Zynga Launches Strategy Citybuilder Empires & Allies for Facebook

Zynga’s first game out of its Los Angeles studio, Empires & Allies, is also the developer’s first-ever strategy game. With Digital Chocolate’s Army Attack also live and Kabam’s Global Warfare launched earlier this month, we expect to see the strategy genre expand throughout the summer. More importantly, as Zynga prepares for an initial public offering, all eyes will be on how Empires & Allies performs.

In Empires & Allies, players take the role of a commander needing to rebuild their island town after an attack by an evil general. The game draws on CityVille’s citybuilding mechanic where buildings produce resources for the player to harvest. In addition to rents collected from residential buildings and crops collected from farms, players also harvest resources like oil or ore. These resources for the basis for the game’s building economy, which also includes units to send into battle.

The combat portion of the game is inspired by real time strategy games like the Command & Conquer series and Battle for Middle Earth, on both of which Zynga Executive Producer Amer Ajami previously worked. The combat in Empires & Allies is asynchronous as opposed to real-time, but Ajami points out that this style of gameplay better suits Zynga’s existing audience. Players select a world map view of other islands in their region and click on an occupied area to enter combat. The game is structured around a series of bad guy characters each occupying a cluster of islands along a chain leading toward the final boss character. As the player advances through the islands, conquering territory, they can unlock the enemy vehicles of defeated mini-bosses. They cannot, however, build structures on any islands besides the starting island cluster, which provides five islands total. Friends can be called into singleplayer as “power-ups” that aid in combat.

The actual combat instance is a turn-based event where the player initiating the combat can view what units the opposing force has positioned in the area. Units are classified by terrain (air, land, sea) and then by type (bomber, grenadier, etc.). In a guided preview with ISG, Ajami demoed a battle where the opposing force had three grenadier units stationed on land. He responded by choosing to attack by sea with two different types of gunship. He explained that units follow a rock-paper-scissors combat flow where land has the advantage over air, air has an advantage over sea, and sea has an advantage over land.

In addition to this layer, each individual unit type has three “specialty” units against which its attacks are the most effective. The game communicates this both with icons next to each unit that show the specialties, and with help text like “Good Target” or “Poor Target” that appears when the player hovers the cursor over an enemy unit after choosing to attack. The player first selects their attacking unit, then an enemy unit, and then clicks a final time to launch the attack. The enemy unit, controlled by artificial intelligence, counter-attacks almost immediately so that the player doesn’t have to sit around waiting for the AI to make a move.

What sets Empires & Allies apart from Army Attack and Global Warfare for the time being is the ability to attack friends in a “Fight With Friends” mode. While Army Attack hasn’t introduced the feature yet and Global Warfare’s combat system is geared more toward attacking strangers while forming alliances with friends, Empires & Allies sends users to their friends’ island cities either to help out by harvesting resources and joining building crews or to attack their friends’ cities in an attempt to “conquer” land.

Ajami explained during the demo that when a friend visits another friend and decides to help out, Empires & Allies behaves much like FrontierVille or CityVille — rewarding the visiting player with a portion of the harvested resources plus red hearts (here called “honor points”). Deciding to attack, however, yields the player black hearts (“infamy points”) and the chance to play out combat phases against whatever units their friends have stationed on their island. From the perspective of the player being attacked, their friend appears on their island much like the critters in FrontierVille appear — a portrait hovering over a section of “annexed” land highlighted in red. The attacked player can click the attacking player’s portrait to enter combat in an attempt to fight them off, can call other friends to join them in fighting off the attack, or can choose to not fight the attacking player at all. Clicking on the annexed land, however, costs the player extra energy. The attacking player automatically disappears from their friends’ islands after seven days, if they are not successfully defeated in combat.

It seems like Zynga is toeing the line between competitive and cooperative multiplayer experiences with Fight With Friends. On the one hand, they encourage players to attack one another for bonuses; but on the other, they limit the amount of grief players can inflict on one another through invasions. In addition to the seven-day invasion limit, for example, friends cannot join forces to attack another friend; they can only join forces with friends to throw back an attack. This may be a reflection of Zynga’s existing audience, which has been trained to be helpful to neighbors by the social features in other Zynga games. It may also be an attempt by Zynga LA to reduce the perception of difficulty that sometimes comes with competitive multiplayer strategy games.

Empires & Allies players can opt out of being attacked by friends by building a World Embassy structure on their islands. The Embassy protects the player from friend attacks for 24 hours, plus an additional 24 hours for each friend they can convince to join the Embassy through invites. Beyond that, the player can extend the 24 hour period only by visiting the game each day and clicking on the Embassy.

The only other social features launching with Empires & Allies are the crew structures like those found in CityVille and unique resource harvesting from in-game friends. The crew structures are slightly different from CityVille where instead of inviting friends to come be crew members, players look for crews in their friends’ towns to join. Joining a crew gives the visiting player a virtual currency bonus for visiting the structure each day to tend it and friends compete with each other to “out-tend” the structure for a larger bonus. With resource harvesting, players’ friends are randomly seeded with rare resources like gold or silver, which the player can only get by trading other resources with those players.

Monetization is similar to other Zynga games where the game uses a premium currency, Empire Points, for premium items and accelerated building. Empires & Allies will launch with full RewardVille support as well, for players that have accrued Zcoins to spend on in-game Zynga items.

In the long run, Zynga LA is looking at expanding the singleplayer campaign with more maps, more enemies and more unit types. The Fight With Friends mode, meanwhile, could perhaps see some leaderboard or tournament support if Zynga LA thinks the fans would like it. For the time being, the game does not support an auto-complete function for the combat phases and Ajami tells us that while live combat between players is possible, it’s likely not something Zynga players would ask them for.

Empires & Allies launches on Facebook tomorrow in 12 different languages worldwide, including three languages new to Zynga’s experience — Norwegian, Korean and Malay. The internationalization will likely have a huge impact on the game’s early growth, much like we saw with CityVille, which launched globally with five languages. This should be of particular interest to people looking to buy Zynga stock whenever the developer goes for its IPO.