Impressions: Crusader Kings II Beta

By Adam Smith on November 2nd, 2011 at 2:27 pm.

It's quite the map, which is a good thing, because it's just that and menus with medieval faces on them

I’ve probably spent more time playing Crusader Kings than any other strategy game released in the last ten years. In all those glorious hours and days, I’ve raised mighty dynasties so envied by the wider world that they have felt the need to grind the bones of my children to dust and I’ve nurtured quiet island kingdoms, so inadequate in comparison to my neighbours that they have felt the need to grind the bones of my children to dust. I’ve loved almost every minute of it. Now, with Crusader Kings II on its way, is it time to move on?

When the sequel was announced I was overjoyed, although there were doubts in my mind. I’m genetically incapable of trust. I hoped this heir to the throne would be filled with virtue and of such striking qualities that his grizzled father (the first game) would be forced to the do the honourable thing and poison himself to death (be deleted) allowing immediate succession (purchase). But perhaps he would be filled with visible and inner defects so damaging (bugs) that it’d be better to pop him in a tower and dispatch him (Edward V, Richard of Shrewsbury – the metaphor has essentially collapsed). I’ve been playing the beta for a while now so thought I’d share some of my findings.

By their nature, betas are expected to have technical problems and missing features, and with a game as complex as Crusader Kings II it’d be fair to expect more problems than usual. However, I haven’t run into many problems at all and certainly none that have seriously affected my enjoyment. Commands all seem to work as they should, resulting in the eventual reduction of my children to dust, and even though the developers are currently adding more events and flavour to the world, there’s already plenty going on. There are many robust tutorials, each more in depth than 87.6% of actual games, and not a single crash has blighted my experience!

Proof of a kindly God - tutorials, loads of them

For those who don’t know the series, Crusader Kings is similar to Sengoku in that it puts players in control of a dynasty rather than a kingdom or nation. It’s grand strategy with an emphasis on characters, requiring not just handling of armies and territories, but families, friends and allies as well. In my experience, this makes the game thoroughly enjoyable when dealing with a kingdom that spans Europe, keeping underlings friendly and engaging in dangerous political games with the Papal order, but also ensures it’s fun to play an insignificant count in the British Isles, working for a powerful liege and attempting to meet his demands, ready to strike should he show weakness.

Although there are a huge amount of characters to keep track of, micromanagement is rarely a problem in terms of controlling either people or territory. That’s because Crusader Kings presents a believable world, one in which power must be delegated not only to reduce the number of plates you have to spin, but also to keep friends friendly. As your personal holdings increase, you’re expected to share the wealth and if you don’t, even your own family may see you as a threat and decide to cut you down to size.

The biggest change I’ve noticed in Crusader Kings II so far is that there seems to be even more happening than in the first game but it might be a case of the game simply presenting those things to me in a way that makes it clearer that they’re happening. It’s rare that I don’t have several decisions to make or a few hangers-on demanding my attention in some way. It can be overwhelming at first, until I just accepted that I couldn’t deal with everything and did what I could.

Dogger Bank and a man with a sword, proving that Crusader Kings II is actually a very British action game

Unlike some games of this scope, Crusader Kings II doesn’t allow the player to break it, or at least not that I’ve managed. There’s no inflation to keep an eye on and no way of sinking an economy into a hole due to decisions made decades ago. That’s not to say it’s easy; there are plenty of ways to end up weak and wounded but failure doesn’t come about because of a misunderstanding of an arcane and ill-explained game system, it comes about because you pissed off the wrathful Duke of Cornwall or plotted against the King of France with a bunch of brown-nosers who told him every one of your treacherous words.

I can’t think of any other historical strategy game that offers a more convincingly living world and I already expect the full release to suck me in completely. I was initially concerned that the interface seems almost identical to that used in Sengoku, which I felt had streamlined some options into oblivion. They were literally so streamlined that they didn’t exist. Crusader Kings II brings back the complexity of its prequel, providing much more control over character interactions, military doings and territorial upgrades than its Japanese cousin, while retaining the generally pleasing layout of the new interface. The more I play, the more that interface makes sense and I have indeed accepted that I’m finally ready to move on.

I have noticed occasional erratic behaviour from the AI but nothing that’s disrupted the experience too much. In fact, nothing that I couldn’t put down to the AI simulating the erratic minds of men and I’m happy to see it as that provided entire kingdoms don’t start disintegrating overnight because there are mechanics that the computer simply doesn’t seem to understand. Nothing of that sort to report, gladly, although it’s impossible for one man to test all possibilities in such a short time.

France is somewhat purple and complex to conquer

So far I haven’t controlled a huge amount of subjects for a long time, concentrating on starting small, and it may be when there are more things to track with direct player involvement that mechanical problems arise. But, remarkably, I don’t have lists of errors to report. What I do have are plenty of stories to tell and that, for me, is what Crusader Kings is all about: not trying to achieve any particular goal, but taking the canvas of history and daubing fresh tales across it.

