Linux has many advantages. It's stable and it's free, and it has an entire social ethos behind it. But very few people install Linux for the great games that have been developed for it. Recently, a team of international developers has put together what may be the first great GPL game, and what also may join the Turn Based Strategy pantheon along with Civilization, Heroes of Might and Magic and Masters of Orion.

When I originally wrote this writeup, I said that the fact that the game was GPL was incidental to the game play. After spending more time with the game and the Wesnoth community, I found that the ethic of free software makes a big impact on gameplay. People are free to develop their own scenarios for the game, as well as make suggestions about new units or concepts. One of the most heartening examples of this is a discussion among developers of one scenario that many (including myself) found very hard and annoying, ending with the comment "I was the one who thought up this level, and I can't even stand it anymore".

The rules of the game, and the way they are implemented are as good, or better, than most commercial games. The only thing not up to today's standards are the graphics, although they are good for a turn based strategy, and for a game that fits in a ten megabye download.

The game is a turn based strategy, mixed with a role playing game, and is very good at both. In the game, you must manuever a variety of fantasy type units: elves, trolls, gryphon, merman and dozens of others, through a map. Each map has a separate goal, which is often a straightforward attempt to defeat all enemy forces, or the enemy leader; although the goal can be to move a unit to a certain part of the map, or to find an object. There is, of course, enemies to fight you, and you must choose when and where to fight them. As in many turn based strategies, the idea is to find the best terrain and time, and mix of units to attack your enemies with. Although the intricacies of that get quite involving, it is a process seen in many other games.

The RPG element comes from the fact that none of the scenarios takes place in isolation, but takes place in huge campaigns, with complicated sword and sorcery style plots taking part in the realm of Wesnoth. The plots are somewhat melodramatic, but do manage to keep the game interesting(especially for those science fiction geeks who recognize the references to Final Fantasy and The Lord of the Rings). However, the RPG element does not only come up during the cut scenes. Everytime you win a battle, your units gain experience. After gaining enough experience, they turn into a different type of unit. When you start another scenario in a campaign, you can recall your units from previous campaigns, which as the game progresses is more and more important. The roleplaying element comes in in trying to get survive each scenario, while not suffering too many casualties on your higher level units, while at the same time trying to promote other units to higher levels. In addition, some scenarios change whether you can hire new types of units. This makes the campaigns endlessly vexing. After getting 24 scenarios into the first campaign, on the easiest level, I found that I had not managed my resources well along the way, and that I had to start over from the beginning. It is certainly not an easy, or simple game.

Another thing that puts this game above many other games is that the AI actually is smart. Rather than haphazardly moving units towards you, the AI will group them and send them towards your weak points, and will retreat when it is weaker than you. It is very hard to trick it, or predict what it is going to do. The secret of the efficient AI design is the simplicity of the rule set: the rules are simple enough that an AI can be programmed to understand them. Players of the classic TBS series "Heroes of Might and Magic" can perhaps remember an opponent that would scramble around furiously, collecting resources that they didn't need, while ignoring more obvious battles. In Wesnoth, there is only one resource, so the AI is not in over its head.

Serious gamers should give Wesnoth a try, probably using this: apt-get install wesnoth The game is at release version 0.80 (As of January 2006, it is in release version 1.0 and 1.1), and can be downloaded for Windows if that is what you are into. Start playing Wesnoth now, before everyone else has. And if anyone can give me any advice on how to not lose terribly at this game, please tell me how.

The official page for Battle for Wesnoth can be found at www.wesnoth.org

Battle for Wesnoth is a wholly remarkable game. And it's free, baby, like the air, like a bird. A free spirit, free to decide, yearning to breathe free. Give me liberty or give me death.

"But Swap..." I hear a protest coming from those who know me. "You're a free software nut and a bit of a zealot. You think that everything the GPL touches turns to gold. Are you just trying to push your tree-hugging militant hippie agenda on us again?"

