Reigns opens with a ghost alleging your guilt for something or other, and you immediately decide if you accept it by swiping left or right. As it turns out, letting or not letting a ghost throw shade at you pretty well sets the tone for the entire game.
The entirety of Reigns’ “gameplay” is swiping left or right to give one of two answers. There are even times when both directions give the same answer. Chess, this is not. And yet what is essentially a two-input game is one of the deepest iPhone gaming experiences available.
Reigns is plural for a reason: You don’t play as a king, you play as a lineage. The first time you die (which will be quickly), you’ll unlock a memento mori, and your king’s brief rule will display on a timeline, starting from the year 600. Continuing your game starts a new king’s reign. Especially early in your playtime, kings will be lucky to survive a decade, not because the game is hard, but because it’s how you learn.
As you react to events, meters representing the church, populace, army, and treasury fill or drain. Small or large dots appear above meters when selecting a decision, which gauges how much a meter will be affected, but not whether this effect will be positive or negative. And not only does emptying a meter kill you, but filling one does too– a fact I discovered some six reigns in, when my idiot king gorged himself to death after the bank maxed out. When your army’s hanging on by the skin of its teeth and the mad scientist asks you a riddle, and you see a big dot above the army, you’ll start sweating: Is this about to make or break your reign?
And that’s just the main system, with pithy/snide/droll replies keeping the gameplay fresh. There’s a surprisingly deep battle system that crops up at unexpected intervals, as well as an old-school adventure game the secrets of which I’m still only just uncovering.
One of the reasons Reigns succeeds is that even dying is a reward. You check special events (“royal deeds”) off a list, collect memento mori, and catalog people you’ve interacted with. The memento mori are each new and exciting ways you bit the dust, which means death is, in a sense, a win condition.
And then there’s the story, which I was shocked this game had in spades, throwing tantalizing scraps at a perfect pace. Whenever you start a king, you can see three royal deeds to complete which have great prompts like “try the blue one” and “meet the devil”. Some events get meta. Some hint at an endgame. My first and accidental encounter with the devil (which I probably should have seen coming) raised more questions than answers, and introduced a mechanic where the next person I said yes to had to die.
The game has reign-spanning mechanics and lineage-spanning mechanics. Killing the pope (whoops) made me have to say yes to all church issues, but money was taken care of. Taking a lover made the church slowly deplete every turn and the lover’s word overrode mine, but the people were so enamored with us that populace happiness was no longer an issue. Magic mushrooms replace the meter dots with hard numbers. Old age garbles language.
And those are just the reign-spanning decisions. Building a barn protects against famine, and a bank fortifies profits. A silk road rose at my word, and disappeared for reasons I didn’t quite follow. Recruited advisers last forever, and adviser deaths only last one reign– which is strange, but unquestioned.
And this game is strange. “Try[ing] the blue one” creates furries. A skeleton stabbed at me while telling me how bored it was. A vase snitched on the doctor to be petty. One time, a werewolf corrected my wording. And some advice: The dog has secrets.
It’s worth noting that the game is not mechanically perfect. The swipe feature can only move a person’s portrait so far because response text displays across the portrait, and it needs to be readable. This makes the swipe feel a bit sluggish. Also, at least on iPhone, be careful locking the screen. In taking screenshots for this article, I would accidentally lock the screen while holding a portrait to one side, and that decision would take effect. This is how I accidentally kicked the dog.
And most troubling, your responses are sometimes flat-out unclear. There are multiple times where an adviser makes two statements, and the only options are just “Yes” or “No”; which part am you responding to? This isn’t often a problem, but when it is, it’s hard not to feel a bit betrayed by Reigns because it does everything else so well.
Despite those issues, Reigns is crazy engaging, and the “difficulty curve” is perfect. Just as you get the hang of a few systems or recurring events, the game will have you practice them all, and with the very next king something completely new will get thrown at you. Deaths don’t feel punishing so much as steps in a continuous narrative.
Reigns’ ability to make centuries upon centuries into a single experience is actually awe-inspiring. You feel in over your head until you learn from, and respect the weight of, history. Which is what real leaders do.
Reigns is available for $2.99 on iPhone, Android, and PC.