Reigns and the complexity of simplicity: A Preview

By Matt Thrower 09 Jul 2016 3

Cedric, the 18th King, ruled from 835 to 849. Widely expected to follow in the footsteps of his warlike father, William the Duelist, Cedric surprised his courtiers by displaying a bent for occult academia. He claimed a luck charm from a sorceress meant he would never lose at the popular gambling game of Red Dwarf. Then after consulting a witch, he ordered the construction of a hospital where his subjects could be treated with herbs and balms, and there was much rejoicing.

There was less rejoicing when he went on to consult what his doctor claimed was a magical talking vase. Cedric said that the vase was a great philosopher and had told him to seek for Frozen Blood. Everyone relaxed a little when he revealed he'd had this episode after eating a mushroom he'd found while walking the royal dog on one of his estates. But he never seemed quite the same afterwards.

In response to some unrest in the eastern reaches of his kingdom he appointed a governor, one Sir Ademar, to rule in his stead. It proved a poor choice, and Sir Ademar soon lead an army of rebels and bandits to the gates of the capital. They were defeated easily with the help of crusaders inspired by the church, but it proved a costly exchange; religious fervour swept the kingdom and the King's interest in the occult proved his undoing. Tried as a heretic he was dismembered gruesomely and remembered as Cedric the Sorcerer.

IMG 0701

My everyday life mimicked scarily in a mobile game.

But his hospital and his luck charm live on into the reign of his successor, Bedouin. As does the lingering question of the vase. Was it just a hallucination, or a real magical artefact from a distant land? And will its desire for Frozen Blood come back to haunt a future king?

As you might have guessed, this little tale wasn't something that happened to me after I ate some mushrooms from a wood. It's skimmed from upcoming mobile title Reigns, a peculiar mixture of choose your own adventure, card and strategy game. What's perhaps more surprising is how such a simple game can give rise to such a rich narrative. Reigns consists of almost nothing except binary choices, with the player discarding a card to the left or to the right to indicate their pick.

With the game nearing release, I've had the chance to see how it's developed over the home stretch. The strategy content has gone down: keeping your king alive involves ensuring that four resource pools don't get too full or too empty. Originally, these were numeric and the possible changes on each choice were clearly labelled. Right now that's been jettisoned for more opaque iconography. While Pocket Tactics fans might think that a poor design choice, it helps keep the focus on what makes Reigns special. Namely, that ongoing sense of story, stretched out across the entire history of a kingdom.

At first, when you play, there doesn’t seem anything miraculous about this. It’s just a natural consequence of the game’s framing and presentation. But as more and more cards get added to the deck, and you come to understand that what you do now can impact the choices of future rulers, the branches of all those binary decisions multiply exponentially. After your first few kings have come and gone you’ll have a story generator almost as potent as far more complex games like King of Dragon Pass.

A Pig

That’s odd headgear for a pig.

During one game I had a sudden flashback to a conversation I had many years ago about artificial intelligence. It had always seemed to me that, no matter how smart the algorithms got, a machine could never mimic the human imagination. It was obvious computers could learn to drive cars, predict the stock market, recommend some music to your based on your taste. But surely no mere box of plastic and silicon can replicate those exhilarating leaps into the dark which underpin all of art and philosophy?

My friend, a computer scientist, countered with the observation that even imagination is just a series of yes or no choices. That what feels like an intuitive jump can actually be calmly traced back to a vast number of tiny binary decisions based on experience and calculated in a nanosecond. I found it hard to argue with this logic but it still felt somehow wrong, a concept that while academically correct had no metaphor to help me apply it to the real world.

Well, I finally found one, and it’s Reigns. A game that’s almost nothing but branch points slowly flowers into an astonishing edifice of narrative and anticipation. The slow injection of new cards and combinations evolves into a unique lineage underneath your fingers. How ironic that a game of limited strategy and without any AI at all serves as such an excellent simile for the hardest problem in computer science.

Reigns is being developed by Nerial and will be published by Devolver Digital. It will be released for iOS and Android (and PC) later this summer. You can follow them on Twitter, or go to their official website for the latest updates.

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