Kingdoms at War – Video Game Review

The Lower Mainland is home to many avid players of video games, but how many of us are aware that the Vancouver area is also one of the major hubs in the world of video game makers?

It’s true – and besides the most obvious, worldwide juggernauts like EA Games, there is also a rich and diverse Indie-game scene in our city.

One standout Indie developer is A Thinking Ape, founded in San Francisco but now based in here in Vancouver.  Led by three former Canadian university students, A Thinking Ape has become a serious player in mobile social gaming, with their game Kingdoms at War, in particular, having become a huge hit on both the iTunes and Google Play stores.  Their business philosophy reflects their very deep background in social media platforms – meritocracy over hierarchy, fast-paced innovation, lean organizational structures, and creative freedom.  This is the formula that has, in part, been so hugely successful at powerhouses like Apple, Google, and Facebook.  The more one knows about A Thinking Ape, the more it seems that these are people who love games, first and foremost, and the making and marketing of games is only a natural offshoot of this driving passion.

All of this passion and creativity might not seem immediately obvious upon first starting into Kingdoms at War, A Thinking Ape’s flagship game.  Kingdoms at War appears, at first glance,  to be similar to many of the text-heavy mobile multiplayer strategy games out there on both the iOS and Android platforms.  Its themes and structure are similar to other well-known titles such as Island Empire and Castle Empire; your base is a simple visual representation of a Kingdom, laid-out on a grid of land, and your goal is to expand your control of this land, growing by building onto more and more pieces on the grid.  Your power, again like other such games, is based on building-up your armies, spies, assassins and other units, which are represented by numbers – the higher those numbers, the more powerful you become.

In order to buy new land and build structures to create your armies, you need money.  You get this by doing a number of things including attacking other players online, and doing missions, which involve you just pressing a button called “do mission” repeatedly until you are successful.  These are all elements that many games before Kingdoms at War have been doing, and so a player might be forgiven for thinking that this game is just more of the same.  But give this game a bit more time, and you will discover that it is, in reality, an incredibly robust, rich, complex, and yes, highly addictive game that will have you coming back to play long after you have deleted those other games.

What makes this game so special?  For one thing, Kingdoms at War includes an “Ally” system which is quite innovative and unique.  Once you develop an army and establish yourself, you attain a “value” that is listed in a marketplace.  This value is the price it would cost for other players to hire you as an Ally that they can use in their own battles.  Obviously, the more powerful you are, the more valuable you will be to others, so consequently, your trading price goes up and players steal you away from each other at a higher and higher price.  The beauty of this system for you is that, every time you are bounced around from one “owner” to another (this is called “Volleying” in the game’s community), you get a cut of the profits – and this can get to be quite a substantial amount after a while.  I came back to my game after a day away from it, and found that I had been Volleyed and my account now had $160 million in it!  And yes, this is a lot of coin, even in Kingdoms at War.  It was like little game-elves built up my kingdom for me while I slept.  The trading of allies in Kingdoms at War adds a cool, lottery-jackpot excitement to the standard formula that I have not seen anywhere else, and it kept me coming back.

What also made this game enjoyable were all the ways I could upgrade and manage my empire and my skills to achieve success.  There are a large number of items that can be purchased – potions, scrolls, spells and so on – to increase your attack and defense powers.  These can be bought with gold you earn in the game, but you can also purchase more of them with real money.  There is quite a lot of strategy to these upgrades;  for example, I engaged in a mission that required me to first poison the water supply of my enemy with a certain potion, then use cloaking spells to steal from him without being detected.  Missions often require you to use items in very precise ways, and it really made for a satisfying challenge that required mental work to accomplish, not just an endless pressing of one button over and over, as in other games of this genre.

Lastly, a major strength of the game is its incredibly large and active online community.  There is a complex Clan system, in which you can join others to achieve collective goals, and a thriving forum, which, when I played, was full of people discussing various aspects of the game.  Kingdoms at War has achieved that critical mass of enthusiasts that – like MMORPG leader World of Warcraft – has almost become another game unto itself.  The people who play this game are not just players, they are fanatics, with friends, social events, and communities that start with the game, but have moved beyond it to a very real “world.”  A Thinking Ape’s solid background in, and love of, social media shows itself in this game’s brilliant and seamless interweaving of interactive elements, making Kingdoms at War an experience that will keep you coming back, and staying for longer than other similar entries in the genre.

Kingdoms at War is a surprisingly-addictive, immersive and rewarding experience that, amazingly, is by a company right here in our own city.  Solid and fun mechanics, multi-layered gameplay, and a devoted fan base make this a game you have to try.  And, did I mention, it is free?  Well, more accurately, it is “Fremium,” as they say, since it does encourage you to buy in-app extras to speed your rise to dominance.  But, as fremium games go, this is one of the less-annoying I have encountered.  I have not purchased any extras so far, and I have gotten hours of enjoyment out of this game.  Ok, maybe I did purchase one 99 cent Crystal pack at one point, but it was because I wanted to, not because I had to – at least, that’s what I keep telling myself.

Damn you, Kingdoms at War, you got me…