Crusader Kings II
On a winter’s day in 1241, King Olaf the Second of Sweden puts his plans into motion. In the court of the Holy Roman Empire his daughter is married, sealing a diplomatic union that will see the might of the empire’s armies brought to bear against the scheming Danish. Closer to home, the upstart noble Count Erik of Uppland dies choking on his blood, ending his scheming malcontent once and for all. They will suspect of course, but no-one will be able to trace his death back to the royal court. In the South the Swedish armies mobilise. Free from the stirrings of rebellion and backed by his new-found allies, King Olaf seizes the chance to march on Norway and claim the lands that are rightfully his…
Except that as soon as he hops into his stirrups he drops dead from consumption, and suddenly I’m playing as a nine year old Princess with a harelip and a penchant for setting fire to the kitchen staff. Shit.
Crusader Kings II takes place in the shifting political landscape of medieval Europe. You can take control of pretty much every Christian or Orthodox ruler from 1066 up until 1432 (Muslim leaders are added in extra DLC), leading their dynasty in a quest for prestige, riches and land. From a top down map of the continent, you can lead your armies, set up diplomatic deals with other kingdoms and build your own empire. Along the way you’ll face key decisions that will decide how your king is viewed by his contemporaries. Every now and then the game will ask you how you want to deal with a particular event- you’ve captured a rival lord in battle, do you allow him the comfort of a house arrest, or start sticking red hot pokers in him for fun? The aforementioned King Olaf, for example, was known throughout Christendom as a violent, cruel despot, perfectly willing to murder and lie his way to power. That’s because I took every opportunity to bribe, kill, torture and bully my immediate neighbours into surrendering their holdings to me. With Olaf dead and no adequate heir to take his place, those neighbours would quite like all their land back, please.
It’s these utterly unpredictable turns of events that make Crusader Kings II such fun to play. Don’t expect your beloved king to pass away peacefully and leave his lands and fortune to the favoured son who’s inherited all of his father’s best traits. You’re much more likely to accidentally fall off the garderobe, knock yourself insensible, and sit there merrily dribbling down your pantaloons while the entire country slides into a brutal civil war, in which every pus-covered bumpkin and his mule seems to be claiming the throne in your stead. The resulting dignity-free bumfight might very well leave you with only a single castle to your name, but trust me, that’s all part of the game. You shouldn’t expect to quickly create the Glorious Empire of Scandinavia by simply marching all over everyone and stealing their property. It’s a little trickier than that.
For a start, it’s not easy ruling a huge kingdom. You can’t simply grab all the best holdings and rake in the money, as your vassal-lords will quickly turn against any potential tyrants. Medieval history was a litany of small and large-scale rebellions against crown authority, in which every ruler struggled to maintain overall control while keeping his noble subordinates, who provided most of his money and troops, reasonably happy. Crusader Kings provides an accurate depiction of just how bloody irritating this could be. Every single lord and lady in the game possesses a number of different traits that effect not just how proficient they are at certain skills, but what sort of person they are to deal with.
Let’s say you want to hire a steward to oversee one of your more prosperous cities. There are two candidates. The first is a consummate businessman who could fall face-first in a turd pit and come up clutching a cheque for three million pounds. He would make you some serious cash. On the down side he’s almost psychotically ambitious, and you know for a fact that he’s currently trying to have his wife killed for overcooking his lunch. The second candidate is loyal to a fault, and perfectly content with his lot in life. Unfortunately he’s an astonishing idiot with no head for numbers. Perhaps you think you can keep the untrustworthy but gifted merchant in line, in which case he might be the best bet. On the other hand, if you’re under pressure from traitorous vassals already, it might be better to go with the moron.
Every character you deal with feels like a real person, thanks to the traits system and the fact that almost every decision you make will affect their impression of you to some extent; one action might create a raft of new allies, as well as a faction of offended mutineers. Some of these affronted characters will develop into constant thorns in your side throughout your king’s rule, and you’ll have to utilise a mixture of diplomacy, double-dealing and open threats to keep them in line. Perfectly timed assassinations are an incredibly satisfying, but not by any means the only, method of doing this. Even that can be fraught with danger, however, as a failed plot might see your hired killer revealing your name under torture. This tends to annoy your subjects for some reason.
The former is just one decision out of hundreds that will crop up throughout your game. Do you marry your son into a powerful royal house in order to secure allies for future wars, or do you opt for a less prestigious union with a brilliantly gifted Duchess whose gift for diplomacy and stewardship might be invaluable when your heir takes the throne? Should you keep the clergy onside, or refuse to allow them to avoid taxes, and possibly turn the powerful Papal State against you? Crusader Kings II is a game you should expect to fail at more than a few times until you get a proper sense of how the multiple systems fit together. I’m not ashamed to say that I went through a few hundred years of history before I realised I’d forgotten to upgrade any of my personal holdings. Needless to say the Danish and Norwegians sensed my weakness and invaded me, spending the next fifty years taking it in turns to kick me in the balls.
The complexity of the game will make it hard for newcomers to settle in quickly. Crusader Kings II is by some distance Paradox Interactive’s easiest strategy game to master, but it’s still a daunting prospect when you first load up the game. The lack of a decent tutorial is still a stumbling block, because there’s a huge amount of information to take in. A simple starter campaign taking you through step by step rather than a ton of click-through boxes dryly explaining the various features would have been an improvement. Things like hiring mercenaries or the intricacies of the succession system can be key to victory, but they’re buried too deep in the tutorials for new players to find.
Combat is a little clunky, too. There are various factors that complicate a military skirmish, from the geographical location of the defending force to the competency of the commanding generals. The trouble is that Crusader Kings doesn’t do a great job of explaining exactly how these things are coming in to play, so it can be frustrating when you lose a key battle without knowing why. Having said that, the focus of the game is clearly on the strategic level rather than the tactical one, so while the ambiguous battles can be annoying, they are only a small part of the overall experience. In the end you should be able to deal with any surprise defeats if you have a good overall infrastructure in place.
Crusader Kings isn’t really about the military campaign anyway. It’s about what goes on behind the scenes of a medieval kingdom; the wrathful kings, traitorous barons and scheming countesses, the alliances and the betrayals, the sacrifices and schemes. You can lose countless hours negotiating and bullying your way through history, meeting and adapting to each triumph and disappointment in turn. It’s a great example of a game where you create your own story through the myriad of choices given to you. Each game plays differently, and there’s plenty of different challenges depending on which region of medieval history you want to try your hand at. It might look like a daunting game to dive into, but stick with it and you’ll find one of the most engaging and addictive strategy experiences available.