Platforms: PC, iOS, Android
Reviewed On: PC
Publisher: Devolved Digital
I imagine ruling an entire kingdom must be incredibly challenging and complex. There’s a military that needs funding and constant management to make sure it doesn’t accidentally wage war on the neighbors; religion to deal with and all of the many problems that stem from it; a population to keep fed, clothed, warm and happy; and a treasury that constantly seems to be on the brink of containing no money whatsoever because you spent it all on that big gold statue. Reigns takes all of this complexity and boils it down to a deck of cards, four meters and just two choices to make at any given time; yes or no, this or that, what and what.
So here’s how it plays; a card is revealed to you, often with a character drawn in a brilliantly minimal style proffering a choice that you must make. You can swipe either left or right. Yes or no. This or that. The Bishop might want you dip into the treasury to build more churches, or perhaps the Queen wants to set up a tourney, or maybe a dam is threatening to burst, or a ship in the harbor has a plague. Do you agree to constructing more churches? Can the royal treasure afford a tourney? Are really that bothered about all the people who might drown, especially if building a dam will limit access to water for the Vikings? Should you quarantine the entire harbor? At first it might seem like these decisions are fairly easy and the lure to do what is morally decent should hopefully pull you toward what seem to be sensible choices, like building that hospital or trying to avoid war if it isn’t needed. But morality goes out of the window quickly because Reigns is all about holding upright the four pillars of your kingdom; religion, population, military and money, as represented at the top of the screen. Should any of these bars drain or fill entirely your current King will be ousted, be it because of military coup, revolution or even an opulent party where he simply chokes to death. A fitting end, really, to George the Mad.
There’s a catch, though; you don’t know how decisions will affect you exactly. A little circle above a meter will tell you that it will somehow be altered, but now how and the size of the change. The only thing that gives you a hint is the dimensions of the circle; the bigger it is the more the meter will shift. Sometimes it’s fairly obvious, like if your military advisor asks you to construct new fortifications and you can see circles hovering above both the military and the treasury then you can be pretty certain you’ll take a monetary hit but gain some extra defense if you say yes. Other decisions tend to be a bit harder to judge, though, so any time a meter starts to get even vaguely close to being drained or filled the tensions ramps up a little as you try to guess whether this new choice might just tip one of the over the edge. Jesus, how did Kings cope with this stuff? No matter most of them were crazy bastards, eh?
But never fear, because death doesn’t mean very much to someone as amazing as you. Due to certain messing with the Devil you’ve been granted a strange form of immortality; individual Kings may die, but you’ll keep coming back, reincarnated as the next ruling monarch. Basically you’re given the opportunity to cock it all up in new and amazing ways. To advance the storyline you want to remain living for as long as possible, however, in order to work through the cards and hopefully meet new characters and events that will in turn add even more cards to the game that will let you follow the main storyline by completing the goals given to, ranging from starting a holy crusade to dating a pigeon. Some of these are relatively easy to complete, while others require a bit of experimentation to find the right sequence of decisions. Again, these push you to make horrible choices so that you can stay in power; plentiful people and a shortage of cash might make you decide to keep the miners working hard, or to massively hike up the price of bread. If your military is getting a bit too strong for its own good then maybe it’s time to declare war on the neighbors. And if the faith is running a bit low maybe you need to repent your sins when offered. Careful, mind you, because it’s possible that you’ll no longer be able to say no to the Church, although at least they’ll take care of the money for you. Huh.
And yet sometimes it’s worth getting yourself killed, as daft as that might sound. This is because certain decisions will convey bonuses which will keep going, even on to the reign of the next King. A hospital can help combat plagues, for example while a barn allows the storing of food and can thus save you if the population meter drains entirely. Not all of these are positive bonuses, mind you, as occasionally one will turn up which just wants to really ruin your day. And on top of that there are also strange real-time buffs and debuffs which feel rather at odds with the almost turn-based nature of the cards. Let’s say you manage to broker a deal for the Silk Road which starts adding money to your treasury continuously. It sounds fine until you realise that you’re now actively trying to spend money like a lunatic to stop the bar filling up. The idea is to add further tension to the game, since a bar filling or depleting in real-time adds a timer of sorts to every decision, forcing you to act quickly rather than act sensibly. It’s a good concept, but in reality it’s just annoying and tends to occasionally get in the way of the amusing writing, which is blasphemous because Reigns really does have a good sense of humor.
There’s some other stuff to talk about, too, like the Pungeon. Yes, it’s really called the Pungeon. This maze of rooms and corridors and traps and horrible skeletons hides many things provided you can actually work out how to get around the damn thing, which I never did. The Pungeon also happens to be the place where you’ll wind up duelling the most, an odd feature of Reigns that is somewhat difficult to work out. I’ll be bluntly honest, I’m still not very sure exactly how duels work. Basically atop the screen you and the enemy will be displayed as well as a series of dots that represents the battlefield. You then pick from different “movies” of sorts, which will be previewed on the screen. After that, though, things are a bit confusing as it’s not really clear how the moves interact with each other, so don’t be surprised if death or victory occur purely through happenstance. Mostly it seems to boil down to using the defensive moves to parry the enemy and then counterattack.
Not all that surprisingly the game’s biggest problem is repetition. There’s not a lot of cards to get added to your adventures, so you’ll quickly begin repeating the same events over and over again before switching over to a sort of auto-pilot that mindlessly clicks through them This does allow you to become better at the game since you can more easily judge the outcomes of any decisions you make, but that doesn’t make it any more interesting.
And of course it’s a fair criticism to say that your choices don’t feel like they carry much weight at times because you’ll never really see the consequences or results. No matter what you do you’ll just keep staring at a procession of cards bearing absurdly cute art while some meters fluctuate up and down. It’s a game that needs to take place in your head more than on the screen. The decisions you make need to play out in your own mind. This, though, can also be viewed as somewhat thematic; a reigning monarch often seems distant from the realities of day-to-day life, unable to see the true ramifications of their choices because they’re focused on balancing out the bigger picture. This is exactly what you do; choices are made in the name of the greater good, and quite often in the name of just keeping your head on your shoulders.
Reigns is a ridiculously simple idea that grabs hold of your imagination. Some of the greatest things often prove to be the simplest, after all. It’s simple left or right choices struggle to keep you engaged for more than a couple of hours, but it doesn’t need to because in that time you’ll have played something rather special with a fun overarching narrative that most people will find themselves driven to uncover. Given it’s supremely low price-tag of just £1.99 on Steam you’d be daft not to pick up Reigns and try your hand at ruling a kingdom.
Oh, and remember, strange women lyin’ in ponds distributin’ swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.
Got it? Good.