Launching 8 Realms may seem a funny move for a company like Jagex to make - to move from the most MMOy action-fantasy RPG RuneScape to a classic, slow strategy title - but the core of their strengths is still in play. They've stuck with their browser-only technology and they've stuck with their free-to-play mentality.
In 8 Realms, you take control of a city and seek to conquer the (un)known world. The 8 Realms of the title refers to the ages you pass through on your way to the modern era - like Rise of Nations or Civ, each era has different resources and challenges. Unlike most of these games, and more like Neptune's Pride or Diplomacy, there's a definite end point to the campaign; after a certain number of months, a winner emerges and the cycle begins anew.
You expand your territory in classic board game style - pushing human enemies back with military, conquering areas occupied by AI tribes, and building new outlying cities. You're competing for space and key resources against other players who can be active all day long. Thankfully, unlike Neptune's Pride, you don't have to be online 24 hours a day, as attacks are much slower - and much less deadly. Attackers benefit from attacks, but defenders don't lose that much - it's not a zero-sum game.
We're not convinced, from the brief play we've had, of a qualitative difference between this and the likes of Evony, Travian, Nile Online or Lord of Ultima - but the team don't pretend to that, pushing instead the quantative differences; the huge tech tree and the way that they've polished and thought so hard about every element of the game.
As your population grows, you get more income and culture, which contributes towards your growth towards the next age and more powerful, varied units. Advancing through the ages too quickly though can stunt your cities' growth (eventually, you can found more than one) as can not having the necessary resources to keep your people content. Notably, there are several viable routes through to the end-game - ranging from the militaristic to the trade-oriented to the research-oriented - so there are genuine tactics that need to be deployed here.
Design-wise, they've gone for a clean aesthetic that matches the Civilization inspiration that most of these games draw on; the main world map is relatively flat and is reminiscent of the original Civ. Meanwhile the towns themselves are much more cutesy, like a polished Farmville or Civilization revolution, and there's almost no action, save for builders building; as in all of these games, all combat seems to happen off-screen.
8Realms is intriguing, not merely for its own gameplay and design, but because it shows up a new direction for Jagex who, frankly, had been stagnating somewhat after RuneScape. With its social aspects, its superb use of HTML 5 rather than Flash, and its status as a smaller project within Jagex's 400+ strong team of developers, this could be the first in many titles to come out of Cambridge over the next few years.