Royals’ descriptor on Itch.io is “an old forgotten game from your youth. You can’t find the manual.” It’s a super-low-fi colonization/civilization turn-based strategy with a randomly-generated map and a very simple goal: you are a peasant aspiring to one day be royalty. Royals is a micro-game, taking very little time at all to play and only having taken a couple of weeks to make. The game’s creator, Asher Vollmer, had a smash hit last year with Threes, an inviting mobile puzzler that took seconds to pick up and days to put down. I feel that this has the same kind of psychological hook, but takes the ideologically opposite tack: be as intentionally obtuse and unwelcoming as possible. Half of the puzzle of Royals is just figuring out how the thing even works. 90 percent of the gameplay is in deciphering what anything in the interface means or what ramifications your choices make; you could bard it up for a while in a tavern winning other peasants to your cause, or you could choose to take your chances in the woods as a lumberjack, and the game offers no obvious clues as to what any of these routes will do or their consequences. Royals is a micro-game, taking very little time at all to play and only having taken a couple of weeks to make. Blowing through a couple playthroughs of it making arbitrary choices will only serve to frustrate you, but through trial-and-error you’ll discover there’s a surprising depth to be found, and that it isn’t nearly as inscrutable or random as it might seem. I get the anxiety-sweats in real life over whether or not I want to go to Chipotle or Panda Express for lunch, so the idea that any single tiny decision I have to make in this game could result in dying alone and penniless was highly psychologically effective. I spent quite a while fiddling with this game, and believe it or not there are strategies to be unearthed, and it was deeply satisfying to find them. If something can be simultaneously simpler than it looks, and also more complex, Royals is that; it’s more than just a low-bit joke game but it’s not the sadomasochistic level of difficulty it first appears to have. There’s a rogue-like degree of mortality at play, with every choice you make shaving a year off of your game-life, and therefore everything you do is a potentially huge decision. I get the anxiety-sweats in real life over whether or not I want to go to Chipotle or Panda Express for lunch, so the idea that any single tiny decision I have to make in this game could result in dying alone and penniless was highly psychologically effective. That dying part happens every time no matter what, too: “you have died at 28 as a lowly peasant and will be forgotten” was my epitaph on my 5th or so play, and I was proud to have lived to my actual real-life age as it was the furthest I had yet gotten. Yep, started from the bottom, now we dead. Way too close to home, Royals. Royals is available now on Itch.io as a pay-what-you-want, and the chance of a mobile version doesn’t seem out of the question. It’s quick enough to play and would be appealingly sharp-looking on a small screen. I could definitely see myself playing through it a dozen times at the DMV as a nice way of working out my frustrations on a more distilled and pixelated version of a Sisyphean battle against senseless bureaucracy. It will help if you’re a little stubborn and prone to poking things out of curiosity, of if you’re a bit too into that “chaos is a ladder” speech Littlefinger gives on Game of Thrones. For the record, I’ve yet to actually “beat” the game but I keep coming back to it, wanting to shoot the dice again. The first few times you roll a new unwashed serf, naively hoping to rise above your wretched station, you’ll feel like this is nothing but an artificially difficult luck game with the odds stacked completely against you. You’d be a little right. If you’re willing to bang your head on the wall for just a bit your confusion will hopefully be tempered by the Royals‘ dry sense of humor, and you’ll get a lightbulb moment or two that will hook you for another round. And another, and another, and so on. It will help if you’re a little stubborn and prone to poking things out of curiosity, of if you’re a bit too into that “chaos is a ladder” speech Littlefinger gives on Game of Thrones. I am all of these things, and I do that speech every morning in the mirror in case I have to overthrow a monarchy that day.