Games are, fundamentally, about choices. In some games, like those from Telltale, these are obvious, concrete choices; do you want investigate A or B, will you pick the antagonistic conversation choice or keep things calm? In most it’s a much more abstract choice; do you want to go left or right, pull the trigger now or one second later?
Reigns does away with pretty much any abstraction around choices, presenting you with a situation and a choice of two actions to take. You make your choice with a Tinder-like swipe to the left or the right, with each decision shaping the future of a medieval kingdom that the game sees you rule over.
In some ways, it’s a bit like your classic kingdom builder. You can build up your army or improve the defences at your castle by adding new towers to it. You can even set the price of grain at the market, or invest resources into developing new technologies.
However, in reality Reigns isn’t like much else out there. For a start you have little control over which decision you’re confronted with, as you work your way through what is stylistically presented as a deck of cards, with each car representing a particular scenario. Without knowing what comes next, there’s little chance to make a grand plan for the future of your kingdom here, you mostly rule from one decision to the next, literally saying yes or no to questions in many cases.
While that sounds incredibly simple for a core mechanic, it’s actually one that can quickly become complex. While each decision you make seems simple in isolation, they all have an effect. For a start, most decisions affect at least one of the four attributes that determine your kingdom’s status: The Church, The People, The Army and The Treasury.
Four bars at the top of the screen show you how each of these is doing, and small dots above the bars show which elements will be affected by each of your four choices. However, you don’t know if the change is going to be positive or negative, leaving you to work out the consequences of each choice by thinking about the question and answers you’re provided with.
If you let any of your kingdom’s four controlling elements runs completely dry or fills all the way up, your reign comes to a swift end. end rather swiftly. And empty treasury sees the merchants depose you in favour of an oligarchy, but equally, stuffing your coffers see you expire during a grand party thrown in your honour.
It’s a delicate balancing act to keep every element of your kingdom hovering around the middle, particularly when making some decisions leads to persistent effects that play out in real time. Maybe you sign a new trade deal, causing money to flow into your treasury constantly, or perhaps a religious crusade is more your speed, bringing you wealth at the cost of your relationship with your citizens.
They’re a ticking bomb that completely change the flow of the game. Where you can normally play at quite a sedate pace, taking time to mull over your choices, these effects act on a per second basis, suddenly putting you under a huge time pressure, trying to flick through each of your decisions as quickly as you can. It’s an interesting shift for the game, and it’s probably quite a marmite element; some will relish the fresh challenge that the time pressure gives you while others will feel that it simply weights the game too heavily against you.
Small minigames also crop up from time to time, whether it’s gambling with the court jester, shifting from making decisions about your kingdom to those about the outcome of dice rolls, or even duelling your rivals. Reigns keeps the exact same card swiping mechanic. When exploring a dungeon you pick between one of two routes, while duelling means you’re always making the choice between attacking and defending. It’s nice to see developers Nerial committing to the game’s central concept in such a strong way, and it is genuinely surprising how much they manage to get out of it.
Then there’s the quests the game presents you with. Sometimes these are as short stories that introduce new characters to your court, adding fresh scenarios to the deck at the same time, while at others you may be tasked with surviving for a number of years with some hinderance, to be gifted with new cards or information at the end.
However, no matter what you do in Reigns, your king’s reign will always come to an end. While other games would see this as failure and have you restart, Reigns simply moves you onto the next king in the chain, whether the king’s son or someone else.
It’s always the same kingdom, and certain ongoing effects from the previous reign will carry over into the next one. Crusades don’t simply end because there’s been a change of management, and it actually helps to keep the game’s sense of continuity going that they continue. It also plays into a lightweight narrative that pervades the game. The ghost of the previous king informs you at the start of the game that your lineage has been cursed to remember “…every king of this dynasty. Every compromise, every death, for ages.”
Only the devil can, apparently, lift this curse, but he hasn’t been in a particularly good mood whenever he’s appeared in my playthrough. It does seem that getting the devil to lift the curse it the game’s ultimate goal, but you’re under no obligation to work towards that ultimate resolution if you don’t want to. While the narrative crops up at certain points throughout the game, you’re mostly left to manage your kingdom and keep your place on the throne for as long as you can.
The only real problem that the game suffers from is repetition. While your kingdom seems to continue without end, there’s only a finite number of cards you can be presented with by the game. Cards seem to have a degree of rarity too, so there’s a number of very common cards that crop up pretty often, like whether or not merchants can sell items previously provided by the church.
For a game that’s so simple, Reigns is very easy to get absorbed in. Your kingdom evolves in a much more subtle way than your traditional management sim, but also in a more meaningful way. While there’s a lack of variety in cards that tend to crop up, there’s also enough depth and variety in general to keep you going for quite some time.