Yeahyeahyeah... I am a free software nut. But no, really, putting that little quirk of mine aside for a moment, let me reiterate an important fact.

Battle for Wesnoth is a wholly remarkable game.

It's so good, actually, that if you want to ignore the fact that it's a free game, you're perfectly allowed to. If you want to pretend that a paternalistic corporation is charging you money, hiding the source of the game, and forbidding distribution of the game to your friends, all in exchange for delivering to you an enjoyable gaming experience like Battle for Wesnoth is, then be my guest. The game is good enough to compete with a lot of the proprietary computer games out there. If you never want to look at its source code, never want to feel perfectly guiltless and righteous in distributing it freely to all of your friends, never consider contributing anything to the community that developed the game, then go ahead. You can treat this game as if it were another proprietary game you bought or pirated, as the case may be.

But boy, you'll sure be missing out if you do that.

Ok, fine. You'll be missing out on a very special component of the gaming experience that Battle for Wesnoth can offer, but by no means the most important component. That important component, of course, is playing the game itself. Download it and play it on a non-free operating system if you want (or better yet, aptitude install wesnoth). Its installers for MacOS X and... that other operating system... work wonderfully and effortlessly. A 60 meg download or so will quickly bring to you the best that the free software community can offer. So, pretending for a moment that this isn't a free game, how does the game compare with its competitors?

It more than holds its ground, my friend. More than holds its ground.

A Review of Battle for Wesnoth

Battle for Wesnoth is a turn-based military hex wargame in a fantasy setting. It can be played in a single-player campaign mode, where you follow the adventures of a leader in a developing storyline set in the world of Wesnoth, or in various flavours of multiplayer modes: skirmishes against the AI, hotseat on the same computer with a friend or friends you physically have next to you, or across the network with your sparring buddies, possibly on the official Wesnoth server.

General Game Mechanics

A maxim in Wesnoth's design is the KISS principle. That is, Keep It Simple, Stupid. A turn-based military hex wargame can get arbitrarily complicated, especially if too many bright ideas try to get wedged in at once. In an effort to keep too many cooks from spoiling the broth, the lead developers have decided that it's better to keep the rules relatively simple, but interesting enough to provide endless variety and capture the attention of the player. Hey, this principle worked well enough for hundreds of years of chess, and it's working for Wesnoth too.

But Wesnoth is no chess game. At a glance, its basic rules seem simple enough to be an ordinary table-top game instead of a computer game:

  1. Each side controls exactly one leader, which must be defended at all costs. Loss of the leader implies defeat for that side.

  2. The leader can recruit (or recall, in campaign mode) all other units when it stands on a keep, either the one it starts in, or any other keep. No other unit can recruit or recall.

  3. Units can move through the playing field's terrain according to the number of motion points they have. The number of motion points required depends on the terrain and the unit. Each hex can contain at most one unit.

  4. Gold is the only resource. Recruiting and recalling costs gold, and each unit also incurs an upkeep cost. Gold is earned by controlling villages in the playing field at the beginning of each turn. A village is controlled by placing a unit in it, and lost only when an enemy unit enters that village; there's no need to keep a unit in a village to control it.

  5. All combat is between adjacent hexes. The two units engaged in combat will attack and defend according to their damage points and the number of strikes available to them, both of which are fixed statistics assigned to each unit type.

  6. During combat, each strike has a probability between 10% and 90% of hitting its target. The actual probability depends only on the type of the defending unit and the terrain it is standing on.

  7. A side wins when all enemy sides have lost their leaders. In campaign mode, a scenario editor can choose to impose other winning conditions, such as moving your leader to a specific position in the map, or simply surviving for a set number of turns.

I think the rules of chess or go are more difficult to explain than this. Wesnoth's rules are easy enough to be quickly grasped by playing through the short tutorial included in the game.

