Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Games for Netbooks: FreeCiv

Netbooks are great for trips, but too limited to play most modern games. Lots of great games are playable, however, if you are willing to look a little further back in time. Today I discuss FreeCiv, an open source Civilization II+ clone, which is perfect for Netbook play.

FreeCiv is a turn-based strategy game that plays a bit like a cross between Sim City and a wargame. Starting from a single city, you build up a large empire, while researching the necessary technology for fast expansion or powerful armies, or whatever suits you strategy. Towards the middle and end of the game empire building takes a back seat to fighting your opponents, trying to find the right combination of units and terrain to take their cities by force.

The game seems very hard when you first start: in my first 3 games I couldn't win against the novice AI in the tutorial mode, even after 10+ hours of trying! This highlights one big issue with the game: it's pretty easy to pick up and mess around with the empire building, but really hard to master anything beyond that. The in-game tutorial get's you started, but leaves way to much unstated for any hope of being able to win against even a most novice computer AI. More detailed web-based tutorials fill in the gaps, but even then mysteries remain, such as how to take over even moderately defended cities.

As it turns out, this is because there are a couple rather arbitrary game features which are critical to success, but are rather non-intuitive. One is to switch your mode of government to a republic as soon as possible, (perhaps researching ships first), and second is to incite 'celebration/rapture' once you have size 3+ cities, because this causes them to grow every two turns, independent of the amount of stored grain. That will grow your empire in a hurry, faster than anything else you can possibly do. Two unit types are also very important to military success: ironsides, because they allow you to rule the seas, and marines, combined with transports because marines can attack from a transport, making them very effective against coastal cities. Being first to get to these unit types seems to decide the game, more or less. Finally, although the tutorial suggests that you start building a military fairly early, in my experience (at least against the AI) it's better to focus on expansion until you first meet the other players. Figuring all this out takes a lot of reading of the manual, as it's rather non-obvious what's going on, in game.

Once I mastered these techniques the AIs in the game are all quite easy to beat, though it still takes quite a while to finish a game (3-5 hours). So it seems like the game doesn't have that much long-term appeal, at least against the AI, though there are lots of game rule tweaks you could try out if you like variety. More promissing is the large online community (including play by email) which means you could play against much more challenging opponents where deeper strategy would come into play.  Plus, since it's open source, new versions are coming along all the time. So if you are into turn based play, and like playing online, this might well be worth your time.

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