Crusader Kings II Is Three Years Old And Free For A Week

Crusader Kings II [official site] is three years old, which means we’ve delayed too long. The little blighter should have been married off to its own cousin at least a year ago and is probably plotting to have us all killed even as I write this.

To celebrate the occasion, Paradox are allowing people to play the base game for free on Steam, from now until February 23rd. It’ll also be discounted by 75% throughout that period, so if you finally decide to take the plunge, you can buy in for £7.49. It’s my favourite game of the last five years and quite possibly my favourite game of all time. Here’s my review. Thoughts on its growth over the last three years below.

While I was at the Paradox Convention last week, I spoke to head honchos Fred Wester and Susana Meza Graham (expect an enormous feature about that conversation soon) about the difficulty inherent in making a Crusader Kings III. Any sequel could suffer from what I refer to as ‘The Sims’ problem, which is to say it might improve some mechanical issues but is likely to be relatively light on content. “No Pagans” could be the new “No Toddlers”. Simply put, CK II DLC has made the game as it is today, fully patched and expanded, into its own sequel.

Wester disagreed, slightly, saying he thinks of the expanded game as CK 2.5 rather than a sequel, but he seemed to agree that a follow-up would most likely suffer by comparison, at least in its earliest iterations. Moving to a new engine would be a fine thing, but shortening the timeframe and reducing the number of playable factions would be a step back.

When a sequel comes around, it’ll need “a fresh angle”, Wester says. He doesn’t want CK III, or whatever it might be called, to replace CK II, but to sit alongside it. People could play both and “argue about which is the true medieval sandbox.” Quite what that angle might be isn’t clear – I put forward the idea that an Obsidian-led Crusader Kings RPG would be a fine thing and will keep doing so until it happens – but there was no suggestion that Paradox are ready to move on from the current generation of grand strategy anytime soon.

That’s a good thing. In free patches and upgrades alone, CK II has improved and grown on a regular basis. More so than some games that operate on a yearly release cycle. The expansions are decently priced, often reduced as part of a collection, and (mostly) as robustly designed as the core game. Another three years? It’s possible.

53 Comments

  1. Lexx87 says:

    Can one of you fine lovely people offer me a link to the best words/youtubes/anythings on learning CK2? I’ve tried to get into it via the in-game tutorial and failed every time. I do really want to get into it so any help is appreciated!

    • All is Well says:

      I prefer the “learning by doing” approach in Paradox Games so I can’t recommend anything, really. However, this guide (link to ckiiwiki.com) seems to be pretty good in explaining the basics! I would also imagine the Paradox forums could have some guides.

    • slerbal says:

      Do you have any friends on Steam who play it? I found the absolutely best way to learn CK2 was in a guided small multiplayer session with a friend explaining the mechanics.

      The main thing to know is that you shouldn’t expect to be doing stuff all the time. Much of the time you are waiting and watching, and that was something I found difficult to begin with.

    • emperor_nero says:

      There are numerous reputable youtubers who have done many, many hours of CK2. One of my favorites is Arumba, but you have people like Northerlion, Mathas, Quill18, and many more who have covered the game. Most have done learning series.

    • spacedyemeerkat says:

      Nothing makes me feel as intellectually inadequate as trying to understand CK2 for the nth time :(

    • elasticman says:

      I learned it the words-and-pictures way: link to lparchive.org A few things here are outdated – technology being a major example – but the basics are covered in detail. Any specific questions that come up as you play (and you’re going to have a few…) should be answered by a quick search of the wiki that All is Well links above, or by searching the Paradox forums (I think you’ll have to register the game to be able to do this though).

      There’s also another Let’s Play on the same site (you’ll be able to search for it easy enough – I didn’t want to put to many links in the post) that has a lot of fun with the stories that the game can produce. You can read both LPs in tandem: the first is more instructive, but the second really taps into the soul and character of the game – both good reads for new players.

