Why Stronghold May be the Best FRC Game of All Time

Last year, I published an article here (back when it was known as FRC Designs) analyzing what was the best FRC game since 2003. Check it out here for the full rundown, but the basics of my process are:

  • I can only rate games that I participated in.
  • I can’t select the quality of a game based on how my team did that year
  • Games should be judged based on how they stand up to today’s standards
  • Games are rated on a 1-N scale on robot diversity, spectator friendliness, strategic diversity, novelty, and match quality.

After much math and over 2600 words, the list right after kickoff 2016 was:

  1.       2004 – FIRST Frenzy: Raising the Bar
  2.       2006 – Aim High
  3.       2007 – Rack ‘n Roll
  4.       2014 – Aerial Assist
  5.       2013 – Ultimate Ascent
  6.       2012 – Rebound Rumble
  7.       2011 – Logo Motion
  8.       2003 – Stack Attack
  9.       2009 – Lunacy
  10.   2005 – Triple Play
  11.   2010 – Breakaway
  12.   2008 – Overdrive
  13.   2015 – Recycle Rush

So now comes the time to put Stronghold in its place among the pantheon of games. Following the same analysis that I did last year, the composite score for Stronghold is 3.25, placing it SECOND among all FRC games; above 2006 and below 2004. If I wanted to just update my prior piece for 2016, it would read something like this:

  1. Stronghold (2016)

Match Quality: 1

Robot Diversity: 7

Spectator Friendly: 1

Strategic Diversity: 6

Originality: 1

Composite: 3.25

Being the newest game on the list may lead to looking at it with rose-colored glasses, but I truly believe that Stronghold is one of the best games FIRST has ever made. Despite coming in second place, Stronghold now takes the lead in a number of top spots, claiming the top spots in the Match Quality, Spectator Friendliness, and Originality categories. You would be hard pressed to think of a more original or spectator friendly game with all the lights indicating the state of the game at all times, visual styling, automated scoring that works greater than 95% of the time, and probably the best one-sentence description of a FIRST game of all time (Shoot at the opponent’s castle until all the lights go out). Matches were a ton of fun to watch, and high-level play took on a new facet of excitement and challenge entirely. The ultimate issue with the game that holds it back from being the best of all time is that darn low bar. Too many teams decided that they had to be able to complete a breach alone, leading to a ton of robots under 14” tall, which then pushed them to have low shooters, which then pushed them to copy the over-bumper collectors from short robots in 2012. Even with all its flaws, you could make a case that Stronghold is better than its rating would indicate.

Well guess what. I’m going to say that Stronghold is better than Aim High, better than Aerial Assist, and even better than FIRST Frenzy. From top to bottom, Stronghold is the best game in FIRST history, even if my numbers tell a different story.

First up, the negatives

Simple but Varied Strategies

There are many FIRST games that have much more in-depth and meaningful strategy decisions. At its core, the game is about repeatedly grabbing balls, crossing the defenses and scoring them, without much room for alternate game strategies. Despite this built-in limitation, Stronghold is surprisingly deep when you look for the game within the game. For the entire season, the number of robots that need to score on an event winning alliance was in flux. No one was quite sure if it was better to have three robots scoring or to send your weakest offensive robot off to play defense. In many cases, this decision was highly dependant on the opposing alliance’s favored shooting positions. As the season continued, even into the off-season, alliances were able to find success by employing ball shuttling and secret-passage denial strategies aimed at starving their opponents of balls. With that said, any game that has a single scoring mechanism that can be done an infinite number of times lends itself to strategies based on “cycles”, or “how many points can I score in 2:30.”

The Sad Story of the Low Bar or: The Day FIRST Out-Meta’d Itself

If there is one hard and fast rule of FIRST, it’s that you can’t depend on your partners to win the match for you. Add onto that the fact that the only way to guarantee yourself a breach without being able to open the drawbridge is to go under the low-bar, and you get a bunch of robots shorter than 14 inches.  This probably led a lot of teams down a path that they didn’t have to, whether it be trying to cram a shooter into a small package, or simply abandoning the high goal in favor of just collecting and scoring into the low goal.

Now, onto the overwhelming positives

Originality through Setting and Theme

Stronghold is ushering in a new era of FIRST where games can truly have flavor beyond game mechanics. The defenses did not have to look like the Portcullis or Cheval de Frise (both of which are real defenses from the Medieval period); there was no mechanical reason to name the safe zone a secret passage; and there was totally no game-related reason to call the MC a Herald, or the field resetters Stewards. Heck, there was exactly zero reason to have the tower look like it was made of stone, or to have the little crenellations over the driver stations. But, because FIRST made the decision to invest in these aesthetic elements, they created a theme grander than just shooting balls and climbing. 

