Imagine your only tool for decision-making was the dating app Tinder. Everything you did in a day would be left to a simple swipe left for no, swipe right for yes. Now imagine yourself as a medieval ruler in charge of the prosperity of thousands of other people. Your peons come to you in droves, seeking guidance in times of emergency. One simple swipe of your finger would decide who lives, who dies, what gets built, and when to go to war. This is the reality imagined in Reigns.
As you might expect from that description, the basic interface in Reigns is rather minimalist. This aesthetic matches its creative and quirky take on grand strategy gameplay, making it easily digestible and perfectly suited for mobile gamers. The very top of the screen displays the wellbeing of your kingdom in four short meters. The strength of the army, church, economy and public health each need to be considered when faced with a decision. These bars will fluctuate based on the choices you make, and when any of them hit zero or exceeds its limit, the ruler you control will meet his untimely end.
The death of the king is only a temporary inconvenience, as a new ruler quickly rises to take their place. Many of the rewarding loops in the seemingly mindless gameplay of Reigns come from the omniscient role given to the player. You will always be in control of the throne, regardless of how poorly you governed in your previous lifetime. The success of each king is measured in years, based on how many serious decisions they were able to lead their people through. Some choices, like building a wall or establishing a trade network, can carry over into your next life and yield beneficial results or come back to compromise your well-being.
A wave of colorful and exuberant subjects will appear before you, pulled from a large deck of cards displayed on-screen. Each unique character speaks in a warbled Animal Crossing-esque voice while a subtle soundtrack by DisasterPeace scores the scene. From peasants to priests and executioners, these requests are seemingly random but can carry devastating implications. More often than not, you will be able to surmise the consequences of an action based on hints from the speaker. The queen wants you to build an extra tower in the courtyard? Better hope you have money in the bank. A dragon was seen in the sky flying east? Your army will need stronger numbers.
The overarching narrative of Reigns is inconsequential and nearly non-existent, with some dialogue situations becoming both repetitive and predictable. Still, new characters, options and encounters are frequently sprinkled in to keep you swiping. Reigns is deceptively simple in its opening moments, meant to introduce the eccentric world and quirky cast. Once you grasp the weight a single decision can hold, you need to carefully measure the investment and interest for each of the four factions. Trial-and-error also plays into the learning curve, and with no severe consequences, your actions can give a whimsical sense of role-playing. For example, I made one of my lords completely ignorant towards religion, going out of my way to turn down every request from the church. A pious uprising trashed my city within a few years, but hunger was at an all-time low.
Giving the player free rein to control their lineage opens the door for imaginative and entertaining outcomes. No two players will have an identical experience with the branching possibilities in Reigns, and figuring out the most efficient path to a long and healthy life requires patience and a lot of dead ancestors. Decision-making is occasionally broken up by small diversions in gameplay that find you lost in a dungeon or fencing an opponent, but still controlled by a swipe of the finger.
Moments like these reveal the rewarding hook offered by Reigns’ barebones presentation. When choosing between moves in combat based solely on text, you feel lost for a sense of direction, but not frustrated. The promise of your lineage continuing just after the next loading screen makes it so that nothing ever feels unfair. The introduction of new systems in Reigns could have been too difficult without proper explanation, but the way these mechanics build up is entertaining and easy to comprehend. The responsibility placed in the player’s hands and inability to prevent tragedy makes for a fun commentary on the intricacies of a government.
My favorite moments in Reigns came from making a critical mistake and watching my regime crumble before my eyes. The knowledge that no error would bring my experience to an end kept me entering every situation with an open mind, rather than trying to preserve my kingdom. I sent a lot of good men to their deaths in Reigns, but I still feel better about myself than if I had spent that time on Tinder.
Reigns was developed by Nerial and published by Devolver Digital. Our review is based on the iOS version. It is also available for Android and PC.
AJ Moser is a freelance journalist and recently exiled Game Informer intern. To read more of his work, as well as musings on Star Wars and the indie rock scene, follow him on Twitter at @AndMoser.