      • frenchy2k1 says:

        I will second that recommendation.
        I read that guide as a start too, after failing miserably on my first try (starting in Brittany).
        After reading that long play (it is quite long, but nice enough to be read straight), I’ve tried my hand at my own Irish campaign. This went for a while, then my save was rendered unusable by a patch and I restarted in Spain. I lost this one to the 2.0 patch (bigger map, not compatible) and before I discovered I could revert patch version and save it aside from Steam, I had restarted a Muslim campaign.
        I have clocked over 300h in CK2 with various DLC and still have not finished a single campaign, but I always had a blast.
        Each DLC has added different mechanisms and playing as a Muslim is very different from a Christian ruler (more aggressive, as you can attack your neighbors without reason, less alliances, less long term planning, as you cannot get claims from marriage, forced to fight to lower decadence). I’ll probably try a republic some time.

        TL;DR the linked long play got me into playing and getting most of the mechanisms. There have been some changes, both in interface and actions since through patches, but the gist stays the same and this stays relevant.

    • gorice says:

      CK is pretty easy to understand (I think!) if you let go of habits learned through other games and remember a couple of historical details. Viz:

      (1) Land is not bought and sold in this society. In most cases, you need a ‘claim’ to land by inheritance in order to attack someone, at which point you can take your claim then try and get them to accept the status quo. Declarations of war (other than holy wars and some other exceptions) aren’t about going ‘I demand this land by right of conquest’ so much as saying ‘I’m your cousin and I deserve this inheritance more than you do because you’re a filthy degenerate/bastard/sinister hedgehog masquerading as a person. Defend yourself!’

      (2) Armies are mostly ‘levies’, that is reservists or conscripts, in modern parlance. You don’t have a standing army as such. Instead, there’s a nice big button somewhere that lets you raise levies, which is you telling all your vassals to bring a bunch of soldiers. This is a feudal obligation they have to you, just like tax. You can also hire mercenaries (expensive, but useful) and, if you have the ‘Legacy of Rome’ DLC, raise retinues, which are like small standing armies of household troops.

      (3) CK2 has relatively few abstractions, and lots of emphasis on characters. These characters all have their quirks, and most of them want something.

      • JRHaggs says:

        That’s nuts. Haha.

        Almost everything is abstracted in CKII. Graphically, it’s a map. That’s it. All warfare is completely abstracted. There are no avatars or images of characters outside of the portrait. Heck, even the province-based maps of the Clauswitz engine are utter abstractions of real space. “Decisions” are entirely probabilistic and not at all controlled by player “skill”. On and on.

        This is by no means a criticism of the game. CKII is far and away my favorite game ever. But to say it has few abstractions is misleading, for sure.

    • badmothergamer says:

      Other than the DayZ mod CK2 has sucked up more of my time than any other game in the past 3 years (1500 hours and counting). I remember once learning a basic principal regarding gavelkind succession then looking at my play time. I was at 600 hours. 600 hours in and I was still learning some basics of the game.

      I agree with those who recommend learning on the fly. The great part about CK2 is that half the fun is making mistakes and dealing with the consequences. You can go from count to emperor then back down to count again, and as long as you always keep an heir, your game will continue.

      • P.Funk says:

        Indeed, that is one of those CK2 things that really messes with most games. Most gaming is about iterative success thats basically guaranteed with clear cut terminal failure states and progressive success to a predictable conclusion.

        CK2 is about scheming, and making a plan, and having that plan all fall apart because your ruling house leader dies at 37 on a hunt and now your idiot heir who is not properly groomed for taking over is in charge, or even worse your groomed heir dies mysteriously then immediately your ruling head dies for no good reason and suddenly you are stuck with an heir who’s been staying in another family’s house and he’s the wrong bloody religion.

        But life goes on. Its about as close to mainstream as you can get and still get the DF vibe. Losing is fun! But also losing isn’t the end of the game.

        Its a complex web and over time you can keep buying back into it even if you’ve fallen down a few times. Many don’t have the stomach for that, or they’re not used to needing it.

    • 2late2die says:

      I found Arumba’s tutorial series (link to youtube.com) extremely useful for exactly that. I tried getting into CK2 before and couldn’t do it, but then I found these videos and while there’s still a lot to learn even after going through them all, they provided me a great start and now i’m having a blast with CK2.

      • EkoAzarak says:

        Great recommendation. I started with Arumba’s tutorial series as well (watched the whole series before i even bought the game) and it helped me immensely. Crusader Kings 2 really benefits from lessening that initial learning barrier and I enjoyed the game soooo much more because of that series.

