Thursday, September 29, 2011

Highly polished (free) turn based strategy game: The Battle for Wesnoth Review

It has been a long time since I have posted anything here.  A problem that I tend to have is that games that I feel very anxious about reviewing, in the fear that I am not doing them proper justice.  Battle for Wesnoth is a game I have been playing on and off for at least four years.  It is an excellent game, and I feel I finally wrote an excellent review of it.  Enjoy:

The Battle for Wesnoth is a free open-source fantasy turn based strategy game. Players take turns recruiting moving, and attacking units on a hexagonal map. The game allows you to play single player or multi-player with up to 9 players in the same game. You are also able to create your own units, maps, and campaigns. Although each unit can have several abilities, traits, defense values, and alignments, the game is still very easy to learn. Beating the harder campaigns will require some practice however.

Note: Click the images to see the enlargements, especially the ones on the left.

In Battle for Wesnoth you take control of an army and its leader(marked with a gold crown). The leader is usually a better than average unit that you are unable to recruit. The leader is able to build the rest of your army by standing on a keep and recruiting other units. You are able to recruit units until you run out of gold. The picture below shows a leader in his keep, with two flagged villages south of the river, and some unflagged villages north of the river.

Gold management is an important part of the game, especially in the campaigns. Every unit costs you 1 gold per level per turn unless it has the loyal trait. The only normal way to get gold is to move one of your units onto a village. Once you have flagged a village with your color, it will generate money for you each turn, until someone else moves a unit onto the village. While you can ignore gold once you are done recruiting for the level most campaign levels will let you carry over some gold from the previous level. Not having the gold in the next level might prevent you from recalling key troops and cost you the game.

Villages also are able to heal units for up to 8 hit points (or cure poison). This healing takes place at the beginning of a player's turn so if you see a wounded enemy unit move onto a village, try and take it out or it will eventually regenerate to full strength. Village control is very important, especially if you are playing as a faction without healers. The only other way to heal is to have a unit not move or act, and this will only restore 2 hit points.

The general object of the game is to defeat the opponent's leaders, although many of the campaign maps have alternate goals. You lose the game instantly if you lose your leader, or anyone else deemed important (usually marked with a silver crown). Although your instinct might be to keep them away from combat entirely, this will keep them at low levels and make them very vulnerable near the end of the campaign when units are more powerful and deal more damage.

The Battle for Wesnoth has over 200 different units you can control, split among the six playable factions and non-factioned monsters and critters. Typically you'll only be able to recruit base level units such as the elvish archer or spearman. You will have to level them up to be able to see the high level units.

As the units do battle with eachother, every participating unit will gain one experience per level of their opponent. There is an additional bonus of 8x the opponents' level for the unit that strikes the killing blow. When a unit levels up they are fully healed, and may be able to become a stronger more specialized unit. 
An example of the in-game help.

The elvish archer for example can become an elvish ranger or an elvish marksman. Both have more life and do more damage than an elvish archer, but the marksman has a bonus to hit enemy units, while the ranger is able to become invisible if it is in a forest and no enemy units are next to it. A good mix of units is essential to making a successful force. When you have the option to upgrade, be sure to click the links to the great in-game help so you can see both possible upgrades.

Units usually have an alignment: Lawful, Neutral, or Chaotic. Chaotic units fight best at night, Lawful units fight best during the day. Neutral units are unaffected. If you are playing a chaotic army, versus a lawful one, you may want to give ground during the day and reclaim it at night, rather than being exterminated.

To make units a bit more unique, each living unit is assigned up to two traits on creation. Quick is an example trait, it allows the unit one extra move per turn, but reduces maximum hit points by 5%. Undead units usually only get the undead trait, making them immune to poison.

You can rename the units you recruit and as they become more powerful you may become a bit attached to them. Unfortunately, you cannot complete most wars without a few people dying. A good strategy is to always recruit a few base level units on each map. You can use them to screen your elite units so that you lose more base units than elite units.

