There is no shortage of free game projects available on the Internet, as a quick Google search can prove. But to find a 100% free game that is actually complete, polished, moddable and has 100+ hours of gameplay? That's a bit more difficult. However “The Battle for Wesnoth” is just that and more. Where most projects of this type have failed, Wesnoth has thrived, in part by heavily involving it's community to help share the workload. This has allowed them to not only keep updating regularly, but also give gamers a chance to contribute and be part of the team, gaining valuable experience in the process.
The Battle Begins: A little history
Wesnoth is a game of strategy and tactical thinking that is deep yet accessible and has undergone many changes in it's six years of development; not only aesthetically but in terms of features and content. Through it all the core gameplay mechanics have remained intact, with inspiration from games like “Master of Monsters” and “Warsong.” In the beginning, the goal of Wesnoth's founder, David White, was to create a game that was easy to learn and play, yet fun and challenging. To this end the developers have always kept to the K.I.S.S principle, in that they won't add something to the game if it's going to complicate the gameplay in a negative way. This has kept the project manageable and helped it reach the 1.0 milestone in 2005. Ever since The Battle for Wesnoth has received accolades from the open source community and general gaming sites alike.
Development on the game continues to progress, with new releases coming in two forms: the “stable” branch of releases are considered reliable enough for regular play and have even version numbers. These releases can take quite a while to develop (nearly a year has passed between 1.4 and 1.6) so there is also an experimental “development” branch of release. These odd numbered versions implement new features that are being worked into the game, for the next major release, but may not be entirely stable. These releases are like public betas and are not recommended for normal play, though it's fun to get a peak at the future of the game. Other releases are usually bug fixes and minor feature additions that you'll see for both the stable and development branches. These just add another number at the end of the base version number. In fact there have been two such a releases while writing this article: 1.6.1 and 1.6.2, in addition to the new development version 1.7.
All told The Battle for Wesnoth has been downloaded over three million times from sourceforge.net, making it one of the most downloaded open source games in history. Part of the reason for this success is that the game has been translated into 45 different languages and can be complied and run on most every major OS in use today. This is all thanks to the massive, active community that the game has built up over the years, who do all the compiling and most of the translations of there own volition.
Battle of the Hexes: Gameplay
At it's heart, Wesnoth is a turn based, fantasy themed strategy game that takes place on a hex board similar to a table top war game. In this world Humans, Elves, Dwarves, Mermen, Orcs, Goblins, Nagas, Drakes, Trolls, Saurians and various kinds of undead battle for each other in both multiplayer and singleplayer scenarios. The goal of a game is usually to defeat the enemy leader, though some scenarios will have different objectives like moving a certain unit to a specific hex or surviving for a set number of turns. The basics of the game are simple to learn, all you need to do is click on a unit to select it and then click where you want them to go. How far a unit can travel depends on how many movement points that unit type has and what kind of terrain it is moving over. Generally rougher terrain takes more movement points to traverse.
Engaging in combat is simply a mater of moving a unit to a hex adjacent to an enemy and choosing which method of attack to use. Attacks come in two forms: ranged and melee. The only real difference between the two is that the defender must counter with the same type of weapon as the attacker; so a melee attack must be met with a melee counter. The attacking unit begins the combat, followed by a counter attack by the defender, if able. This continues back and forth until both units use up all of their attacks, or one of them is slain. The chance to hit with an attack is a percentage chance based on the terrain that their opponent is standing on. How well a unit defends on a given type of terrain varies from unit to unit, but is largely governed by race and unit type. In this way there is a strong “luck” factor in combat, which may frustrate some players. Just remember that your enemy has bad luck too, and it's a good feeling when you get a streak of good.
Another factor to take into consideration during combat is the alignment of units. A “lawful” unit will do 25% more damage in the daytime, 25% less at night and normal damage at dusk or dawn. “Chaotic” units are the opposite and “neutral” units don't care what time it is. Other things to note are the damage type a weapon does, unit's resistances to different types of damage, the base damage of attacks, how many attacks per combat and any special abilities that unit may have. All this is explained in the in-game guide.
But before you can fight your enemy you must first build up your army. This is done on special “castle” hexes. While your leader is on the keep of the castle they can recruit units onto every hex of the castle, or until your gold runs out. Each unit costs a set amount to recruit, plus an upkeep every turn. In order to gain more gold you must capture town hexes, which give you gold at the beginning of every turn. When you recruit a unit it is given two random traits. These traits modify some aspect of the unit, such as heath or damage dealt. These can make some units well suited to specific tasks, but are never anything world shattering.
