It’s 1066 and I’m Harold Godwinson, King of England. 1066 has been a bit of a funny old year for me; back in January I was crowned and now come September I’ve got a bunch of angry Vikings invading in the north and those scheming Normans are up to something across the Channel. It takes weeks and everything I’ve got to push Harald Hardrada back into the sea, and by the time I’m done my army is decimated and quite a few of my senior nobles seem to have perished protecting my realm. To the south William the Bastard is busy besieging Westminster with an army now twice the size of mine and any military endeavour would seem to be but a futile gesture. But wait; who said I needed to play honourably? Divine Right is on my side and I have only to investigate other ‘diplomatic’ options to find a potential cure. The chance of success is low, and the price of failure high, but I do not hesitate as I send the assassin on his way. In the blink of an eye William is no more and his army heads home to their child-lord Robert. The Saxon King of England is safe for now. Welcome to Crusader Kings II.
Paradox Interactive’s latest grand strategy game sees you take the reins of a noble dynasty and guide them between the years of 1066 and 1452. The level of historical accuracy begins fairly well and should please the majority of amateur history buffs, although within a single generation the world should be a quite different place from what you would expect to see. Yet, this is all part of the beauty of Crusader Kings II as no two games will play the same, the plethora of random events and births ensuring that even if you pick one of the suggested start times and families multiple times your games will rapidly differentiate themselves from one another.
The look and feel of Crusader Kings II will be immediately familiar to anyone who has played any of their previous grand strategy titles such as Sengoku or the Europa Universalis series. Crusader Kings II trumps them all on looks however, and the map itself is exquisite, the fine detail all the more apparent upon zooming in. While the quality of this backdrop doesn’t necessarily increase the quality of gameplay, it certainly increases the quality of experience from the game and shows the importance that production quality played with Paradox in the development of this product. It would be churlish of me to say that one can always expect some bugs to make it to a Paradox release, but it is an opinion held within some gaming circles. Crusader Kings II slaps this assumption and sends it spinning off down the hall however, delivering a stunning experience free of any unplanned quirks or ‘humorous’ technical issues.
The action takes place entirely on the classic European history Eurasian map, with North Africa, the Middle East and the western parts of Russia depicted. Divided into traditional counties and territories you may be surprised at how shattered the landscape appears, and this rings as true for the political landscape as it does the geographic. The feudal system rules the day here, and instead of absolute monarchy you have an intricate web of vassals and lieges, all interconnected and all conjuring up their own machinations for additional power. Crusader Kings II expects you to appreciate this, to understand the interactions between a Baron and an Earl, between an Earl and a Duke for example, in order to succeed in game. Whether you are a King or a lowly noble managing relationships and planning ahead are the two key elements that you need to key into, and fast.
The game is, quite frankly, brutal in the amount of detail it gives you. The array of menus and options can be intimidating to newcomers, and the tutorials serve to only give you a brief overview. However, extensive tooltips in game (just hover over most options) help guide your choices, but the only real way to learn the nuances of Crusader Kings II is to throw yourself into the game and abandon any appreciation of time. The experience is immersive and stunning, the hours dripping by as you plan marriages, find tutors for the children of your dynasty and juggle the needs of your vassals or liege. Failure comes often at first, rarely because of luck and often because of sub-optimal choices you have made. As long as you still have an heir somewhere the game will continue, allowing you to retreat to the relative safety of a smaller demesne, lick your wounds and plan your ultimate revenge.