A bowman attacking a thief.

Combat in Wesnoth can be a bit overwhelming, but is pretty simple once you realize a few things. First most units have multiple attacks modes. If you look at the picture to the right, the bowman can select to use his bow or his short sword to attack. Attacking with the short sword will cause the thief to counterattack if he is still alive. Attacking with the bow has the chance to do more damage and will prevent the thief's counterattack since the thief has no ranged weapon. Why wouldn't the bowman always use the bow? Well against a thief it would always do more damage, but you might not want to kill the thief to allow another unit to collect the experience bonus from the killing blow. Also, using a ranged attack against a Grand Mage would be a bad idea, as Grand Mages have very powerful magic attacks at range and weaker melee attacks.
Combat statistics.

In addition to attack modes, units have a defensive value based on the terrain they are in. This is resolved as a chance to be missed. So if you move a bowman into a village that shows 70% over it, that means that enemy units will only be able to hit the bowman 30% of the time. The final factor in combat is resistance, which can increase or decrease the damage a unit takes depending on the attack type. For example, skeletons take less damage from slashing weapons than they do from magic or blunt weapons. Luckily, the game will do the math for you and show you the percentage outcomes of your attacks if you click the Damage Calculations button in the combat screen.

Game Modes:
A list of units available for recall.

Campaign mode is the real draw to the game. They tell epic stories ranging from 3-30+ individual maps with cut-scenes and in map dialogues. It is important to pay attention to the objectives, as not all of them require you to defeat the enemy leaders. Some campaigns will allow you to collect items to further improve whatever unit steps on the item.

Once you are past the first stage of campaign mode, you will have access to the recall command allowing you to bring in any unit you have controlled in any previous stage for 20 gold. These units will keep all of the experience, upgrades, and items they have picked up. This is usually the only way to see the Level 4 and Level 5 units.

Multi-player lets you play with up to 8 other players. You can play on their servers, host your own game, join someone else's game, or play hot-seat on one computer. You can select your faction and leader and other than that it will be a normal game. Has the possibility to be a long game.

Skirmish You can go into multiplayer and play a map against computer players, but with only one map to play through you likely will not be able to advance your units enough to see high levels. Other than being able to choose your faction and leader and to try a new map, there is no reason to play this over the excellent campaigns.

An example Cut-scene.

The game comes with an extensive manual, with links between topics reminiscent of wikipedia. All of the information you need is readily available through hyperlinks, with a lot of nice background reading provided if you are interested.

The artwork and music is beautiful and helps build a sense of immersion in the game.

The Artificial Intelligence is very good without cheating. It will prioritize finishing off wounded units, killing your healers, and knocking out units right before you level them up. It is obnoxious, but the challenge makes winning that much better.

Many games advertise themselves as free, but have in game purchases or ads. This game has neither. Everything is actually free, which is very refreshing. (Except for the iphone version, which in fact costs money)


Although I love this game and I love being able to play games while I'm not in front of my computer I feel that the iOS version of this game does not work. In some maps you control 30 or more characters, and moving and attacking with them becomes a hassle when you have to tap repeatedly to do it. The tiny view of the large maps becomes an annoyance as well. Although things are likely not as bad on the iPad, I would say avoid purchasing this for iOS. It is much better played on another platform.

May lead to one more turn syndrome.

Although I really love playing the game and would like to make my own campaign, the markup language required to create your own campaigns is overwhelmingly complex to learn.

Final Thoughts:

If you at all interested in turn based strategy games than you should give The Battle of Wesnoth a try. It will not cost you anything (unless you ignore my advice) and you will find epic stories, great music, nice (if dated) graphics, engaging characters, and a ton of replay value. There is a ton of user generated content available for download through the program itself. Extra campaigns, new units, new maps, and a lot more. Again, there is no charge for any of this downloadable content. How many games can say that?

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