Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

The Battle for Wesnoth: The Best Campaign Depth I’ve Seen Yet– Anywhere!

I’ve always loved overly complex games like Car Wars, Battletech, and Star Fleet Battles where each unit in the game has its own nuanced capabilities. Taking such unweildy games and patching together a real ongoing campaign is a lot of work, though… and it is very hard to push the scope to the epic levels that seem just out of reach most of the time. Then there are the huge hex and chit war games that dominated the seventies: you get the grand scope there, but you lose the nuanced uniqueness of the individual units. You’d think that computers would have opened up some vibrant answers to this issue, but even a game like Starcraft has cookie cutter units and a campaign that feels more like a set of scripted episodes than a real war. Good thing we’ve got The Battle for Wesnoth.

Wesnoth is essentially Ogre with a fantasy theme… and without ranged attacks. It sounds weird, but it actually works in practice. Each unit has a menu of attack options that include “ranged” attacks, but it’s all abstracted: you’re still just attacking the unit next to you. If your target doesn’t have a “ranged” attack option, he doesn’t get to return fire. That’s pretty much the whole point of long range Missile-tank units in a game like Ogre, so the mechanics are simplified without sacrificing the tactical options. This design decision makes it possible to have a powerful AI that is fun to play against.

I’ve only played the “Heir to the Throne” campaign so far. It’s huge. It is packed with all kinds of scenarios (move your leader to this point, destroy these leaders, hold out for n turns, etc) and unlike the Starcraft campaign, occasionally gives you choose-your-own-adventure type options. (That small feature doubles the replay value of a large campaign.) Another thing about the game is that you can win all of the individual battles and still lose the war. I played my first campaign on the beginner level and made it to the end by swarming the enemy with tons of cheap units. In the final showdown, I had very few advanced units at my disposal. Some reviewers have criticized the game for this, but in my opinion it’s the key to what makes it a great game. You can’t just focus on narrowly scraping through each scenario– you have to prepare for the endgame even as you accomplish more pressing short-term objectives.

The amazing thing about this game is that you end up mourning the loss of every single unit. Units gain experience for each attack they participate in… and more if they can take out an enemy. As they level-up, they go from being cannon-fodder to gaining new powers and greater mettle. Finally, each unit has two personality modifiers that subtly (but significantly) affect there abilities. Each unit is its own unique little snowflake– and you have to risk them to get anything accomplished. Losing a unit that’s just on the verge of leveling up is especially painful.

Jeffro heartily salutes the game designers and developers that not only came up with this great game, but also implemented it and made it available for free. You guys have done something significant. You’ve somehow addressed a hidden failing that underlies so many of my favorite tabletop games.

Ah well, a game is only as good as its tactics. And as Car Wars showed, action and drama are pretty important too. Wesnoth has it all– with some crazy strategic elements to boot. Here’s some of my condensed advise, followed by a play by play of how it worked out in the first three scenarios “Hero” level difficulty “Heir to the Throne” game.

Scenario 1:
Begin moving Konrad northeast on the first turn after recruiting units. Take as many riders as you can– they retreat better and can also get into attack position-level easier. (The tough monsters on this level in the enclosed space encourage this tactic.) Start working on leveling up a druid now. Get as many units past the half mark as you can; don’t go to level 2, yet; retreat any unit that’s killed an enemy. Soften up trolls with Delfador, finish them off with arrows. Take potshots against level 3 monsters before dealing the killing blow. Consider sacrificing a fighter unit to draw the attacks away from your more experienced units. If you hide your units behind the front of elves in the northeast, they may not leave you a place to attack enemy units.

Scenario 2:
Attack from the northeast with your allied horsemen– there’s not enough allied units to get in your way during the battle this time. Bring back your druid and your units that have high levels of experience. Don’t bring out too big of an army– save back some gold for later. (You may not finish early in this one….) Do not expose Delfador, your loyal horseman, or your druid unless you have fighters and horsemen you can bring in to cover them. A damaged and inexperienced unit can be used as a lightening rod, but remember that the enemy loves to cut around your units to ace your weak druid unit and can sometimes send two or three units to kill Delfador. Attack remaining enemy units with all other characters before you deal the killing blow to the enemy leader– that’s free xp! Units with ranged attacks can slowly “ping” their way up to marginal experience levels by taking many “free” ranged attacks that cannot be answered.