As well as the ‘nice’ diplomatic options there are the not so nice ones (or, real diplomacy as some would say). Realistically in the main this will boil down to you trying to assassinate people and fighting off the plots of others if you are the main ruler, or engaging in the odd plot if you aren’t. Assassinations are well governed by both costing a tidy sum of money to fund, and also having fairly serious consequences for failure (essentially, a reputation modifier with all of your vassals, ultimately making them like you less). The plot functionality initially seems strong, but the options are somewhat limited for proactive play. Instead it is fairly likely that you will engage with them on a passive basis, reacting to plots in ways that will benefit you the most (imprisoning a plotting vassal is always a good way to encourage rebellion, which then allows you to relieve them of some of their land). However, even here some of the options just don’t make sense – one plot we found on an early playthrough saw the wife of our heir plotting to kill us. The options available still gave the same negative ramifications for a summary execution as they would if the plotter had been looking to lower taxes or change the level of crown authority. While there was an option that sufficed (imprisonment until ‘natural’ death) the event jarred with the overall experience.
Another low point is the lack of an easy load game function. While Crusader Kings II is a game in which you shouldn’t attempt to avoid your failures it is disappointing that you have to either retire (and potentially fill your scoreboard) or exit the game every time you wish to reload a save. Pointing a player towards interacting with a game in a certain way is one thing, but leaving out such a basic option only makes it less accessible to those not willing to accept such foibles.
In spite of the militaristic name, Crusader Kings II focuses far more on diplomacy than it does warfare. Indeed, even in war you will find your options limited by prior diplomatic choices; instead of standing armies or built units each piece of land under your control has a levy of armed forces it can provide in times of need. If you have played nice with your vassals then the positive relationship can take the blow off of a long offensive war, otherwise you had better be planning to let those chaps get back to their fields fairly sharpish. Battles themselves are number crunching affairs; while the skill of the commander and the level of relevant technology help, and certain terrains offer defensive bonuses, you essentially just want to make sure that you have a bigger stack of people than whoever you are attacking. For those who want to wage war with a little bit extra there is the ability to hire mercenaries, a great option if you are cash rich but man-poor with the Mongols knocking on your door. This being the game it is even the titular Crusades can be more of a political machination than a military one – if you join a Crusade you gain a particular trait which then gives you a relationship bonus with anyone else that joined and fought. Again, everything is interconnected, no action stands alone in the world of Crusader Kings II and no option can be taken lightly.
Indeed, this is presuming that you have the right to go to war. Each offensive action must be aligned to a casus belli, a justification for war. This can be a claim to a piece of land which is acquired via a marriage, you could be a liege pushing the claim of a vassal or, most commonly, you can arrange for a claim to be forged. Every goal becomes long-term, the lengths you have to go through to get the territorial claims you want ensuring that the game keeps its pace and focus firmly in place. Thankfully if you just want to spank people then options are open for you – starting early on as a Christian within the Spanish peninsula will see you in near constant warfare with the Moors, or you can always park yourself somewhere you know the Golden Horde will try to run through.
All of this in mind and we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of the actual mechanics of the game. While the importance of marriage has been discussed the achievable results go much further than simple land acquisition. Each character in game has what is essentially a DNA set which predisposes them to certain traits. If you can, over several generations, breed in certain traits such as ‘Genius’ or ‘Strong’ you will reap the benefits in the later game with (hopefully!) your expanded kingdom. The education of children isn’t just about finding someone in your realm with a high Learning stat; instead you need to look at the personal traits of those individuals and exclude those with ones you deem negative. Certain traits affect how the child will be taught and the potential results – unsurprisingly it’s better to find a slightly weaker ‘Kind’ tutor than a stronger ‘Zealous’ or ‘Slothful’ one. All of this is in Crusader Kings II for you to discover, and the sense of empowerment as your knowledge of the game grows is a wonderful thing.
This isn’t a game that you can just knock fifteen minutes out on, and this isn’t a game for people with short attention spans and itchy trigger fingers. Crusader Kings II is a fine wine, designed to be savoured slowly by those who have managed to educate themselves fully in the nuances of the mechanics. Hasty decisions can be regretted for generations and you are only ever one step away from implosion, but the threat of success will consume you as you pour hour after hour into your dynasty. Welcome to the Middle Ages – now go and have some sons and watch out for knives in your back or poison in your mead.