It’s not so good to be the king, but it’s pretty damn fun.
Publisher: Devolver Digital
Format: Android, PC (reviewed), iOS (reviewed)
Released: August 11, 2016
Ruling a kingdom isn’t easy, especially when forced to disregard or approve one’s courtly advisors like they were medieval Tinder profiles.
This is the conceit of Reigns, a card-based royalty simulator in which players swipe left and right to make decrees and govern their realm.
At the start of each new reign (kings don’t tend to last long in this particular dominion), cards are shuffled randomly and presented in linear fashion to the player, most of them containing characters who offer the player two choices. The chief justice may ask for the military to step in and help with executions, while the bishop might require the crown to build more churches.
Making a decision is as simple as moving the card left or right – swiping it on mobile devices or sliding the mouse on PC – and putting an action into practice. Every decree has a consequence, however, with four pillars of rule that must be kept in check.
Atop the game screen are four distinctly shaped meters pertaining to clear aspects of one’s kingdom – the crucifix represents the church, the human figure represents the people, the sword represents the military, and the dollar symbol represents the treasury. Every decision made can impact one or all of these meters, raising or lowering them by various degrees.
If the general suggests recruiting soldiers from the common people, the military’s bar will fill at the cost of the citizenry. Likewise, building things like schools, churches, and fortresses can bump any related resource, but lose the player some cash.
The trick is to keep all four powers regulated, ensuring they become neither depleted nor too powerful. If any meter fully drains or fully fills, it’s likely to be the end for that particular king’s career.
The are 26 ways to die in Reigns, and none of them pretty.
If your military becomes reduced to nothing, you’ll be taken over by a foreign power and die fighting on the steps of your throne. Should the military’s power be raised to maximum, however, the general will stage a coup and leave you hanging. This is not a game about maxing out one’s resources, but instead keeping them even – raising and lowering them consistently in order to avoid an untimely end.
It’s a fascinating balancing act, and can lead to some harsh decisions. Sure, working your citizens to death in the mines when they request a break is a cruel thing indeed, but if your people are plentiful and your cash is low, it might be the only way to survive. After all, the last thing you need is for your citizenry to rise up against you after growing too numerous.
Until you’ve learned the ropes, some deduction is involved while ruling. You get to know which aspects of the kingdom are affected by a choice, but not how (unless you ate an orange mushroom, of course).
Whether the results will raise or lower your statistics depends on previously learned results or pure intuition. It soon becomes apparent that the church isn’t fond of scientific pursuits, while engaging in wars will deplete the military. Some dilemmas are less obvious, and a good old fashioned guess will be required.
Other cards are thrown into the mix to keep things interesting. Dialog with various advisors and visitors can show up, with responses that might not have an immediate effect on resources. Reigns presents a few dark subplots running throughout the game that becomes more apparent as kings die off and the player continues ruling through their heirs.
There are more ways to die than simply failing to balance the books, too – a lot of nasty surprises lie in wait for those who forge ahead.
Added challenges include the Pungeon – a dangerous labyrinth in which you must continue swiping cards to pick doorways and find a key before locating the exit while the entire kingdom’s resources drain. As well as a strict time limit, one can encounter spike traps and skeletons, providing new and deadly ways for an errant monarch to perish.
Using the same card-based interface, Reigns provides a combat system that occasionally shows up – most likely when facing Pungeon skeletons, though other NPCs may offer a challenge. Dueling a character involves swiping left and right to defend or attack, moving one’s position on a miniature 2D arena. Duels are a little tricky, and I still find myself a little baffled by how all the various “moves” counter each other, but it’s nonetheless a fun little break from the usual shuffle.
Meeting new characters expand’s one’s deck with fresh cards, and there are boons and curses that have a number of gameplay effects – should you find yourself with the Lover status, for example, you’ll find that your citizens become locked, unable to gain or lose numbers due to their approval of the illicit affair. The church, however, will constantly deplete and thus need extra attention to keep its level raised.
You’ll also never be able to refuse your lover’s advice, no matter how dangerous. The things we do for love.
Building a structure like a barn will initiate the Providence boon – should the people meter ever fully drain, the king’s reign will be saved by a free boost at the expense of some military. Such second chance cards are always worth investing in, even if they may cost the current king his head.
As well as simply surviving as long as possible during each lifetime, there are subgoals to achieve. Some of them are simple, such as meeting a new NPC, while others require a little puzzling and guesswork to obtain. Working out how to meet the “lose a limb” requirement, for example, involves making just the right series of decisions when the correct card shows up.
Reigns is a clever little game indeed, with a dark sense of humor and a simple interface that hides a surprising amount of strategic depth. Learning what cards can have an impact and trying to predict how much you can afford to gain or lose makes each new addition to the dynasty an entertaining and challenging affair.
As with many RNG-led games, of course, luck has a fair bit to do with how long you survive, but the perpetual nature of the game means death is more of an irritation than a genuine issue – the timeline advances regardless, each year passed in-game moving one toward an inevitable conclusion.
In this regard, Reigns does not take all that long to play – you could clear it in a night if you dedicate yourself to it, but with a three dollar asking price, multiple secrets to uncover, and an engaging interface that begs to be replayed, the short running time isn’t a huge problem.
A bigger issue is the repetition that inevitably sets in, even during such a brief experience. Despite an expanding deck of cards, there really isn’t a massive amount of them, and the same familiar choices will pop up time and time again. Before I was done with my first playthrough, I found myself on autopilot, swiping across cards that I’d come to know far too well.
The same can be said of deaths – despite the large amount of ways to meet one’s untimely end, there are a few downfalls that become infuriatingly common. Losing the kingdom of oligarchy is the most frequent, since so many things cost money and it’s by far the easiest resource to drain. I ended up rolling my eyes more than a few times as, yet again, I found that my coffers were empty – not always for reasons of my own doing, either.
Despite the repetition, Reigns‘ genuinely funny writing, sinister overarching narrative, and tactical game of equity is a smart time waster and well worth dipping into for controlled bursts of time.
The fantastic character art, simplistic but endearing, as well as some delightful sound design from Disasterpiece, really helps set the darkly comic tone, though both versions of the game have a few audiovisual errors in which various images or sounds won’t alter or even show up without restarting the game. Again, far from a big deal, but an annoyance nonetheless.
Reigns is shrewd and playful, with a straightforward interface and a handful of terrific twists thrown in for good measure. Whenever things risk getting too stale, a new event or set of cards can turn up to keep one hooked, and a single playthrough won’t uncover all the secrets, as well as the ways to meet some grisly fate.
Just be careful about that dog…