It is almost shocking that FIRST had not embraced a thematic game earlier. A cohesive theme like Stronghold is present in basically every other kind of “game” out there. Call of Duty may not have the most developed narrative, but the fact that it is essentially a shooting gallery but with a compelling setting and story is what has made it one of the most popular game franchises of the last decade. Every board game from Candy Land, to Monopoly, to Settlers of Catan or Power Grid include flavorful elements that make them unique, memorable, and much more fun than simply placing pieces of wood on a game board. My favorite example of this is with Magic: the Gathering. The game is all about math, and interactions between different cards, but the part that people get most excited about is the setting that those mechanics are contained within. Which would you rather play with: a “five power, five toughness” piece of white cardstock, or a freaking dragon that flies and breathes fire?

Some may bemoan these aspects applied to an FRC game as “lame”, “childish”, or my favorite “I thought we were supposed to not look like nerds”. To them, I say lighten up and have fun.

Originality through Game Mechanics

Beyond the dressing the game is wrapped in, the mechanics and rules of Stronghold are the most innovative thing we’ve seen in years. Having alliances select the defenses was a fantastic idea that gave teams a cool challenge to build around, and fun and rewarding problem to solve when preparing for a match. By the end of the competition, most defense selections boiled down to putting the tallest defenses out there, and “for the love of all that is good in the world, please don’t put the “Rough Terrain” on the field.”

Probably the most effective part of Stronghold’s game design has to be the return of bonus ranking points. Whoever came up with that idea at FIRST HQ was really onto something. Without the bonus for breaching, it would be easy for teams to just ignore the other defenses and make their way through the outer works by the path of least resistance. Naturally, if FIRST wanted teams to cross all the defenses, they could have made them worth more points, but then you end up weighing that portion of the game too highly. Introducing a second vector like ranking points into the scoring equation allows a designer to more finely tune the game, and produce the desired gameplay without having to create complex rules or just plain old boring games.

Success for All Teams

The more surprising factor is how Stronghold is a game that can be played at all levels of competition. Like most FIRST games, the high-level play is full of fast, highly efficient robots, and high scores. However, Stronghold shows a peculiar trait that most FIRST games do not have; the lower end of scores was not as far from the upper end as they have been in previous years. Essentially, Stronghold raised the floor of match scores. Check out the spread of match scores for 2016 vs. 2014.

2014 Score Distribution – Chart from TBA Insights


2016 Score Distribution – Chart from TBA Insights

The distribution of scores shows a definitive shift to the right, and it looks more like a normal distribution with some outliers on the high end. This means that teams across the board are scoring proportionally more points compared to previous years. This is a good thing! Every team, no matter if they could shoot or even handle balls, could score points and make a serious contribution to their alliance by crossing defenses for match points and qualification points. Coming off of a game where, in many cases, the best option for low power robots was to simply sit in a corner, the ability for every team to come away from a match feeling accomplished is a massive improvement.

Related to this is the interesting trait of Stronghold where every robot has a scoring task it can complete in all phases of a match. All FIRST games have a level of ability that a robot must achieve before it can join the “scoring robot” club. As an example, in 2013 a robot had to be able to accept disks from the human player and shoot them into the two-point goal, with at least 50% accuracy. If a robot was less accurate, or if it was unable to load disks, the alliance was better off if the robot just played defense.

You can find this scoring “barrier to entry” for any FIRST game. In Stronghold, the bar is set quite low (no pun intended). All a robot has to do is drive, and be able to cross the non-actuated defenses from the neutral zone. No ball pickup or scoring mechanism required. So instead of being relegated to playing defense, almost every team could cross defenses, then make their way to the courtyard to challenge at the end of the match and have a positive impact on their team’s score. For the self-esteem of a team and its members, this does wonders.

It’s just that good!

So why is this game the best? When I totaled up all the outcomes from Stronghold, I could not help but remember two things about this year. All the students I spoke with loved the game, and from day one of kickoff to the last match at the Championship, this game was so much fun to design for, build, play, and watch. Belly-aching (to put it in PG terms), is almost as much a tradition in FIRST as kickoff and ship bag-day. So when the worst criticism coming from ChiefDelphi about Stronghold is “herp derp Monty Python is dumb”, you’ve probably got a winner on your hands.

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