REVIEW: Swipe right through your kingdom in “Reigns”

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There are certainly plenty of games where you take on the role of some high fantasy ruler, tasked with leading your kingdom to glory, but none so delightfully abstracted as “Reigns.”

The obvious explanation for how “Reigns” runs is that it’s like dating app Tinder, where users swipe right or left to cycle through photos of potential matches. In “Reigns,” the interested/not interested binary of Tinder is replaced with answers to whatever issues are plaguing your fiefdom. Sometimes, it’s a literal plague (do you treat the population, or do you opt to close the castle gates?), and other times it’s merely a decision of whether or not you want the local bard to sing a song.

The questions never let up, presented as a deck of adorably stylized cards that define your rule. Each decision can affect any combination of four separate facets of the kingdom: the church, the people, the army and the economy. These four attributes are represented by little meters that fill and drain depending on how you swipe. If any of those meters run empty (or max out), your king’s reign is over. The game is in figuring out how each situation will nudge those levels and maintaining balance across all four quarters no matter what.

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In a sense, “Reigns” is a little like a classic high-score-keeping arcade game, with a goal of keeping your king in power for as long as possible. However, if (when) your king dies, you simply pick up with the next king in line, often suffering the effects of the previous ruler’s decisions. If King Edward decides to start a crusade, that crusade will likely continue into King George’s era. It’s a smart hook that adds weight to repeated plays.

Often these long-standing decisions can save you from getting the axe. Building a barn in one generation can keep the population from starving thirty years down the line, for example. Some options give you an ongoing effect – like a constant influx of money – that requires you to think fast or risk one of your meters killing the king while you’re still considering your options. The game’s best surprises are in plot threads that linger across the decades, as you pit short term effects against the game’s long memory.

Of course, it’s your own memory that drives “Reigns,” which means some of the randomized storytelling elements will grow stale. Sure, once you’ve seen both ends of the “should we raise the price of bread” crisis you’ll know how to best answer, but that doesn’t stop you from thinking “here’s the bread economy question again” every time it comes up.

“Reigns” twists a familiar interface – the simple act of swiping on your phone – into a quick and clever endurance game. Although also available for desktop computers, it is a great example of a game that shines naturally on smartphones.