Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Evony - A Cool Online Strategy Game

I discovered Evony through the online banners that have been popping up on various websites. It pitched itself as a cross platform, web browser based, player vs player online strategy game with thousands of people playing simultaneously. It is set in a "classical warfare" environment with castles, swordsman, cavalry, archers and of course. . siege engines. The players themselves are the lords of one or many cities which can each build up there own defenses, armies, resources, technology upgrades. . etc.

Evony guarantees that it is "free forever" which it is. All aspects of the game can be played and enjoyed for free without advertising or subscription fees. Unlike many of the other "free" offerings I have researched, Evony doesn't really hold anything significant back to people who aren't paying. Evony's business model is to draw people into the fun of the game and then offer special items which give abilities and enhancements above and beyond the basic gameplay. These items are purchased with a currency called "cents" or "game coins." These coins are bought as an online purchase with a credit card at a 10X exchange rate. So $10 is 100 coins. When you first start you are given a small amount of coins and a generous amount of items as "starter packages." Some are available right away and others are rewards for achieving certain levels of growth. There is also a daily gift of a random item that everyone has available so nobody goes without these enhancements. The game creators also run many specials and offers regularly which give additional items or bonuses for spending money.

I would describe Evony as having the look and feel more like a HUGE interactive board game than a video game. Each server is a massive "gameboard" with hundreds of thousands of "spaces" which can be controlled by players. This "world" is divided up into "states" which each have their own local factions and power struggles. There are interstate relations and travel, but the heart of all the action is mostly the struggle between alliances within a given state. The battles and troop generation are all presented in text within game windows and through "reports" which describe what happened in battles and various other actions. This simplicity makes it possible for the battles to be truly epic with millions of troops involved between many players at their peak. There is also a mail system and a chat window visible no mater what you are doing which is the heart of all communications with individuals, across alliances or across the whole world.

Evony is a little relaxed in the beginning stages while the player is getting established. I entered the game not knowing anyone and with no connections to alliances. With nothing to do but wait on buildings to finish constructing and only the chatter on the world chat for company, it felt downright slow at first. It was on that world chat channel that I found my alliance, however, and the shift from lone wolf to team player improved things immensely. Once I was able to start attacking things it started to get much more interesting. As the politics, intrigue, conquest, and war got more and more intense it became downright gripping and hard to walk away from. The chess players, strategists and lovers of games such as Axis and Allies or Risk will be very pleased with Evony.

There are no "turns" in this game. It is all in real time with each player all doing their own things simultaneously. The currency for every action is a timer which must count down before your action is complete. The more powerful your actions are, or the more travel they involve, the longer the timers take. Actions can be anything from training troops, traveling to places for supply runs, reinforcements or attacks, creating and improving buildings, technology, resource gathering, etc etc. The timer based system provides a significant advantage because you don't need to be in the game to get things done. You can set a bunch of actions up and then log off and they will be completed on their own. This also makes it easy to play Evony for periods in a more casual way while doing other things like working, watching TV, or even playing another video game. More focus is needed during the more intense moments of conflict and communications but for the most part, if you choose, the game can be set on "autopilot" requiring only periodic maintenance while your focus is elsewhere.

While there is a lot of "automation" possible in Evony, the environment is pretty hardcore and the system is not foolproof. The power struggles are always in flux. Smaller alliances are often swallowed up or destroyed by larger more powerful ones and the more powerful you become, the more you put on the line. Players who are inactive and/or without an alliance might find themselves the target of more active players who knock out the defenses and "farm" the city's resources. Even when you are part of an alliance, if you don't have adequate defenses or if you are in the middle of an intense war, you may still be attacked or possibly even have a city taken over while you are away. This is the risk you take for expanding your power and it actually adds to the thrill of the game despite the occasional pain. The good news is that you can never be left with nothing. You can build and loose multiple cities as you become more powerful but you will never loose your last city standing. Recovering and rebuilding also become much faster the more powerful you become. While the end game environment is always dangerous, beginners are not thrown to the wolves. For 7 days after a player begins they have what is called "beginner protection" where they cannot attack or be attacked. This gives adequate time to get familiar with the game, get the city and defenses setup and build up a small army. A very generous quest system goes with this protection period so new players can quickly build up their first city without a lot of down time gathering resources.

After about two months playing Evony I feel like I can say that the environment is hostile and a little brutal at times. . . but the mechanics are pretty well balanced to my taste. There is an over reliance on archers as tools of siege to some extent which I find curious but it might be a necessary balance against other, larger balance concerns and it is manageable. Defensive tactics are as important as offensive tactics. I find it a strong selling point that alliances who use the proper methods and cooperation can still function even under hostile pressure from large overpowering forces. Depending, of course, on the loyalty of their allies. Loyalty and honor on the web can be a fickle thing with it's own realities.

The growth curve in Evony can be easy or challenging depending on personal gaming style and how much "heat" is on the player after beginner protection is over. In either case it is still a much faster growth than the typical online RPG which can take months or years to reach the highest levels. The basic currency for growth is the players time management and consistency. It is not hard to grow in the mechanical sense, but it takes periodic maintenance and focus to keep things building and training. Other players are also at times working to foil those plans so there can be a forward/backward dynamic at times. The public currency of growth that everyone sees is "prestige" which is a collection of points that players gain by building things and training troops. Prestige is generally related to the level of achievement you have gained while playing. The more troops, cities, and technology you have, the higher your prestige grows. A public measure of combat skill is "honor" which is another kind of points you collect for winning battles. Unlike prestige which is permanent, however, honor can be won or lost depending on battle outcomes.

Joining an alliance is highly recommended for the full experience of Evony. When players work together it takes less effort to achieve goals and much more advanced tactics become available. There is also room for lots of different play styles within an alliance. Aggressive players can build massive armies and be out in the field attacking. Players who prefer to play a support role can run resources to alliance members. . . or create massive corps of scouts. . or they can still build large armies but keep them garrisoned as defensive units in other cities to hold down the defense while the local troops are out attacking. There is also a working marketplace where resources can be put into an anonymous system that connects bids with offers. Players can sell their surplus resources for gold and then buy the ones they need. Players who like trade can even try their skill at buying and selling for profit.

All In all I found Evony to be a pleasant surprise and I have had many enjoyable hours playing so far. The discovery of Evony led me to research other, similar, kinds of offerings that are now available out there. While there are a variety of different genres out there who offer a similar kind of free play model, Evony is, in my view, the most generous with what they are willing to invest in you and your fun right up front. The starter packages and quests get your first city up and running very quickly without a lot of effort. The tactics and game balance make survival very manageable for those who us their brains (and their charm). Most important of all, though, is you really can have a great time on a small budget and reward the game developers in what amounts to a "shareware with benefits" sort of model.