Review: Reigns10 Aug 2016 5
Released 10 Aug 2016
For all the millions of things you can tweak in grand strategy games, the core of the genre's appeal is the stories generated in the tweaking. The everyday feuds, friendships and fornications that lie hidden behind the epic sweep of history. Grand strategy isn't something that'll ever work on mobile. But Reigns gives us the same kinds of stories by tweaking just one binary setting at a time. You play as the ruler of a fictional medieval kingdom.
Behind the game is a sort of deck of cards, each one offering the player two distinct choices. You might have to decide whether to marry the princess of a neighbouring country, for example.
Or whether to hoard the benefits of a food surplus or share it among the people. From these tiny branch points, great stories begin to grow.
Rapidly, it becomes clear that there's a lot more complexity to that card engine than it first appears. Some decisions can have knock on effects, for example. If you marry a princess, she might bear you a child of either gender. If she does, you'll have to decide whether to accept your offspring or reject them in favour of producing an heir. Other cards can have longer lasting consequences. Building a school or hospital can hit your finances hard, but it'll affect the outcomes of choices made by your successors.
This is about a kingdom, after all, not just about the king. Each decision you make impacts on four meters at the top of the screen representing the church, the people, the army and your treasury. It's a neat depiction of the three pillars of medieval society plus the filthy lucre that helped it run smooth. If any of these meters gets too high or too low, you die and another king takes over. The whole history of this fictional land gradually gets built up as centuries speed by in an hour of play time.
Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Reigns is that you have limited control over what happens to these scores. When you make a choice, you can see what meters each option will affect and whether the impact will be small or large. You won't know exactly what the number will be, or even whether it's positive or negative. Often you can guess from the context how things will work out, but sometimes the game surprises you. Those surprises can often prove fatal to your poor monarch. (It's worth noting there IS a card event that lets see exactly how your choices affect the numbers, but this isn't typical. I only ever got it the once myself so far -ED)
On the plus side, this keeps the focus of the game firmly on stories. But it's hard not to see this as a missed opportunity to add some minor strategy. Reigns can be engrossing to play in small doses. Yet it can also feel repetitive and shallow, especially when you keep seeing the same cards over and over. Adding another arrow to the quiver of its gameplay might have helped reduce that sense of sameness.
What keeps you going through the early stages is the game's achievements system. Often overlooked in modern mobile games, Reigns puts this front and center, reminding you of your checklist with each new monarch. You get few clues as on what you'll need to do in order to tick the boxes, adding an air of mystery to proceedings and real satisfaction when you pull one off.
As you do so, more cards will get added to the game, increasing the variety on offer. To begin with these cards begin to broaden the game's theme from the historical to the fantastic. Witches, dragons and werewolves will put in an appearance. There's also a broad stroke of surrealism running through. You'll end up having rather one-sided conversations with your dog, and even random passing birds.
Eventually you also uncover cards that add new gameplay elements. This is where Reigns shines, showcasing many imaginative ways of making binary choices as diverse as possible. There are gambling and duelling mini-games. There are hallucinogens and diseases which will upset your understanding of the world around you. There are even dungeons to explore and spells to cast. As the centuries roll by, your tale of years will begin to include some extraordinary and memorable moments.
For all the cleverness on display, the lack of control has the potential to gnaw away at your enjoyment like a canker. When you keep trying to check off the next achievement, meet the next character, get the next card set and you keep getting stuffed by unlucky cards or unlucky choices, frustration sets in. So you toss the thing aside and go back to something more meaty instead. Your king and your kingdom will still be waiting for you when you pick it up again. And, sooner or later, you will. This bizarre tale of history is yours and yours alone, and it's far too engrossing for you to ignore.