Now, in a game where lots of suggestions from the players are expected and encouraged, it is inevitable that someone will say "gee, wouldn't it be cool if..." All of these wouldn't-it-be-cools are implemented as minor exceptions to the above rules. For example, magical attacks trump the hit percentages rule by always having 70% chance of hitting its target, regardless of the terrain type on which the defender stands, and this is the only way in which a magical attack differs from ordinary attacks. Night and day cycles affect damage inficted and received by 25% depending on the alignment of the unit, which can be lawful, neutral, or chaotic. Units with the plague ability, such as the undead zombies, convert vanquished units to their side. There are lots of other little modifications to the above rules, and all of them are minor and simple. No complicated and arcane calculations are necessary in order to know exactly how much damage a certain attack will do to a certain unit standing in a certain terrain at a certain time of day. Even if these calculations seem complicated, it's always possible to ask the game engine to show its scratchwork and see why a troll really whoops an elf's ass in the open fields away from the forests at nighttime.

Besides keeping rules relatively simple so that human players can easily keep them in their head at all time, another important motivation for upholding the KISS principle in Wesnoth is that the developers want to make sure that the AI can keep the rules in its head and thus play well. It works. The AI in Wesnoth is suitably clever. In fact, as all good software projects, Battle for Wesnoth started out when the lead developer, Australian-born David White, wanted to scratch an itch and decided that he wanted a simple but fun game with a good AI. He was playing Civilization III one day when he said to himself, "gee, I bet I could program a better AI than that", and indeed he could, so he did.

Another salient feature of Wesnoth's gameplay is the great variety of units, factions, and races available for players, and the obvious care that has been undertaken in making sure that units are balanced. Every unit has its strengths and weaknesses, and none of these are so pronounced that they cannot be overcome by something the other side can use to retaliate. I'm especially impressed with how by carefully assigning a few statistics to each unit, Wesnoth's developers and contributors have managed to give each unit a very unique and interesting personality. Drakes are daytime units skilled with blades, slightly weak to arrows and spears, resistant to cold, and almost all with ranged fire-breathing attacks. Dwarves are sturdy and resilient agoraphobic units with bad defense ratings in open fields, but high defense in mountains and hills through which they can also move much more quickly than other races not used to mountainous topography. Zombies are slow stragglers, easily dispatched, but cheap enough to be mass-produced so that they can overwhelm by sheer numbers, plus any unit they defeat becomes another zombie fighting for their side. Like all undead units, they are extremely weak to holy attacks, which luckily for them are available only to a select few units, such as the healing white mages. And so on. The units' statistics tell a story all by themselves.

Fortunately, campaign mode tells more of a story, in case your imagination needs some help and you're not used yet to geeking out over statistics. The game showcases at least six official campaigns, and dozens more have been developed by the community. The official campaigns are long and interesting, some with over twenty scenarios, and a story unfolds as you progress through the many battles. They have been almost completely translated to many languages. The yarns they weave are familiar to all fantasy fans, which is not a bad thing at all. Hey, James Bond isn't a successful franchise because of its innovation, and we all like to hear our favourite stories again and again. Expect to see story elements from well-known fantasy sources in Wesnoth, the usual geek fare like Dungeons & Dragons, Final Fantasy, and we couldn't leave out The Lord of the Rings, of course. Wesnoth is no pastiche, however, so a few twists in the story will lead you away from the well-trodden path and may catch your attention.

Aesthetics of the Game

Wesnoth isn't a perfect game. The first rough edges players will notice are in its artwork or sounds, although I keep seeing constant improvements in both areas by the community. For example, there are scores of units to play with, and although they all have at least one graphical representation, some of them don't have a full set of frames of animation, and only a few have close-up portraits when you look at their detailed statistics. A lot of sounds effects get reused, and sometimes you swear that a courageous elvish archer shouldn't make the same sissy sound when being hit as a wimpy shaman does. The situation is that there simply haven't been enough creative minds out there who have decided to step out and offer artwork, sounds, or music for the game.

