I never realized just how many ways there were for a queen to die. In the case of the late Queen Elizabeth, it was cruelty; her people lived in squalor, and eventually they rose up and killed her. Her descendant, Mikki, didn’t fare much better despite a wildly different personal philosophy. She was so beloved she ended up trampled during a stampede for her affection. At times, it feels like there’s no right way to be: no matter how sweet or stern of a monarch you are, a cruel death always awaits you in the end. Such is life in Reigns: Her Majesty, a deceptively simple new strategy game that shows just how tough it can be to be queen.
Her Majesty is a standalone spinoff of the original Reigns, which came out last year and put players in the role of a medieval king trying to successfully navigate the tricky world of running an entire kingdom. At their core, the two games are the same, playing out sort of like a cross between Tinder and a deck of tarot cards. Essentially, the games are boiled down to a series of binary decisions. You’ll be shown a card that asks whether you want to build a new tower for your city, punish a cardinal for lewd behavior, or any manner of other quandaries. Making a choice is as easy as swiping left or right on the card, which then brings up a new card with yet another decision to make.
This structure makes the game seem simple, but you have to weigh each choice carefully. There’s a strategic element at play. You need to balance your decisions between four elements — the church, your subjects, the military, and the budget — and pleasing someone almost always means hurting someone else. Each group is represented by a gauge, and if any one gets too full or too empty, that’s the end of your reign. Anger the church too much and you’ll be burned at the stake; become too rich and your jewel-encrusted carriage will get so heavy it causes a bridge to collapse.
This was all true of the original Reigns, and the follow-up builds off of that concept with a much more intriguing story. Being a queen in this fantasy realm is … well, it kind of sucks. You have to deal with all kinds of complications your male counterpart didn’t, like how you dress, or whether you’re seen as a faithful companion to your new husband. In a game like Reigns, one that’s almost entirely about making decisions while trying to satisfy multiple sides, this premise leads to all kinds of interesting dilemmas.
Unlike the original game, you’re not really the one in charge in Her Majesty. You’re a queen married to a king, and the inherent power imbalance means you have to think things through a little more. When I first started, I tried to be a Cersei Lannister type, wielding power from behind the scenes. But my cold and calculating personality meant the citizens hated me, and eventually rose up in revolt. Later, I tried to be a much warmer, more caring leader, only to accidentally drain the kingdom’s coffers and leave everyone destitute.
Her Majesty never tells you overtly that this is an oppressive society for women. Instead it skillfully weaves commentary on sexism throughout the entire experience. Being a queen changes what you can do, what you can say, and how people perceive you. If you defy the church, the game describes you as “forever an icon to disobedient women.” When you take a firm hand and make key decisions, officials will wonder why the king entertains your “girlish ideas.” The writing is witty and clever, with just the right amount of bite.
Her Majesty encourages experimenting with different kinds of lives. You’re essentially being reincarnated as a different queen in each playthrough, and what you do in one lifetime will influence the next. If you follow a particular path, like endearing yourself to a mystical cult or sending out explorers to search undiscovered lands, you’ll unlock new cards for the next playthrough that open up even more options.
Success in Her Majesty means accomplishing specific goals while still keeping the kingdom in balance. Often these objectives run counter to each other. More than once, I found myself making a choice I didn’t really want to — like punishing a young maiden for my husband’s indiscretions — because it meant I’d be able to play just a little bit longer and potentially discover a new character or plot twist. A single lifetime in Her Majesty is short, often lasting just a few minutes, which makes for an incredibly hard-to-put-down experience. I kept wanting to play just one more turn to see what new thing was around the corner. Her Majesty also introduces a new item system that lets you occasionally use certain objects — like a spellbook or dueling pistol — to bypass the choices offered and go in a different direction.
What makes it all work is the wonderfully tense and often strange stories you’ll uncover. The world of Her Majesty is filled with all kinds of quirky characters, like a shut-in doctor who doesn’t quite seem to grasp real scientific concepts, or the assassin who maybe also wants to be friends. The game gives you specific objectives to encourage you to try different things, but for me they were mostly unnecessary: I found it a lot of fun to try out different options and personalities every time I played. And as weird as the game can get, many of the decisions feel grounded in a way that often made me struggle to pick just one, knowing how it would ultimately hurt people.
There are times you’ll see cards and scenarios repeated from previous lifetimes, and there were rare moments where it wasn’t clear why my decision led to a particular outcome. But for the most part, Her Majesty does a remarkable job at making each life feel unique, and giving you enough information to feel at least somewhat in control of your destiny. Even the deaths are fun to uncover. They’re so plentiful, and often so bizarre, that it’s hard to be mad when you end up dying because of a magical spell gone awry. And after a few lifetimes, Her Majesty starts to reveal itself as something much bigger than it initially seems, making you want to dig in even more.
Really, Her Majesty is the ideal sequel. It takes what was already a smart premise, and adds to it sparingly, but cleverly. Playing as a queen offers more tough decisions to make, and more interesting places to explore. It’s a lot more fun — even if it means more dying.