Yes, no, yes, no – how hard can it be to run a fantasy kingdom? Very hard, and also quite fun in the simple and innovative Reigns. Now dog, what were you saying?
Reigns is like no game I have seen before – a real innovation. At the most basic level it is a card game, but it builds to so much more. The player is the king of a fantasy kingdom, having to make decisions on how to run the realm at the rate of 1 decision per year (usually 1 card per decision, but sometimes more). These decisions are all binary and determined by swiping left or right on the card, like Tinder. On one card swiping left may mean attacking an enemy, while swiping right is ignoring them. This probably works best on mobile, and the UI is designed like a mobile layout, but it still plays acceptably on PC. This is the only way of interacting with the game – simple and easy to understand yet still capable of a decent amount of complexity.
Decisions have an effect on four stats representing religion, people, military and money. When leaning towards a particular action (literally in the gesture mechanics of this game!) the player is given a hint on how these stats will change with that choice. Although the player is never certain unless they have seen that card previously. If any of the stats get too high or too low, the king dies or is removed from power. Then the game starts again with the subsequent king. The king dies often – there are many reigns!
That is it, but from that simple base comes an extremely interesting game. Is the aim to stay in power? Or to collect in-game achievements like seeing all the cards, characters, and experiencing all the possible deaths. Or just progressing the story which spans across kings’ reigns. The choices made by the player are remembered and appear to affect the story beyond the current king. There is a continuing plot line that carries over the generations. The story elements are quite lightly applied and story decisions/cards don’t pop up particularly often, but perhaps that is just the randomness of card selection. Does the narrative go anywhere? I’m not sure after 5 hours of play. There is a small and reasonable amount of luck in this game – totally expressed through card order. More cards are added into the deck of possibilities as achievements are unlocked.
After getting used to the game, I began to look at the decisions in a different way. Instead of seeing them as moral decisions (should or shouldn’t there be slavery?), I just saw them as ways to placate or annoy parts of my populations (via the 4 stats). It is an interesting idea that the kingdom should be in balance, rather than the common min/maxing in strategy games. The first few times a decision card turns up I would think about the possibilities. I knew what I wanted to do, but had to think instead about balance. Still after playing for several hours many of the same cards seem to appear and it can seem a little repetitive.
There are a couple of little mini-games (duelling and escaping a maze) that detract from the core experience. Also there is a lack of useful tooltips, perhaps due to the game’s mobile heritage. Otherwise it is hard to think of much Reigns does wrong. It is well made. I particularly like the sound FX. It has intrigued and entranced me for for several hours – both as a player and a gamedev (thinking about the possibilities of a card-based binary decision system). I’m not sure there will be many more hours of play, but for a cheap casual game it has already greatly surpassed expectations. Highly recommended.
Reigns is available on the Steam store for PC, Mac and Linux at US$2.99. It has not been bundled.