    • imperialus says:

      I did a tutorial series for CKII back in August.

      link to youtube.com

      I think I did a pretty good job with it.

    • Aetylus says:

      The best advise for CK2 is to just give it a go and expect to die horribly. Then repeat. By about the third time you’ll start to get the hang of it so watch some youtubes to learn a bit more. But after playing for a year you will still be coming across new aspects of pre-feudal steppe nomad succession law or some such… its part of the fun.

    • wondermoth says:

      Yep. As others have said, you need to lower your expectations drastically, and watch Youtube LPs. I had 50 hours on the clock before I was confident that I knew what I was doing, and I’m 200+ hours in now, and still don’t have it fully understood.

      That would be awful in most games, but in CK2, learning by doing is a big part of the fun.

      However, getting your head around the feudal system, and the mechanics related to it, can be sped up by watching Youtubers. I can highly recommend Arumba, and also Quill18.

  2. slerbal says:

    Happy birthday CK2, you’ve eaten 750 hours of my life and I don’t mind :D

  3. JonWood says:

    I really want to like CKII, but every time I try to play it I find there’s a distinct lack of anything happening. I have a feeling this is related to me taking the generally accepted advice that you should start with a minor state in Ireland, where things are pretty civil.

    • Serenegoose says:

      Try tuscany. You start in the HRE, but you’re one of the/ the biggest power in italy, and when the italian states start ditching the HRE en masse, you’re a very big fish in a small pond. However, you also have to /make/ things happen. Go on pigrimages, send your chancellor to fabricate claims, invite people with claims to your court so you can press them on their behalf. The game starts slow because everyone is a blank slate, as it were. Once a generation passes, and marriages and lineages and all that stuff gets good and muddy, it all opens up. But most of all, do stuff that fails miserably, and take careful note as of why.

    • All is Well says:

      If you have Old Gods, you should try starting as a Norse Pagan realm! Lots of warfare (you’re penalized for not warring) and yet relatively low-risk, since the Catholics are much too busy fighting among themselves to bother with you.

    • mike2R says:

      Yeah you really want to take the “start small” advice with a pinch of salt. Lots of people recommend it since that is how they like to play, but one of the great things about this game (and all Paradox games) is that you don’t need to.

      Personally, while I’ve certainly played Count starts, the real fun of the game is once you get to large Duke/small king level. When you’ve got a bit of heft, your options are open, and you’ve some vassals to manage. So that’s where I tend to start.

      King of Denmark from the Third Crusade bookmark is great fun, you’ve got nearby pagans to expand into, local competitors in your fellow Scandinavian nations, the great behemoth of the Holy Roman Empire to be wary of (or to ally with). And a metric shedload of children to give you all the diplomatic options you could ever want.

      Far more fun to me than simply playing a one province count whose only desire is to become a two province count…. I’d only recommend that for a beginner if your finding it overwhelming, and want a limited start to makes things simpler.

    • Veles says:

      When I first played I also did the generally accepted start of Ireland and found it very boring. I think decided to pick a random duke in Hungary. Turned out that this duke was the brother of the king of Hungary, and quite a few people would have preferred me to be King. Within about half an hour I was King of Hungary, half an hour later someone else was. This is where my addiction started.

      • SuddenSight says:

        I quite enjoy playing as a strong vassal in CKII. It gives you a clear goal (become king) and a safety net (your lord). It also forces you to learn the intrigue system because navigating warfare within a country can be very difficult.

        Also, the fast foward button is your friend. Sometimes you need a peaceful decade to build up an army and convince your neighbors that maybe a truce wasn’t the best idea after all…

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      teije says:

      Playing as a Count in a small state is boring. Try instead a Duke in the Byzantine or somewhere in middle Europe. Remember you can almost always recover from even the craziest events and failures.

    • sinister agent says:

      If you want events, try one of the christian rulers in Nothern Spain. They’ll all fight each other trying to unite the crowns, and inevitably do something stupid that will start a Holy War with the entire southern half of the map. And within a century or so, if you’ve managed to see off that threat, you’ll probably be sat on the doorstep of a united France.

  4. Anthile says:

    King for a week, or fool for a lifetime.

