In ‘Reigns’ It’s Only When Our King Dies That We Realize the Full Horror of Our Rule

Reigns uses our gameplay actions to surreptitiously tell tragedies and comedies and all manner of stories that embed us so deeply in the forest that we can only see the trees.

Gotfried only reigned for five years, but in that time he denied building a library for his people, he denied building a church for his people, and when the New World was discovered he had his army pillage it rather than establish colonies. Then, when The Witch said she could remove something that made him unhappy, he chose the crown — and disappeared.

I have my gameplay reasons for choosing each of those actions. I denied building the library and church because I knew it’d be easier to rebuild people’s trust than to rebuild the royal bank account; I was working to create a kind of nest egg before spending too much. I choose to have my crown removed simply because I wanted to see what would happen.

My reasoning was practical, mostly guided by gameplay concerns and my curiosity, but when divorced from that reasoning Gotfried’s actions paint a portrait of a sad king: Hard financial decisions weighed on his soul so much he gave up his kingship. It’s a tragic reign, but tragic in a different way from your typical Shakespearian royal tragedies. Gotfried was not brought down by hubris, but by the brutal necessities of leadership.

Reigns is a deceptively simple game that makes no real attempt to tell a story. It’s a deck-based kingdom-simulator roguelike. You play as a king, and all your advisors and enemies are represented by stylish playing cards. The cards are shuffled, and one is drawn, and all you do is swipe left or right on the screen to agree or disagree. Think Civilization by way of Tinder.

Each decision affects your standing with the four pillars of society: The church, the people, the military, and your money. Building a library will make the people love you, but it will cost you money. Turning away an abandoned merchant ship will cost you money, but it may be necessary to prevent a plague. It’s not always a matter of finances, but also classic politics: What helps the merchants angers the church, what helps the church angers the military, and what helps the military angers the people. It’s more complicated than that, but what matters is that each decision you make has measurable consequences for your kingdom.

With this emphasis on high-level decision making, Reigns clearly prioritizes gameplay over narrative. You’re encouraged to think practically, to balance your relationship with each pillar of society. The best king is neither loved nor hated, but rules with efficiency and logic.

Another Gotfried inherited a Crusade, a ruling trait that constantly decreases your population while continuously raising your finances. In his short six years of ruling, he built some things to prevent a revolt but spent most of his time fencing with the court artist. When the princess of the foreign kingdom surrendered, he accepted. With his windfall of money, he threw a magnificent feast and choked to death during dinner. Everyone else was too drunk to notice. If the first Gotfried cared to the point of suffering, the second was so indifferent it killed him.

Reigns proves the importance of action in defining a story and a character. I don’t mean action as in fights and explosions, but rather action as in simply doing stuff: making decisions, acting and reacting. It’s a cliché to say “actions speak louder than words”, but it’s also undeniably true. Actions define who we are more than words or thoughts or intentions.

With its emphasis on high-level decision making, Reigns forces us to characterize our king without even realizing it. It’s easy to swipe and make choices, to play the game as a numbers game with a narrow focus on balance and efficiency and practicality and all that jazz. But that emphasis on gameplay manipulation blinds us to the narrative we write, in a good way.

Gamers like to play towards efficiency, to min/max our stats and such. In a kingdom simulator like Reigns we naturally assume that a well-liked king will rule for longer. Thus we tend to play with a benevolent bent. But benevolence is boring from a narrative point of view. The best stories stem from conflict — political in-fighting, revolutions, war — the very things we should avoid from a gameplay point of view. By focusing our attention on the numbers, Reigns enables us to make unsavory choices that still feel right.

We can justify our creation of a cruel despot as a necessary evil to keep an exploding population at bay. We can justify a gilded and ostentatious lifestyle as a means of keeping the merchant class in check; we spend money so they can’t horde it. We justify a religious war as a way to curry favor with the church, and we justify the sacking of a church as a way to curry favor with the military. Every choice feels correct at the moment because we’re more concerned with balance than narrative, and it’s only when our king dies that we can look back on our actions and realize the full horror of our rule.

Edward was immediately hated by his people and the church, so he just wanted to find a dungeon or crypt to die in, some way to go down fighting. Then he met the devil, and the devil told him the next person he agreed with would die. Edward then avoided a romance to save the life of his lover, he avoided a Crusade to save the life of his priest, and eventually, he agreed to have a portrait painted since the painter seemed entirely expendable.

During this time his rule stabilized. He married a beloved woman who made him paranoid; he avoided giving a speech by a window because he was afraid she’d push him over the railing. Eventually, he agreed to have a foreign princess teach astronomy, and this pushed the church over the edge.

Edward reigned for 76 years, my longest by far, and it’s only in retrospect that I can see the secret to his success was the same as the secret to Reign’s success. Like the player who thinks only of maintaining balance, Edward resolved each issue on its own terms, thus missing the forest for the trees. In Reigns we careen from one crisis to the next — who to kill, who to save, who to marry, who’s out to kill me, who’s got my money — unconcerned with the bigger picture. The result, in retrospect, is a sad and fascinating story I could never have consciously written for myself within the game: the long beloved rule of a suicidal, paranoid man.

It’s a reign fitting for Reigns.