I’m not usually interested in mobile games. Angry Birds and Candy Crush can go to hell for all I care (especially the latter, after developer King was put in the media spotlight for its bullshit legal shenanigans directed against far less successful game developers in 2014. And yes, I’m positive they would not have backed down if so much public pressure hadn’t been put on them. Their “haha no, we’re not an evil company! We were just kidding!!!” open letter was just a reaction to the public outcry.)
But occasionally there’s a mobile game that really interests me. One of these is Reigns, a game developed for iOS and Android and most recently released for PC. Reigns is described everywhere as “Tinder for medieval monarchs”, and that description is sort of true, if kind of misleading. Because yes, the game does use a “swipe left or right” mechanic, but that mechanic is used almost entirely for choosing between different social, military, religious, and economic policies to maintain the balance in the kingdom that is essential to the monarch’s survival. (Though there is an extremely Tinder-esque choice buried in the game’s many cards – you’ll probably find it at some point if you play long enough.)
Reigns is a card game that allows you to build your deck as you unlock new paths. Each card contains a proposal made by one of dozens of characters – one of your subjects or courtiers, along with a handful of more interesting people – and each proposal requires a yes or no answer (though it’s not always strictly yes or no) that will will either increase or decrease the happiness/size/effectiveness of your population, coffers, religious organization, and/or military. The level of each of the four factors is measured by the bar above the main screen, where the curiously origami-looking characters appear.
Therein lies the danger. If your king’s policy choice ends up driving one of the four factors too low or too high, he is is horribly killed and his heir (or whoever is most convenient) takes the throne after him. Yes, even having too much money will kill you. Therefore, the standard goal is to live as long as possible by balancing all four factors, which takes a steady hand and some good luck. Sometimes, the cards you draw will help you perfectly balance the factors – for a while, anyway. At other times, your king will start out with a miserable set of cards that will drive him to a very early grave.
It’s hard to talk too much about this game without spoiling parts of it. Your line of monarchs has a list of achievements to fulfill, and many of these are story-related. Even though each king is replaced immediately after dying and the game continues from there, the decisions of previous kings can affect future outcomes – the game (and particular characters) will remember the choices of past monarchs. The process of uncovering the mysteries in Reigns makes it somewhat more than just a simple kingdom-maintenance game.
Reigns is also interesting because it depicts the king not as an all-powerful ruler, but rather as the one who everyone else in the kingdom places their hopes and expectations on – the one who has to try to hold the state together and to defend against invasion, rebellion, hunger, and discontent. Every game of Reigns is a frantic balancing act, and far from feeling powerful while playing the game, I felt vulnerable and nervous. Whole strings of monarchs only managed to survive for a few years before being murdered or dying of awful diseases, and even the long-reigning kings eventually met terrible ends. Many historical kings also met terrible ends – just look at how many of them were murdered or executed. And those are just the monarchs – plenty of dictators also left this world in a brutal fashion. It really makes you wonder why anyone would ever want to be a ruler.
Reigns is only three dollars on the Steam store. I don’t know its price in mobile form, but it’s probably the same. For a few hours of bloody royal choose-your-own-adventure action, Reigns is well worth its price.