Full disclosure: A preview copy of Reign was provided by Garage Games. I’ll mostly keep my comments limited to gameplay (since the art [done by Starcat Games] may change with Kickstarter rewards / etc.), but keep in mind that the rules and gameplay are for a game that has not yet been widely released. These are subject to change.
The king is dead. Man, that seems to happen a lot in these games. Kingmaker had it happen, Reign has it happen, it probably happened in Kingdom Builder at some point… need to get better security around kings. They don’t make them like they used to. Anyways. In Reign, you are trying to become the new king and take over the Onyx Crown, probably because you always felt like it was your birthright or you look great in crowns or you’re doing it on a dare. Regardless of your reasons, there are other fools who would challenge your legitimacy to the throne, which can really only be settled on the battlefield. That said, there are powerful houses that you will need to gain the support of in order to triumph. Can you win their approval, become Regent, and take the Onyx Crown for your own?
Setup is fairly straightforward, actually. The rules are what take a bit of explaining. You’ll first find five Support Cards (houses that can support you) and the Onyx Crown:
Leave those in the center, like so:
- For 3 players: Use 3 Support Cards.
- For 4-5 players: Use 4 Support Cards.
- For 6-7 players: Use 5 Support Cards.
Next up, you’ll find two decks of cards. One are events:
Shuffle those and place them in a stack. The other are Military:
Use only the cards that match the colors of the Support cards in play, and those’ll go in a separate stack.
Once you’ve done all that, you should be ready to start. Give each player four Military cards and one Event card, and your play area should look like this if you’re ready to begin:
So the game is played in four phases, in which players vie for a house’s favor, scheme and plot against each other, devolve into war, and ultimately fall in line under a new Regent. These phases have very different rules, so I’ll go through each of them in turn. The key thing to remember this is: under normal rules, when a player is made Regent, they get three points, and those who backed them get two points. The Regent also gets to hold the Onyx Crown. Once they’ve gotten nine points and the crown, a player becomes king and wins! So you want to get the crown to get the points.
Let’s go phase by phase
So during an influence phase, you want to bid for a house’s support. If you don’t get any, you can’t become Regent this round, so it might be important if you have any designs on, well, winning.
How do you do so? Well, you have Military cards in your hand, and you can place any number (even zero) of same-colored cards face-down to bid for that color house’s support. You can also place an “Influence” Event card down with them, which is indicated by this symbol:
Starting with the first player (or the Regent, in subsequent rounds), players play their bids face-down. Once everyone has played, everyone reveals. There are a few caveats to this:
- You can never have two houses’ support. If you win a second house when you have your current house, you can choose which one you’d rather keep. It does not go to the second-highest bid if you choose not to keep it, so this might be a good way to put the screws on an opponent.
- You can steal someone’s house support. If they don’t bid for their house and you do, you take it. If you outbid them, you take it. Simple as that.
- The Regent cannot lose their house’s support. If they win a bid for another house, they can swap if they’d like.
- Ties are broken by the first player (or Regent, in subsequent rounds). Better not make anyone upset, lest they really mess you up as Regent.
- There is a special case for the first round. If only one player has a house’s support after all of this is resolved, the remaining players can have an extra bid phase for the remaining houses’ support. They cannot bid on the house that’s not available.
Once this phase is resolved, move on to the Plotting Phase.
In this phase, you can overtly (and covertly) support other players in exchange for favor down the road, should they become Regent. Or just for regular favor because why not. You must play at least one card during this phase. Can’t just opt out! Besides, why would you?
First, players with a house’s support build their armies for war. Players must choose sides, and do so via Overt Backing. During Overt Backing, each player plays one card (or passes) face-up into any player’s army (including their own), provided that player has a house’s support. That Military or Event card is considered part of that army, as though that player owned that card and played it themselves. Note that cards of the same color as a player’s house Support card are worth +1 Force each. That might encourage you to back some people.
Next, Covert Backing. Each player may play up to two cards face-down in front of another player. This is secret, but still works the same as Overt Backing. If you are Regent, you may place three cards, but you must place your last card into your army.
