Zynga’s New Social Poker Game Dials the Cute Up, Gambling Skills Down

Zynga has been pretty quiet over the past few months. The last game the company launched was PetVille, back in early December, and it has recently allowed some of its less successful titles to shed users, focusing in on a handful of big hits. This emerging strategy makes the release of Poker Blitz, a new casino game, all the more significant.

Poker Blitz follows in the footsteps of Zynga’s first-ever hit, Texas HoldEm Poker. Today, Texas HoldEm is Zynga’s third-biggest game, with 28 million monthly active users — that makes it Facebook’s seventh-largest app overall.

But there’s one problem with Texas HoldEm: it’s a skill game that requires deep expertise and strategy to master. Even playing a few casual hands requires more knowledge than, say, planting your first seeds in FarmVille. Texas Hold’em has a devoted following of many millions worldwide, but Zynga’s version, HoldEm, is ultimately unlikely to break out — especially as expert players graduate on to playing for real money.

The solution in Poker Blitz is cutting down on the skill gaming elements to make Hold’em more welcoming to inexperienced and casual players. Let’s take a quick tour of the game.

Graphically, Blitz has much in common with Zynga’s YoVille, from the initial setup of an avatar to play with to the dealers and casinos. Building up a character need only take a few moments, and then you’re on to the tutorial.

Next, Zynga hits players with a forced email subscription screen. This is a calculated violation of Facebook’s latest developer rules, which insist on giving users the ability to opt out [Update: This is not clearly a violation, but it’s also not clearly in compliance. More here.]. The game isn’t fully released yet, though; this feature will likely disappear soon.

As in Hold’em, you’re dealt two cards, while five more are laid out on the table. But the differences begin there. As most hands are dealt, you’ll have the option to swap your cards if you don’t like them. You can also fold without betting. Some rounds will offer the option of flipping over one of your opponent’s cards, others a “four leaf clover” special power that gives you a “luckier” hand.

Unlike Hold’em, there are no rounds of betting before the fourth and fifth cards are laid out on the table. And at lower levels of Blitz, you’ll get to see the likelihood that your hand will win the match. All told, the odds are heavily stacked against the dealer. You’re also playing one on one instead of against a table of other players — though there’s a “team” element of the game that’s yet to be released.

As you win hands, you’ll unlock mystery crates that hold prizes. Each round of play is timed at 60 seconds, though winning a hand will add to the timer.

Perhaps most importantly, there’s a limit to how many rounds can be played each hour, along with special tokens that only appear every few hours. At the moment, there’s nothing players can do to buy more time, but Zynga obviously has the option of letting people pay for or earn more time. There are also inventories and a virtual home that are only marked “Coming Soon”.

All of Zynga’s changes make Blitz more of a video game than a casino game like Texas Hold’em. In recent years, as Hold’em players have gained notoriety through massive tournaments held on ESPN and other channels, they’ve replaced the seedy image of gamblers with one of glamor and excitement. Blitz is an attempt to give players the powers and high lifestyle of a pro player without doing any of the work to get there.

Meanwhile, players who do want to take Blitz to the next level will doubtless be nudged on over to Texas HoldEm, with its more serious atmosphere and standard rules of play. This two-for-one strategy isn’t just canny; it’s the latest way to promote games, since Facebook tightened up its viral distribution rules.

We’ll keep an eye on Blitz as it grows, and review the game again once Zynga unlocks some of the special features mentioned above.