Imagine, for a moment, being the king of some long-forgotten realm in its prime. Tired from a day of decision-making, you decide to follow the royal dog into the city. After a few twists and turns, the dog eventually stops at a traveling fair. You decide to visit the fortune teller, who prophesizes that one of your generals plots against you. Disgusted with this lunacy, you leave the caravan without paying and return to the keep to continue running your kingdom. The next day, after you decide to try eating strange mushrooms, the Devil possesses your dog and speaks to you.
This could all happen to you within your first few turns of “Reigns,” an indie game developed by Nerial Studios and recently released on Steam, iOS, and Android to the tune of a few bucks. The game places the player in the throne as the chief and principal decision-maker of the kingdom. Your decisions are brought to you in the form of cards; each card, presented by a character with their own mysterious motivations, is stylishly crowned with a minimalist depiction of that character (more on style later). Gameplay is relatively simple; you say yes or no to each decision, which has short-term and sometimes long-term consequences for your kingdom. You are responsible for managing meters representing four pillars of the realm: Faith, People, Military, and Money. If any of these fall to empty—or, in an interesting twist, if they rise to full—your king is deposed in some way or another and you take up the role of his successor.
Aside from flipping cards, the game employs an intermittently relevant combat mechanic with a similar binary choice presented to the player: defend or attack. This is fun at first and even tense for the initial few rounds. Ultimately, however, I found that there was not enough choice or nuance involved to keep me interested. Combat quickly became an annoyance, something that stood in the way of my return to the zany world of choices that awaited me.
And the world is certainly zany. The heart of the game lies in discovery: Meeting new characters or finding new lands adds cards to the deck, which helps to keep the game from stagnating, as well as encouraging players to make different decisions. I found myself making choices that weren’t necessarily in my kingdom’s best interest with hopes of discovering a new character or item to spice up the game.
In my experience, however, these encounters come most often from pure luck as opposed to any kind of planning. There’s no guidance given to the player other than three goals for each reign. When your king takes power, any accomplished goals are replaced with new ones. These are often fairly cryptic—“Recruit the doctor,” “Discover a new world,” and so forth. These are snappy titles, to be sure, but they don’t offer a lot in the way of guidance. Often the path to accomplishing them becomes clear only on the exact turn that they can be achieved. This is fun the first few times, but when discovery is the lifeblood of the game and it’s possible to go a few reigns without discovering anything, one starts to wish there was some way to move it along.
I’ll switch gears briefly here to talk briefly about presentation. It’s actually pretty good looking; characters are represented by sharp, easily distinguishable minimalist art. The cards are bright, and the angular geometric art style is quite impressive. The game doesn’t have a lot in the way of eye candy, but what it does have is consistently easy on the eyes. The soundtrack goes much the same way; it’s good but nothing incredible.
Here’s the thing though: “Reigns” is not a game I can really enjoy playing for more than half an hour at a time. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad game; there’s just not enough there to make it worth it. If you’re a completionist, someone for whom getting to 100% discovery is fun in and of itself, maybe you disagree. But for me, there’s not enough variety. There’s only so much yes-and-no-ing I can do before it starts to feel repetitive, even with new flavor text on events that more or less do the same thing as other events.
I played “Reigns” for a total of 40 minutes. I started out really enjoying the journey: It was fun to manage the bars, see which choices led to which outcomes, and try to survive for as long as possible. But that got old after about half an hour. It was still nice to see how long I could survive, what new thing I could see that run. But I was still doing, fundamentally, what I was at minute one. Maybe there’s more to the game than I got to; but if there is, the game clings a bit too much for my tastes to its theme of minimalism—which extends to the tutorial—to offer any reassurance in that regard.This might seem like I’m ending on a sour note, but I want to make one thing clear: “Reigns” is a really fun game for what it is. I played it on the PC, which is clearly not its intended platform. On a smartphone, played for a few minutes at a time or while you’re sitting on the T for a while, it could be a great way to kill time. I have no reservations about recommending “Reigns” to anyone looking for a game to occupy whatever small vestiges of free time they might have left.