Zynga Launches Its Most Complex Game Yet and It’s Not a ’Ville

It’s a little bit like Risk meets The Settlers of Catan.

And, it’s a lot like CityVille.

Empires & Allies is Zynga’s latest social game, which officially launches tomorrow.

As the dominant social games company over the past two years, this is Zynga’s biggest endeavor yet.

And the timing couldn’t be better.

After a five-month hiatus from releasing a new game, the drought is ending as the company gets closer to filing for an initial public offering.

The game is the first title produced by Zynga’s Los Angeles studio, developed by former Electronics Arts employee Amer Ajami. After less than a year in development, Ajami said the goal was to make the game more complex than before by adding combat, without sacrificing the appeal for a very large audience.

Walking that tightrope is why Zynga believes it has a massive opportunity in front of it.

It can’t just build games for “gamers” to be big. Rather, it wants to be the “play” of the Internet, much like Amazon is the “shop” of the Internet. At least that’s the way Zynga CEO Mark Pincus explains it.

Zynga’s initial games, such as Poker, Mafia Wars and FarmVille, filled that niche nicely.

Available to Facebook’s dominant audience, the games were enjoyed by a nontraditional demographic, comprised of mothers, females and children. It also could appeal to the hardcore gamer demographic, characterized as males between the ages of 18 and 34.

Much of the game will be familiar to players of other Zynga games, while some things will be new.

The general storyline: Players must rebuild a destroyed island nation by beefing up army units and recruiting friends to battle villains. The quest ends when the final villain is beaten.

Much like older titles, players must build huts, cottages and houses to collect rent to fund expanding empires. They also must collect resources to build battleships and other items.

What’s different is the combat element.

Players must create resources, like cannons and fighter planes and battleships, to fight villains. If you outlast a villain during battle, you win–but you can also lose.

Losing is entirely new. So is the ability to do evil. Instead of visiting a friend’s islands to do altruistic things–like helping collect rent–you can now also launch an invasion.

“The question of losing is a little new to a Zynga game, but if you track the progression of releases, you’ll note that with each successive release, they increase in complexity and depth,” Ajami said. “This is the natural successor to that line of progression.”

Even though it sounds a bit ominous, it’s all pretty harmless–much like how Wile E. Coyote is constantly risking his life to catch Road Runner. There’s a family-friendly feeling with bubbly and cute characters and bright colors.

“We didn’t set out to make a game that was dark and gloomy,” he said. “It provides mass appeal with characters that are fun to look at. Even though it has combat, it doesn’t have to be a niche audience or look a certain way. It has broad appeal.”

There’s also a component of strategy.

Similar to The Settlers of Catan, which is one of Pincus’ favorite games, players must have enough resources, like oil, in order to build ships and other materials. Players can either swap with friends in order to complete certain missions, or buy the resources with cash.

Zynga is not the only one recognizing that social games must evolve as players mature.

There are other companies focused on making even more hardcore social games. Just last week, Kabam raised $85 million in capital and Finland-based Supercell raised $12 million.

No doubt Empires & Allies will do well. With roughly 30 million people playing FarmVille and CityVille, Zynga has an impressive marketing machine that allows one game to feed another.

It also won’t hurt that it will be the largest international release for a game yet. Starting tomorrow, it will be available in a dozen languages, including English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, Turkish and Traditional Chinese–and for the first time, Malay, Korean and Norwegian.

Ajami said despite the inclination to compare how well Empires & Allies does with CityVille, which hit 14 million players after 30 days, that’s not the goal.

“We don’t really target any of our previous games to beat them,” he said. “But we were really impressed with CityVille’s growth, and have high expectations of all our games.”

Just to be clear, while there’s an end to this game, it’s only the end of the first chapter–meaning this fairy tale could go on and on in perpetuity. “There’s not an end….We are already working on chapter two and beyond,” Ajami promised.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

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