I’ve been playing Zynga’s latest, Empires & Allies, since it was released, and I’m still trying to figure out what I think about it. My initial impression of it was a lot like CityVille: clearly well done, taking lessons from their prior games (and from others’ games, of course), and adding a couple of new elements. So I figured I’d play it fairly regularly for a week or two and then stop; maybe not even that long, given that I no longer work at a job where playing Facebook games every morning when I arrive at work is a reasonable thing to do.

It’s a couple of weeks later, though, and I don’t seem to be stop playing; so I figure I might as well talk about it now while I have some slight chance of convincing y’all to join me in game and trade with me! (I could particularly use a good source of iron…)

So, what’s in the game? The basis is, of course, familiar since (before) FarmVille: in particular, building on your land to be able to produce is a big theme. There’s a wider range of types of production than in earlier games in the genre: Social City was where I first saw the population => money => happiness => population cycle, and Empires & Allies throws more into the mix. (I’m trying to remember how CityVille was in that regard: my guess is that it falls somewhere between Social City and Empires & Allies, and in particular it’s where I first saw government buildings in the role that they play here.) The relations between buildings are:

  • Farms produce coins.
  • Other production buildings let you convert coins into resources: wood, oil, and one kind of ore.
  • Military buildings let you convert coins, oil, and (frequently) ore into military units.
  • There’s a research building that lets you add powers to your military units.
  • Buildings cost coins and wood to build; once you get to higher levels, they cost ore as well.
  • Production buildings are unlocked through population; population buildings are unlocked through level.
  • Your population is determined by your housing buildings. These also produce coins, but not as much coins as farms.
  • Your production cap is determined by your government buildings. These are neighbor-gated, and also produce (decent) amounts of coins.
  • The market lets you trade for forms of ore that you can’t produce yourself.

That’s a lot of building types! Unlike the Social City example above, it’s also not a cycle: instead, you have a population growth pattern that’s gated by neighbors and a military growth pattern that goes from farms through production buildings to military buildings. And, in both cases, ore plays a role, including ores that can most easily be acquired through trade.

The flip side of the variety of types of buildings: the functional importance of the different types of buildings means that there’s not much scope for personalization. When playing Social City, I really enjoyed designing my city; that level of personalization is completely absent here. (There’s not even the shop naming for personalization that CityVille had.) Which is fine, even good: it’s a different sort of game, with a different focus.

Back to that last building mentioned above: markets. I’ve seen them in other Facebook games before, certainly: Verdonia had them, for example (and I can’t imagine that that game’s implementation of markets was original to it, the game was quite derivative), City of Wonder added them eventually, and so forth. But ores in Empires & Allies give them a different feel: while you can trade lots of different resources in your markets, there’s one specific class of resources that you can get much more easily through markets than through anything else.

So ores are a Treasure Isle-style resource mechanic, but requiring a different kind of action than either simply visiting friends’ towns or having them actively give you gifts. Which turns out to work well for me: I like it more than Treasure Isle‘s mechanism (admittedly, I only played that game a little bit, and did so a long time after launch), and I like it more than unfocused markets. (Not that a game about markets couldn’t be cool; actually, given the employment of economists by Facebook game companies, I’m surprised there aren’t more such games, I was lobbying for more markets ever since the GDC 2010 Habbo Hotel talk…)

Though ores are also much more muted than Treasure Isle style exclusive goods, in that you can buy them for coins. It’s more expensive to do that than to get them from your friends, and it took me a while to discover that option, but it’s there.

In fact, I actually haven’t found anything yet that you need friends or hard cash (i.e. currency that you have to spend real money on) to get, though I’m sure it’s there somewhere. Most building games have used neighbor gating for expansions; in Empires & Allies, however, you buy expansions with coins and through a special item. You can get that special item from your friends, but you also get that special item from battles; so every ten battles that you win lets you get an expansion. (At least as of now, they may of course tweak the balance later; incidentally, the expansions are the CityVille-style “buy a chunk of land adjacent to your current territory” expansions as opposed to the previously popular “your territory expands by 1 on all four sides”.)

Another way in which games like this have used neighbor gating is in population growth. And here, you need to hire friends to run your government buildings. But even there, it’s not so simple: if you leave a post in a government building unstaffed for long enough, eventually an in-game character will fill that post. So yeah, it takes longer to expand if you don’t have friends and don’t spend hard cash, but it’s not prohibitive.

There is some amount of neighbor gating in combat: eventually, you run into battles that you need allies to help you fight in, and the proportion of such battles and the number of allies rises. So it would be difficult to play the game if you didn’t have any friends playing it at all; assuming you have a few, though, you’re as likely to not be able to fight more battles because you’ve run out of energy as because you’ve run out of friends for the day.