Fortunately, however, none of these aesthetical shortcomings of the game are serious enough to detract from gameplay. The game could be a bit more polished, true, but it certainly doesn't look bad. When David White put out the first versions of the game, he admitted it himself: the game looked like crap, because he's not a graphic artist; he's a coder. Part of the design philosophy of the game does include a clause about wanting the game to look good graphically. David says that he likes the eye candy, and that this is one reason why he can't really immerse himself in the game experience of the likes of Nethack. It is a good occurrence that by now the game has attracted enough attention of graphic artists to amass enough contributions and come closer to David's original intent.

The game's interface, on the other hand, is clean and uncluttered. Menus and dialogues guide the player through the preliminary preparations, and during gameplay itself the game offers a slick interface that nevertheless offers at a glance all of the information that could be relevant for playing. There is a sidebar with information about the currently selected or moused-over unit, which is detailed enough right down to giving each unit a fantasy-sounding name. On the top right there is a miniaturised version of the entire playing field. A few menus and a status bar decorate the top of the screen. The playing field occupies most of the screen, naturally enough. Almost all actions and commands can be executed both through the graphical user interface or by memorising a few mnemonically-named hotkeys. Lots of options can be customised in the game's preferences dialogue.

I should mention the game's music too. I find it quite adequate and that it makes for good ambientation. All pieces sound strongly epic, which is what music for fantasy settings should be. Some are calm and almost sorrowful, while others are more insistent and militarised. At present, the game only features about 13 pieces spread across 25 megs of ogg files, so about one hour of unique music. This is sadly not always enough for the ear to not notice repetition. I personally find myself too immersed in the gameplay to really notice the relatively small variety of music available, and the pieces usually suit the mood of the game quite well. However, others may be more sensitive to musical variation than I am. I have certainly never heard any substantial complaint from gamers about the game's music, I must add.

One more bit, about the game's difficulty. The game is hard, but not unreasonably hard. An aspect of playing a campaign that perhaps isn't emphasised enough and some people learn the hard way is that it's absolutely essential to build a strong army of veterans as you progress, or you'll end up in a scenario that you can't win because your army isn't strong enough. In that case, the only solution seems to start a campaign from the beginning and take more care of your veteran units. I got into such a situation myself after playing five scenarios of a campaign, and I had to restart from the beginning. I put this warning here hopefully to prevent further frustration from anyone else.

Multiplayer Wesnoth

So, you've played through a good portion of a campaign, and you are beginning to feel that you need something more interactive. Perhaps the AI has begun to frustrate you a little with its ever devious ploys, or perhaps you found a loophole in its internal logic that you have consistently exploited to achieve victory (in which case, may I suggest that you glance at the eminently readable C++ code of the Wesnoth AI engine and consider providing a patch?). Either way, playing against a machine just isn't doing it for you anymore, and you want more unpredictability.

Welcome to server.wesnoth.org, my friend.

The multiplayer layout is familiar enough to anyone who's ever played games online. There's a lobby; there are ongoing games; there are games looking for players to join. You can either go observe an ongoing game and kibitz if you want on what players are doing, host your own game and wait for someone to come along and test your might, or hop into a game that's waiting for opponents to join. Currently, the official Wesnoth server is active and lively. Finding people to play with is easy. After choosing your faction, your leader, and gameplay parameters if you're hosting the game, battle begins.

The first thing that is noticeable about multiplayer games is that since humans are slower players than the AI, you will spend more time waiting for the other players to finish their turns than you did in the single player game. A time limit per turn can be enforced by the game engine, but I have hardly ever seen this used. Rather, the preferred etiquette seems to engage in some friendly chat with the other players when it's not your turn. The players I have met online are usually interesting folks and highly international. It is not unusual for a four-way match to have, say, a representative from Norway, France, Spain, and México. I am sure that the widespread translation efforts of the Wesnoth community have had something to do with this worldwide appeal.

