, perhaps with the exception of our MMO Stronghold Kingdoms, are a mix between RTS and city builders. Each game in the series may lean toward one of these genres more than the other, but they’re all a mix between the two and shouldn’t be played like a regular RTS.
Resource gathering is more complicated here and you need to be thinking about your castle economy just as much as your military strategy. So instead of a handful of resources used for all aspects of your economy, you have different resource chains to help build up an army and keep your subjects happy.
Wood, iron, stone and saltpeter are mined and used to produce the armour and weapons needed to recruit units, but they also fuel your economy. You must keep your peasant population happy with clothing, tea, different food types, housing and even spiritual nourishment or else they’ll leave your castle and you’ll be without workers or soldiers!
Aside from the castle attacks, which feature a unique wall building system, defensive traps and siege combat, the RTS gameplay should be familiar enough once you have a few battles under your belt.
If there’s one thing to brush up on it's your economy! That’s the real long game being played in a skirmish match or multiplayer game, the ultimate decider for newbies going up against series veterans.
How does Stronghold: Warlords differ from previous Stronghold titles?
The most obvious change is that Warlords is the first entry in the series to recreate the economies, leaders and soldiers of East Asia. This means exciting new characters and historical narratives the Stronghold series hadn’t touched on before, but also the introduction of gunpowder!
Fire lances, hwacha, gunpowder traps, rudimentary rocket launchers and even historically accurate fire oxen all feature in the game, changing up the core gameplay significantly by building on its fire mechanics.
The other major change is the titular warlord system. Warlords are essentially mini AI scattered across the battlefield, each with their own unique perk, abilities and strengths. As soon as a match begins players can generate Diplomacy Points to take over a warlord or simply march on their keep and force them to bend the knee.
Once under your control warlords can be upgraded to access new abilities, their defences can be improved with castle upgrades and they can be commanded to do your bidding using Edicts. These commands require Diplomacy Points and can be used to launch attacks on enemy players, request resources to help build your economy, provide special units and more.
In addition to new economic gameplay and some classic returning features, these are the two main additions that set Warlords apart from other games in the series. Gunpowder changes castle attack and defence in some really interesting ways, while the addition of warlords means it's entirely possible to wage war on your enemies from the safety of your castle walls.
What inspired the team to set Stronghold: Warlords in East Asia?
Interesting characters, history and ideally castles are what draws us to an era or setting. Medieval England is the obvious choice and one adored by our players, but the Crusades and the Middle East turned out to be just as interesting!
Stronghold Legends leveraged folklore and mythical figures into some fantastic units and mechanics and Warlords evolves our core gameplay with the introduction of the warlords themselves. For us East Asia had it all. A selection of new siege weaponry, fascinating characters, potential new units, interesting castle designs and fortified cities.
It was a shock for some, but I think now that the game is out there those who are really enjoying the new setting can see it's a natural fit for Stronghold. The new setting was also just attractive for us as a team. Our designers get to research new conflicts, artists can create fresh designs and coders can get stuck into new systems.
Without promising anything I think that, wherever Stronghold goes from here in terms of setting, we’ll try to bring the same freshness in terms of art style and core mechanics.
Can you tell us a little more about the historical research and localisation that went into developing Stronghold: Warlords?
For our designers this was one of the most attractive aspects of the project from day one, the opportunity to surface the stories of famous and a few lesser known historical figures for our fans.
Obviously we have Genghis Khan in there as a hugely recognisable historical character and one synonymous with the warlords of his time. Thuc Phan was also exciting, as we weren’t aware of his inclusion in any game before this point and the history of early Vietnam, along with its wonderful folklore, was fascinating to us.
Qin Shi Huang has featured in a few other games, so he’s a more recognisable name, but then we decided to opt for Toyotomi Hideyoshi on the Japanese side rather than going for someone like Oda Nobunaga. So there’s a balance there that we’ll try to continue as we add new AI to the game.
Audio meanwhile has always been a huge part of the series. It’s something we tried to do justice in Warlords with the new setting and cultures we’re drawing inspiration from. In addition to localising the game into 15 languages, we added full voice acting for 9 of those regions including Chinese and Japanese.
As we neared launch and we heard the quality of the localised voices we made the decision to bring those over into the English version of the game as well. We ended up with some great Vietnamese, Japanese and Chinese voice lines for some of the units, which really helps us build atmosphere.
Arabic troops were such a huge part of that in the Crusader series, so it made us really happy to be able to get that part of the Stronghold DNA in Warlords. It’s definitely something we’re looking to work on more in Warlords and other titles going forward.
If they had to pick, who would be the team’s favorite historical leader from the time period in which Stronghold: Warlords is set and why?
Many of us would say Genghis, purely because of the sheer breadth of his exploits. By most definitions he is the ultimate warlord, which is why he’s on the box! He not only started an empire and legacy that lasted generations, but he also fearlessly conquered much of the known world at the time.
This is a leader who put the technologies and tactics featured in our game to their most effective use, completely outthinking and outplaying his opponents. That said I think as a team we also have a soft spot for Thuc Phan. We had an outpouring of appreciation and excitement from Vietnamese players on that front and his story is just so interesting to us.
