One of the most popular games available on a smartphone plays a bit like Tinder, though in Reigns, the stakes are higher than a hook-up. Entire kingdoms rise and fall with the familiar left and right swipes of the popular dating app.
Each session is a role-play as a different king, and is told through stack of cards that chronicle the ruler’s life and eventual death. An individual card contains a nugget of plot that culminates with a binary governing decision, which is decided upon by swiping in either direction. In one card a serial killer appears. Swipe right and you hire the man to be your executioner; swipe left, and you shoo him away. Whatever the choice, your kingdom will react in ways you can and cannot predict.
Four symbols — a cross, a stick figure, a sword, a dollar sign — hang above the deck, symbolizing the four pillars of your kingdom — religion, population, military, and wealth. With decisions, the symbols fill or empty. If one pillar strikes zero, you’re dead. There are plenty of other ways to die too, and you’ll see them as you begin to learn the deck over the lifespans of countless kings.
Some decisions permanently change the game, layering features that making progress easier, but more often the game’s randomness leads to recurring cards, and entertaining though potentially unfair storylines in which every option ultimately terminates with an unfulfilling death. The talented Emily Short goes deeper at her blog on Interactive Storytelling about these design choices.
But I’m forgiving of Reigns’ flaws, perhaps because I have most enjoyed the game by trying not to focus on the mechanisms that allow it to operate. I do my best not to memorize the secret of each card. In fact, I only allow myself a round every day or so, an attempt to further prevent memory from interfering with whim.
I like Reigns best as a straightforward, emotionally guided role-play, in which I never overthink my decisions, or try to find some secret path to winning. I guess, in this way, Reigns isn’t just tactilely similar to Tinder, but like an optimistic guide for using the dating app: try to have fun, go with your gut, and avoid the plague at all costs.
No story or mate will ever be without flaws, but who cares when you’re the ruler of your own kingdom.