About eighteen months ago, I gave the lowest score of my career to a game that rode the “you get what you pay for” train to an infuriating degree. Since then I’ve been wary of games lugging a price tag below $7-$10, always willing to pay a bit more for an experience I can come back to time and time again. Yet, I admit I was curious when Devolver Digital was putting mobile title Reigns (developed by Nerial) onto PC for $3. While simple, it scratches the beautiful itch and shows what low-price games can be.
Reigns, besides the unrelated tool to steer equines, is a kingdom-running simulator. You are a king who must rule over their land until their inevitable demise. Each year is signified by you flipping over a card which will present a choice with two possibilities. You pick the one that fits your fancy, and move onto the next year to repeat this until the game ends.
Simple? Oh, no, let me just slide in the last important part.
During your decision making, you must keep your four groups of people happy: The Church, The People, The Army, and The Treasury. Most decisions you make will shift at least one of these either higher or lower on the track, with your reign usually ending because one meter has gone too high or low. The twist is that, while you’ll know the amount of effect it will have on a group (heavy, light, or not at all), you don’t know if it is a positive or negative.
This might sound simple, lacking any real tactic to it. You’d be right: Reigns doesn’t allow any long-term planning as your next move is only as good as the randomized card in front of you. Simple though? Well, I am not sure.
Is it easy to learn? Oh yes. Simple to master though? Oh no. While you’ll easily comprehend the problem, the characteristics to be altered, and the possibilities, you will fail. You will be left with a kingdom of pigeons, get exiled, go get lost in a dungeon, or just simply get burned alive. Sometimes it won’t be your fault, as you just pick bad card after bad card. Other times you’ll fail to memorize or comprehend what characteristics will change with each card and run foul of one of the four groups who will come knocking for your head. It makes for an engaging and light-hearted puzzle as you just try to live as long as possible.
What is a less light-hearted aspect of the game is the dueling. As your opponent will yell something at you, you will be expected to work out whether to defend or go on the offensive and charge so many squares forward. Combat ends if one person gets pushed out the spaces or if you charge into your enemy’s square. There are also special moves that sometimes trigger and, well… despite an in-game tutorial, I still don’t feel like I get it. Reigns‘s dueling mechanic comes off as trying to explain British politics in a primary school: Trying to cram something moderately complex into a simple environment, and it just ends up stifled in the process.
Just as the game looks to begin to sag with the cards you have, each one becoming eerily familiar, you’ll begin to notice objectives that Reigns presents to you. These will always task you with picking the right decisions on the right cards. Your reward for managing each one will usually be a new collection of cards to play with. New ways to progress, new stories to tell, and new ways to damn your kingdom. Fortunately your progress is always transferred to the next reign, so you can play with the same tools of your demise again and again.
Although there is a wrench in the works here, as there always is. I’ve hinted at it at least twice now: Rather than being able to rig the deck to get what you want (in your next or current reign), the cards you get are completely random. As you’re shuffling more cards into your deck, it becomes increasingly less likely to get that one card needed to progress on. Even then, you wouldn’t know that’s the card you need as the objective title can range from self-explanatory to vague (e.g. Find Out About A Conspiracy led to a lot of digging and head-banging to accomplish). It just demands too much luck to progress on.
…Yet, maybe that’s okay?
The objective of the game isn’t really about the end, but about the journey. It’s about the moment-to-moment or even each individual monarch. One king will be lead off into a dungeon by his faithful dog to eventually die, another will decide to eat so much food as to choke on it, and a third will start hallucinating on mushrooms while making important decisions. It’s all so silly, like hiding a small cache of gunpowder in your friend’s birthday cake and lighting it.
You’ll eventually stumble on and find that one card you need to unlock new cards, although you’ll also be fine being stuck in the metaphorical tea house with the cinnamon-flavored shortbread. After all, you’ll be telling more stories with different combinations of cards and decisions while trying to rule as long as you can. It’s fun, silly, and yet somewhat relaxingly simple to play with.
The final score of Reigns is a 7.5/10. As I was stumbling through leading a kingdom, I kept being reminded of the deceptively-dark Long Live the Queen, though where I got bored with the insane complexity that game held, as well as the requirement to memorize previous thrusts that don’t carry over, Reigns still kept chugging on for me. It would fling new adventures suddenly at me, and I’d repose the best I could and smirk at how it all went horribly wrong.
Reigns caters to both those with a narrative love and people who cherish simple gameplay, all for a hard-to-grumble price of $3. It fortunately manages to avoid that troubling situation of justifying a PC release for a mobile title, as PC games lack the mobility of Android/iOS titles. Well, at least I get strange looks trying to drag my desktop PC into the bathroom to play Reigns on it.
A PC review code for Reigns was provided by Devolver Digital for the purpose of this review