February 15, 2007

Colonizing a free new world with FreeCol

Author: Joe Barr

Colonizing a new world is not a trivial task, even when you're doing it in a clone of a famous game. FreeCol is a free-as-in-free-software Java-based clone of Sid Meier's Colonization that's currently at the 0.5.3 release. But even this far short of a 1.0 release, it is coming along nicely enough to have earned it the designation of SourceForge.net Project of the Month. It is certainly playable, albeit with a few rough edges here and there and a few missing pieces.

Where to land, what to do when you get there, whether to plant crops or build a fort, whether to attack your neighbors when you meet them, or just peacefully coexist, building a vibrant society that produces greater wealth and territory -- those are the things you'll be trying to do while making the decisions required during each turn in FreeCol. I'm a newbie at colonization in general, but I find the game to be a more advanced form of Risk. It's not all about just rolling the dice and seeing who kills and who gets killed, though there is that element to the game. Single-player games can last for hours, depending on the size of the map being played, the level of difficulty, and the conditions for victory.

To try it out, I selected the platform-independent installer from the options on the FreeCol download page and executed it with the command java -jar freecol-0.5.1-installer.jar. The installer verified I wanted an English language version, asked me to verify my acceptance of the terms of the (GPL) license, and asked if it would be OK to install in a freecol subdirectory under my home directory. I said sure, and it churned away again, asking one more question about adding an entry to the K-menu. I declined that option since I am not running KDE, but I did end up with a desktop shortcut icon for FreeCol.

You might want to make one change to the standard install before you begin game play. The first few times I started the game, I found myself in full-screen mode without any way to change to other windows. That meant that during game play I could not take a break to check mail or do anything else that might need doing without exiting the game.

Perhaps that is why the game's Web site recommends playing in a windowed mode. I changed the command to start the game in freecol.desktop by adding --windowed=1024x718 to the end of the command. Now I can easily switch between other tasks without saving, exiting, restarting, and reloading the game in play.

I also had problems with game play of FreeCol when using the stock Blackdown Java included with Ubuntu Edgy. The game would freeze up while I was "waiting for other players to play." I downloaded and installed Sun Java 1.5, and not only did that cure my "waiting for others" blues, it seemed to make FreeCol a little snappier.

Click to enlarge

When you start FreeCol 0.5.3, the opening screen offers you four choices:

  • New
  • Open
  • Options
  • Quit

If you select New, you'll be given further choices: start single-player game, get a list of FreeCol servers, join a multiplayer game, or start a multiplayer game. I've yet to see any FreeCol servers listed, so all of my game play has been in the single-player mode, where you can choose to either start a new game or open a saved game. Multiplayer game servers will probably become more common as development continues.

Clicking on Options presents you with tabs that allow you to tweak the settings for your display, the types of messages to display, saving games, and for keyboard shortcuts. Display in this case does not mean your monitor, but rather information about the game that you either want displayed or don't.

Starting a new single player game allows you the opportunity to set your name, your nationality (Dutch, English, French, or Spanish), the map color to indicate your holdings, the size of the game map (from small to huge), conditions required for victory, degree of difficulty, prices of purchased goods/services, and the amount of gold to start with. Then you're ready to sail off to meet your destiny.

FreeCol 0.5.3 offers hours of fun and enjoyment, and the recent licensing changes for Java make it a game that anyone can enjoy without the guilt of running tainted software. Give it a try.


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