As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I was digging around for possible things to play for a bit earlier this month, and one path I went down for a few days was FreeCiv.
I was actually thinking about getting out Civilzation II yet again… I have the disk on my bookshelf, so I know I can get it running again… but then I thought about FreeCiv, which is an open source project and no doubt up to date and compatible with 64-bit operating systems and large screen monitors and all of the usual pitfalls that come with trying to play older titles.
FreeCiv has been around for more than 25 years at this point, having started off as a way to make a version of the original Civilization that supported network multiplayer gaming. Big stuff back in 1996.
The Civilization II came and that got looped into the project and then Civilization III and then other ideas were melded into the project and… well, more than 25 years down the road this is an engine that does a crazy amount of things.
Just starting the game gives you a first glimpse into the options available.
And that doesn’t even get into the breadth of network play options captured in a single entry on that list.
You have to read the manual that comes in the install package, or go to the wiki, to start getting a handle on what the options mean.
Also, given the time this project has been alive, it is probably no surprise that there are also a myriad of nation options to choose from, each with a long list of city names and possible leaders.
So you make your choices… you can play traditional Civ style, with top down squares, Civ II style with the 2.5D isometric view with squares so popular in the 80s and 90s, or you can have Civ III hexes and boarders with Civ II rules in an interesting mix, or one of the other options… I favor that Civ II Civ III mix currently… and you end up in a game that looks like the start of any Civilization game really, which is what one should expect.
As I noted, it is up to date in a lot of way and can, for example, expand to use all the real estate that my 34″ monitor has to offer. It plays like the early Civ titles for the most part. They key commands are mostly the same. And it looks decent enough, with its own home grown tile set and units that are different from the original games but similar enough to not take too much guess work to figure out.
How it plays though… well, you have to get used to it. Any open source project will end up with the “good enough” issue or compromises in UI to be able to support things as widely as possible. You can play on Linux as well, which means the UI has to stay at a somewhat primitive level of development when it comes to giving feedback to the user.
The first stumble for me is getting used to shift-enter to end a turn, rather than having to mouse around to find the end turn button on the left side info bar. But you get over that pretty quickly.
The UI though, the flip side of it being happy to use up all my screen real estate is that it outputs the information you need in tiny text in windows and tabs that appear at the lower edge of the window, which is easy glance past on a large screen monitor.
Now, before you point it out, those text tabs look pretty substantial in that screen shot, but only because I made the game window a manageable size (~1500 x 1100) rather than the full native size of my monitor (3440 x 1440) just to keep the screen shot from being enormous and completely illegible when scaled down to 600 pixels wide to fit into the column width of the blog.
Nothing like finding that somebody has started attacking you because you missed the Diplomacy alert in blue (it should be flashing red) or realizing you’re not researching anything because you missed the Research alert showing up (should be double flashing red), but then you see if pop up and it is just telling you that it finished something in your queue with the same quite level of assertion.
My immediate solution has been to play at a much smaller resolution in order to not miss so many notifications.
But most of the annoyance is just figuring out how to read some of the windows. The research screen is interesting and convenient because it allowed you to queue up your research goals… but then reading what is in the actual queue isn’t exactly clear to me. And there are several windows where you can do things in the wrong order and the games just lets you and moves on because you didn’t, in effect, say “please” to get what you wanted.
Basically, it is the confluence of a very deep game with a lot of features, a mid level “good enough” UI, and having grown used to the Civ series putting up a modal alert that you can’t ignore or move forward past without at least acknowledging the event in question.
The UI thing is pretty much an object lesson in how much UI design impacts playability and why it is an important aspect of any game. Here we have a title that is rich and deep in features but which often left me stumbling around trying to figure out things that have been simple in similar commercial titles.
None of which is insurmountable. But it definitely feels like a game you don’t play casually. It is more a game you need to invest in, one that becomes a hobby or a regular group activity with friends.
Which, again, isn’t a bad thing. And it is hard to argue with the price.