Speaking of combat: the style and use of combat in this game is new to me and kind of fun. It shows up on a screen that looks reminiscent of individual Advance Wars battles (though without the surrounding troop movement of that game), with a rock-paper-scissors mechanic underlying it. It turns out to be more simplified than it looks, however: at any give moment only one unit is attacking the other side, so you don’t have as many tactical possibilities as there might seem.

Still, there are definitely some tactical considerations beyond the obvious ones of making sure you’re on top on the rock-paper-scissors chain: figuring out how to weight your units once you’ve picked the overall mix, figuring out whether to put out older, less powerful units as sacrificial lambs or to only use newer units. And then there are power-ups which you can spend hard cash on; I have yet to need them, though, but maybe I’ll have to as the battles go on? (It looks like I’m about a third of the way through the currently available battles.) It ends up being a surprisingly pleasant form of combat, one which I’m enjoying more than in any Facebook RPG that I can think of. (Though, don’t get me wrong, this is clearly still a Facebook game, which I’m totally fine with.)

And, as I mentioned above, more powerful units require ores, bringing that mechanic into play. I also just encountered a different upgrade mechanism, involving blueprints that you can send to your friends; I think that it was just added to the game today, because I didn’t level up or unlock it in any other obvious way? I’m not sure, I’ll need to explore more.

Combat also turns into a friend mechanic in another way: you can both invade your friends and protect your friends from invasion! Which I haven’t done too much, but it sounds like a potentially good idea; my guess is that they also see that as a potentially significant source of revenue.

And there are other Zynga / Facebook standbys, which I think of as coming from FrontierVille. The game is pretty dooberiffic; normally, they annoy me, but for whatever reason I’m finding them fine in this game. Maybe that’s because I’ve found the money bonus for collecting them useful at times (you don’t have to click on them if you don’t want to, but you get a bonus if you click on a long sequence of them); but I think a big part of that is that it works well with the rhythm of combat, where you alternate between attacking enemies and collecting doobers, trying to space your doober collection such that you don’t have long enough gaps to miss out on the bonus.

And, also like FrontierVille, you always have four or five externally-given tasks to work on. (Though they don’t have the same narrative as in FrontierVille.) Which is great, it’s good to have the game pointing out reasonable actions that I could take, and nudging me to keep my economy reasonably level.

I think that’s everything. Well, doubtless not everything, but it’s a lot! Now that I’ve said all of that, I have two questions.

The first is: where is Zynga making their money from this game? (Or hoping to make their money.) It’s newly launched, so it’s possible that they simply aren’t focused on money now, but instead want to bump up the audience. Still, there’s only so much you can do to tweak the economy of a game in a money-making fashion without getting people mad, so I’d be a little surprised if they changed too many of the existing parameters in that regard. (Adding new money-focused mechanics wouldn’t surprise me at all, however.)

And, as I said above, I’ve been very surprised at how little gating there is, whether on neighbors or hard currency. There are lots of situations where other games would require me to pay money or spam my friends or do without where this game seems happy enough to let me progress through my in-game actions, possibly while waiting a bit.

So, of course, that’s part of the answer: as always, if you’re impatient, you’ll need to make money to progress faster. And it’s possible that will hit me at some point: e.g. a couple of minutes ago I took a break from writing and went back to the game to fight a couple of battles, and I would have fought a couple more if I hadn’t run out of friends that I could use as allies today. (And I imagine I’ll need more allies as I get further through the battle sequence.)

My guess is that they’re hoping/expecting combat between friends to be a big driver of currency: people want to level up their units to win battles, and maybe spend money to get special attacks or to revive troops. It’s typically thought that games with lots of player-versus-player combat make money disproportionately to their user base, so I imagine that’s a lot of the thinking here.

And it may be the case that, as I need more upgrades to fight harder battles, it will become harder and harder to earn them strictly through in-game actions. We’ll see.

The other question I have is: how much do I actually like the game? Clearly Zynga (and the industry as a whole, of course) is finding ways to throw more elements into their games in a not unpleasing fashion. I had a good time playing CityVille for a couple of weeks; eventually, though, I’d seen enough of the mechanics and wasn’t finding any hook in the game to make me want to keep on clicking to rehash those mechanics. (Similarly with Ravenwood Fair.)

And I’m sure I’ll hit a wall like that with Empires & Allies, too. Heck, for all I know I’ll hit a wall like that tomorrow: some day I’ll realize that I’ve spent too much time in the evening clicking or thinking about clicking, for no particular gain. In particular, I’m not finding the game to be intrinsically rewarding in the way that building my city in Social City was; and I also don’t like the core game play as much as I like the core game play in, say, Gardens of Time.

But I like the core game play somewhat, at least: the combat is pleasantly soothing in the way an easy puzzle game or form of solitaire can be. And the volume of other mechanics that the game provides adds up to something that is still keeping me going, too.

If you’re curious, give it a try, I’d be interested to see what my non-Facebook-game-playing friends think. And if you have access to iron ore, all the better, I’d like to buy it off of you.

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