With or without the more magical elements of the folklore there, for someone who accomplished such a great deal he’s still relatively unknown. It’s an ancient and fascinating story set in country with a deep history, so we’re really excited to share that with our community.
What are some of the new additions that Stronghold fans can look forward to in Stronghold: Warlords (campaigns, units, weapons)?
In terms of the main campaign there are 31 missions. This includes the return of our economic campaign missions, which focuses on city building and castle design over combat. Each part of the campaign covers a different character, starting with Thuc Phan in 300 BC Vietnam and ending with the founding of the Tokugawa Shogunate well over 1000 years later.
In terms of units Warlords introduces a fresh roster to the series. We have returning favourites that fans really wanted in there, so there’s the return of Laddermen, Siege Towers and then series staples like Trebuchets and Crossbowmen. That said we also had these wonderful new cultures to draw from during development, something we’re continuing to do post launch with new units being added.
There’s fully voiced Vietnamese tribesmen units, auxiliary and imperial Chinese troops, Mongolian Horse Archers and then specialised Japanese units like Ninja, Samurai and Warrior Monks. It’s a big roster for our small team at 16 units and 10 siege weapons, all of which are available to players in skirmish mode and multiplayer just like in the Crusader series.
Each of these has their own unique strengths and weaknesses, in addition to a few special abilities in there too. Samurai can charge down foes, Ninja can infiltrate, Horse Archers can fire backward while moving and much more.
The addition of gunpowder means we can also add the defensively minded fire lancers, hwacha fire arrow carts and our personal favourite, the Fire Oxen! Inspired by the Siege of De’an in 1132, these are essentially Ox equipped with spears and gunpowder stores.
Right click on a target and their tail will light up, resulting in a powerful mobile bomb! These can be used to block attacking routes with the resulting fire, disrupt enemy formations or even cripple an opponent’s economy, by burning down their farmlands when they’re not looking.
What was the process like of designing the cooperative AI in Stronghold: Warlords?
The warlord AI had to be easy and quick to use, so that the process of capturing one felt like it had a solid and tangible reward at the end. You have to incorporate cooldowns on their abilities and lock certain advantages behind upgrades for balance, but their Edicts needed to be really gratifying to use and give the player something concrete in return.
They need to be able to defend themselves and build out a mini economy, but only with help from the player. We wanted to encourage players to upgrade and fortify them, either by sending out their own troops or spending Diplomacy Points to upgrade their walls and defenses.
Apart from that we wanted their activities to be player-led, so that they’re made to feel in control of a larger army beyond their own castle and units. We want the player to feel in command of a network of castles and armies which compliment their own.
If we gave them more autonomy it might end up feeling too similar to other AI opponents or players, who you can team up with in multiplayer. So if you want a traditional ally that builds, moves and attacks independent of you that option is there, the warlords are more about the overall grand strategy power fantasy.
How many factions and maps are available in the game, and how did the team approach the visual design of these new maps and factions?
So in Stronghold we tend to give players access to all units in the game. This started in the Crusader series with European and Arabic troops, who could be recruited at the Barracks and Mercenary Post respectively. The tradition of allowing players access to the full roster continued in Stronghold 2 and now Warlords.
So while parts of the campaign might focus more on one unit set over another, players have access to the full roster in multiplayer including siege weapons. While we have an overall visual style and direction, there are some distinctions between the different regions represented in the game.
The Tribesmen feature unique tattoos, along with simple weaponry and limited armour to set them apart. Chinese auxiliary and imperial troops are more regimented, with set uniforms and different classes of armour to distinguish them in a formation together.
Our Mongolian Horse Archers and obviously quite nomadic in their features, while the Japanese units allowed our artists some visual flourish and style. Designing the Samurai armour, researching the Ninja’s garbs and the Sōhei Warrior Monks allowed us to use distinct styles within the same group.
We launched with about 12 maps in total and have increased this number since launch, something we’ll continue going forward with our post-release updates. For us the strongest maps experiment with the kinds of landscapes and geographical features unique to that part of the world.
So in addition to large features like statues and use of specific flora and fauna, we’ve tried to imitate striking visuals of Chinese mountains, Vietnamese farmland and the Japanese countryside. This is partly done through the maps, but it’s really a mix of map design and how they eventually look with player-built castles and fortifications during a game.
The soundtrack for Stronghold: Warlords is really distinct. How did the soundtrack for Warlords come together, and what are some of the instruments and musical styles players will hear as they play the game?
Robert L. Euvino has been composing music for the Stronghold series since the very first entry back in 2001 and he was happy to rise to the challenge of scoring Stronghold: Warlords. Rob was very aware from the beginning that it would be a new challenge.
None of the old music could be used as reference and we were playing with completely new styles and instruments, which was as exciting as it was daunting! Ultimately Rob delivered as he always does and the soundtrack turned out great, with around 20 songs based on influences from Japanese, Chinese, Cambodian, Mongolian and Vietnamese culture.