In either phase, the person you gave the last card you played to is the player you are backing — if they become Regent, you will gain Legitimacy points (since you aligned yourself with the Proper Regent or something). Note that you don’t gain extra points for backing yourself. You just get normal Regent points, you greedy now-Regent.
That said, you can be sneaky. Not all Event cards are friendly:
That red dagger symbol is a Betrayal Event. You’ll likely want to play that covertly, but it will always have a negative effect. Some other Event cards aren’t that positive, but Betrayal Events always hurt the player who ends up with it.
Feel free to talk it out before you give anyone cards. Negotiation is half the fun. The other half, obviously, is not following through on any of the promises you make. Do unto others and all that.
War has come, so bring your best. At this point, shuffle and reveal all face-down cards in your armies.
Tally Force (the number in the center) and resolve effects, keeping in mind that if a card in your army is the same color as your house, it is worth +1 Force. Things resolve in order of Card Effects -> Event Cards -> Betrayal Event Cards, as you might guess.
The Regent wins all ties, so … be careful. If there is no Regent, the first player breaks ties by choosing one of the tied players. It helps to make friends with the first player, especially if they end up Regent.
So this is essentially a Clean-Up Phase (sort of like drawing a new hand in Dominion). The player who won the Combat Phase is Regent — they get the Onyx Crown and three points. All other players who backed the now-Regent get two points. If the Regent has nine or more points at this point, they win. If not, play continues.
Now, the Regent draws one Military card per player and distributes them as Spoils. By the rules, you must give one card to every player that backed you (this can be either from the cards you drew or your current hand), unless someone was unwise enough to throw a Betrayal Event in your army. If that happened, you are not obliged to give anyone anything.
After this, all players draw three cards: either three Military cards, or two Military cards and one Event card.
Discard down to eight cards if you have more than eight, and if not, the next round begins.
Player Count Differences
So far, I’ve tried this at three and six, and I preferred it at three. Generally (I’ll talk more about this later) it seems like the game ends up in a similar state, in which most players have 6-9 Legitimacy Points and the next player to become Regent will win, in which case all hell breaks lose. I’d say I prefer three for a speedier game, but six is definitely more negotiation. I also like three and four because then everyone could potentially get backed by a house and aren’t knocked out of the game in the “last round” just because they didn’t get a house’s support (more on that later, too). It also just takes longer if everyone slowly works their way up with more players because you have to have more rounds, and I feel like this game is advantaged by light, quick play.
This is a game revolving around negotiation, scheming, and table-talk. There’s gonna be a lot to do if you know what strategies to bring to the table.
- I find it’s best to be Regent later in the game rather than earlier. If every other player wants you to stop being Regent, they can back someone else. As the game gets later and later, it becomes less and less desirable to have other players become Regent, so people start moving Regent around. If you have it last, you can’t lose your house support and you can play a third card during the Covert Backing phase. Both are really good if you want to win the game. And you get to look through the spoils and take the best cards. I’d say try not to be Regent first. Just for all those reasons.
- It might be worth betraying … yourself. If you throw a Betrayal Card into your pile covertly, you don’t have to give anyone anything if you become Regent. That said, if you so expertly screw yourself over such that you don’t get to be Regent, then you get nothing, so try to only do this if you have overwhelming support from other players. And then, well, if it’s late in the game it might be to your advantage. Plus, you can always blame someone else to sow some discord. False flag operation and all that.
- Know your houses. Each house has a special military unit that seems pretty useful. Green is solid if you’re playing lots of Events (which doesn’t seem to … happen that much?), Blue is strong (+9) if you only play one, White is strong if you play more than one, Red lets you discard it to remove any Military card from other player, and Gold lets you discard a card from your hand to buff it. If push comes to shove, I’d rather have Blue.
- Know your Events. There are several Event cards that can really change the game. One lets you force another player to back you (useful in the “final” round), one denies a player any points (even if they become Regent), and one lets a player with this card and ten points win the game instantly. Those are all great events to have.