As your units fight they will gain experience. When enough experience is earned they will level up. Leveled up units are usually just more effective versions of their lower level state. However there are a few units that have branching advancement options that allow them to become something more unequal. Most units can advance up to level 3, though a few can get higher. When a unit has reached it's maximum level it will still gain experience but no more levels. Instead they gain a bonus of 2 health points after 150 experience, but no other benefit. Either way a leveling unit is fully healed and cured of any maladies. Surviving units in a singleplayer campaign can be recalled, which is handled just like recruitment only it's always 20 gold. Recalled units maintaining all of their experience and traits.
There is much more to Wesnoth, but if this all sounds a little overwhelming, don't worry! Wesnoth has a basic tutorial to help get the basics down, as wells as a number of features that will help you make more informed decisions. For example, when choosing a weapon for combat, the game will automatically choose the one most likely to do the most damage at the least danger to your unit. If you want to see the numbers for yourself you can click on the “damage calculations” button, which gives you all the probabilities for all possible outcomes of the battle, and a nice bar chart to visualise it all.
Another helper is the keyboard shortcut ctl+v. This shows you all the possible moves that the enemy can make in their next turn. It not only shows you where units can move, but now many can reach any given hex. And if you are itching to see every last stat you can right click on a unit and go to “description” for every detail you could want to know about that type of unit, including the male and female versions of the unit graphic (if applicable) and the unit's portrait.
The Ever Changing Face of Wesnoth: Graphics and Sound
There have been quite a number of improvements the look and feel of Wesnoth since it's early days, and 1.6 continue the advancements. While purely two dimensional, Wesnoth has become a rather pretty game to look at. Almost all units now have idling animations, which helps give some life to the battle field. Many units have been redone entirely to give them a more unequal or polished look, as well as new or redone portraits for many units. Some more units now have dying animations as well. In-game dialog boxes have also been revised. Gone is the floating box full of text. The new system has a much more dynamic look and adds to the overall presentation of campaigns.
Further adding to the presentation of Wesnoth is the music. This area has come a long way in the last few years, from the stirring opening theme in the main menu, to the hushed tension of some of the in-game scores, you'll find much more to occupy your ears than you might expect. 1.6 adds some new pieces of music, among them victory and defeat music at the end of a scenario. Other audio is scant and is mostly confined to attack, hit and death sounds. These are a bit of a mixed bag as some sound somewhat low quality, while a few are pretty good. There's no voice acting whatsoever, though that's not necessarily a bad thing.
The Hundred Hour War: Content and Conclusions
There are several singleplayer campaigns that you can play though, each with its own chapter in the story of Wesnoth to tell. New in 1.6 is the latest installment in the mainline story; a 17 scenario campaign called “Legend of Wesmere,” one scenario of which introduces a new feature to the game: the ability to give commands to your AI allies. The total number of campaigns is now up to 14, with 191 scenarios. 1.7 adds yet another campaign which adds another 24 scenarios to the mainline. At thirty minutes to two hours a piece this is one of the longest free, singleplayer games ever made. If you don't want story then you can always play a multiplayer scenarios locally, via LAN or online.
In addition to the official maps, eras, units and campaigns, Wesnoth has a built in add-on downloader that can quickly and easily bring new content into the game. Creating your own maps for Wesnoth is now more convenient as 1.6 allows you to launch the map editor right from the main menu and it runs right in the program. If you're wanting to get in depth and make something more complex you'll find all the tools you need are a text editor (like Notepad) and an image editor (like the open source GIMP). These tools, plus tutorials available on Wesnoth's official web site, will enable you to create your own maps, units, scenarios and even full campaigns.
There's a lot to like in Wesnoth, so long as you like turn based strategy. The genre has, in some ways, found it's way back into the main stream in recent years as a type of meta game. Yet the number of pure turn based game has generally dwindled in the mainstream. So, in a way, Wesnoth is a blast from the past. Yet it continues to progress and grow with new features and content. This is thanks to it's open development, which allows anyone to contribute to the project with no prerequisite other then a forum registration. All told there have been over 400 people that have contributed to the game, and more are always welcome. There are plenty of resources to help you get started. You may think that the experience wouldn't be all that helpful in future mod work, being that the games is by most modern standers primitive. But the lessons you will learn putting a mod together in Wesnoth are how to make a project work, how to plan it out and make your vision become reality. Those are things you need to know, no mater what tools you use. And who knows? Maybe you'll create something that will make it into the next version of the game.
So, whether you're unfamiliar with turn bases strategy games, or you've been playing Heros of Might and Magic for the last decade, with the new content in 1.6 and 1.7 it's a great time to discover this free gem for the first time, or come back to it if you haven't played in a while.