The extra details and greater accessibility in this sequel are shaping up to make it a damn fine heir. And accessibility does not mean dumbed down, not in the slightest, it means more accessible. Making choices is less convoluted and the results are more apparent, putting an evolving and dynamic history right there on the screen.

I’m feeling very good about this.

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50 Comments »

  1. Vinraith says:

    Thanks for the update Adam. The original CK is among my favorite strategy games of all time, so I’m really looking forward to this one. I’m glad to hear it’s shaping up well.

    • Casimir Effect says:

      How easy is it to get into Crusader Kings, ie. will it take a week of learning to play then a month of gathering experience before I can get anywhere? As an indication of where I’m at strategy-wise let’s go with Total War games (although I keep meaning to play Civ4 sometime).
      I’ve read the Paradox LPs and they make the game seem so much fun to play, but I need an indication that the substantial learning time will pay off in the end.

      I ask about CK rather than Europa Universalis III purely because the setting appeals more and I feel the former is simpler than the latter (which looks truly daunting).

    • Adam Smith says:

      The tutorials in CKII are incredibly useful but I’d say that of all the Paradox games, CK has always been the easiest to get into. Not because it’s anymore simple but because it’s concentration on personalities and the actions of people rather than abstract political entities means actions and reactions are easier to understand.

      It’s nowhere near as daunting as it can seem and it’s actually fun to learn through trial and error, unlike a lot of strategy games.

    • MrThingy says:

      Likewise, thanks for the update! (for those of us locked out of the beta testing dynasty… ;-) )

      Very excited by the possibilities in CK2. Nice to be able to ignore inflation as per EU:3

      Like EU:3, is there much endless dragging of treasury sliders left and right in order to avoid compulsory loans? (do loans even appear at all in CK2?)

    • Wilson says:

      I must say, I got a copy of the original game a while ago, and couldn’t make any headway with it (though I have to admit I didn’t try that hard). I think in part I might have been paralysed with choice, and unsure about what I should be aiming for. Hopefully they’ll have a demo for this, because the idea of it really does appeal to me (and the AARs I’ve read have been awesome).

    • mike2R says:

      I know how you feel Wilson. I’ve finally got over that point playing HOI3, and still feel that way in Victoria 2.

      I think the secret to learning any Paradox game is to try not to care. There are probably a hundred more optimal things you could be doing if you knew about them, but its just a great big sandbox to play in, play it how it feels right to you and live with the consequences. There aren’t any aims really, apart from those you make for yourself.

    • Casimir Effect says:

      @ Adam

      Thanks, that’s inspired me to pick up a copy sometime (ie. Steam xmas sale). Maybe if I can’t get into it at first then I can pick up the sequel, learn to play that via tutorials then go back to the original.

    • IDtenT says:

      @mike2R Completely agree. You can’t possibly learn more about Paradox Grand Strategies, than letting the passage of time flow. That’s the only way to learn – not micromanagement.

    • bill says:

      I never know how to start with these kind of games…

      It seems that the accepted learning approach is just to do lots and lots of short trial and error games until you work out relative importances and mechanics. But I seem to have been conditioned by years of gaming to expect to be always progressing forwards – so the idea of having to do some disposable practice games before starting a real game is odd. (and sounds too much like real sports!).

      So I always sit paralysed by choice… should i invest in troops or tech or expand or stay put or…. and I try and I fail and i give up. And it always feels as if the goal is total world domination, and anything less than that is total failure.

      That said, focusing on individual stories and characters sounds like much more appealing and accessible idea.

    • BorderCollie says:

      @Bill,

      My most successful game in the original Crusader King was where I started out as a little Count (of Salerno), within 400 years it grew to become an Empire including all the titles between Morocco, Italy, Arabia, Jerusalem to the Kingdom of Rus (about 13 King titles in all final count), then it all crumpled when the ruthless 73 year old died.

      In a game like this, this isn’t a terrible end. I spent countless hours trying to keep everything together, but even the aftermath of having the Empire split into several independent Kingdoms led by relatives didn’t stop me playing.

      I like to give each ruler I role-play a single goal to excel at. Whether it’s to hold the Seljuk Turks at bay, assassinate so I become next in line to the throne of the HRE, or clear corruption from the royal courts. Just like how historical leaders were remembered by one or two major things they did, I do that for my leaders.

      So even if my Empire crumbles around me, my successor lifetime wish is to reclaim all the land. :D

  2. Pathetic Phallacy says:

    I’m a huge fan of Europa. Why should I play this? How is it different?

