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How Reigns convinced two million people to swipe right to rule their kingdom - and captured the Game of Thrones license

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

When François Alliot was making Reigns – mobile gaming’s smash hit Tinder-cum-medieval-era-dictator-simulator – the Brexit referendum that will seemingly forever plunge Britain into chaos was at the forefront of his mind. How could it not be? As a Frenchman living in Catford, London, he was uniquely positioned to provide a big, pro-European perspective on a Britain actively making a decision to make itself smaller. 

“I made the parallel at that time,” says François, who calls his studio Nerial, “because Brexit is an answer to a binary decision taken by the British three years ago, with a casualness that is relatively similar to swiping. And now, as a French guy living in London, I’m hoping we won’t suffer merciless consequences…” It was, he has said, an attempt to "mock the way our societies tend to deal with complexity". The juxtaposition between the ease of the swipe, and the nuanced consequences of doing so.

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

If somehow François’ game has passed you by, Reigns is a mobile game set in a fictional medieval world. In this world, thanks to the distinctive art style of Mieko Murakami, everyone you meet looks like a surrealist painter’s interpretation of an egg. You’re the monarch of said world. You rule by making binary decisions; ‘yes’ (swipe left) or ‘no’ (swipe right). In each case you’re given the view of an advisor. Each decision effects the status of four pillars. The church. The military. The people. Wealth. If said statuses peak too high, or drop too low, you die. Horribly. Then your heir continues the game. The longer you live, the longer the streak, the better you do. 

“Nerial contacted Devolver and sent along an early version of the project,” says Graeme Struthers of Devolver Digital, who publishes the game. “Although Devolver at that point was not particularly active in mobile games, I remember Nigel Lowrie, a partner in the company, saying that he had found himself hooked on the gameplay and had been drawn back to the demo version again and again. The rest of the team got the build and had the same experience.”

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

At the time of writing, Reigns has sold over two million copies. It’s estimated that 50% of that is for iOS, 30% for Android and 20% on Steam. Reigns was François’ fourth game. He’d made the innovative Singular, the billiards simulator Magic Show, and the strategy title Devouring Stars. After the publisher of that last title went bankrupt, François was £20,000 in the red. He was almost done with games. Then Devolver called. 

“I think the success of Reigns is a combination of factors,” continues Graeme. “The game mechanic is extremely simple to understand, but as simple as it appears, the game has a lot of depth. The quality of the writing combined with the artwork and soundtrack all make a really strong impression – Reigns stood out. That's pretty hard to do on the App Store.”

Loosely speaking, the best mobile games are designed within the boundaries of the medium they’re built to be played upon. The rule is to enhance the positives, hide the negatives. Few games embody this better than Reigns, which François isn’t shy in saying is directly influenced by Tinder. 

“The writing of Reigns was definitely informed by the mechanic,” he says. “In many ways, I think the writing was ‘designed’ by the mechanic. The flow and rhythm imposed by it - a very quick succession of cards until you die, which is voluntarily merciless and gruesome - definitely changed the way I wrote. I like to write long and beautiful sentences, but I had to learn to write quick successions of short, direct quips.”

Fellow Frenchman Arnaud De Bock, who worked on the art in the game, and will continue the work of the outgoing Mieko Murakami on future Reigns titles, elaborates further. “It’s not only the binary swipe mechanic of Tinder that inspired Reigns, but also the feeling of power you can get using that kind of app. You potently decide in one swipe who will be you lover, next date, your wife or the mother of your kid… one thumb movement can potentially transform your destiny.”

For all its simplicity, Reigns has a wealth of depth. Put in enough hours, and you’ll notice sub plots buried beneath the main story arc. You’ll even find yourself developing emotional responses to the characters, which is something we never thought we’d say about faces that have no nose and mouth. The quips may be short, but they inspire imagination - like writing prompts. This is deliberate, as François explains.

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

“Reigns writing integrates notions of flow and rhythm because of the format of the cards. Short direct question, quick snappy answer, dire consequences. The inspiration for this was less in literature and more in cinema and TV like Monty Python and Kaamelott, which is a very cool French mini-series about King Arthur. If I were to truly define an influence, it would be the Oulipo group [the 1960’s collective of French-speaking writers and mathematicians who sought to create works using constrained writing techniques]. People like Raymond Queneau and Georges Perec. They brought a sense of freedom and creativity to poetry by experimenting with different processes and mutations on the classical notion of ‘writing’.”

Nothing is more indicative of Reigns success than the fact – after the release of Reigns sequel proper, Reigns: Her Majesty, which this time sees the kingdoms Queen take the throne - the team partnered up with HBO TV show highlight Game of Thrones for a Westeros themed edition of the game. 

(Image credit: Devolver Digital)

“When I pitched Reigns to Devolver in 2015, I did so as ‘Tinder meets Game of Thrones’. I didn't anticipate them to take that literally, but they started discussing a possible agreement with HBO last year. Shortly after that, we heard that the show-runners had played and enjoyed Reigns.”

François flashes an awkward, if content smile. “If someone had told me in 2015 that we would be making Reigns: Game of Thrones three years later, I would have laughed.”

You can play all three Reigns games on both Android and iOS right now. Reigns and Reigns: Her Majesty retail for £2.79 / $2.99, while Reigns: Game of Thrones is slightly dearer at £3.19 / $3.99.