- Know who to back and how to back someone properly. If you’re the favorite for Regent, you might as well back the next favorite just in case they win; that gets you two points as a solid backup plan. Also, if you know someone will become Regent (or take Regent from you), back them! Then they have to give you a card. Sure, it might be a Peasant, but that’s still potentially a card that you could use to bid for a house’s support.
- Do not lose your house in the final round. If you don’t get a house’s support, you can’t win. Then you’re just stuck kingmaking, which is a totally different game.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I like the bidding and negotiation elements. The game is a lot of fun — you’ve got intrigue and bluffing and backstabbing and support and turncoats and everything you could want in a discussion game that’s not reduced to I KNOW YOU ARE A BAD GUY like Avalon has been for me, lately. Bidding to get a house’s support is especially interesting.
- Good game for just chatting while you play. People will get involved and animated, and it seems like a great game to play while having a few drinks. Sure, someone’s going to get betrayed and maybe a feeling or two will be hurt, but it’s a fairly short game if people play fast or at lower player counts. No big deal.
- Modularity is neat. I think it would be cool if the game were expanded to include more houses with more support cards that you could just swap in, since you can just take out all the Military cards for a house that’s not in the game. Maybe some Event cards would only come into play with those houses or something?
- Theme works well with gameplay. An issue I have with a lot of games that take place in medieval or fantasy sorts-of-realms is that the theme is often just pasted on (Kingdom Builder and Dominion are both fairly guilty of this, even though I love both of them). This sort of negotiation and bidding and bluffing seems to fit the theme well. Seems like the kind of game you could easily bring to Game of Thrones night or something.
- Can take a fair bit to learn the game. It’s just a problem that a lot of games have where they invent so much new terminology that it can be a lot of mental load to learn everything. Plus, it’s important to know that each house has a special unit and what the Event cards can do so that you don’t get a nasty surprise when someone plays a 9 strength unit or drops an Event card that lets them automatically win the game.
- Some Event Cards seem significantly more powerful than others. For instance, the one where you win the game if you have 10 points, one where you can remove another player’s House support, or one where you can force another player to back you seem significantly better than one that lets you discard Peasants and redraw new ones. Maybe they’re all fairly powerful, but it does seem like there’s a bit of a power gap between them.
- The ending of the games has been a bit lackluster for my groups. I’ve played it with completely disjoint sets of people, and it’s ended very similarly each time — players wait until every player has enough points to win if they’re made the next Regent, and then it’s an all-out war. It’s not the worst thing, but it feels a bit empty, for some reason. There are some cards that can make it more interesting (such as a card that forces another player to back you, or the card that lets you win at 10 points), but I think a round-based variant would also be interesting. Maybe something with a scoring system like Saboteur or Ice Cool, where you don’t quite know how many points someone has. This would make choosing a Regent a bit more interesting than “whoever has the least points”, since you don’t know if you’re giving someone the win but you might be able to make informed guesses. I think this will happen a bit less as players want to be the last Regent (for that extra card bonus + house protection), so we’ll see how my feelings change as I play more.
- Kingmaking problem. So if you lose your house in a round in which any player getting made Regent ends the game, you cannot win. You can, however, influence which player would win. While some suggests that, in an unwinnable game, you should play as if you could still win, there are no actions that you can take that can help you personally win. All you are doing is choosing which player you want to win more. This could be a bit frustrating for some players, especially since the game is not a 10m game a la Kingmaker where that’s literally the name of the game. Just be careful or tell your group up front.
Overall: 7 / 10
Overall, I think Reign is a good game! I’ve had several friends ask for me to bring it back to our regular game nights, which is usually an indicator of a solid game for my groups. I think I might be a bit more high on it if there were avenues for success for unlucky players towards the end of the game or if all the games I’ve played of it didn’t end the same, but I enjoy everything leading up to it, so, it’s good for me. It’s fun to try and win houses (or steal them from other players), it’s fun to back people publicly and then stab them in the back privately, and it’s fun to win the Onyx Crown as Regent. I’m especially a fan of watching factions form and coalesce around certain people and houses. It’s a cool, thematic game with a lot of fun points that I’d recommend if you’re looking for a game with a fair bit of intrigue that won’t just devolve into arguments.