The Gathering of Developers web site calls Stronghold aCrusader the “successor” to last year’s castle building sim, Stronghold. That’s sort of a sneaky way of not taking sides about whether Crusader is supposed to be a sequel or a stand-alone expansion pack, but take it from me, the game is much more the latter than the former. With Crusader you essentially get Stronghold with a desert theme and a handful of new Arabian units, but with everything else, including the game’s engine, remaining the same. In fact, the two games are so similar that their manuals and tutorial missions are almost identical. Basically, Crusader is just Stronghold but browner, and whether you like it or not will probably have a lot to do with whether you played Stronghold and how much you liked it.
In case you’ve never heard of Stronghold, it was a real-time strategy game with an emphasis on castles. Some parts of Stronghold were fairly standard -- you’d build houses to create peasants to gather resources to train troops -- but there was also some nice added complexity to the resources (with some requiring multiple steps, like wheat to flour to bread) and the necessity to keep peasants happy (happy peasants pay more taxes). Plus, obviously, you got to build and defend castles, which was a lot of fun.
With Crusader, developer Firefly Studios basically left the mechanics of the game intact. The building and resource models didn’t change at all, and happiness only changed slightly, with ale and religion giving better bonuses than before. The main change in the game is that it takes place in the Near East at the time of the Crusades. That means Crusader looks different than before, and there are a handful of new Arabian units to worry about.
The new look in Crusader is what you’ll probably notice first. The deserts are brown, the buildings are brown, and, for some reason, the stones in the area are brown, and so the castles are brown as well. Do you sense a trend here? Everything is fairly brown and drab, and it gets so bad that sometimes it’s difficult to place castle walls (in “pull down mode”) because the walls look like the ground. I guess Firefly Studios was going for an Adobe look to the game, but I think this is a case where going away from historical accuracy and going towards better game visuals would have been a better idea. I suspect the gray walls from Stronghold would have looked weird in the desert, but I don’t see any reason why the walls couldn’t have been, oh, whiter, just to give some variety.
But the cosmetic changes are just that -- cosmetic -- and so the main differences between Stronghold and Crusader involve Crusader’s new Arabian units. There are eight new units in all, and Firefly Studios did a nice job of making the units thematically correct while also making them different from the existing units. For example, one of the Arabian units is a horse archer, and it will fire even when you’re moving it, and so it’s good at hit-and-run attacks and at sniping enemies. There are also slave, fire thrower, and fire ballista units, which all have fire attacks, and which mean that fires aren’t just annoying random events any more; they’re something you have to protect yourself against. Lastly, and most interestingly, is the assassin. It’s a good fighter, but it also has the ability to blend in with the desert, and it can climb walls. That latter skill is important because in Crusader you can capture enemy gatehouses, and so the assassin gives you a way to infiltrate enemy strongholds rather than lay siege to them
Of course, the Arabian units probably sound better than they are. They’re almost all best suited for going on the offensive, but they have low armor ratings and they can’t do anything against castle walls. So they’re effective at attacking outlying stone quarries and things of that nature -- which is more important in Crusader than in Stronghold because farms can only be built at oases, which aren’t likely to be inside castles -- but then a small group of knights can do the exact same thing, and probably more effectively. And the assassins, while sounding cool, have interface problems (it’s hard to tell where they’re going to go when you tell them to scale a particular wall or gatehouse) and they’re pretty likely to get killed before they get to a gatehouse, unless your opponent is totally napping.
So what really changed between Stronghold and Crusader is the emphasis of the game. In Stronghold you pretty much just built a castle and then defended it, and I think of the 31 missions that came with the game, in maybe 3-4 you actually had to attack a castle. In Crusader you attack other castles quite a bit. In fact, there is a new “Crusader mode” where you play a series of linked missions against one or more computer opponents, and for each mission it’s castle against castle(s).
It’s nice that Firefly Studios tried to expand Stronghold to make sieging enemies more important. It’s just that I don’t think they succeeded. The interface is still clunky and unfriendly, so coordinating attacks is problematic; the enemy AI is reasonably bad when it has to build and run a castle, so sometimes attacking an enemy is a walk in the park; and the new units don’t do enough to help. Plus, sieges tend to be slow and boring, which is no doubt historically accurate, but it’s not a lot of fun gamewise.
So, overall, Crusader is hit and miss. It has a lot in common with Stronghold, but it doesn’t look as good as Stronghold, and I didn’t enjoy playing it as much as Stronghold. Of course, I’m a little biased. I like building and defending castles more than attacking them, and I also liked the silly, fictional campaign in Stronghold more than the four dry historical campaigns in Crusader. So if castle-building sims sound intriguing but you haven’t played Stronghold yet, I suggest you try that out first. Otherwise, if multiplayer is your thing, Crusader might be the better option.