"Yes, Your Grace" and the Kingdom Management Conundrum
Uneasy lies the Head
Yes, Your Grace is another bad kingdom management game. That's to say nothing about its stupendous story featuring loveable characters, a setting oozing with personality and the emotional attachment one has to their subjects and their fears of monsters and marauders. Despite what praise I can give the game, it cannot escape the criticism I have to give it, which is the fact it's an addition to a genre that just doesn't work in the way it keeps trying to.
In Yes, Your Grace you play as King Eryk of Davern, protecting your people against the barbarian Radovin invaders. You have about three months to deal with the minutae of your settlement, as well as gather gold and supplies to spend on tackling the upcoming armies. In addition to this, you'll need to foster alliances to gather troops and harder still, keep your brilliantly written daughters in line (and trying not to marry them off).
Gameplay wise, it's hardly an advancement on the hugely popular Reigns, not that it really needs to be. Barring maintaining a piety bar, they're identical with more flavour text. That's OK for a game that's intended to be played in short bursts as a survival-like experience at £1.99. But Yes, Your Grace is polarising in its systems to say the least - the kingdom management doesn't have anywhere near the energy that the writing does. Where its narrative is suitable for 8+ hours of play, the mechanics are uninspired, the choices mostly meaningless outside of their immediacy and most importantly.... it doesn't feel good to be king.
Yes, Your Grace is not alone in this. My first optimistic experience with kingdom management games was the Awakening expansion for Dragon Age: Origins. I guarantee you'll likely remember the idea of talking darkspawn more than you would anything you did at court. In my first playthrough, I was impressed that soldiers deserted because when deciding the fate of a single quitter, others decided to join them scot-free. The wall and gate upgrades seemed worth it as they held for a long time, and made the final battle much less of a headache. In my second playthrough I couldn't have known my choices, because I wasn't there - I got the Fallout-style slideshow telling me how great my choices were without feeling the consequences. Later kingdom management games would try to improve upon this, but they only get points for trying.
Such is the problem with Pathfinder: Kingmaker, wherein "choices matter" insofar as that if you let one of the myriad stats fall below zero it's an instant game over, and while you're saving the world you can fail instantly. This happened to me one time as I was on my merry way to the point of no return, only to find the game decided my exploits had to come to an end because my subjects weren't pious enough or some drivel. While I tried to be as moral as I could, the parts where the game indicate "choices matter" only affect stats and not some long term relations or bonuses to the kingdom. I have to give Yes, Your Grace that much - you feel the headache of management because you don't know how worse off you'll be each day. It's a royal Papers, Please, for good and ill.
I don't like criticising things without providing solutions, or at the very least constructive criticism, not that you'd think that after the intro (if you've made it this far, you've my congratulations.)
The problem with these meter managing systems is that they're not sufficient long term mechanics. Pathfinder: Kingmaker took me approximately 120 hours to complete, and above 90% of them were spent being conscious (read: worried) that at any moment a resource I didn't babysit could end the game for me. It's a problem of survival games too - if hunger and thirst aren't the whole point of the game, like resources are in Reigns, they're a distraction from the actual purpose, and not a good one either. It's something you have to do not because it's fun, but because it isn't. Sidequests, collectables, hidden treasures and easter eggs are all great reasons to diverge from the main element. A total collapse in your campaign is not.
Another issue is that unless kingdom management is the entire focus, there's going to be more issues relating to file size, scripting and writing. In Pathfinder: Kingmaker, the player is equal part baron and adventurer, but the game doesn't manage this very well. The player is expected to simultaneously solve a problem that requires adventuring and stay in the barony. Yes, Your Grace does more with itself, remembering who you aided and who you crossed but only in a very limited capacity. Its competence shows itself briefly and scurries away, not allowing you any further chances to help or harm relations. The game practically plays you.
Finally, I think there needs to be more variety to the leaders you can be. Most moral choices in such games are about maximising wealth or happiness in the kingdom, very rarely going into reviewing taxes, trade negotiations, handling crime and maintaining a standing army or summoning a militia. I'm amazed that Pathfinder: Kingmaker is one of the few that does this at all, and no game to my knowledge goes into the grave matter of the depths you'll plumb for heirs and peace quite like Yes, Your Grace.
I don't criticise the genre because I don't like it. I criticise it because I do like it, and want it to get better. My exposure to the idea was a very pleasant one, and I eagerly await the time that the genre blossoms into something greater. In the meantime, I will be looking at other games such as Frostpunk and Crusader Kings, both revered for their handling of city management and maintaining an empire, and see where the genre and I aren't getting along.