Reign: Review

It’s been a little more than a week since the season finale of Game of Thrones. And while he’d probably love to give you his predictions for next season, Fairway picks up a recent Kickstarter game with as much political intrigue and backstabbing as any episode so far. Today, he looks at Reign by Garage Gamer. 
Reign is a three- to seven- player political card game with a lot of diplomacy by designer Khairul Hamdan. In Reign, players vying for power and influence in order to garner enough to rule the kingdom of Kazath.

Initial Impressions

  1. This is an amazing compact game with a lot of intrigue. In essence, the game is just two decks of cards (house support cards and events), everything else is there for reminder purposes: influence tokens, house cards, and the “onyx crown”.
  2. The basic rules were also pretty easy to follow. Some of the things going on in the periphery muddied the waters, but that was somewhat to be expected of a game like this.
  3. We learned the game with only three, but it really shines with more players. In fact, the game is so diminished at the lower player counts that it would be hard to recommend it.
  4. We weren’t sure if it was just our copy or it was a production issue, but the art looks really good but it printed far to dark.

Game play

In Reign, players are trying to accumulate nine total influence points and have the “crown” at the end of a round to win.  To do so, the game is played over a series of rounds. At the end of each round, one player will end up as the “Regent” (the player who will wear the Onyx crown for the next round) and earn three influence points. In addition, players who supported the round’s winner will garner two influence points.

To start, the crown and house cards (depending on the number of players) are placed in the middle of the table. At the beginning of the game, no own has the allegiance of any of the houses.

Next, the “house support” cards are shuffled and placed in a draw pile. The house support deck is comprised of cards matching the houses on the table. Each card represents a loyal subject of one of those houses and carries with it a military value, and occasionally a special bonus power. Each house has slightly different sets of cards. These cards will be used to garner the favor of a house (during the bidding phase) and to attack your enemies (or support your friends) during the support and attack phases. At the start of the game, players are then dealt a starting hand of house support cards.

Third, the “event” cards are separately shuffled and placed in a draw pile. Event cards are special purpose cards that can be used at various times during a round to influence the outcome of any number of phases.  Players each start with one. Now you’re ready to play.

A game of Reign is split into rounds and each round is split up into three main phases. First, players bid for the favor of a house. To bid, players simultaneously play facedown any number of house support cards from the same house. They may also play any applicable event cards.  Once everyone’s bids are down, they’re revealed.  With the exception of the Regent’s house, the player who bid the most points worth of house support cards for a particular house will take that house. This includes houses that were previously held by another player or houses that are in the middle of the table. Who takes what houses are resolved starting with the Regent who can take another house but who cannot lose his or her house to another player. Players can only have one house at a time and if they win a second, they much choose to keep one while returning the other to the middle of the table.

The second phase is called the “plotting.” It is divided into two parts: overt and covert. During the overt portion, starting with the Regent and then going clockwise, each player can play face up one card (event of house support) in support of their house (if they have one) or in front of any other player. The cards do not have to match the house, but matching house support cards are given a bonus of +2 points.  Once the overt is complete, the covert begins.  Again, starting with the Regent, players will take turns placing up to two cards face down in front of themselves or another player. All of the cards in front of a player will become part of the player’s army.

During the “support” phase, players are encouraged to make deals. Other players can divide their cards among as many players as they want in any way they want, but will only be considered to “support” the last player they gave cards to.  This may impact how players use things like betrayal event cards. During this phase, the Regent is also given some special rules. The Regent can play three cards during the plotting phase, but cannot back another player.

Finally, players shuffle the face down cards and then reveal all the cards. Cards are resolved with unit powers first, regular event cards second, and finally betrayal cards. The player with the most total points in front of them wins the round. All the played cards are discarded. The winning player collects three influence points, takes the Onyx crown (and becomes Regent for the next round), and collects the spoils. The Regent also draws cards equal to the number of players and then distributes the spoils in any manner to any supporter–if a supporter played a betrayal card, the winner does not have to give supporters any cards.  All of the “supporters” will earn two influence points.

