First things first, Reigns is made for mobile and, frankly, it shows. You’ve almost certainly got a smartphone or a tablet, so put the PC version out of your mind and go buy it from the App Store or Google Play instead. If you absolutely must play it on PC then, sure, it works, because of what it’s trying to do at heart rather than because it’s been tailor-made for our computers.
Oh, just to get this stuff out the way: whereas on phone you’re swiping, here you’re clicking, which is both immediately less elegant and less in tune with the card-based presentation. It feels clunky and clicky, not fluid and tactile. Also, it’s been made with vertical rather than horizontal screens in mind, so there’s a ton of dead space either side of the main action. That aside, nothing to gripe about technically. Let’s move on to the game itself.
Reigns is, in essence, a choose your own adventure affair presented like Tinder and themed like fantastical monarchy. You’re the king – or rather a king – deciding how to tackle a steady string of crises. The choice is always binary: left to side with or receive promised aid from one faction or character, right for another. These don’t generally result in immediate disaster, but instead tip the scales for or against one aspect of your e’er-chaotic kingdom.
So, for instance, a bunch of rotters have broken out of prison – do you organise an expensive search party, or take any consequences on the chin because the royal coffers are near-empty? Or this dodgy general offers to take control of an unruly province for you, which’ll save some cash but God only knows what the blighter’s masterplan is. The outcome is never certain, even if you’ve encountered this scenario before, so it can only ever be a calculated risk. And the risk is whether you empty or max-out one of four key factions or resources, each presented as a meter: the church, the army, the people or the treasury.
If any one reaches zero, your reign will screech to an ugly halt. If either one of them fills up entirely, same deal. Ooh, you dirty bastard, basically. Being king is about finding balance, not about being excellent to everyone all the time.
And this is Reigns’ greatest trick. First time or two around, perhaps like me you’ll be an idealist, striving to do whatever’s best. One library too many, or one too many refusals to let the army stamp out any rebellion, and it’s game over. My moral conscience eroded steadily over time, as my focus shifted to keeping the plates spinning. The bigger picture and all that: what’s the point in being a good king if I’m too dead to do any good?
So the moral drift is inevitable, my interest no longer in trying to help the poor starving peasants but instead trying to keep my head on my shoulders, and my shoulders out of the dungeons, and the dungeons not taken over by raging warriors from the East, and so on. A reign is usually brief, but the longer you can live, the more blackly comic stories you’ll see unfurl, the more characters you’ll meet and even the more cards you’ll add to your deck.
When a King dies, they’re replaced by a successor of inspecific origin, who inherits a kingdom which retains some of the characteristics of the previous one. The meters all reset and any wars with neighbouring territories are called off and marriages annulled, but if you unlocked any new characters, such as the suspicious Doctor or the skull-faced Witch, you’ll see them pop up with requests and suggestions, and in some cases they add new ‘cards’ to your deck, in order that you encounter fewer repeated situations.
To its eternal credit, Reigns doesn’t feel repetitive despite asking only ever one action of its player: swipe/click left or swipe/click right. A combination of gradually throwing new cards (and thereby scenarios) into the mix and your situation eternally being so damned precarious that even a familiar curveball can be disastrously or redemptively disruptive keeps each new reign feeling fresh for a bloody long time.
I’ve spent several nights on the trot with the mobile game while waiting/praying for my nyctophoboic three-year-old to fall asleep, and given that quite literally all I do is move my finger towards one side of the screen or another, it’s bally miraculous that I still keep going back to this well.
It’s got an economy of writing paired with a malevolent-but-not-too-malevolent streak, which simultaneously mean my mind’s cheerfully spooling out all the detail that the simple, poly-faced characters do not give and that I’m believing I’m actually in with a chance of doing well this time. Of course I’m not. The snowball of minor and major disasters are going to put paid to my time on the throne before too long, yet somehow I think tonight’s the night. This time, I’m going to make it.
Hell, no. And that’s the fun of it. Reigns is glorious. The power of choice, distilled to its essence, heavy with consequence, and a game that clearly delights in its cloistered malevolence. May it reign forever. But… maybe on your phone rather than on your PC.