    • Adam Smith says:

      Apart from the timeframe (1066 – 1452), the biggest difference is the way it handles characters. Every important person in the game, from the infant daughter of a count on the other side of the world to the Pope and possible Antipope, has statistics and traits. You can build relationships with any character in the game, making political marriages, manipulating enemies and friends.

      It’s most definitely a strategy game but at times it feels a lot like an RPG, with the player controlling the head of his dynasty and then heirs in succession.

    • Zwebbie says:

      I think this post sums up fairly accurately what makes Crusader Kings awesome: A small Crusader Kings Beta AAR

    • Torgen says:

      Oh! Do marriages this time around have more political implications than just inheritance? I remember trying to marry my non-heir kids to those of powerful neighbors to take some of the heat off, but the opinion in the forums was that it has no effect aside from inheritance in CK 1.

    • mouton says:

      Hmm, this reminds me of the strategic layer of Rome and Medieval 2 total War. They were pretty bad, but the character aspects in those games were quite fun if not deep. My Roman generals kept becoming worthless drunkards and I just wouldn’t know why. Well, guess all those inns and temples of the party gods do have some impact on the populace, after all.

    • Lowbrow says:

      I loved the character traits in the older Total War games! From what I remember, leaving generals in cities tended to make them drunkards, and my urge to run down the enemy (and not fight another battle) always left my generals crazed for blood.

      I like the idea of the assassination attempts backfiring and intrigue of that sort, would like to see more of King of Dragon Pass in the events of the original Crusader Kings, though it sucked me in all the same.

  3. Myros says:

    Thanks for the preview, was on my buy list anyway but its always nice to have a anothers insight and opinions. Was a little worried about the release state (it is Paradox afterall) so it’s good to hear this one appears stable.

    • jti says:

      I think I might buy this one without waiting for a year of patching, like I typically do with Paradox games.

  4. Jason Lefkowitz says:

    Can it be true? Has Paradox finally managed to make a game with a 3D map that does not look like complete ass?

    Mirabile dictu!

    • Vinraith says:

      I thought Divine Wind turned EU3′s map into something palatable, finally. I haven’t played Sengoku, but I thought it looked reasonably good too.

      But yeah, the original EU3 and HOI3 maps really did look like ass.

    • Anthile says:

      I wouldn’t even know what the map looks like, I always play in political map mode.

    • RF says:

      Yeah, I thought Divine Wind’s map was gorgeous but playing in it was like playing blind compared to using the political map.

    • theleif says:

      @Vinraith
      The original EU 3 map was pretty ugly, but me, i like the HOI 3 map. But that’s probably because it looks like the strategy board games of old, so it makes me nostalgic. These days it seems impossible to find 5-6 people that can dedicate a couple of months to play World In Flames, WW2 ETO or Europe in Arms.

      Can’t wait to play this game.

    • Jae Armstrong says:

      I wouldn’t even know what the map looks like, I always play in political map mode.

      Shockingly, political mode also qualifies as “the map”.

    • Malkara says:

      It does not, however, count as a 3d map. Since it’s not 3d. But, please, continue to be a douche for no reason.

    • Vinraith says:

      Umm, the political map in EU3 most certainly is 3D.

  5. Nameless1 says:

    Take my damn money and release the game, pls.

  6. nimzy says:

    Does it keep the scripted events of the original?

  7. Maldomel says:

    See the part of France where it says “Evreux”?

    I live in Evreux! Not the general part, in the city of Evreux. And for once I’m proud of it!

    • 4026 says:

      And you should be! In my current game of EU3, that makes you a proud subject of the Glorious English Empire! All hail Emperor Arthur I!

      And a pox upon the laughable French, holed up in their last remaining province of Bourgogne.

      Also a pox upon the Pope, who keeps excommunicating our monarchs. FOR SOME REASON.

  8. Eich says:

    Awwww maaaaan! I wish they had accepted me as beta tester. But I got refused *bwahahahah* I must lead saxony to glory again!

  9. Ian says:

    Are the tutorials for total newblings to learn how to play or more in the vein of “You know how these games work, so we’ll just get you back up to speed”?

    Of course my experiences of the latter might actually be the former and it’s just that I’ve so little experience of the games that it looks like rocket science when it’s not. :D

  10. mike2R says:

    Oh this is sounding very very good…

    Any chance of more info on how important character relationships really are to the game? What I mean is, in CK (at least with the DV expansion) you had friends and rivals, but they really only mattered between the liege and his vassals and courtiers with bonus/malus to loyalty and a few unimportant events. If they had any other effects they were so deeply buried in the game engine that I never discovered them. As far as I can tell relationships between female characters were utterly irrelevant.

    I dream of a situation where the strength of my character will be determined as much by his relationships as by his stats. I want to celebrate if I become a friend of a powerful king, I want to marry my daughters to neighbouring nobles so that I’ll get benefits from my son having a cousin ruling near by. I want to be in that beta :(

  11. Vandalbarg says:

    “What I do have are plenty of stories to tell”

    Can’t wait to hear them!

