Rule without lifting a finger. (Well maybe just one.)
If Tinder and the Bantam Choose Your Own Adventure book franchise got together for one passionate night of game development, the child of that union would be Reigns. A resource manager with an RPG flair, Reigns puts you on the throne of a dysfunctional medieval kingdom, which you rule by swiping left or right on choices offered to you by various members of your court. It’s never clear how your decisions will affect the kingdom though, and every choice can bring you closer to any number of untimely ends.
To be honest, that’s half the fun. Unlike most titles of this ilk, where you lose when your resources drop too low, Reigns will boot you from power for letting any of your four resources—the church, the people, the military, and the treasury—get too low or too high. Ran out of gold? The merchants now own your kingdom. Military too strong?
You’re slaughtered in a coup. This makes Reigns a balancing act, with equilibrium, rather than excess, the goal.
And it’s a tough balance to maintain. This is due partly to the fact that you’re not told ahead of time whether your choices will have a positive or negative impact on a particular resource—though the UI does indicate which resources will be affected—and partly to the fact that many decisions have a seesaw effect, increasing one resource while draining another. This forces you to pay closer attention than you might normally to the context of the decision presented. While the direct impact a choice will have isn’t made immediately obvious, you can usually guess at what sort of outcomes to expect. Sending soldiers off to defend your borders will leave fewer to protect your castle, and the church probably won’t approve of you swiping right on that handsome young man who just wants to “paint your portrait”. As with most resource managers, the key here is paying attention to the bigger picture.
Fortunately, the consequences of being too shortsighted are minimal in the grand scheme of things. You unlock achievements for uncovering new ways to fail, and as one king dies, another rises to take his place. This was one of my favorite aspects of Reigns. Though the permadeath can keep you from unlocking longevity achievements, it never feels like you’re being punished too harshly for failing to keep the chaos under control. This is especially appreciated in situations where you get an unlucky string of cards that lead to a quick downfall. In many ways, Reigns is as much a game of chance as it is of skill, so it’s nice that you’re able to get right back up on the throne after getting knocked off.
Now, this isn’t to say that your decisions don’t have ongoing effects. If you started a war as one king, you’ll eventually have to finish it as another. That goes for the good as well though. If one king erected a hospital to care for the sick, future kings will benefit from that too. This gives the narrative (such as it is) a wonderful sense of continuity even while allowing each playthrough to feel like a new experience. It’s a tricky sort of thing to pull off, and I tip my hat to the developers at Nerial for handling this expertly.
Every title has its weak points, and Reigns is no different.
My biggest gripe is that the desktop release feels like an afterthought. This is most apparent in the controls—everything is still set up to work with multi-touch gestures, even though you’re playing with a mouse. And you can’t remap anything or change to a different predefined control style. This means that you can’t configure the game to respond to the left and right arrow keys—a huge disappointment given the nature of the gameplay—and you can’t scroll menus with the mouse wheel. (Yes, you read that correctly.) To scroll menus, you have to click and drag to simulate touchscreen finger scrolling. This may sound like nitpicking on my part, but small, frequent annoyances can kill playability.
Then there’s the issue of scale. Reigns just doesn’t feel like a desktop title. Each scenario is presented in a sentence or two and requires little more than a few seconds of thought. You swipe to make your decision, and you’re immediately presented with the next scenario. It’s quick, low-commitment gameplay that’s perfect for the mobile platform. Do some light dungeon-crawling on your way to lunch. Start a crusade while walking the dogs. Flip through virtual cards for an hour at your desk? Not so much. It’s not the sort of experience that requires the higher level of engagement I generally need to stay sitting at my computer.
Reigns is a delightful little title. It’s packed full of subtle humor, and its highly stylized minimalistic art is both unassuming and clever. And give it up for any title that includes same-sex relationships without sensationalizing them. Reigns allows you to pursue romantic partners (whether you’re married or not), and your options include several characters of both genders. Like everything else in Reigns, these romances are frivolous and fleeting, but it’s nice to see that representation.
There aren’t yet any details on the official site, but it looks like Nerial is planning to release some additional content in the future. There’s no word yet on what this content will include or how it will be distributed—as an update or optional DLC—but I’m hoping that it will give Reigns the boost it needs to go from a one-day-and-put-it-away mobile title to something worth spending more time with.