Since its launch in 2016, I’ve heard only enthusiasm and praise for Reigns (and its sequel Reigns: Her Majesty). I have no good excuse for this, but it’s taken me a shamefully long time to finally play a Reigns game. Now that that omission has been happily remedied, I’m glad to report that Reigns: Game of Thrones offers both the widely admired gameplay of the series, and the familiar, wicked personality of Westeros’ power-crazed elite.
This is a strategy game in which I sit on the Iron Throne, and try to stay put for as long as possible. I’m presented with a series of problems, such as an invasion of undead hordes and the timing of a banquet.
I’m given only two options to resolve each of my problems. Generally, I can do the thing that seems best all around, or the thing that is less good, but will have to suffice for now.
So, shall I improve the morale of the people and throw a swell party? Or, shall I save my dwindling funds for more urgent considerations? Will I send the army out to face the wights, or is it better to sit back and make use of city walls?
The interface is set up like a Tinder account, so I swipe a card left or right, depending on my decision. In this respect, it’s a perfectly made pass-the-time game for mobile phones, but it’s also worth playing on PC.
Will to power
Reigns: Game of Thrones’ simplicity is both deceptive and instructional. As an experience, it’s a lot of fun. But it also reveals the dismal truth about leadership and power, the cheapness of its transactional, provisional, compromising nature. This is a fact of life, whether you’re the first of the Andals, or you’re Vicky, who runs the accounts department at a knicker factory in Lancashire.
As the king/queen of Westeros, each decision I make carries a consequence. Most of them cost money, or they damage my military. They often cost me reputational capital among either the public or the church. These four pillars of power are represented as gauges at the top of my screen. When one or more reaches zero, I’m a sitting duck. Grisly assassination, or worse, awaits. This being Westeros, the means of dispatching unwanted royalty is richly evocative.
I can also be bumped off for being too popular with the people. The interests of my nobles rarely align with those of the great unwashed.
So I quickly recall something fundamental about leadership. A decision made in the flush of a healthy treasury comes more easily than one made when the coffers are diminished. Justice is more easily served when the military is strong than when it is weak. My personal antagonism toward religious parasites is softened when their power is greater than my own. Idealistic notions of serving the interests of the people go bye-bye when the stark choice is between their happiness and my hide.
In my younger days, I foolishly believed that leadership was a matter of careful reasoning and moral probity. I’d probably learned such nonsense watching too much Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Captain Picard displays Solomonic judgment while the saps around him are losing their shit.
My naïveté was not to last. For a brief period, I was employed as a kind of Vicky-at-the-knicker-factory, except in the bonkers world of game magazines. I learned the same lessons Reigns teaches: that leadership is an illusion, that to place oneself in a position of power is to be at the mercy of a tornado of whims, desires and egos. It’s all about balancing what other people want, which is much less fun than just doing what I want.
The cruelty of the world
I dare say that being Lord of All Westeros has its perks, just like any other position of power. Otherwise, how do we explain the lengths people go to in the pursuit of power, especially given its downsides? As one British politician pointed out, “All political careers end in failure.”
In his Song of Ice and Fire books, Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin has a good handle on this, as presented through the dark machinations of his characters. Witness how Petyr Baelish, a clever man, gambles wildly on each inch he claws toward the throne. Look at how Ned Stark understands power to be a weighty and unwelcome responsibility — literally, the death of him. For Varys, it’s a kind of vengeance against the cruelty of the world. Some characters see power as their natural entitlement, while others use it for the pure fun of hurting people.
Game of Thrones is a good choice for a game about making leadership choices. The saga is a better management course than anything dreamed up by HR. It flays us all, even as we slither up the greasy pole.
Some of the desires of Martin’s characters come through in Reigns: Game of Thrones’ structure and its writing. I can play as nine different leaders, including Daenerys, Jon, Cersei, Tyrion and Jaime. Each has their own quirks, as well as specific missions and locations that resonate with their previous adventures.
Jokes and allusions swirl about. Cartoon versions of characters capture their various psychoses.
The mechanics of the game just about allow me the illusion that I’m ruling according to some overall plan. But generally speaking, I’m learning how to survive in a hostile environment. Events come at me fast, and my reactions to them are not always sufficient to stave off disaster. People are difficult to read, just as in real life.
Reigns: Game of Thrones contains enough problems, paths and missions to sustain amusement for a few hours, before repetition begins to take its toll. But it’s a fun diversion, rooted in the existential misery of our innate desire for power, and our need to be free of it.
Reigns: Game of Thrones was reviewed using a final “retail” Windows PC download code provided by Devolver Digital. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.