From the Database of Home of the Underdogs
Copyright 2005, Battle for Wesnoth
Turn-based war games with fantasy themes are among the rarest breeds of computer games: after SSI’s superb Fantasy General, armchair commanders have to settle for 4X strategy games like Age of Wonder or Heroes of Might and Magic to get their fix. So it is an exciting news when Battle for Wesnoth was finally released. Years in development, BoW is a superb hex-based, turn-based fantasy wargame that is completely free. The mechanics will be familiar to most gamers: recruit troops, move them around the map to battle enemy units, and conquer cities. You earn gold to purchase more units by controlling cities, which also grant your units defense bonus. Like all great freeware gems, you can create your own custom units, write your own scenarios, and even create full-blown campaigns. The review at Inside Mac Games captures the pros and (vastly outnumbered) cons of this excellent freeware gem:
“There is a nice array of units available for recruitment in Battle for Wesnoth that cover the standard fantasy genre archetypes. In the main campaign, gamers can pick from elven units such as fighters, archers, healers, riders, and mages and will unlock various other units as the campaign unfolds. Other campaigns let gamers play as orcs or humans, and some downloadable campaigns feature the undead or even dragon-like creatures to play as. Each unit recruited has its own measure of personality. Units have a slightly varied attack strength and are all given unique names and personality traits which can affect how other units fight alongside them or even how quickly that unit can advance to the next level.
If the individual unit personalities in a game where you will recruit hundreds of units over the course of a campaign reminds you of Bungie’s superb Myth series, it should. It’s clear that Myth was a source of more than a little inspiration for Battle of Wesnoth, and the game benefits from this royal heritage. Assigning those personalities is a nice bit of variety for the game. It also shows that a hefty amount of attention went towards the little details.
The veteran system is a double-edged sword, however. Enemy armies are more often than not able to recruit higher level units immediately and will, without fail, assault the gamer with a zerg-style rush attack (for all you StarCraft fanatics out there), overwhelming any units that stand before them. The opposition will also always attack your weakest units directly, hammering away at them until they’ve been eliminated. Also, healing units only happens after a full cycle of turns, which means that the enemy will get a full chance to beat on troops before they get a chance to heal up. Healing is passive, as well; there are no direct actions a player can make to heal units during their turn. All of these elements add up to mean that it is exceptionally tricky to keep any one unit alive for very long, let alone through an entire campaign.
At the risk of sounding like I’m whining on all fronts, I went back to play through the main campaign on easy and, admittedly, felt that I got a stronger handle on the nuances of troop movement and how to keep my players alive, but the AI opponents are massively weaker on the easy level of play. Their tactics remain essentially the same, but enemy units produce a far lower number of units than on the normal level. So, while playing on easy will get you used to Wesnoth battle strategy, the missions on normal difficulty will still be a kick in the pants.
I’ve already covered what a good deal Wesnoth is (did I mention it’s free?), but a feature worth mentioning is the absolutely insane amount of user-generated content available for the game. Available from a convenient in-game download system are tons of user-created campaigns and multiplayer levels that the gamer can work through. This level of additional content adds conceivably unlimited replayability to Wesnoth, and also helps to keep the frustration factor at bay. Sure, I got tired of failing in one campaign. So what? I’ve got 13 other campaigns to try out, and even more to download later.
The other fun aspect of an active user base is a healthy multiplayer life and Battle for Wesnoth doesn’t skimp there, either. The game features the ability to play LAN, internet and quick local pickup games versus bot opponents. The nature of the multiplayer battle is such that it completely defeats the gameplay problem with veteran units and allows players just to sink their teeth into what Wesnoth has to offer at its core, which is solid, turn-based strategy combat. With tons of maps to pick from and tons of players online to do battle, the online portion of Wesnoth should not be passed up. When I popped on at 9 AM there were already 20-some games active and dozens of players involved. I love the smell of bandwidth in the morning.”