Review: Reigns: Her Majesty12 Dec 2017 1
Review: Reigns: Her Majesty
Released 11 Dec 2017
Reigns was a revelation. It demonstrated that you don’t need complex systems to build either strategy or story. A series of binary choices and whip-smart design was enough. As the monarch of a kingdom, the game gave you a series of cards, each with two choices. You swiped left or right to make your selection and those swipes spun into hours of play time and an epic tale spanning centuries.
At first this sequel looks very much like more of the same. You're playing as the Queen, now, and that opens up new options. Dealing with the idiot King you're married to for one, while others span witchcraft and love interests. But for your first few reigns in Reigns: Her Majesty, it's hard to see much that's new. This is a subtle illusion. Much like the original showed how much you can do with very little; this version shows how much tiny changes can have a big impact.
Perhaps the most impressive improvement is the quality of the writing. Reigns is very much a game about story and character, so better writing was bound to enhance the experience. What's special about Her Majesty, though, is the way the writing draws you in to role-playing. With much more characterful characters, you're more motivated to react to their questions. In one reign, if the King annoys you, it's tempting to start an affair with his handsome huntsman. In another, a Cardinal might spur you into rejecting the church in favour of the mysterious All-Mother.
All is not yours to command, however. At the top of the screen are four meters which track your piety, popularity, military and wealth. Should any get too high or too low, your reign will end with a gruesome and often amusing death. Then you'll pick up the story as a new queen, who will have their own encounters which help you shape their character and future reigns to come.
Most choices you make impact one or more of these and you can see in advance which will change. What you can't see is whether they'll go up or down, or by exactly how much. Sometimes you can guess: defying the church tends to lower piety, for example, but most outcomes are not so clear cut. It's hard to see why choosing to braid your own hair should decrease your standing with the soldiery.
As in the original, this creates a frustrating dynamic. Reigns is forever taunting you with new goals, beckoning toward fascinating potential futures. Find and fix a mechanical owl. Investigate a locked tower. Often you'll find yourself on the cusp of achieving one but then - disaster! - a poor guess on card outcome and you'll be dead. You'll get another chance when the cards and choices fall right, but there's no knowing how long that might take.
With all the extra character on display, though, this ceases to be annoying and becomes a ceiling on your story. Role-playing isn't that fun unless you feel like your choices have consequences. Here, you're repeatedly caught on the horns of a dilemma. You can maintain your authentic character at the risk of a short reign. Or you can make a more hollow choice to roll with the stats, aiming for a long life. It feels a lot like real-life politics, but it makes each decision matter.
Each achievement you do tick off adds to the game. New characters and locations get introduced and with them sets of new choice cards. As the game goes on it expands exponentially as extra cards add extra branch points and extra stories and achievements. There is an end, of sorts, and it's a little less opaque than the hard demands of the original. That's a welcome change, as are the between-life snippets that weave each reign together into a satisfying grand narrative.
If that were all that was on offer, it would be improvement enough. But there is more. Like the original, Reigns: Her Majesty gradually introduces a bunch of mini-games. There are mazes to explore, spells to cast and duels to fight. Like the ending, each of these is a bit less baffling in this version and more fun as a result. And there's a whole new mechanic to play with: an inventory. You can drag items from this up onto the card for a possible "third" choice. Doing so willy-nilly will have negative consequences, so you need to choose this option with care. As ever, the writing offers fine and subtle hints as to when you might want to do so.
Reigns: Her Majesty is perhaps the perfect time-filler. A game that's as fun played for a second with the swiping of a single card as it is for an hour or a day. And, like all the best games, it taught me something. That even when you're caught between two choices, a rock and a hard place, it's important to stay true to your ideals.