The Battle for Wesnoth
Back when Macs were young I grew addicted to the classic real-time strategy (RTS) game Civilization. I developed a love of the genre: WarCraft, Diablo, Myth, Age of Empires, Stronghold, Command and Conquer, Warrior Kings, I've played them all.
Imagine my delight when I found The Battle for Wesnoth. A new title in my favourite genre, and free to boot. It was developed by a group of RTS-obsessed gamers as an open-source attempt to create a game they and others liked. Wesnoth's busy bulletin boards show their success, with thousands online. There's a campaign mode, online play (LAN and over the Internet) and a game editor, so new campaigns appear frequently.
Set in a fantasy world of humans, elves, dwarves, orcs and the undead, Wesnoth's gameplay is simple. You command leaders with extra attributes and abilities, recruiting troops at castles to send into action. In the main campaign players pick from elven units – fighters, archers, healers, riders, mages and so on – and unlock new ones as the game progresses. Other campaigns offer different units.
You need to control villages to make money for your army. The developers have added a little love and imagination here. Each soldier has a unique personality and name. Personality affects performance; intelligent soldiers learn faster and stronger units are better at attack. As leaders and soldiers gain experience over time they acquire new strengths and abilities.
Campaigns consist of different levels with different aims (defeat the leader, find the object, or simple survival), and you can recall experienced soldiers from previous levels to help you in new ones. Eventually, you'll build a powerful army of mighty heroes, but you'll have to watch the game's artificial intelligence – it's very good at identifying strategic weakness and you can lose an army of heroes in a moment.
Units move around the board on a hex-by-hex basis, with different terrains affecting movement and combat. (Elves fight best in forests, by the way). Using melee, missile and magical weaponry units gain experience for kills. Enemy units also gain experience, so be warned, that vulnerable Orc could become a hero and turn the tide of the game. This focus on experience is important. When you begin it's easy to lose soldiers, and it's only later you realise that without a cadre of veterans you can't succeed. Wesnoth's boards advise new players to build up experienced troops.
match those in million-dollar games, The Battle for Wesnoth is deeply engaging for RTS nuts. It's a classic game – easy to learn but with hidden complexities that make it hard to master, and terribly addictive. The decision to assign personalities to individual units is genius. It's also important to note that even in easy mode Wesnoth is challenging to win, and with so many timed levels it's easy to lose just before your master stroke. For me, Wesnoth is a welcome find and highly recommended.