Rent on an average single bedroom home, £650 a month. Average UK electricity bill, £383 a year. Petrol, 90p a litre. A decent single malt, £25 a bottle. Pickled onion Monster Munch, 38p a packet... With the cost of life's bare necessities getting sillier every year, it's good to know there's still one basic need that can be met for nothing. If you crave quality strategy games, but hate playing them while bull-necked bailiffs beat noisy tattoos on your front door, freeware like the following is a godsend.
1/ The Battle For Wesnoth
Bad turn-based wargames weary the player with hundreds of units and baffle them with complex combat equations. Good ones, like this recently updated fantasy gem, gallop along at a Shadowfaxian pace and welcome newcomers with open arms.
Once an entertaining orc-stuffed tutorial has spent ten minutes teaching you how to recruit and move units (all named individuals rather than faceless platoons) and generate gold by seizing villages, you're more than ready to embark on one of the six big campaigns. Sewn together with a captivating Tolkien-tinged storyline, these include some really memorable scraps. Organise the defence of a borderland citadel against hordes of shambling undead. Purge a forest of brigand camps. Vie with an orc army for control of a river crossing. Heck, there's even some dungeon-crawling thrown in. Competent AI, an abundance of unit types, and some nice combat subtleties like night-fighting, veterancy and opportunity fire, ensures the warfare stays interesting. Top-notch music and nice cut-scene illustrations make it easy to forget this is free fun.
2/ UFO: Alien Invasion
It's amazing what you can do with an old FPS if you put your mind to it. Not that you'd know it from the graphics or the action, but this impressive X-COM homage has a heavily modified version of Quake 2's engine under the hood.
If you know your games history you'll understand that X-COM means turn-based squad tactics. Pick an away team, equip them, pack them into a dropship and send them off to the site of a reported alien landing. At the mission location, the careful combat choreography begins. Team member 'A' has 80 action points per turn so this turn I'll get him to walk round that corner and fire a plasma bolt at the freak that just ambushed team member 'B'. Team member 'C' can spend her point allowance tossing a grenade through that doorway, and reloading her shotgun. Though UFO:AI is a bit weak in the destructible scenery department, it does a very competent job in most others. Firefights are tense and brutal, especially when there are a lot of civilians around. Levels might be small but they're usually pretty intricate with plenty of places for foes to lurk. For gamers that like to plan their pandemonium and savour their slaughter, this one is a must.
In these days of multi-gigabyte installs, there's something wonderfully ascetic about C-evo's dainty 5MB hard disk footprint. How on earth did coder Steffen Gerlach jam such a pure and perfect take on Civilization into such a tiny space? Witchcraft? Yes, that must be it.
At first glance the game looks to be a fairly close copy of Sid Meier's evergreen empire-building classic. In fact it grew out of a frustration with some of the AI flaws in Civ 2. In pursuit of a more challenging, more skill-based experience, Steffen has spurned scripting and random ingredients like barbarian tribes, and built a goal-guided AI almost as flexible as a human player. The design approach allows smart fans to have a go at fashioning their own AIs. These homemade brains can even be pitted against each other on the same map. Clever stuff. Sleek, rich, and packed with the play freedom that made its inspiration so replayable, this is the kind of game you fire up for a five-minute fiddle and end-up losing an evening to.
We've got the Hungarian Ministry of Education to thank for this one. They coughed up the cash to get it made, presumably because they thought an absorbing hex wargame would be a great way to teach young Magyars about the Hungarian War of Independence (an unsuccessful attempt by Hungary to cede from the Habsburg Empire) The historical setting might be relatively obscure, but the strategic dilemmas the game throws-up are pretty universal. Picking when to fight and when to flee, when to split armies and when to combine them, when to recruit militia and when to wait for something better - interesting choices like these pepper an 1848 session.
Seven scenarios are included, one of which is a tutorial that, in combination with the manual, does a fine job of explaining all the subtleties. Those coming from a mainstream strategy background may be surprised at the impact things like weather, leader quality, and morale can have on proceedings. They may also find the battle resolution system a bit basic. When two armies collide on the map, the resulting rumpus is relayed with text only - no flying cannonballs or galloping hussars here.
www.matrixgames.com mirror (110MB)
5/ Cry Havoc: Test of Faith
Today, if you fancy a bit of medieval mayhem, you play Creative Assembly's latest blockbuster. Back in the early eighties, you reached under your bed and pulled out a wonderful skirmish board game called Cry Havoc. Created with the aid of Game Maker, and utilising Gary Chalk's original unit and board art, this is one man's digital interpretation of that board game.
Most of the play mechanics have been faithfully recreated, meaning turns are split into distinct phases. First you select targets for your archers. Next you move troops and conduct close combat attacks. Finally you tell your bowmen where to train their weapons for opportunity fire. At first this structure can feel a bit strange. After a while, you'll almost certainly stop noticing it, focussing instead on the tense ebb and flow of the engagements. Though there's only a handful of battlefields and scenarios on offer (be sure to download the additional map packs) the game makes setting up your own scraps extremely easy. With a few mouse clicks and a bit of imagination, riveting Robin Hood-style ambushes, chaotic peasant riots, and gory crusader last-stands can be set in motion. For medieval skirmishes with an eastern flavour, investigate CH:ToF's sister game Samurai Blades: On Deadly Ground.