The players I have met in the official Wesnoth server seem to be of a different stock than what I have seen in the multiplayer servers of other games. They seem to be, well, more mature, more sportsmanlike, more friendly. Oh, taunts are in order, of course. You will taste my blade, hu-mon scum, or, your knight will pay for his insolence. The usual. Secret plotting between allies also takes place. You sneak out and capture their villages in that corner while I charge with a full head-on attack. Players can put labels on the map either disclosing their tactics, or sometimes just for humourous effect.

There are many standard multiplayer maps, for two players and up to a maximum of six. In addition, many players have provided their own custom maps. Frequently players will introduce special rules in their own custom maps, sometimes heavily modding the game by using Wesnoth's own homegrown Wesnoth Markup Language. I have played some maps where the mods were substantial enough to give the impression of playing a completely different game. E.g, villages would sell items, or offer complete healing of a unit for a fee. Hit percentages could be replaced by a deterministic method for determining hits or misses, for example, and some players prefer it this way and leaving Lady Luck out of it. Wesnoth offers a map editor to facilitate this sort of player contributions.

The Wesnoth Community of Freedom

Since we have begun talking about community aspects of the game when playing online, let's start talking about the community itself. The first thing to notice is how approachable the game's developers are. The actual folks who have contributed code, music, or artwork to Wesnoth can be seen themselves playing in the official server. Doesn't that sound exactly what a good game should be like, that it's fun enough for its developers to be out there playing with everyone else? They're doing this for their own amusement as much as they're doing it for yours. The game isn't being developed under pressure to meet deadlines, with a marketing department breathing down the necks of the developers. It's simply all being done for fun and for sharing.

The community has two IRC channels for talking about the game, in the freenode servers; #wesnoth is for general gameplay talk, and #wesnoth-dev is the place to chat about game development itself. I've occasionally visited both channels, and I've found smart and friendly people in there willing to chat about everything Wesnoth. If you need help with a particular scenario in campaign mode, if you're having problems with an aspect of gameplay, if you think that something needs to be changed (and you also have very specific ideas on how to do it, preferrably), or if you just want to hang out, then welcome, welcome, welcome!

Besides that, there are also very active forums which can be found from the main webpage (http://www.wesnoth.org). For conversations that don't fit into an IRC channel, this is the place to go to.

A word about user-generated content. It's a truism of modern gaming that the best games are the ones that users can alter to their own tastes. id software discovered this winning formula ever since players were allowed to create their own Doom maps and by releasing the source of their game engines so as to allow further hacking. Battle for Wesnoth takes user-generated content to the next level since absolutely everything in the game is user-generated content. It's quite a different gaming experience to know that you have absolute freedom to poke around the game's insides and do absolutely whatever you please with them.

Battle for Wesnoth is constantly scouting out talent, as all aspects of gameplay need improvement. The best thing is that it's much easier to get into Wesnoth development than it is with other free software projects. Sure, there's coding to be done, but there are lots of other things that the game needs. Are you good at drawing? Wesnoth needs artwork. Can you do music? Wesnoth currently offers 25 megs of music, and could certainly use more. Do you possess any abilities to weave a good yarn? Design a campaign. Fancy yourself a sound engineer? Sound effects are always in continuous demand. How many languages can you speak? Wesnoth needs translators for its more than 30 languages. And so on, and so forth. I myself have poked around its probability calculations, since I gotta put this maths degree to good use sometime, and I have begun to collaborate with the game's Spanish translation. It's very easy to get involved with Wesnoth development at many different levels.

Free software and gaming have never had a happier marriage than the one evident in Battle for Wesnoth. Go on, have a look, download the game. Once you're hooked as I am, I'll be seeing you in the multiplayer servers!


Watch the game's trailer showcasing some of the game's artwork, music, and gameplay at http://www.wesnoth.org/wiki/Trailer

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