Aside from important tasks like generating cat memes and ensuring one’s embarrassing teen fan fiction is never forgotten, the collaborative nature of the internet can sometimes produce amazing things. Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based strategy game first created by David White, has been an open source project since 2003, with hundreds of creators putting their own spin on the project. While some loose guidelines are present to ensure the game has a cohesive feel, by and large developers are given free reign to create the scenario of their dreams, resulting in a near infinite supply of strategic maps to conquer. Taking inspiration from genre giants Advance Wars and Fire Emblem, Battle For Wesnoth has enough tricks up its sleeve to surprise even the most ardent of strategy fans.
Wesnoth is a war-torn kingdom, with the populace splintered into many little factions vying for dominance. Be it a necromancer settling into a country home, or two dysfunctional brothers reunited in protecting their village, each combatant has a strong motivation for emerging triumphant on the battlefield. Each of the 17 core campaigns tells a loosely-linked tale of dramatic battles, each piece leading to a greater understanding of Wesnoth’s detailed history as a whole.
Battle for Wesnoth is, at first glance, moulded in the Advance Wars style of strategic gaming. Both the player and the enemy start with a commander unit, which must be protected at all costs, and purchase more soldiers via currency earned by capturing towns on the map. After a few turns, however, the differences start to appear. Battle for Wesnoth is set on a hexagonal grid, which allows friend and foe alike to attack on a wide variety of angles. Individual units are more valuable, too, possessing varying stats and the ability to level up into more powerful forms. On top of the rock-paper-scissors of weapon strengths and weaknesses, the time of day also needs to be considered, with the lawful humans getting a boost in the daytime, and zombies and bats working better in the darkness.
The many rules are a lot to take in, especially if the player is unfamiliar with the turn-based strategy genre, but the game’s comprehensive tutorial explains its ideas well. A good chunk of beginner campaigns are available, too, so the player has time to become familiar with the basics before tackling the more challenging levels. What might be harder to get used to, however, is the large amount of luck present in the game. Like other games in the genre, a soldier has a percentage chance to hit their opponent, with terrain and weapon choice influencing the likelihood of a blow landing. The percentage system is common in the strategy genre, but the numbers are often presented inaccurately, with a 70% displayed chance to hit in a modern Fire Emblem actually much closer to 85%. This is done because humans, as a whole, are generally pretty terrible at estimating odds, and feel ripped off when a ‘guaranteed’ 80% hit misses. Battle for Wesnoth presents the odds exactly as they are, and the contrast is initially quite abrasive. I had my entire party surrounding a necromancer, all swinging for a 60% chance to hit, and every single one missed. The enemy is thankfully just as inaccurate, however, and all the maps I played were well balanced. Save states are plentiful if you really get stuck, but for the easy maps at least playing without overusing the saves was far more satisfying.
Story often takes a back foot in strategy games, but I was pleasantly surprised by the level of detail given to Wesnoth’s fantasy world. The tutorial elves were given a lot of character, only mourning units who were about to level up, and the awkward relationship between the siblings in the ‘A Tale of Two Brothers’ campaign was presented well. Choices matter during a campaign, too; the player can decide if a mysterious stranger should join the party, and a password given in dialogue can be used on the next map to dismiss the guards. These little details make the game much more engaging, and connect one scenario neatly to the next.
The presentation of Battle For Wesnoth is simple, but serves as a perfect bird’s-eye view over the battlefield. Unit types are easy to tell from the shape of their sprite, and the various terrain tiles fit neatly into the hexagonal spaces. Detailed character portraits bring the major players of the story to life, and every soldier type has their own detailed illustrations within the guide. I would like an alternative to the red, yellow, and green lights that shows which characters can move, as it is not easy to read when units are in a big group and a colourblind player would not be able to make it out at all. Tabbing between the characters is an easy compromise, however, and the open-source nature of the game makes it easy for a player to make changes if they wish.
I have only scratched the surface of Battle for Wesnoth, but I am incredibly impressed with what I have played. The gameplay is explained well, maps are creatively designed, and the performance is so well optimised the game could run on a toaster. If you wish to support the developer, a donation can be made via Liberapay, or alternatively a paid iOS version of the game is also available.
Next week we will be playing Isle of Ewe, a 3D puzzle platformer about herding sheep. The game can be downloaded from Steam here. Discussions are happening in the Discord Server, or you can email me here.