We ended up with a unique hybrid of different styles, hopefully managing to create a few new favourites for fans in the process. Here’s a quote from the man himself:
“Creating high octane siege music was an interesting challenge. Many far eastern instruments have a truly distinctive flavour and are never tuned to minor scales and harmonic minors, the scales that create darkers sounds associated with war.
In many cases film and game music tend to abandon the instrumentation in favour of more traditional contemporary orchestral ‘war’ music. What we end up with is an interesting hybrid which should hopefully satisfy both longtime fans and purists!”
- Robert L. Euvino
What has feedback been like for the game, and what has the team’s response to it been?
Whenever a Stronghold game is released we get a wide variety of feedback from fans of each entry in the series. So we have the 2D players who prioritise things like unit count, precise control and certain features unique to those games, then there’s fans of Stronghold 2, Legends and later titles who can have quite different feedback.
We knew pre-launch that players would want a skirmish trail or two so that was part of the plan, along with expected updates like AI invasions for Free Build mode which are now in the game. Those features along with new maps and other quality of life improvements were always planned and have come together nicely.
New AI was something that came up pretty quickly, so we’ve been working on those as well as general optimisations and improvements to player build areas and the total unit count.
So feature wise we didn’t have to change much about our post-release plan, but it’s been great collecting all that feedback and seeing where we can incorporate that either into Warlords or indeed future titles in the series.
How is the team incorporating player feedback in updates for Stronghold: Warlords, and where can players go to provide feedback on the game?
We’ve actually been incorporating player feedback into the game throughout the course of development. So even before the reveal we were discussing Warlords under a code name with our community and listening to what they wanted from a new Stronghold title.
This led to the inclusion of Fear Factor buildings, the Scribe character, siege towers, laddermen and other classic features. Then during development as we showed new units and features we would react to player comments and feedback on YouTube and Discord.
Unit models were reworked, along with some voice acting and certain game features. Multiple demos also allowed us to improve the gameplay along the lines of the feedback we were getting at the time. As for post-launch one of the things that was clear early on was that our veteran players were after more of a challenge.
So we released an Extreme Difficulty mode early on, along with requested improvements to the AI, new maps, larger build areas and a higher unit cap in multiplayer. Going forward we’re keeping this in mind as we tweak and improve new AI characters, add new units, missions and more.
In terms of the best place for players to provide feedback that’s definitely either on our YouTube channel or Discord, both of which we keep a close eye on!
Are there any post-launch plans for adding content to Stronghold: Warlords?
Yeah absolutely. So we recently revealed our spring and summer roadmap for the game, much of which has already been released to players. This includes a new AI opponent in Sun Tzu, AI invasions for Free Build mode and our earlier v1.1 patch which added AI improvements, a new map and a whole host of other additions we were keen to get out there.
In terms of what remains for this initial roadmap we still have optimisations coming, along with new maps, the Samurai Lancer unit, new warlords to play with and new single player content in our first Skirmish Trail!
Skirmish Trails were a popular feature of the Crusader series in particular, which are essentially a series of challenging single player scenarios to test veteran players. These are hard, but there’s a ‘chicken’ option you can use to skip a mission if you’re really struggling on it.
Once that first roadmap is complete we’ll reveal our next phase of content, which will continue to grow the roster of AI opponents but also introduce some surprising additions to the core game. Once our next major content update is out with the Skirmish Trail, new unit and warlords we’ll have more information on that. So keep an eye on our YouTube channel for future roadmap reveals!
Where do you see the Stronghold series going in the future following Stronghold: Warlords?
Right now our core focus in terms of code, design and production really is on Warlords and giving that our support this year, with some really cool free updates coming as well as DLC. We recognise that there’s more people want from the game and we’re excited to keep working on it, to ensure it has a healthy life in terms of solo and multiplayer content.
We’re always thinking about what comes next, so it goes without saying that we have ideas and I’m pleased to say Warlords’ success has secured the future of the series in that regard. I think for future games we will scale up a little and continue to improve our operations between projects.
One thing that will remain the same however is our love for castles and some really core talent that has been with us since day one. With 20 years of history it can be challenging to please everyone, but I think we have a solid plan going forward and there’s a healthy future ahead for the series for all Stronghold fans.
One thing to note is that, as we did with Warlords pre-reveal, we will be discussing these plans on our YouTube channel before revealing what comes next. This is to gather feedback and ideas, but also just to be open with our community about what we’re working on and when they can expect to hear about it.
We’re very lucky to still have a dedicated community of players 20 years after the first game was released and we enjoy the transparency we’ve built up over the years, so if there’s news you’ll hear it from us first!
Finally, where can gamers go to follow development updates for Stronghold: Warlords and updates from the team on future projects?
If you want to get more closely involved with development and the Stronghold community as a whole you can also join our Discord!
Our Community Manager does an amazing job of keeping people informed and involved with everything from cheeky patch note leaks to full blown Discord meta games, so check that out if you consider yourself a series fan.
We want to thank the team at Firefly Studios for taking the time to answer all of our questions regarding Stronghold: Warlords.