Crusader Kings II: Sons of Abraham
It was always slightly trickier playing a pious, religious character in Crusader Kings II. Not only was being a total cad generally the more entertaining option, but it also tended to be the more effective one. Scheming, back-stabbing and pillaging were the best ways to keep your kingdom strong and your coffers full. After all, when you’re sitting on a huge pile of cash with all the armies of Europe under your command, who really needs the Pope on side? With their latest expansion toCKII, Paradox have focused on giving more spiritual characters a chance to shine. Sons of Abraham (unsurprisingly) focuses on the three major Abrahamic religions; Christianity, Islam and Judaism, and while it doesn’t pack quite as much of a punch as previous expansions, there are some welcome opportunities for religious characters to take advantage of, and plenty of fun extras for them to experience.
“Religious rulers finally get the attention they’ve needed”The most welcome additions in Sons of Abraham are the increased role-playing options for religious rulers, who finally get the attention they’ve needed. Crafting your own king and telling his story through the various event chains and decisions is one of the best things about CKII, and there’s plenty of new content to see here. You can send your ruler off on a pilgrimage to a holy site, for example, and play through a series of text-based encounters along the way. Your responses will unlock a variety of new traits depending on whether you decide to be a miserly curmudgeon or a selfless man of devotion, and these traits will in turn colour how your subjects and rivals see you. It’s a fun and smartly designed system, and the new additions to it are the best thing in the expansion.
If you’re coming in to Sons of Abraham hoping to play as a Khazar leader from the newly added Jewish religion, well, good luck. Surrounded on all sides by warlike Tengri tribes, expansionist Muslim states and zealous Christians, the poor sods initially seem about as likely to conquer the world as the Northampton Amateur Dramatics Society. But that’s the great thing about Crusader Kings II – almost anything is possible. With some canny political manoeuvring, smart military leadership and prodigious skill, you can reforge Europe into a new Jewish state; as challenges go, it’s up there with the most difficult the entire game has to offer, and one that experienced players will relish. There are plenty of Jewish-specific events and decisions to experience along the way, such as rebuilding the high temple in Jerusalem, and restoring the position of high priest of the faith, but the difficulty is such that journeyman players will probably not experience most of them.
“That’s the great thing about Crusader Kings II – almost anything is possible”Elsewhere, Christianity and Islam have both seen some changes. Catholicism has its own governing council now, in the form of the College of Cardinals. While the Pope is still the voice of God, the Bishops of the College each wield enormous power, and are all in line for Papal succession themselves. You want these guys on your side. More importantly, you want one of your Bishops in the Collegiate if you want to influence Catholic doctrine. This is where being known as a humble, devout King, rather than a cross between Sauron and Piers Morgan, is essential. Piety gains you friends in the Church, increasing the likelihood of your family members or subjects getting elected to the College. Sackfuls of money help of course, but religious leaders will feel the greatest benefits.
With power and influence come options. You can now petition the Pope for a variety of new reasons; granting a divorce, the Excommunication of a rival, even a full blown crusade if your influence is at a sufficient level. The most generally useful option is just to beg for some cash. It’s tough, especially for rulers outside Italy, to dominate the Catholic religion, but if you can manage to get a powerful presence in Rome, your options are plentiful. It’s not a seismic change to the existing formula, but the option to play the political game in the Vatican is a nice one.
“There are several minor fixes and alterations to core mechanics”Islamic rulers can expect far more inter-faith struggles, as various philosophies and sub-sects view for overall dominance. In fact, as an Islamic leader you’ll have to choose between two distinct schools of the faith, the progressive, or the more traditionalist. Adherents to either of these philosophies tend to dislike followers of the other. As a result of this disunity the Islamic faith loses some of its power with Sons of Abraham, but as it was such a fearsome threat to Christian rulers to begin with, the impact is not too dramatic.
Outside these major changes, there are several minor fixes and alterations to core mechanics. Holy orders are more prominent, rather than just being mercenary orders for religious rulers, you can now send troublesome courtiers off to take the knightly vows, and some orders will offer loans to cash-poor Kings. Heresies also feel more natural now, each having their own centre of faith and religious leader. If one of these religious sub-sects gains more power than the traditional Catholic church, they will themselves become the orthodox branch of Christianity, which sets up some options if you want to risk provoking an inter-faith war by converting to a spreading heresy. While welcome, a lot of these small changes feel like patches to poorly fleshed-out aspects of CKII than real innovations.
“It never quite feels like you get as much bang for your buck as previous expansions”There’s a lot of new things to enjoy in Sons of Abraham, but it never quite feels like you get as much bang for your buck as previous expansions. Compared to the excellent pagan options found in Old Gods, the improvements to the three Abrahamic religions never feel essential or radically game-changing, and playing as a Jewish ruler is more of a one-off novelty than a major upgrade. Whereas Old Gods and Sword of Islam gave players completely new ways to experience CKII, Sons of Abraham is more concerned with fleshing out a secondary rules system, and tidying up a few long-standing eccentricities of the game. Still, fans looking for a new challenge will welcome the chance to play as the very tricky new Jewish leaders, and the refined religious options and expanded opportunities for role-playing are excellent additions. Not quite the essential expansion we’ve come to expect from Paradox, then, but still a solid effort.