Reigns: Three Kingdoms: The Kotaku Australia Review

Reigns: Three Kingdoms: The Kotaku Australia Review

Reigns: Three Kingdoms is the latest instalment in a long-running series of historical management games by Nerial, the studio behind 2022’s excellent Card Shark. This particular title has been available on Netflix and mobile for a while now, but it’s finally coming to PC and the Nintendo Switch this week, hence the timing of this review.

If you’ve not encountered the Reigns series before, they are roguelite games about historical political strategy. They are notable for taking grand strategy tropes and simplifying them in a way that speaks to modern audiences. It does this through a decision matrix that resembles apps like Tinder, swiping left and right on different cards to make your decisions.

Each game casts you as an upstart leader, arriving on the scene in a pivotal historical moment. Your subjects form an orderly queue to bring you with their problems. Swiping left or right allows your leader to decide what to do about each problem.

Four perfectly balanced political pillars will keep your kingdom running smoothly. These pillars broadly represent food, people, military and diplomacy. Making a decision that adversely affects your army will cause the Military pillar to fall. Making a strong trade deal will cause your Food pillar to rise in line with your food reserves. Should any of these pillars fill or empty completely, your ruler will be killed. You will be reincarnated as a relative in the line of succession, and your run will continue with different goals.

This simple swipe-to-decide mechanic has made these games popular on mobile platforms, though these games also have a home on the PC and the Nintendo Switch as well.

Swift as a coursing river

Image: Devolver Digital

Reigns: Three Kingdoms is set in China around the year 100. It’s an adaptation of the famous historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, which focuses on the years toward the end of the Han Dynasty. Your role in the story is to take the story of the Three Kingdoms to its conclusion, the reunification of 280. Across each of your characters’ lives, you will inch your little kingdom toward a future in which it becomes the dominant political force in mainland China. There is no rush to do this — important decisions, like when to purchase a boat after successfully capturing a region that contains a port, can be put off until your political situation is more balanced.

Dragging the current dilemma card to the left or right side of the screen shows which of your four political pillars will be affected by it. You’ll also get a little hint about the action your leader will take. The game won’t specifically tell you how much your pillars will be affected by the decision. You can infer a probable outcome from the context of the conversation at hand, though. You won’t always be right! Sometimes, I’d make a decision I was sure would impress my aristocracy, only to upset them a great deal.

And, being a roguelite, there’s no way to undo your decision. Cards related to specific quests can come up again if you’re not ready to tackle them yet, but everything else is for keeps. Once you’ve committed to a decision and the card leaves your screen, it’s gone, and you need to live with the consequences.

As I mentioned earlier, should any of your four pillars rise too high or fall too low, that column will be badged with a skull. This tells you that your demise is imminent. Depending on which column brought your run undone, your character will be killed or assassinated in a fairly grisly fashion. I have been stabbed, garotted in the night, and beaten to death in the street. I have been cannibalised by my own sailors. I have been chopped up and made into stew by my own farmers. I have been poisoned by the aristocracy, who sent a Lady Snowblood type to do their dirty work.

You need to be very careful about how you approach each decision. On a long enough timeline littered with mistakes, your people will just kill you for getting it wrong. As is the burden of a leader, your personal morals must often be put to the side. Denying requests you would ordinarily grant or working with unscrupulous people to keep your pillars balanced are all part of your job as a leader.

Now all of China knows you’re here

Image: Devolver Digital

And then there’s the broader political climate. Claiming new territory is a fraught business that will draw the ire of those being trampled underfoot, and leaders in neighbouring regions who (correctly) assume that they are next. The bigger your kingdom, the harder it becomes to balance the needs of the many and the few.

When diplomacy has run its course, Reigns: Three Kingdoms will spill over into combat. This is a turn-based affair also conducted via a swiping motion. Here, there’s an element of deckbuilding involved. You can take four cards of varying health and strength to battle for you. The arrow value indicates the card’s strength or how much damage it will deal on a hit. The heart value indicates the card’s overall health. Certain cards have a special move that can be activated when played for bonus damage or other effects.

Your four cards are arranged in a diamond formation, and you’ll rotate them left or right depending on what you want or need to happen next. If you have one card that’s getting low on health, you should get a hit in and then rotate them away for a card with higher health by the end of your turn. That card will then take the brunt of the next wave of incoming damage. Once it comes back around to your turn, you can rotate your cards onward to manage the greater health pool, and survive the fight. It’s strategic but also a bit of a dance. It feels really good when you get it right.

Reigns: Three Kingdoms — Final thoughts

Reigns: Three Kingdoms is a clever little game that successfully crunches giant ideas of grand strategy down into something that feels breezy and palatable, while a clockwork political machine ticks away behind the curtain. Its simple mechanics lull you into thinking that leadership is also simple. It isn’t, and that’s how Reigns: Three Kingdoms burns itself into your brain, leaving you thinking about the mistakes you made in the hours after. It’s another win for developer Nerial, and I hope to see this series continue into the future. Long may it reign.

Pre-launch review code provided by the publisher. Review conducted on PC. Find it on Steam here.

Image: Devolver Digital, Kotaku Australia

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