Reigns Review

As my work life has changed, I have found my available gaming time has changed as well. Where I used to sit down for hours on end to play through a fantasy epic, I now find myself struggling to complete a 5-minute round of Rocket League. Even though my reliance on public transport has risen, my ability to play my 3DS while standing squashed on a peak hour train is being tested every day. So, with these things in mind, you have no idea how pleased I was to fire up Reigns and find a deep yet simple fantasy epic that I can play one handed without elbowing fellow travellers on the train.

Reigns is an adventure card game where you decide the narrative progression of reigning kings by either swiping right for a positive outcome, or swiping left for a negative outcome. So it’s Rogue Legacy by way of Tinder (TindeRPG?), but instead of swiping to get a potential date, you’re swiping to help a King navigate through his reign and hopefully have a long life with a happy, fruitful kingdom to reign over. Of course, the happy, cheerful, long-living King isn’t always the result of your choices. After all, there are warring armies, demonic towns folk, the Devil, witches, possessed dogs, labyrinth-like dungeons, jesters, women to woo and plagues to deal with. Whoever said that the life of a King was easy has never lived in the 600s, attempting to rule the wide lands of their kingdom. Death or failure will see the King’s reign come to an end and a new King ascend the throne.

The strength of the game lies in the fact that the quick narrative never becomes muddled. As each card is displayed on the screen, you are given a clear understanding of what decision needs to be made. Initially, solutions to decisions are simply decided by a yes or a no answer. Yes, I want to wage a war on the neighbouring land. No, I don’t want to cure the townsfolk who have become poisoned by spoiled wheat. As you progress further, decisions become more complex, rising above simple yes or no choices. Moving the card partially to the right on the screen will give you a guide to what the positive action will be. Move the card a little to the left, and you see what negative action may take place.

Most importantly, when moving the card to see what action your decision will result in, you are clearly informed as to what effect it will have on the four areas of your Kingdom. The four areas are health, religion, army and bank. They are always present at the top of the screen and will fluctuate each round depending on your decisions. When one or more of the icons hits zero, that king’s reign comes to an end and an heir will ascend to the throne. The art of Reigns is being able to manage all aspects of the Kingdom successfully to ensure that King remains in charge for as long as possible. 

Unlike a ‘choose your own adventure’ game, every path you take has a knock on effect to each subsequent King’s reign, making your journey forward a difficult one to navigate. For example, early in my third King’s legacy he was given the option of building a shelter for food. I opted to build the shelter, which gave the civilians a safe place to store their food for many years, as well as providing a source of income.

Later on, a possessed dog, who a few hands earlier I had had a wonderful time throwing the ball with, put a curse on me – the next person I said yes to would die. Naturally, all the townsfolk chose this opportune moment to approach me with difficult decisions and issues that needed to be solved right there and then. The doctor asked if he could help cure the plague ravaging the poor people, I had to decline. The army wanted permission to defend the city as someone had blown a hole in the city walls – unfortunately, that was going to be a matter for another day. Then the Priest came and asked if he could bless the townsfolk – at which I said, go for your life! Well, he did and thanks to the possessed dog, my town was suddenly without a Priest.

All of the above decisions happened within a few turns, making the narrative progression within Reigns a speedy one. Often with rapidly changing narrative games, the pool of plot threads or actions appears larger than it actually is. Upon starting Reigns, I was concerned that the narrative would be limited and quickly loop around on itself, but thankfully that is not the case. Sometimes, after meeting a new character – a witch for example – or experiencing a significant event – such as discovering the dungeon – a new set of narrative cards is added to the pack, opening up your options significantly as to where future Kings paths may travel. This helps make the narrative feel as if your decisions are helping it progress naturally. If you do find yourself getting tired of the narrative progression, then you can always try to tick off one of the many different achievements that Reigns has.

Sometimes, as a King, you will have to take battles into your own hands and duel an enemy to the death. It’s a testament to the design of the game that Reigns manages to pack in quite an exciting combat system. Utilising the core swipe left/swipe right functions, you are able to decide if you wish to attack or retreat. Interestingly, retreating doesn’t equate to immediate defeat, as you battle your opponent using a set of dots which appear at the top of your screen. The more you push your opponent to the right, the greater chance you have of winning. The more they push you to the left, the greater chance you have of being skewered. Duels pop up every now and again and help change the flow of the game for a moment before you’re tasked with guiding the core narrative again.

Of course, this intuitive narrative structure would mean little if Reigns didn’t look or sound appealing. The art style is great, with an appealing Tom Whalen-esque symmetrical style. It’s always easy to discern what is being displayed on a card, making slipping in a quick round easy thanks to the clarity of the graphic design. The sound design and music is nice and atmospheric – just loud and clear enough that you can hear over your headphones what the next stop is on your train.

What impresses the most about Reigns is its deceptive nature – on the surface it seems to be simply another swipe-app, but look just below the surface and you’ll find a game with a solid narrative structure that helps provide a great level of context to your swiping. As someone who yearns to be able to play deep narrative games, yet can’t due to time restraints, Reigns is a very welcome addition to my mobile gaming library. Its apparent simplicity is a front for what is an enjoyable and deep adventure experience.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got a kingdom to run.

Reigns is available on SteamiOSAndroid, and Nintendo Switch.

Andrew F Peirce

Andrew is passionate about Australian film and culture. He is the co-chair of the Australian Film Critics Association, a Golden Globes voter, and the author of two books on Australian film, The Australian Film Yearbook - 2021 Edition, and Lonely Spirits and the King. You can find him online trying to enlist people into the cult of Mac and Me.

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