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A Great Game: The Battle for Wesnoth

Happy Holidays! To match the festive mood this week, I thought I would write a lighter article about a great game I came across a while ago called The Battle for Wesnoth. It is a turn-based strategy fantasy game that offers compelling tactical and strategic choices with a wide variety of scenarios and content. Best of all, the game is open source - completely free - and runs under all major operating systems (Windows, Mac and Unix). For an open source product, the graphics are amazing - there are even animations of unit attacking and dieing. Check out the screen shot below. There are more screen shots on the website, or you can just download the game and try it out.
The Battle for Wesnoth - Screenshot

The game can be played in a variety of modes: single scenarios versus the computer or other people in multiplayer mode, or campaigns involving a set of scenarios. Each scenario is played out on a single map. You start the scenario with a leader and a certain amount of gold with which you can recruit new units or recall experienced units from previous scenarios when playing campaigns. Captured villages provide gold each turn, while most units have an upkeep cost you must pay each turn. Managing your gold is therefore a critical strategic consideration, since in the long term the side with the larger income will be able to recruit more units and field a larger army. Recruiting the right units is equally important. Your choice of units to recruit will depend on your faction: Elves, Dwarves, Undead, Drakes, Humans, or Orcs and Trolls. Generally units can be categorized as melee attacker, ranged attacker, scout or a more specialized role such as healer, skirmisher, etc. Each faction has its own flavor, which means that units of different factions in the same category are quite different. For example, the Elven melee fighter has a ranged attack, the Dwarven melee fighter has better armor, and the Orc melee unit is cheaper. Each unit has strengths and weaknesses, and many units have a counter. For example, horsemen are vulnerable to piercing weapons and have no ranged attack, so archers or spearmen are good choices as counters.

The tactical level is where the Battle for Wesnoth really shines. There are a wide variety of factors that influence individual combats. Units can have either a melee or a ranged attack, or both. Units attacking choose the type of attack, and the defender must use the same type. Thus archers attacking horsemen with their ranged attack will not take any damage. Each attack has a number of swings, and each swing has a probability of hitting based on the terrain the defending unit is in, which varies across units and factions. For example, elves defend best in forest, and dwarves in the mountains. Infantry units generally defend better than mounted or flying units. The damage dealt by a unit is affected by factors like the time of day - undead do more damage at night and less in the day - and the resistance the defending unit has to the type of attack - impact, blade, piercing, fire, cold, or holy. Moving and positioning units is also tactically important. Most units exert a zone of control which limits the ability of enemy units to move past them, which is important to shield damaged units or weaker healers from enemy troops. As mentioned above, terrain determines a unit's chance of being hit, so it is important to position units in advantageous terrain and force the enemy into poor terrain. Villages not only provide income, but heal units stationed in them and often offer good defense, so they are often important tactical objectives.

I could write more about the game play, but instead I want to address a different point more relevant to this website: why is this game such a good piece of software? I believe the primary reason is that the core developers have a very clear vision of what they want the game to be. Checking out the game forums, and in particular the frequently proposed ideas page, there are many posts suggesting new features such as new units or changes to the game play. The majority of the time, the response from the core developers is a brief "No", perhaps with a one-sentence explanation. A few of the suggestions are acknowledged as good ideas, but if they would change the essentials of the game they still receive a "No". Sometimes the reason given is simply "Developer preference". One common weakness of open source software is that when an idea is proposed, the core developers do not want to say "No", so they compromise by allowing the feature in the software but disabled by default, with an option to turn it on. This leads to a vast number of options, which makes for a bad user interface and more complicated software. The developers for the Battle for Wesnoth, by contrast, take a firm position on options. To quote from the frequently proposed ideas thread: "Options are bad (OAB)! They complicate things for both the Developers and the players. If an idea isn't appropriate for inclusion, odds are it's not appropriate to be an option either." This consistently firm and decisive stance taken by the developers is only possible with a strong sense of purpose and vision concerning the software, and it is reflected in the final product.

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