Zynga, the social gaming juggernaut that somehow was able to clone a game like Scrabble and make it equally as popular as the real thing. The company which got a whole new generation of gamers interested in chess, is back with their next “with Friends” game. This one, called Hanging With Friends, is Zynga’s take on the classic pencil and paper game Hangman.

While the game does follow the basic rules of Hangman that we are all familiar with, Zynga has added some cool new twists which freshen up the gameplay and make it work rather well in a turn-based environment. Games are played in two-player head to head round-based match ups. Each player starts out with five balloons which are the number of words you can guess incorrectly before you lose the game.

Player One begins by constructing their first word from 12 randomly chosen Scrabble-like letter tiles. The word must be between 4 and 8 characters long and cannot be a proper noun. Zynga does do some error checking here to validate any words attempting to be played. The game design decisions Zynga made here are really great, since they nicely bound the number of possible words that a player can come up with. Unlike Words With Friends where you have your tile rack and any number of possible moves based on the board’s state, often leaving you to wait hours (if not days) for your opponent think up the perfect word, turns in Hanging With Friends are over within a few minutes.

Once the word is submitted, it is now the second player’s turn to try and guess the word, selecting one letter at a time from the pool of the 26 letters in the alphabet. To get you going, all occurrences of the last vowel appearing in the mystery word are revealed. Now it’s guessing time… The player has a variable number of strikes (which equate to body parts in classic Hangman), based on the length of the word being guessed. The longer the word, the fewer strikes you get. Player Two keeps guessing letters until either he guesses the word correctly, or runs out of strikes (at which point a strike out will cause the guessing player to also lose one of their balloons). The roles are reversed and the guesser now creates a word and the other player becomes the guesser. This pattern continues until one player loses all of his or her balloons.

To aid the guessing player, Zynga has established three special “lifelines” called Suspects, Extinguish, and Revive. When invoked, the Suspects lifeline reveals four letters in your letter tray, one of which is IN the mystery word. Extinguish removes four incorrect letter tiles from your letter tray. Finally the Revive lifeline removes one strike. At the beginning of a new game players are given one of each of these lifelines to use whenever they’d like during that match up. Only one lifeline may be played for any given word. Should you run out of lifelines, additional ones can be purchased using Zynga coins which are earned (at least for the time being) while playing the game. You see, each of the letter tiles has an associated point value (just like in Scrabble). When you lay out your “mystery” word, it is on what looks like an 8 square line from a Scrabble board, complete with randomly placed Double and Triple Letter and Word squares. So when you are finished playing your word, the total value of that word (Scrabble-style) is added to your point bank. Every time the point bank reaches a total of 200, you are rewarded with 20 more Zynga coins and the point bank is reset. These 20 coins can then be traded for a single extra lifeline of your choice. However, you need to decide when it would be most advantageous to purchase an extra lifeline, since your coin bank is the same across all of your active Hanging With Friends matches. There is a “store” option in the game’s menus, so it would appear that sometime in the future Zynga plans to monetize the game by selling coin packs.

Hanging With Friends is a much more strategical game than the rather simplistic game on which it is based. For instance, when crafting your words you’ll need to decide if you should play a (possibly easier to guess) word which takes advantage of a bonus square, earning you more points toward a free lifeline, or if you should go with a word that may be more difficult to guess, but which would ultimately earn you less points. There are some great trade offs like this in the game that allow players to really develop their own unique strategies. When it’s your turn to guess a word, you have the option of watching a replay of how the other player tried to guess your previous word, which adds yet another element of strategy to the game. By watching the other player’s thought process you can get an idea of what letters they seem to favor when guessing, allowing you to craft your words to use these letters less often (when possible).

The app is definitely still going through some growing pains, with occasional graphics glitches, forced upgrades pushed to players within the app, and the in-game chat functionality even went down for a portion of time. CurrentlyHanging With Friends is available in two flavors, and ad saturated free to play release and a $1.99 paid version that is blissfully ad free. Unfortunately for iPad owners, neither of these offers native iPad support, so you’ll be pixel doubling until Zynga decides to release an “HD” iPad version of the game. I picked up the free version shortly after the game was released and quickly switched to the paid version as the sheer amount of ads seemed to be dramatically more than in previous “With Friends” titles. Either that or my tolerance for such things has diminished.

In Conclusion

To be perfectly honest, I never been a big fan of Zynga’s games, the majority of which I find rather boring and lacking imagination. I only play the occasional game of Words With Friends, after all it is just Scrabble without any innovation in gameplay, and the same goes for Chess With Friends. The mass hysteria surrounding FarmVille remains a complete mystery to me and I don’t count Drop7 since that amazing game was merely an acquisition. I almost hate to admit it, but Zynga has won me over and I’ve decided that they are a “friend” worth hanging out with. Hanging With Friends is a simple, fun and addictive game that (for once) shows some true creativity, Zynga has succeeded in rebooting a classic, creating a novel and entertaining experience.