Reign: Conflict of Nations,
from Lesta Studios and 1C Publishing,
drops players none-too-gently into the role of monarch in medieval Eastern Europe, and seems to laugh manically as they claw to keep their heads above water. At least, that's how I felt during most of my tenure into this open-ended historical RTS. I don't consider myself a newbie when it comes to these sandbox "conquer the map" games, but Reign had me confounded throughout. I will be the first to admit that my knowledge base of medieval Europe is paltry at best, so much of the historical detail is completely lost on me. In addition, my hopeless grasp of the geography of the region was crippling at times, as I struggled frantically to find a particular province or friendly nation. Perhaps I didn't have enough time to thoroughly plumb the strategic depths of the game, and I'm certain many nuances were completely lost on me, but as time drew on I just failed to "click" with this title. For those that managed to pay some attention during their history courses, however, there may be hope.
Players begin the game by choosing one of dozens of beginning provinces, selecting a time-period with which to begin, and then diving in. Early time periods are ostensibly easier to manage, as players begin with only a single city to control and can gradually extend their empire. Later time-stamps bring greater challenge, as there is less time to achieve the victory conditions, and a wider set of cities to control all at once. For a game that's already a little daunting from the get-go, these later starts are for more advanced players.
Cities themselves are the hubs of the empire, and it's here that players will marshal troops, develop infrastructure, and research cutting-edge medieval technologies. There are actually quite a few resources to manage, from population to food to gold to knowledge. Unfortunately, the combination of the display and control scheme makes this more difficult than it needs to be. In fact, my biggest complaint with Reign is the interface--it just seems like a lot of work to carry out mundane chores, and hunting down a particular bit of information about my empire feels clunky at best.
While the cities (and their outlying villages) are the heart of the empire, the lifeblood is the people. A series of leader-type units provide the meat and potatoes of the game. There are several to choose from, including Governors, Spies, Generals, and Priests, among others. Each leader type can, upon gaining enough experience and levels, choose from a wide variety of useful and necessary skills. Proper use of these myriad skills is essential to success in Reign. Governors dictate the flow of the day-to-day city life, insuring that cities under their influence stay happy and productive. Priests guide their flocks down the correct religious paths, and help keep outside religions from exerting undue pressure. Generals are the workhorses of the empires, leading scores of troops in war and defense. Spies work counter to other enemy leaders, reducing their effectiveness and sowing discord among enemy cities.
As for the lesser units, there is a wide variety from which to choose. Depending on the nation played, there is a decent selection of foot, mounted, and missile troops to field as needed. Don't come expecting fancy graphical battles, however, as troops are represented by a simple icon. The battles themselves are similarly visually dull--they are simply a series of troop icons gradually turning from healthy green to skull-and-crossbones black. To be fair, warcraft in Reign: Conflict of Nations isn't about the battles themselves, but in creating the correct mix of an army, choosing the best battle option such as "attack weakest" or "attack at will", and letting them duke it out. Once the "start battle" button is clicked, the outcome is already decided. Still, I had a difficult time figuring out which of my units were useful, and which were dead weight. There seemed to be a bit too much hidden under the hood of this battle system.
At first glance, Reign looks to be an attractive game, but after a few hours I came to think of it as "cluttered". There was just too much visual noise for my taste. As I stated before, my lack of geographical prowess made finding a particular city or region on the overly-busy map difficult, and ascertaining important information was as much as challenge as the gameplay itself. There were supposedly-helpful maps and graphs at my disposal, but they just didn't seem as clean and intuitive as I would have liked. To make matters worse, actually issuing commands to the various units often involved several mis-clicks of the mouse. Thankfully there is a pause command to halt the game while trying to send my ambassador to some far-off province that seems to be open to friendly relations.The diplomatic relations, being such an integral part of the game, are also a bit cluttered. Finding that friendly nation among the nest of enemies requires players to systematically click through a small screen of various coats-of-arms, and then trying to hunt that province down on the map. As far as I could tell, there was no way to sort these screens by hostility, or filter the maps in terribly useful ways. Diplomacy itself is quite convoluted, but I believe that I just hadn't delved deep enough to tease out the proper strategies needed here. As it stands, I was repeatedly and resoundingly crushed.
Reign is not an easy game for beginners, and it's not an overly friendly one to veteran strategy fans. The tutorial is a bit of cruel humor--sure, it held my hand as I learned, step by step the main points of playing the game. But once the tutorial ends, players are thrust straight into the game from that point on. This means players have been taking baby steps with their single city while their neighbors have been tearing forward as if this were a real game. Three times I replayed the tutorial, and three times I was ruthlessly crushed. It wasn't until I ditched the tutorial entirely and began frantically building from the get-to that I even had a chance to hold on for a century or two.
All in all, I think there may be a decent game in Reign: Conflict of Nations, but I just didn't find it terribly compelling. Perhaps after a patch or two to bring in a few more filters and tweak the interface, and possibly work out a few of the kinks from the questionable AI, I could find enjoyment. But right now, given the plethora of other titles vying for my attention, Reign: Conflict of Nations is soon to be forgotten.