Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Screenshot: Reigns/Devolver Digital

Welcome to our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans, nagging questions, and whatever else we feel like talking about. No matter what the topic, we invite everyone in the comments to tell us: What Are You Playing This Weekend?

Gaming’s blockbuster season is just getting started and major releases will soon be trickling in, but for right now, I still find myself spending a lot of my spare gaming time with Reigns. It’s an odd little game for mobile and PC where you’re ruling over a fantasy kingdom, trying to keep its various institutions happy and your treasury afloat. Representatives of the church, the military, the people, and God knows where else will approach you with quandaries and requests. You’ll only ever have two options, chosen between with a Tinder-style left or right swipe. Each will usually have a positive effect on one group while dragging down the others. If any of the game’s four meters that keep track of everyone’s power and morale bottom out—or if you accidentally unleash some plague or lose a sword fight—you’ll be killed, dethroned, or both.

Reigns is a political balancing act, then. On one turn, you’ll open up your coffers to spring for a church-sponsored school, delighting the clergy but dinging your funds. Later, a fire might break out in the castle, and you’ll be forced to choose between saving the treasury or the garrison, sacrificing either a massive amount of funding or military might and the citizens’ morale. Every decision has immediate consequences that the game informs you of, but they might also lead to something less predictable in the later years of your reign, like a son who’ll decide it’s time he took the throne by force or Vikings invading after you build a dam that cuts off their water supply.


It’s not enough to keep each of your institutions from cratering, though. The most fascinating thing about Reigns is that you’ll also lose if any one group becomes too powerful or if you’re too rich. Some of these endings make sense—like a burgeoning military launching a coup or an emboldened church installing a theocracy—while others are sillier and just there for consistency’s sake. (The “Your country is so rich that we’re throwing a party, and, whoops, you choked to death” ending is the worst.) Either way, the effect is that Reigns becomes a morality simulator where morality doesn’t matter. To succeed, you have to be the cold, calculating definition of a pragmatic leader, giving these different groups just enough to keep them satiated but denying even the most humane or logical of requests if it means showing favor to the underrepresented or cutting down the powerful. Oh, and you also have to keep a balanced budget.

There’s so much weirdness and humor to discover as you get deeper into Reigns, unlocking new scenarios and characters by making certain choices. But really, it’s the ease of playing it and the satisfaction of handling all those spinning political plates that’s had me coming back to it in the off-minutes of my life for the past month. It’s not often you play something that forces you to make awful decisions so flippantly—even in a Telltale game, you’re usually picking between equally crappy outcomes that are both given emotional weight—but when you’ve got this many people to pander to, who the heck has time for ethics?

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