  5. Saarlaender39 says:

    It might be worth mentioning, that Paradox are now on GOG and CK 1 Comlete is available there, among some others:

    link to gog.com

    • Saarlaender39 says:

      Comlete should be complete, of course…where is the edit-button, btw?

  6. MiniMatt says:

    Quick DLC question:

    Which would folks consider essential?

    I’ve got Legacy of Rome (which I’d consider pretty close to essential), and Old Gods (which I’d consider damned good, but it’s absence doesn’t affect enjoyment).

    • JRHaggs says:

      They all have their merits. I play with them all on. But I’ve never played a Muslim character, so, for me, maybe, Sword of Islam is negotiable. Obviously Sunset Invasion is unnecessary, but I like the absurdity of it. They all add interesting flavor, but most of the important game mechanics are patched in and not a product of DLC.

    • frenchy2k1 says:

      Legacy of Rome opened the Retinue which till recently was really over powered.
      They nerfed the retinue recently, making them much more expensive to maintain.

      Otherwise, most DLC mostly open different play modes:
      – Sword of Islam: opens muslim rulers. More aggressive play style, can attack any neighbors without claim for the contiguous county, fire under you as your decadence constantly rises.
      – Republic: opens playing as a democracy (not tried yet)
      – Sons of Abraham: Opens more religious choices and playing as jew rulers.

    • badmothergamer says:

      As the others said, it depends on who you want to play with. I would definitely pick up The Old Gods because it moves the start date from 1066 to 867 and is part of the current sale. Charlemagne is still new so it may not be on sale, but it moves the start date further back to 767.

      Other than the start dates, almost all features added by DLC are still included in the base game, so unless you own the Sword of Islam DLC you can’t play as a Muslim ruler, but you’ll still notice AI Muslim rulers using features from the DLC such as decadence.

      I own all the DLC down to the unit packs but the only ones I really feel like I use are Charlemagne (for the earliest start date), The Old Gods (I like playing as vikings), and Legacy of Rome for the occasional Byzantine game.

  7. Cerzi says:

    I played the hell out of CK2 when it was released (that was 3 years ago already? jesus), but haven’t really been able to get back into it despite returning briefly every time a new DLC comes out (but only to play the free patch). Every time a steam sale comes on I get tempted to pick up all the DLCs, but it often feels like most of the content of each DLC was delivered for free (like that is a bad thing!), and so they don’t feel too worthwhile. I would guess I’m wrong about that though – are there any DLCs that absolutely should be picked up, for which the free patch just didn’t hold a candle to the paid extras?

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      RaveTurned says:

      I suspect the answers to MiniMatt’s question above will be relevant to you. I just wanted to add that for any of the major DLCs that unlock the ability to play as different type of ruler, those rulers usually have different mechanics to play with – either from different mechanics on who they can easily declare war with, or entirely new factors like the decadence system for Muslim rulers, the election system for Republics, the raiding and religious reform mechanics for Norse/Pagans and the caste/sect systems of Indian rulers. It’s hard to overstate how much difference these can make to your game – playing as each of these rulers to me feels like an entirely new challenge.

      Of course it’s hard to say which of those challenges you’ll particularly enjoy. I’ve found games as Norse and Hindu rulers a lot of fun, but never gotten the hang of the Muslim or Republic rulers (as a Muslim ruler I tend to get invaded quickly, while as Republic I don’t know what to do when I lose the election and all my lands with it). Your Mileage May Vary – I recommend reading up on the ways the different ruler types play and picking one that sounds interesting.

      • TobleroneRoloCombo says:

        Muslim and Republican gameplay both feel somewhat imbalanced, but Pagan gameplay generally still feels more-or-less worthwhite (even if the steppes aren’t in great condition due to the lack of horses.) Indian gameplay is a mixed bag, as it is definitely playable, and has quite a few flavour events and decisions, but still otherwise plays identically to Europe.

  8. Mr Bismarck says:

    For me, CKII is probably second only to DF for story generation.

    I particularly liked the game where my character fathered three children while on his death bed, another two after his wife retired to a monastery, (she needed the rest), and then another two after his wife declared celibacy.

    Or the one where I complained about my Wife not touching me any more. Shortly after she died.

