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a gingerbread man cookie character heroically holds a candy cane into the sky Image: Devsisters

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Here’s how Cookie Run: Kingdom became the latest dessert sensation

No, it’s not just because the cookies are hot

Ana Diaz (she/her) is a culture writer at Polygon, covering internet culture, fandom, and video games. Her work has previously appeared at NPR, Wired, and The Verge.

The first time I saw my tiny gingerbread cookie run for its life, with its even tinier legs, the image stuck in my brain. I couldn’t stop thinking about Cookie: Run Kingdom. Created by Devsisters, the mobile game has become a runaway hit — at the moment it is the number one game in the Apple App store’s RPG section, and it also has a thriving community of fan artists. A spinoff from the larger Cookie Run franchise, the latest iteration of the series combines classic town-building gameplay with a platformer that has real-time combat elements.

If it sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. There is actually a lot to do in this not-so-tiny, free-to-play gacha game for mobile. Players design and build a town and play through levels, gathering rewards that can be spent to roll and try a player’s luck at unlocking new characters. Released in January 2021, the game has built a massive audience, and even features classic Sega characters like Sonic and Tails in the game.

Cookie: Run Kingdom is best known for its lovable (and sometimes sexy) cast — all of which are, you guessed it, cookies! There are booze-inspired cookies, red velvet-inspired cookies, even an avocado one. The game mixes absurdity with cuteness to create something totally unique.

What is Cookie Run: Kingdom?

In Cookie Run: Kingdom you do two main things: run and build a kingdom. Although the game pulls characters from the earlier entries in the franchise, you don’t need to play the other games to know what’s going on. When you enter the game, you’ll see a charming gingerbread town filled with buildings and unlocked cookie characters. While in town, you can build attractions and amenities for your cookies like houses, cafes, gardens. From there, you can enter a hub where you select levels for the “run” portion of the game that consists of platforming and battling.

A Cookie Run: Kingdom kingdom from above, showing many different buildings and decorations. Image: Devsisters via Polygon

Portions of the levels in Cookie Run: Kingdom work a lot like the popular mobile game, Temple Run. You press buttons to jump and slide, avoiding obstacles as your cookies automatically barrel forward. Whereas the platforming elements are limited, most of your time playing levels will consist of fighting various dessert-themed enemies in real-time combat, with your team of cookies. Throughout the game, you’ll unlock cookies with different roles like attacks, defenders, and healers. It’s up to you to build a well-balanced team that can take on the most terrifying of cake monsters.

As you beat levels, you earn different rewards that you can spend to build or upgrade buildings in your kingdom, level up your cookies, or spend in gacha. It all fits together: To level up your cookies, you have to upgrade your kingdom. And to upgrade your kingdom, you have to upgrade certain buildings, add decor, and beat certain levels (which require your cookies to be leveled to the appropriate strength). These accomplishments also move the main story forward, as your team of gingerbread cookies fights their way across the Cookie Kingdom.

How do you unlock new cookie characters?

Since it’s a gacha game, you gamble a fictional “gem” currency to get your cookies. In the gacha, you spend this in-game currency — which can either be earned through beating levels and accomplishing in-game tasks, or purchased with real money — to get a random chance at unlocking cookies or Soul Stones (which can upgrade your fighters). Generally speaking, the more powerful the cookie, the lower the chance you’ll get it in gacha. It’s also comparable to a loot box where players spend in-game currency, which can either be earned or purchased for real money, for your shot at your favorite characters.

When you “roll” or gamble for the characters, you view a cutscene where a magical witch rolls out dough. You then use a magical cookie cutter that puts the dough in the oven. Stove doors open, and reveal what you’ve won. It’s a satisfying mechanic that I find myself wanting to return to for the dopamine rush every few days or so — it’s a little scary! And the odds of rolling specific characters is generally low. For example, under a normal banner, the odds of rolling and getting Moon Rabbit Cookie, a popular character used in defense, is 0.090 percent.

Hollyberry Cookie stands in the center, ready for promotion. Image: Devsisters via Polygon

There are multiple ways to spend in-game currency to roll for a cookie, and the translation to real money can vary. This obscures the real cost and can make it easier for people to keep spending. There are also numerous ways to spend real money in exchange for various building and leveling resources, Soul Stones, and gacha related perks — like increasing the probability of a successful roll. Like other games of this model, some of these bundles are time-sensitive, and can be hard to tell apart from free items.

