Wot I Think: Reigns

Reigns [official site]. Game Of Thrones + Tinder = You Died.

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.

Reigns is out now for PC and Mac via Steam, or for your Android or Apple phone.

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  1. JD Ogre says:

    Agreed. If you have a smartphone (preferably decently-sized, say, 4.5-5″) or a tablet, get it. Otherwise it gets old rather fast. :(

    • invitro says:

      I don’t have a smartphone or a tablet, so I’m curious. So games get older slower on them? Why does that happen? Or did I misread.

  2. Optimaximal says:

    Does it work with the keyboard cursor keys? That seems like a better left/right swipe analogue than clicking.

    Also, run it in a window rather than full screen?

    • Alec Meer says:

      yeah, it works with cursors, but you can’t see the pretty vital tooltips as to what each decision might entail if you do that, so you’re essentially guessing blind.

      • Drakesden says:

        Actually, you do see the tooltips when you use the arrow keys. The first time you tap right arrow, the tooltip shows up — you have to tap right arrow again to confirm (or tap left arrow to see the alternative tooltip).

        The arrow keys make it totally playable on PC — otherwise it would definitely be a mobile-only purchase.

  3. Eight Rooks says:

    Great review, Alec… it just makes me wish I wasn’t so shallow. :( I’d love to play this, but every single screenshot, etc. just seems intimidatingly ugly to me, more than any other game I’ve seen for quite some time. Not meant as trolling or passive-aggressive behavior or anything, seriously – but I can’t think of another game where I’ve felt quite so strongly that I badly wanted it, but where seeing the aesthetic the developers have chosen for more than a few seconds makes me want to recoil from the screen. Eh, such is life; it’s still a neat idea. I’m honestly pleased to read this many critics saying apparently it really is a lot more fun than you’d think, and to see it achieve success.

  4. klops says:

    I strongly disagree with this WOT. Surprisingly strongly.

    “Reigns doesn’t feel repetitive” is the complete opposite how I felt when playing the game. Dealing with a prison break for the umpteenth time with your eighteenth reincarnated king is not fun or interesting. Neither was dealing with the multi-answer escape or a werewolf wedding for the seventh time in a same gameplay.

    “The power of choise” raised some stats up, some down, which is how most of the consequences in games work out, but there was hardly any continuation between these. Reigns was a game that I really disliked.

    • TaylanK says:

      Yeah I wasn’t that impressed with it either, although dislike is a strong word for me. It’s an interesting attempt at some emergent narrative, especially for a mobile game. It’s much less impressive on PC where it feels overly simplistic.

      I too found the same scenarios popping up over and over again, and the sequencing of them way too random to give me any sense of ownership of a given character’s storyline, which often felt neither unique nor meaningfully heavy with consequence. Especially in those instances where you know which stats are going to be affected but you don’t know which way based on your choice. Does a coin toss have consequences? Reigns often has just as much.

  5. BTA says:

    I mostly agree with this. I soured on the game a little part of the way through my one with it (after really enjoying it), but soon after things clicked and I started having consistently long lives.

    The bigger problem was that I sped through it in the first couple days that it was out. I ended up ranking very very highly on the iOS leaderboards in that time (3rd, IIRC), and knew I probably would never beat that especially as more people played. After that, I started focusing on actually winning the thing. Playing that way requires you to aim for certain specific events, with some information slightly hidden on what to do within them. With a little help from others early on in the process, I managed to figure out what to do and won after spending a while racing through and trying to hit a few things in time to figure them out. And haven’t gone back as a result, because it’s hard to see the normal game there now, even if I haven’t seen some cards still.

    So I’d say to play it in smaller chunks, and think carefully about whether you’re really “done” before you decide to go for that best ending.

  6. ordteapot says:

    Wouldn’t it be better with cats?
    link to fathom.itch.io

  7. Premium User Badge

    alms says:

    TBH, since Windows Tablet are a thing, is there a reason why this can’t be played with the screen rotated and using the touchscreen? are these not supported by the PC port?

    Being king is about finding balance, not about being excellent to everyone all the time.

    Stealing this one.

    • kode says:

      Now, I’m late in replying, but yes, it’s very playable on a windows tablet (at least on my surface it is.) Was weighing between getting it for my android phone or on steam, but went with steam because it was cheaper on there, half price or so.

  8. bill says:

    I like that they based it on real historical events, like nuns meowing like cats…

  9. Premium User Badge

    caff says:

    Really glad I bought this on my android phone. Thanks for pointing me at this, Alec.

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