At the end of the round, all players draw three cards (either three house support cards or two support cards and one event) and a new round begins. This continues until the player holding the Onyx crown at the end of the round has nine influence points.

On the green

I think it’s safe to say, Reign is an interesting game. It scratches a post-Game of Thrones itch.  There is a lot of politics involved in the game. And even for players who don’t get into the diplomacy of it, there’s a lot to offer.

Theme. This game works well for it’s theme.

Simple but deep.  While I spilled a lot of words above describing the game, it’s really not that hard to pick up: bid for a house, garner support for your house, try to win a war, rinse repeat. I few hands and players really got the hang of it. The game really delivers on the diplomatic and strategic front. Much of the game is spent trying to figure out when it was best to let others have the crown and when you thought you could grab and keep the crown. It was really quite neat how much mileage out of the mechanics this game got without bogging down.

Play time. The rules suggest that if you find nine points takes too long, you can play shorter. I’m not sure I’d suggest that.  Games tended to only last like 5-7 rounds as it was. In essence, a player could win by winning the crown once (3 points) and supporting the right other players 3 times (6 points).  My one caveat about this is below in the “negotiation” section.

Lots of paths to victory. This game does an exemplary job of creating lots of ways to “win.” Players all devised their own little strategies. It was really quite neat.

Where it comes up short.

We did have some quibbles about aspects of the game though:

Dark Art. No, not like Harry Potter. The printed art in this game is so dark. Even the box is dark. It’s needlessly so. Much of the nice detail and finer features are lost to the depths of a really dark print job. It’s kind of a shame. I wanted to put the art in the OTG section.

Unbounded negotiation. This game, at its core, asks players to negotiate. A lot. Without bounds. And without in-game enforcement mechanisms. The rules even state that a player doesn’t have to fulfill the negotiated deals. Our experience was that this open ended “feature,” really could maximize the game play time. Often to the detriment of the experience for the players who weren’t included — frequently the Regent player.

We had to house rule a few limits on the scope of that negotiation. First, it had to be limited to the round at hand. No “whole game” deals. The problem was this de facto alliance building stage at the beginning strained the game. Second, it had to be limited to either promises about house back in the next round and/or the spoils of victory (how to divide up cards) and any dividing up couldn’t postpone the negotiation until the cards were revealed (e.g., something like I’ll give you three cards). Finally, we had to say that you had to fulfill it. The winner couldn’t unilaterally take away the deals. The contrary just prolonged the game and spoiled it for everyone.

I’m sure there are people for whom the range of negotiation would be fun. But that’s a very special group of players, I think.

Event cards/Powers.  This isn’t an uncommon issue for games, but man did the power of the Event cards swing wildly. There’s also a special power of one of the support cards that essentially reverses Event cards. This causes gigantic swings in outcomes to the point of feeling a bit yucky.

King making. This issue was going to be hard to avoid. But given the proximity of the scores in most of our games, it usually meant one player got to “decide” who was going to win–or, at least, had the appearance that that was going to be the case. I think a good number of plays will result like that: one player who can’t win is forced to pick between two who could in any given round.  We thought that the game might be well-served by some alternative scoring mechanism that didn’t necessarily make it so.

In the hole

We are not a group that typically likes the deep, mostly-political games. But, for us, Reign was a winner. So long as the game kept progressing, there was a good amount of fun in the intrigue, diplomacy, and politicking that came quite natural to the game. It’s basically Game of Thrones, politics and backstabbing, the game. And if it weren’t for some of the issues noted above, this game would have been a shoe-in for a birdie. Nevertheless, I have a feeling that we’ll end up playing this game a bunch more times.

Reign is in the hole for a par.

Fairway was provided a copy of Reign in order to write a fair review. He was not otherwise compensated for this review.

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