  12. Carra says:

    “That’s not to say it’s easy; there are plenty of ways to end up weak and wounded but failure doesn’t come about because of a misunderstanding of an arcane and ill-explained game system.”

    I had that problem while playing another Paradox game, Europa Universalis: Rome. I kept getting one civil war after another, not understanding what I was doing wrong. Apparently I shouldn’t have let the “loyalist faction” gain too many members. After understanding that it was simply fixed by not giving my biggest army to the the best general if he happened to be a loyalist.

    I’m looking forward to CK2, looks like my kind of game. Good thing Paradox still makes these games.

  13. kud13 says:

    in anticipation for this game, I have recently (two days ago) rebooted the original and am once again leading my glorious homeland (the principality of Halych/Galich) to domination over Eastern Europe. The former King of Poland will attest, it’s going well (going to attack MY vassal, will you? Steal that princely title I was trying to get by taking your province, will you?)

    As long as I will be able to still do that in CK2, Paradox can have my money.

    oh, and have they fixed that terrible exploit whereas the AI of a kingdom will immediately submit once you capture every province of their demesne, nevermind the fact that they still have vassals with forces that outnumber mine 10:1 they are yet to call upon? leaving me to take over their capital province and watch the kingdom collapse into an assortment of independent duchies, or, god forbid, counties, that I was free to vassalize at my leisure? (since every neighbour would eventually get tired of saying “no” to my offers for the umpteenth time, and finally would just say “yes”)

    in the abovementioned scuffle with the king of Poland, I managed (through brilliant tactical thinking) to subdue all 4 of his provinces, utilizing most of my 8-9 thousand men from across my not so large (yet) realm, while he had the forces of at least 3 untapped duchies still to call on (with his standing mobilized regiments, spread out as they were, totalling about 7 k already)

  14. Khemm says:

    Hope there’ll be a demo.

  15. MacGuffin says:

    Some of my most memorable CK1 games came from my first few games before I had worked out all the consequences for specific actions.

  16. The Pink Ninja says:

    I have the first one but I always leave confused and baffled after an hour or two. For someone with over a hundred hours in EU3 people saying it’s more simple is confusing to me.

    Is it better to play as a minor noble because you have fewer thing to manage or one of the big kings because you have more resources to play with?

    • Nick B II says:

      It’s best to start medium-sized. As a minor you have nothing to do. As a big player you have too much to do. So Denmark, Poland, and Apulia are a good size. It’s also best to start near heathens, because you can fight them without much penalty.

      The things to keep an eye on are your vassal loyalty and your efficiancy. Each vassal has an individual loyalty, and you can find out why it’s changing simply by hovering your mouse over it. Your efficiancy relates to how much land you hold, and can be seen by hovering your mouse over your gold total on the top of the screen. If you go below 80% efficiancy you’ll go insane from overwork, so try to spread your conquests around.

    • The Pink Ninja says:

      Thanks for the tips, may give it another go next week.

  17. Dozer says:

    How far towards the present can you play? Do you end up as Rupert Murdoch or the Board of HSBC?

    • wodin says:

      No it’s set during the crusade years. All the artwork would have to chnage overtime if it went on for to long.

      Plus games can last a long long time. I also reckon by then all your family libe would be dead.

      After reaing this article it’s the first time I’ve actually considered buying it.

      With a fair few dissapointing reelases so far this game season this good be something to look forward to. Also it;s what four months from going retail and sounds like it’s in a healthy condition already. Which for Paradox must surely be a miracle. It must have the Popes blessing.

  18. Watered-Down says:

    Every-time I hear about these games I get a deep and persistent longing to play them. Then within an hour I stop. I just have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing, and the whole lack of turns thing bothers me.

    I should like them right? I use games as a medium to tell a story in my mind, and can do it even with the paltry data offered by the Total War games. But its just so broad. I need someone to sit down and explain things to me like I’m a retarded child.

    ed. Plus the maps look very satisfying but everything else looks like ass. They need a better way to visualize what you are doing, and a cleaner more intuitive interface. I’d rather use dwarf fortresses UI than this. (I exaggerate only slightly)

    • wodin says:

      I totally agree…the very image of that clocking ticking days along drives me mad in Paradox games…it feels like I playing some complicated version of Countdown…

      Turn based at this scale would have worked just aswell, continous time is really odd concept at this scale.

  19. neofit says:

    Did they streamline the tedious parts? Like for instance when your bride dies and you have to look for another one, do you still have to click and click and click on a few hundreds of potential mates to even see if she’s single, never mind worth any further investigation? Or scour the web for third-party bride-finders, hoping they would work with the current patched version of the game? Or have they finally implemented a search engine, like in any footy game?