Over the last year, social network games have grown considerably in both scope and quality. Social gaming is only a few years old, but it has already expanded to encompass millions of players, and the games in the space are beginning to show much more depth than titles from even just one year ago.
In addition, social games have seen some considerable diversification this year, with developers exploring new genres and gameplay styles that make good use of the connected platform.
And, of course, it's been a big year for Facebook game giant Zynga, which made its long-awaited IPO just last week. Throughout the year, the company has been gearing up for its public debut, and in doing go has released a number of major titles including CastleVille and Adventure World, many of which currently rank among the top games on Facebook, according to AppData.
2011 has also been a great year for the social gaming startup. We've seen numerous companies make their debut this year with games that offer new and interesting approaches to presenting games on a social platform.
In the following list, Gamasutra presents its picks for the best social games of 2011:
5. Empires & Allies, Zynga
Zynga's Empires & Allies takes the framework featured in previous Zynga titles like CityVille or FarmVille, and expands them in several meaningful ways to create an experience that, while still familiar, adds some exciting changes to the city-management formula.
Much like the Zynga games that came before it, Empires & Allies has players managing and developing their own plot of land, this time outfitting it with army barracks, naval ports, and airfields to do battle with AI and player-controlled adversaries. The game allows players to progress through an ongoing single-player campaign, providing even more incentive to strengthen your virtual army.
The game's rock-paper-scissors approach to combat works well within the game's light strategic framework, and bolsters the traditional base building systems with some fast-paced, strategic diversions. By both refining old mechanics and introducing new ones, Empires & Allies easily ranks among Zynga's best offerings to date.
4. The Sims Social, Playfish/EA
The Sims is easily one of the most well-established franchises in gaming, and Playfish's The Sims Social does a great job reimagining the series for social platforms.
The game streamlines many of the features found in other Sims titles, giving players control of just one Sim and presenting more simplified options for home construction and management. By trimming some of these features back, the game has an increased focus on the interaction between individual Sims (which makes sense, given the game's title!).
Player-to-player interaction in The Sims Social goes well beyond sending gifts and the like. Rather, players form in-game relationships with their friends' avatars, allowing them to become arch-enemies, friends, or even lovers. The game strongly encourages players to interact with others, and does a great job of capturing the social element of social gaming.
3. Adventure World, Zynga
Zynga's Adventure World is noted departure from the company's traditional city-management games, and presents a progression-based framework with accessible single-player appeal and a unique blend of social mechanics.
The main draw in Adventure World is its focus on exploration and puzzle solving. In the game players work their way through a series of ruins by manipulating ancient mechanisms and fighting off the aggressive local fauna. The game ties in social elements by having players call in their friends for help in certain areas, granting them the tools they need to progress.
The game's slightly more cerebral take on social gaming is a nice breath of fresh air, and its departure from the Zynga's previous titles makes up hopeful that the studio will take even more creative risks when designing its future games.
2. Triple Town, SpryFox
While Triple Town first made its debut on the Amazon Kindle, the game has since made its way onto social network as one of the most unique and addictive titles on the platform.
While technically a city-building title on the surface, Triple Town has much more in common with a match-three puzzle game. Players match up bushes, trees, houses, and a number of other items to create increasingly valuable structures on their small and developing village. When the 6 x 6 grid fills up, it's game over -- but you'll more than likely just want to try again to beat your high score.
In a space rife with familiar genres and gameplay tropes, Triple Town intelligently fits within the framework of social gaming and proves that there are still genres the social developers have yet to explore.
1. Woodland Heroes, Row Sham Bow
Row Sham Bow made its social game debut this year with Woodland Heroes, a game that stands out among its competition thanks to its accessible, yet deceptively engaging strategy formula.
At its core, Woodland Heroes is very much like the classic board game Battleship. Players arrange their war machines on pre-defined grids, and battle it out with a series of AI-controlled opponents. Along the way, they will gather new weapons, conquer territories, and progress through a far-reaching single-player campaign.
Woodland Heroes succeeds particularly well at creating an experience that players of any skill level can jump into, while simultaneously presenting just enough depth to hold the interest of a seasoned, traditional fan of the medium. It's a terribly fine line to walk, yet the game does an excellent job of appealing to both crowds.
Battle Pirates, Kixeye
Gardens of Time, Playdom
Zombie Lane, Digital Chocolate