Reigns review: Swipe right for world domination
The doors to the lift open – a man is stood inside. He’s wearing a tuxedo, although the skin around his collar glistens with sweat. You press the button for the ninth floor, trying not to make eye contact. Somewhere around the seventh floor, you feel his breath against your ear. He whispers five words: “Tinder meets Game of Thrones.” When the doors open he bounds away, down the hallway, out of view.
That was the elevator pitch, I imagine, for Reigns – a lovely little game for PC and mobile that has you making decisions about your kingdom by swiping left or right. Actually, Tinder-meets-Game of Thrones is a slightly erroneous description of something that has very little in the way of dating or dragons, although London-based studio Nerial’s game does capture the key mechanic at work in Tinder: swiping like the disaffected ruler you’ve always wanted to be.
You play the king of an unnamed kingdom, presented with a seemingly never-ending chain of diametrically opposed decisions that hover on the screen via portraits of your advisors, allies and enemies. “Should we go to war with the South?” “What side of the road should carts drive on?” “Will you marry the daughter of the king to the West?” and so on. Each decision affects the game’s four stats – church, population, army and money. Let any of these forces gain too much power, or become too weak, and you’ll meet a bloody end.
You’ll die pretty quickly – or slowly, considering each turn takes one year – but after you’re inevitably martyred or slaughtered by peasants, an heir will pop up to carry on the good work. Some choices carry on, some don’t. If, say, you’re in the middle of a crusade, your next-in-line will need to mop up the mess. But the same questions about stopping invaders or building libraries and marrying neighbors will repeat over the years.
And therein lies the brilliant rhythm of Reigns – understated apathy. I started playing the game with every intention of being a fair, just ruler. I’d listen to what my advisors said to me, mull it over with due deliberation, and then cast my judgement with a dramatic flair of the wrist. After a handful of dead generations, however, I fell into an eyes-glazed-over spree of yes/no evaluations. “My lord, the armies are attacking the…” “Yeah, send the troops. Whatever.” “My liege, if only you could find it in your heart to…” “No, we’re not building a hospital, I don’t have the money.” “We need to decide what…” “Hang him. Next.”
Basically, it became Tinder. And while that spiral into indifference could arguably be the very thing you
Basically, it became Tinder. And while that spiral into indifference could arguably be the very thing youdon’t want to solicit in a game, it works well with the approach Nerial takes to governance. Largely, do whatever keeps factions happy, but not too happy. If that means letting a few people die to keep the population in check, so be it. And it fits. It makes you feel like a disconnected medieval ruler – unmoved by the emotional plight of your citizens, but ultimately wary of the fact they may rise up and kill you.
To stop things becoming overwhelmingly repetitive, Reigns has a big – albeit loose – narrative that spreads across generations, when your everyday decisions are punctuated by visits from the devil. There’s also a checklist of achievements that provide shorter-term aims, encouraging you to flick through a few more cards to see what pops up next. The game is available on both PC and mobile, but having tried it on both, I can say this style of play is best suited to short stints on your phone – I found myself taking longer to make decisions on a laptop, which goes against the rhythm encouraged by the Tinder-aping swipe mechanic.
“An example of how games can pull on established interactive grammars”
Reigns isn’t the first game to borrow a system of control from outside the world of games. Sam Barlow’s Her Story, for example, plays a lot like a search engine, with users trawling through a database to pull up interview clips. Both titles are good examples of how games can pull on established interactive grammars, opening themselves to audiences that may not be well versed in decades of Qwerty and controller use. Or, indeed, medieval betrothment.
Reigns shows how a control system can affect the rhythm and tone of a game. It would be hard to imagine the game being quite so fun without the speed that comes from swiping left and right, sitting in your underwear, absent-mindedly affecting the lives of millions.
VERDICT: By borrowing from popular dating apps, Reigns turns medieval politics into an addictive game of swipes