* Units that are intelligent lack other more useful qualities. Consider sacrificing those over more versatile units unless they do indeed survive to level up.

* “Quick” is almost essential in a druid– and also handy in a wizard. You may want to recruit spares until you get quick units and then use the slowpokes as lightening rods to cover your more critical units. (Later on in the campaign, you may also prefer to bring back your “quick” dwarves instead of their tougher compatriots– otherwise they’ll have trouble keeping up with your host.)

* Don’t get into a rut of *always* charging with your horsemen. You take double damage for those, so consider using a weaker attack instead– and consider promoting to the more versatile knight instead of the charge-happy lancer. Charging 3rd level enemies with first level horsemen is generally not going to turn out well– and is generally bad for lancers, too.

Scenario 3:
Send your main host west and send Konrad with a small detachment south. A pair of raw recruit horsemen can work on colonizing villages and covering the rear against wolf riders that break through your line. Maintain about four cheap fighters for screening your units. Do not expose Delfador, your druid, or your wizard– don’t get cocky! Work to allow the druid and the wizard to deal the killing blow as often as you can. If you start the level with several units at half or better xp, try to get them to level up while they’re damaged slightly so you get some free healing. The difference between a marginal victory and a major victory is in how many units you get to 3/4 xp and/or promote to the second level. Do not risk these units! Slow down and use your flypaper to screen them well.

Play by Play:

Scenario 1: 154 Gold, int/dex Shaman at 5/26, int/dex *Hero* at 0/72, str/dex Scout at 17/32, loy/int Delfador at 52/120

Scenario 2: Died… needed more archers and horsemen– maybe 3 each? Maybe needed to use all the cash…. Need more flypaper. Leveled up the scout and the shaman pretty quick. Lost my fighters like crazy.

Scenario 2: Yep… Archers and Horsemen are much more effective than fighters in this scenario. Also… terrain is much better for you if you come up from the South. (Also, the allies distract some enemies to the north, allowing you to fight your opponents piecemiel.) Finished one turn early with only 57 gold for the next scenario. Delfador 81/120, quick/strong Horseman 33/44, strong/dexterous Shaman 9/32, intelligent/dexterous *Hero* 16/72, strong/dextrous Scout 23/32, resilient/dexterous Archer 20/44, strong/dextrous Archer 28/44, strong/intelligent Horseman 13/35. I’d say that the quick/strong Horseman, strong/dexterous Shaman, strong/dexterous Scout 23/32 are particularly good units. Dexterous archers are not a bad deal, either…. I *did* lose my loyal horseman unit– I should have kept him on mop up duty, but stuck him right in reach of two wolf-riders after a botched attack. I’ve got three or four units just on the edge of leveling up. Nice! Now I want a leader unit to make my level 1 units more effective in battle….

Scenario 3: Send your host west, and then build up a 6-8 unit cavalry to send south! I lost a couple of experienced units. At some point things devolve into an all-out brawl. “If Delfador kills this guy and if we gang up on this other guy, there won’t be that many enemies left,” you think. You take out tons of enemies but expose your wounded units. It’s hard to keep retreating when you’re so close to finishing the battle. If the enemy forms something like a line in front of you, you’re limited in how well you can concentrate your firepower. Cavalry coming in from behind can be devastating because you not only get more attacks, but you also pin the wounded units. (Also… heavily damaged units can take a long time to heal if you don’t have any healers in your army.) Here’s my final tally:

int/loy Delfador 16/133 — he leveled up, I think
int/dex Hero 34/72 — Gararal is half way to advancing to level 3! This unit has done some serious butt-kicking.
str/int Knight 20/96
loy/res Mage 34/60 — yeah, I kept him alive; got him half way to level 2, too!
int/dex Archer 32/35 — just on the edge… dexterous, too
res/dex Archer 19/44 — aonther dexterous one… halfway there…
res/str Horseman 10/44 — A tough horseman with extra charge damage? This one’s a keeper…
int/str Fighter 14/32 — halfway there… will probably be my next Leader.
str/res Scout 6/32 — still wet behind the ears… but able to take punishment… is he worth the extra 2 gold to bring him back?

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