To many experienced gamers, “free-to-play” is a bad word. It reeks of Facebook and of repetitive, menial tasks that tempt you to hand over hard currency just to unlock elements that make the ubiquitous grind more bearable. I’ve been to Farmville and I’ve had my fling with Mafia Wars, and both times I came away glad to have broken the spell.
Never, however, let past experiences shut off new avenues for you. For every HTML based grind there are a dozen novel variants out there, realising that they need to stay fresh to attract – and keep – new players. One company that definitely knows that is Jagex, creators of the very well-known free-to-play MMORPG RuneScape. The British developers are dedicated to the art of the online gaming and their latest offering sees nary a sheep or Mafioso in sight.
8Realms is a browser-based, empire building, strategy game. Players start out with a small settlement in the middle of a vast, verdant plain. With barely two sticks to rub together they must lead their tribe through the ages, defending them against invaders and creating a civilisation that will stand the test of time through to the modern day and beyond.
Things don’t start out well, either; upon first arrival to your new settlement, you discover marauders torching it, teaching you right from the off that you will not stand unopposed in this world. Thankfully there’s no lasting damage and you soon begin rebuilding your modest settlement. It consists of a series of squares, each suitable capable of holding one building. Initially both your options and space are limited, although this is not surprising given the current fashion of wearing furs and that the cutting edge of warfare is the pointed stick.
Buildings don’t just spring from thin air, though. Within 8Realms there are several core elements that go together to allow you to build and expand. Forests must be felled for wood, mines and quarries excavated for stone and ore, whilst the pastures are farmed to sustain your workers. As such, the first goal is to setup the mines and farms that are going to provide the settlement with the natural resources it needs to expand. Your lot may be dim but they at least know how to throw together a good pen to keep their prehistoric cows in.
Building is also limited by construction slots. Each city comes initially with only a pair of slots and a single research slot, whereby your finest minds can push the boundaries of science. Early projects take mere minutes to spring up but more advanced techniques in later ages can take many hours, slowing your progress and involvement. More slots can be obtained by use of gems should you need a dozen things done by lunch, though the gem is 8Realms’ in-game currency which feeds through from real-world currency. As always in free-to-play however, this is only a factor if you make it so, and shaping your playing habits around your slots has not been an issue for me so far. Especially as certain achievements grant you generous helpings of free gems that can be used in exactly the same manner.
By the end of first Ancient age you will have become used to the limitations of what you can set in motion in a single sitting, but it is also at the end of the this age that the real strategy of 8Realms begins to tell. Ushering in the Classical age with structures resembling the Roman empire, options begin to open up proving that it’s not just grinding that will see success in this particular corner of the free play universe. Military might becomes available, with armouries, stable and watchtowers enabling your animal skin wearing spearmen to be turned into archers, gladiators and charioteers. No more are the areas around your kingdom off limits as your military muscle is ready to be flexed and see off the skirmishes that can plague your city.
Such power needs a lot of resources though and a single city alone within its limited space could not handle such a task. Striking out, emperors can found new cities, close to precious natural resources and full of precious new land. Here balance is the key as not every city can be autonomous. Trade routes need to be struck out between yours – and other players’ – cities to keep them freshly stocked with resources and enough defenders to allow the citizens to sleep soundly at night.
As in many civilisation games before, many will be content to simply grow and expand their empire, taking over the map, squeezing out the barbarians and other online users that you can see scattered across the world. There are also a constant stream of challenges that encourage the exploration of the sciences and the mobilising of your forces, though always gently leading you down the road of bettering your city. Be it requesting that you investigate irrigation or capturing a local deposit or silver ore, it usually indicates a quick shuffling of resources and altering of building priority to claim the spoils.
Being quite a cynical gamer, given the years under my belt, I was all but prepared to jump online, sign in and go through the motions as I have done with previous dalliances with free-to-play. I am then quite happy to say that my preconceptions have been all but been removed. The experience Jagex possesses from its decade in the online space knows that a hollow and superficial game will hold little water. What is presented is something that is very much the spirit of Age of Empires and Civilisation, but in a pleasing format that won’t envelope your life. And I mean that in a good way.
Within the reach of such games I turn obsessive compulsive, spending days constantly tweaking resource flows and lines of defence in a bid to make the perfect village. 8Realms is a distilled version of this, still allowing you to forge large empires from humble beginnings but in small, controlled doses that will sure to keep the wife happy.
With BIGsheepinople and BIGsheepingham just in their infancy there is a long way left to go en route to the future and world domination. The former is the capital, founding city and home of the imperial forces, currently striking out to take a silver mine to the South West. The latter is the trade hub, providing the military with their resources to expand and in current negotiations with the neighbouring empire of ShadowFax about possible relations.
The council of elders are already in discussion of founding BIGsheepton to the North, but for the time being I’m going to have to wait. I’ve a few timers to watch tick over until that particular city can sink its foundations.