Cookie Run: Kingdom does make it very easy to earn gems in-game. A level that takes under about a minute to complete can earn you a ballpark of 100 gems. Players also get rewards for completing missions and certain city-builder achievements. When I was actively clearing levels, I was able to get 3000 crystals a day, in addition to getting magical cookie cutters which I could spend on rolls in lieu of gems. I managed to get 31 cookies — many of which are powerful, high-tier cookies — within a few weeks without spending real money. That said, there is a low likelihood of getting any single specific cookie — you can get some good ones, but it will take some work and you won’t get all of them right off the bat. It’s even more work to level them up.

How did Cookie Run: Kingdom get so popular?

Cookie Run: Kingdom comes hot off the heels of another breakout success, Genshin Impact. Like Genshin Impact, the game features a free-to-play gacha model with popular characters. There’s an overlap between the two fandoms — a quick look at my server shows plenty of people who named their kingdoms after Genshin Impact characters and towns, meaning that players likely came to the app as Genshin Impact fans.

Users on TikTok have also pointed out that a large portion of the Genshin fandom also just left the game to go to Cookie Run: Kingdom, since some players were upset with the anniversary rewards in Genshin. Now the joke from fans is that Cookie Run: Kingdom actually gives players what they want with one TikToker even saying that starting the game after playing Genshin for so long felt like “being in a proper healthy relationship.”

The Cookie Run: Kingdom fandom is thriving. Some people draw their beloved cookies as people, like Herb Cookie or Almond Cookie. The art often gets circulated widely, with one video of Almond Cookie art that has garnered more than 3.4 million views on TikTok. These cookie characters are such a popular choice for fan artists, because they have detailed anime-esque designs, and there are many varieties. Almond Cookie, for example, has a grizzled demeanor and rocks a cool, trench coat. Sea Fairy Cookie is really pretty, with her little mermaid-esque outfit.

Others like to rank the cookies in TikToks based on silly metrics like how goofy cookies look when mining. Others will tie the game to other recent meme trends. For example, people have made Squid Game as well as Deltarune memes. The catchy music from Cookie Run: Kingdom is often played in the background of these videos, but has also started spreading across other non-Cookie Run-related TikToks.

The fandom around the game shows how much people love these cookie characters. The concept for the game is relatively lighthearted and simple, right? You play as these cookies and fight monsters. But the real draw is just how satisfying it is to collect cookies, and watch them live in your little town — they can sit by the campfire, or play on a little Sega arcade cabinet.

But there’s also controversy in the Cookie Run fandom community. There’s a prevalent concern, within the fandom, about whitewashing — a phrase that refers to when artists lighten the skin tone of characters — the cookies in their fanart. There is no formal acknowledgment of race within the Cookie Run universe, however, cookies come in a variety of colors, which fan artists use as a jumping-off point for drawing them as people. There is now a trend where people “un-white wash” Cookie Run art by darkening the skin tone of the humanized persona. This video from user Whitewashfixer shows the artist darkening the skin tone of Herb Cookie art, and has been viewed roughly 1.3 million times.

What do the cookies eat in Cookie Run: Kingdom?

Cookie Run: Kingdom’s cinematic universe continues to grow, each season, as the game gets updated. While playing, you can juggle multiple campaigns — each with its own cast, storyline, and set of levels. The main story follows GingerBrave, a gingerbread man cookie that swings a candy cane as a sword, who wants to make a home for all cookies. But the presence of these vast worlds only seems to prompt even more questions about their lives — with one sticking out in particular: Do cookies eat other cookies?

We know that some cookies, like Dark Enchantress (who is styled similar to Maleficent), believe that cookies were made to be eaten. However, it appears that cookies eating other cookies is frowned upon, as GingerBrave’s whole crusade is to ensure the happiness and prosperity of all cookies. Cookies do eat and drink other things. Champagne Cookie, who heals his team members by showering them with booze, appears to enjoy a nice glass of wine or champagne. (You can also build your cookies a bar in town.)

However, the line between cookie and non-cookie starts to get blurry. While in town, you’ll make jelly beans, bread, donuts, cake, and other sweets for your cookies to eat. While they don’t bake cookies, these are certainly the components to baking a cookie, so it gets a little dubious. The cookies do not bake other cookies. All cookies are made by a faceless magical witch who uses special cookie cutouts and a magical oven to create the cookies. So, in the end, it appears that there is no formal cookie cannibalism.