The forces of evil (blue, yellow) casually overrun my stronghold of good (red), whilst my negative gold balance ensures I cannot summon any more warriors.
I’d like to say I was a fan of strategy games; after all, what could be more satisfying than meticulously building up an army and crushing any enemy foolish enough to oppose you? I’d also like to say that I was a master of such games, that no orc army could possibly be strong enough to take down my valiant human warriors (or vice versa), or that no dungeon of evil was too daunting for my forces of justice. Unfortunately, such is not the case- no matter how much I may enjoy the early stages of Warcraft, Dungeon Keeper and the like, by the time it gets to around level five, I’m hopelessly outclassed. And now, I have turned my attention to Battle for Wesnoth, a turn-based strategy game with a difference- that difference being that it’s near impossible right from the outset.
The aim of the game seem simple enough; using your reserves of gold, you must summon an army of warriors capable of protecting your heroes and assorted NPCs, whilst either defeating the enemy commander or getting character A to point B- all in a set amount of turns. Unfortunately, within these deceptively straightforward instructions lies a world of pain- this is no ordinary game, but rather one created by particularly vicious sadists for the pleasure of dedicated masochists. With that in remind, I shall review the sentence written above, this time pointing out how practically ever word signifies no small amount of pain.
· Reserves of gold: At the beginning of each level, you will be gifted with a certain amount of gold with which to create your army, and tempting as it may be to leave some in the bank, you may as well use it all straight away. The reason for this is that once you have warriors on the field, you will be forced to pay upkeep costs every turn, costs which will no doubt bankrupt you and see you reach negative gold values.
How, then, is any enterprising commander supposed to stave off the threat of spiralling gold debts? The answer to this lies in capturing villages- a relatively simple task that simply involves moving a warrior onto a village. Unfortunately, not only is it equally simple for enemy units to steal villages by doing the exact same thing, but it is unlikely that any player can keep hold of a profitable amount of villages before either getting slaughtered or running out of turns.
· Army of warriors: To populate your army, you’ll have access to two choices- recruiting fresh-faced level one warriors from a limited selection of classes (horseman, infantry, mage etc), or recalling battle-scarred veterans from previous levels. It soon becomes clear, however, that most level one classes are absolutely useless- too weak to effectively attack the enemy or even put up a good defence. It may be the case that they would become formidable powerhouses if you could level them up, but in order to gain EXP, a character must defeat enemies without getting slaughtered in the process.
Even if you manage to transform your puny entry-level unit into something stronger, a new problem arises- the desire not to lose your investment. Although warriors from previous levels can be recalled, once they die, they are lost forever. Therefore, having painstakingly moulded your level one Heavy Infantryman into a Level Three Iron Mauler over the course of about seven levels, you may find yourself reluctant to put him on the front lines, where a careless blow from a stray orc could leave him in a shallow grave.
· Protecting your heroes: As with most games, the death of your player character and his named allies will result in immediate game over, resulting in problems not too dissimilar to the ones mentioned above. The safest place for your heroes is well behind the front lines, but this also prevents them from gaining EXP- ensuring that when the time comes for them to fight, they will be far too weak to survive. Similarly, even if they have the strength to hold their own in battle, can you really afford to risk their lives?
To complicate matters still further, troops can only be summoned when your player character is inside a keep, limiting his movements or, in the case of a level where he must reach a specific location, further limiting the number of units you can summon.
· Getting character A to point B: Also of tactical importance in the game are terrain and time of day, which can play a part in strengthening or weakening an enemy’s attack. In principle, this should add some tactical complexity to the game- in practice, there is rarely the time or opportunity to do more than make an all out attack regardless of conditions.
· Enemy: In many levels, it won’t just be your faction vs. one enemy faction- the field can play host to a number of different armies. In the best case scenario, your enemies will fight amongst themselves, but you can be sure that more often than not, the disparate sides will merely crush you in a pincer formation.
To make matters worse, the enemy often has little difficulty in summoning a far larger army than you could ever hope for- with each enemy unit needing at least three of four blows from your men before it is defeated.
· Amount of Turns: As if all of the above wasn’t bad enough, matters are further complicated by the need to complete each level before your turns run out. This is a huge limiter on the possible strategies a player can use within a level, with some levels needing to be completed with a very specific set of moves if victory is to be at all possible.
With these inherent problems, is Wesnoth even worth playing at all? I have to admit that for a brief span of time the game proved somewhat addictive, with each victory over a near impossible level spurring me on to try my hand at the next. In the end, however, it was a relationship fated to end badly, for struggling against such adverse conditions can only result in disillusionment.