The core concept of Reigns ($0.99) on paper seems intriguing enough. It’s basically dating service Tinder, with swiping left or right to make decisions, combined with ruling a kingdom. Seems interesting enough, but Nerial and company have managed to imbue Reigns‘ concept in such a way that each decision feels weighty. As well, there’s an intriguing long-term game here, with secrets to discover and an overall goal to reach that gives each session a unique purpose beyond its amusing concept, and elevates the whole experience above an amusing concept.
How Reigns works is that the game gives you countless prompts to deal with from various characters on matters affecting your kingdom. Like, the head priest might ask to build a new church, and saying yes will curry more favor with him, but it’ll cost money. Or, a witch might request your help, and it could raise your standing with the people, but lower your standing with the church. You might think that keeping all four aspects with the church, people, military, and money at the maximum would be ideal, but no! If the church gets too powerful, then the pope comes and takes things over. But if the church is too weak, then the pagans run amok. Darn pagans. The people get too powerful, they’ll overthrow you. Sometimes you’ll wind up in a cushy post-governance role and die of old age as a symbolic monarch, but without your power. Too bad. But if the people get too weak, all you have to rule are pigeons. A strong military will overthrow you, a weak military will lead you to be ransacked by your opponents. Run out of money, and that’s obviously a problem. But get too money, and you die of a heart attack when the people celebrate how rich the kingdom is. You just can’t win. Death will come for us all, even if you keep everyone happy. But at least you can set high scores for longest reign, much like British royalty has. You think Queen Elizabeth II doesn’t pass by the graves at Windsor Castle and Westminster Abbey of past British monarchs and whisper “scoreboard" under her breath? I hope she does! And so can you, with Reigns!
Well, the thing is that you can win. You have to break the curse of the devil that has trapped you to experience every reign. The devil visits you in 666, returns in 1332, and finally in 1998, when the game resets due to the devil deciding he’s done visiting you, and is condemning you to the eternal misery of being a resurrected monarch who can never break the curse. The game has a kind of built-in timer, but it helps because it forces you to play with something of a purpose – you have something overall to work for, so any one reign ending in disaster might still reveal something new to you. Whether that be a material good that helps you in the game, or just how an outcome will play out, application of the various effects in play here is key. Once you hit 1998, you can reset the game and start over, but with the knowledge of at least some of what is possible in the game.
The cards have consistent effects, though what they will specifically do is not revealed to you until you play them. But because your circumstances are constantly changing, how you use the cards is constantly in flux. And the randomness winds up playing a role. Plus, there are long-lasting effects. Start a crusade, for example, and even if you die, your future rulers will have that crusade continue. The time-based effects are a bit odd, because they increase or decrease resources every second, so you have to play a lot faster because you might accidentally trigger a depletion or overabundance of resources if you make the wrong moves. It does add some variety to the game, then.
What Reigns really succeeds at, then, is making a game that’s inherently about simple binary decisions feel like something bigger. It feels like you’re working toward uncovering something bigger, working toward this huge goal, and managing the various aspects of your kingdom along the way. It’s a game that never forgets how to be humorous, and there’s always that sense of ridiculousness permeating the game. It’s a game where you rule a kingdom by making binary decisions with cards. It accepts the ludicrousness of it. And there is at least one reference to a game also published by Devolver that makes perfect sense for them to throw in.
There are a lot of secrets to Reigns, and it can be challenging to discover them all. Some of them are just triggered by hitting certain progress milestones in the game. I will say that it feels like you can hit a point where they get tougher, especially in the late game, to unlock, though perhaps it’s just a matter of achieving the various things the game has you do. Some of the events are more obscure than others, for sure. Don’t be afraid to experiment wildly, because it’s the only way to really figure out how to trigger some of the events necessary to beat the game. I’m looking forward to people playing this and discovering things about the game, if only because there’s some secrets I fear I’ll never find, and I’m interested to see the logic behind them. Still, it’s compelling me to keep advancing and playing more.
It can get a bit frustrating to get stuck and not know what to do. Still, discussing the game with other people is interesting because sometimes they’ve discovered things you haven’t, and vice versa. The swordfighting takes some practice to figure out, which doesn’t completely make sense to me. There is some randomness to it, and you may succeed or fail based on luck of the draw. Then again, the game is influenced by randomness itself, so maybe that’s just appropriate. You get plenty of shots to accomplish everything you need to do to break the curse, so it’s not too frustrating to deal with the chaotic elements. But do be sure to take notes, because the game is very consistent with how actions play out, it’s just keeping them all in order that is the challenge.
But regardless of whatever larger aspects are in play, Reigns still works perfectly as a one-handed mobile game that can be played whenever. It makes sense for the game to be on desktop, absolutely, because it’s such a compelling experience, and playing with a mouse instead of a thumb doesn’t take fun away from the game. But Reigns remains perfect – and ideal – for spending a few minutes at a time, trying to just play with a free moment, with the three objectives guiding you along the way. I particularly enjoyed sitting back on the couch while watching baseball and playing Reigns. It’s a fantastic example of the way that mobile-focused design doesn’t have to mean that a game has to be any less deep or engaging in a long-term way. However you decide to play Reigns, you have to play this fun, inventive, and engaging game.