Platforms PC (reviewed), iOS, Android
Developer Nerial
Publisher Devolver Digital
Release Date August 11, 2016

Reigns is basically a card game meets a monarchy simulation meets Tinder. I’ve been looking forward to typing that description for a while now, and for those of you who aren’t already familiar with Reigns the look on your face of “wait, what?” I am imagining right now is giving me life force. In fact there is literally a moment in this game where it takes on the exact characteristics and function of Tinder, which the meta-joke loving side of me absolutely adored.

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In Reigns you take on the role of the king of a medieval kingdom besieged with all of the problems that you’d expect from such a land (and a few you definitely wouldn’t). Ostensibly it’s a card game – each in-game year is represented by a card you draw from a shuffled deck. These cards present you with various problems or conundrums or decisions, and you must make a choice by swiping either left or right. Making decisions will usually have an effect on the four meters that govern your success.

You’ll need to balance the needs and wants of the church, the people, the military and the economy. Making poor decisions will most likely result in your grisly and untimely death. There are 26 different ways you can be deposed in Reigns, and most of them will lead directly to death. How you die depends on what does you in – I’ve been murdered by a Pagan mob, overthrown in a military coup and even choked to death at an extravagant banquet. And those are just the “standard” types of death.

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This isn’t a game about maxing out your four meters, however. In a brilliant twist to the standard kingdom management gameplay, you actually need to keep these meters balanced. If any of them are depleted you lose the game, but the same is true if any of them are maxed out. If your military meter is empty, then you’ll die heroically on the steps of your throne as a neighbouring power overruns your kingdom. If it fills completely, however, you’ll be overthrown in a military coup by an army drunk with power and tossed in a dungeon.

This is a fantastic twist on typical gameplay conventions. Ordinarily you’d be all about maxing out the four bars and living in a blissfully happy kingdom. In Reigns, a blissfully happy kingdom is exactly what you don’t want to happen. I started out trying to make sure my subjects were always treated fairly and I was always even handed. But that’s a shortcut to a very short reign. Eventually it becomes apparent that you’re going to have to be a dick to survive. If the end result of stopping the church from burning innocent women as witches, for example, is that the people will rise up and overthrow you…well hand me a torch, because needs must.

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It’s really interesting how much this twist can subvert the way you play the game. Generally when you’re about to make a decision the game will show you what will be affected. Crucially, you won’t know whether the effect is positive or negative. It’ll just show you some circles above the affected meters. It’s up to you to guess which ones will go up or down, and by how much. While this does essentially throw role-playing more or less out the window, the trade-off is well worth it for its brilliant new approach to ruling a kingdom.

Even when you die, however, you still get to carry on as the next in line to the throne. The deck gets reset and reshuffled and you become whoever was the next person to sit on the throne. Sometimes some of the decisions that you’ve made will carry over to the next king, such as buildings or crusades. There are also some pretty interesting subplots that run throughout the entire game, not simply dying with each king, that only become more apparent the further down the line of succession you go.

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There are also a lot of added challenges to the basic gameplay – this isn’t just a game of balancing four meters. Making certain decisions can have lasting and far reaching effects. Taking a paramour, for example, will lock the people meter, which means it will never go up or down for the rest of that particular kings reign. However you won’t ever be able to say no to your lover, and the church will disapprove, with their meter constantly depleting.

This is just one of the twists on offer in Reigns, there are various status effects that can improve your chances of living to a ripe old age, or practically ensure that your reign will be brief. Eating a specific coloured mushroom will allow you Clarity – which means you’ll be able to see the numbers hidden behind each of the meters, and will also be able to tell exactly what effect each decision will have on them before you make it. One time I was hit with a curse that hit me with the characteristics of old age. I spent fifteen years unable to understand what anyone was saying to me, but being too prideful to admit it.

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There’s also some adventure game mechanics in Reigns, including a combat system that is deeper and more engaging than it probably has any right to be. It’s a fairly simple dueling mechanic built on the swipe left/right mechanics of the rest of the game. When you enter into a duel both your character and your opponent are depicted along the top of the screen on what can best be described as a fencing-like arena. You can choose to attack or defend, which will result in you moving so many steps in one direction or the other, without knowing what move the other character is doing. The aim being to block an incoming attack or attack the exact space your opponent is standing in.

These fights are usually with some of your advisers, and are generally for sparring purposes. There are cards that will allow you to initiate these bouts and they usually have small effects on one of your meters. Though they can lead to other outcomes. One of my duels with a fellow adviser straight up led to a marriage proposal. You’ll also make use of this mechanic when exploring the Pungeon – a choose your own adventure style dungeon that contains a skeleton, combat with whom will result in a series of puns.

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You’ll be constantly shuffling new cards into your deck thanks to the side objectives you’ll face. At the start of your first reign you’ll be given three objectives to meet. Usually these involve setting off a specific series of events or recruiting new advisers, and completing them will add new cards to your deck that have the potential to throw major new twists at you. At the very least they mix things up a bit and keep proceedings somewhat fresh. Objectives carry over between monarchs, so if you die you’ll still have the same objectives, and new ones are added each time you complete one.

The one main problem Reigns has is the same problem any game built around RNG has – it has a habit of getting repetitive. Dying isn’t really an obstacle in the game, as you will always just start over as a new king. But every time you die the deck resets, and you’ll find that the further into the game you go the more you’ll start seeing the same cards over and over again. It’s not a major problem, as I’ve said the game does mix new cards into your deck at a fairly rapid pace. But a few hours in you’ll probably start finding yourself on autopilot a lot.

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Despite this, Reigns will have no problem holding your attentions thanks to its very funny and mean sense of humour. Make no mistake, this game is funny, and it’s even funnier if you have a dark sense of humour. The soundtrack, composed by Disasterpiece, does a fantastic job of setting the tone and the cards themselves are really well written. The cast of characters that make up your advisers are wonderfully diverse, and the ways they interact both with you and with each other are always good for a laugh or two.


Summary

Reigns is a delightfully surprising game. What could have been a funny but fairly standard card game is elevated by a few brilliant twists to the underlying kingdom simulator style gameplay. The idea of keeping the four powers of your kingdom balanced, as opposed to trying to max them out, adds a wonderful wrinkle to gameplay and ensures that you’re always on your toes. It also leads to some brilliantly schizophrenic decision making that forces you to be a bastard as often as it forces you towards benevolence. There are also some fascinatingly deep subplots that run throughout the game as a whole, with the writing found in Reigns being a highlight throughout the experience. While the game can suffer from some repetition the further in you get, it’s this excellent writing and charming overall gameplay that ensures you’ll always be back for another reign or two.

8


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