Machine Zone has taken schadenfreude and turned it into a three-billion-dollar enterprise. That’s what I realized when I saw an enemy’s hero renamed “Pavanon’s Tampon” taking a long walk of shame back to his city in Game of War: Fire Age. You see, Krypto had been harassing Pavanon, relentlessly attacking his city, even using the T-word in an insulting in-game email (civil discourse is not always at a premium in War). But Pav, like Krypto is a “money player,” meaning he spends actual money for bonuses in this otherwise free-to-play game. Eventually he grew bigger than Krypto and payback was very satisfying—or very humiliating, depending on whose side you were on. The renamed hero returns home in what looks like a T-shirt and boxers for all the kingdom to see.
Like Clash of Clans or Tiny Towers, Game of War has you set your workers to complete a task and then wait for their labor to pay off. But what sets Game of War apart from those others is both the complexity of its gameplay (there are hundreds of factors that determine how strong you are) and, even more so, the psychology at work when you have 5,000 people competing for resources in a Kingdom.
The game is 18 months old, but when you start, you can join a kingdom that’s fairly new. You start building the basics (farm, forest, mine and quarry) and training an army and it feels like so many other building games you’ve played before. There are a million little ways to trigger jolts of endorphins as you periodically get prizes from killing monsters or mining sites or completing quests or participating in hourly events or playing the in-game casino or just turning on the game and seeing a bouncing chest for you to open. There’s no end to the ways that free stuff comes flying at you or the different types of treasure that you can find yourself with: materials for making armor, gems to give your army advantages, speed-ups for building, power for fighting monsters, boosts for fighting other players. Then at some point someone will come along and burn your city and steal your resources. Your lone little village with its wooden walls will look helpless in this quickly growing kingdom. You’ll start to notice the little clustered hives of cities and you’ll find yourself joining an alliance.
That’s when things get interesting. Maybe the guy who burned your city is the same one who invited you to join, and you’re now allies. Suddenly the bigger players are sending you resources and you’re getting alliance gifts. You’re now fighting as a team against other alliances or standing together with nearby hives. You’re learning that among your group of 90 people are those in neighboring states and those as far flung as South Africa. The age range and gender—and temperament—are just as varied.
There’s a lot of strategy to the game—choosing the right areas to research, soldiers to train, traps to build, gear to craft. Paying close attention to global events and timing your building improvements to coincide. But the strategies that matter most are those that your alliance makes. The inter-alliance dynamic plays out like one big Model UN. One player with an itchy trigger finger on the wrong city with the wrong kind of friends can leave your whole hive on fire when things escalate. But you stand by that player when he ends up poking a bigger bear because, as so many commenters will remind everyone, if you didn’t want war you’d be playing Farmville.
And the internal politics are as fascinating as the kingdom-wide ones. Tempers flare and arguments crop up within alliances and people leave—or give ultimatums for others to be booted. Each alliance has a leader, the R5 who determines what level everyone else is. I was active enough on the boards to somehow find myself promoted to R4, one of the group’s generals after a couple of weeks online. We have our own chat room with the leader discussing the urgent matters of the day, and the responsibilities can feel strangely important—keep the store stocked, negotiate prison releases, secure diplomatic relations, organize relocations, protect friends and recruit new members. But it’s fun to collaboratively plan strategy when you can be attacked or attack at any time. My alliance has become a little online band of brothers and sisters—Felicia Day’s Guild with 90 people—and I love it.
The game can also be frustrating, watching a bunch of players who you know are spending big (the $99.99 package is the app’s biggest seller) come undo everything you’ve worked on all day. But you can also then go steal resources from a newer player who’s spent his own real-life money on resources. The ones who raid your alliance are the worst sorts of humanity, but when you raid others, it’s just all part of the game.
And it’s addictive. A few nights ago, I had to get up in the middle of the night to pee. That’s not completely out of the ordinary—I’m 43 years old and I’d had a couple of beers. What is unusual is that before going back to sleep, I reached for my phone and put my troops to work. I’ve never been so obsessed with a mobile game that I’d turn a middle-of-the-night pit stop into an opportunity to update my city.
So far, I’ve only spent $4.99 on the game as both a gesture towards the developers (before realizing how little they needed my gesture) and to make those early stages more about playing than waiting. But now that I’ve been playing for a month, I can see how Machine Zone was able to hire Kate Upton for all those ads. Spending a few bucks leaps you days ahead of your competitors and lavishes gifts upon the rest of your alliance. It can be the difference between being the guy humiliating your enemy and being the one with the silly name, walking shamefully across the kingdom in your undies. I’m trying to resist the urge, but I think I may spend $5 more.
Josh Jackson is Paste’s editor-in-chief.