    Or the one where an 89 year old Welsh courtier had the ambition to get married. So I set him up with some lisping, syphilitic, maimed, French imbecile, hunchback and five minutes after the ceremony, he died, leaving me to deal with that mad old hag roaming my hallways and drooling.

    Or the one where I invited a number of debutantes to my court, until I found one who was young, attractive, lusty, virile and smelled of vanilla, so I could entice someone’s spymaster away, so that I could then stab my own sister, son, daughter-in-law, grandson and grandaughter to become the Duke of Kent. For ten minutes.

    Or the one where I had to stab my wife to stop her from her rampage of stabbing all my brothers.

    I could go on.

  9. Carra says:

    I’ve spent hundreds of hours with CK2 and, after that, Victoria 2 and EU4. Great games and been wanting to play some more EU4 lately. Got to try those new achievements…

  10. richlamp says:

    I’ve had EU4 for a while but it’s basically unplayable on my incredibly out of date monitor but I’ve just installed CK2 and it doesn’t seem to suffer from the same problems. Huzzah! Time to buy it I think (and also get round to saving up for a new monitor).

  11. varangian says:

    Well happy birthday and all that, but for the moment CK2 is off my playlist. I don’t know whether it’s the DLC I hoovered up in the Steam Christmas sale or patches to the base game but what was once a stable game now only runs for a game year or so before crashing, leaving my last attempt at empire building stuck in the 1040’s. Although Paradox fixed one cause of crashes (apparently when an AI character tried to build a new holding that would cause a crash) there’s still some work to do. Hopefully the anniversary will spur them onwards as I’d really like to see how things turn out this time around.

  12. soulblur says:

    “Moving to a new engine would be a fine thing, but shortening the timeframe and reducing the number of playable factions would be a step back.”

    Perhaps. But the shift from EU3 to EU4 kept most of the faction (country) and area-specific gameplay. It did shorten the timeframe, I believe, which wasn’t ideal. I think the big issue with CK2 now is that it really struggles to run properly. Ever since the India expansion (and patch), I’ve noticed it’s slower. I believe Paradox has said that it the key issue stopping them from expanding into East Asia (which is a logical next step). If a CK3 came along, and all it did was make everything prettier, run faster and include East Asia, I’d consider that a big win.

    Alternatively, I’ll take a fantasy-CK2-RPG hybrid (like the Guild, but good).

  13. v21v21v21 says:

    My fore-fore-father was the Duke of Achaia in the 1000’s. We became the King of Serbia much later. Every second year some imbecile (figure of speech, in this case) challenged the Byzantine Emperor for the job, years of civil strife to ensue. We got so fed up of it, no way to run an empire, we actually took up the role of peacekeeper to give some stability to the land. Never coveted the throne, just some peace for friggin sake. Under our stewardship Second Rome prospered and swelled, licking the shores of Nile and the arid olive groves of Sicily. Meanwhile the Kingdom of Serbia changed hands once or twice, to some half-brother or other and had to be reclaimed. Our son was being rather naughty and had to be exiled, as years passed we missed him and pleaded for his return. Our grandfather searched the lands for beauty, found her by he Nile. His son approved so much, once his dad passed away he married her too. When he was called upstairs, it was my turn. She bore children to all of us. My family tree is kinda freaky. I had lost everything to a h/bro, back to my little county in Patras. And for some reason nobody really respected us or even liked us. Slowly we rebuilt, eventually warred the prick for some claim or other, became the King of Serbia out of the purple, when his people unbeknownst to us, conspired to offer us the crown, him being an ass an’ everything. My man Kipling would have been proud…

  14. JRHaggs says:

    I learned with the “start small” method, but that was back in vanilla, when Ireland was a slow, simple place to start.

    With all the DLCs and patches, I think starting as a decently powerful vassal in a large realm is a good way to learn (Duke of Toulouse in 769, for example). For one thing, it is instructive to be subject to the actions one might later take as an independent ruler of a large realm. When your liege does stuff, you then know you can do that stuff. Haha. Odd, maybe, but instructive for sure.

    The recommendations for a Norse Germanic pagan start are good too. Two problems to consider though. The first is that elective gavelkind is a really opaque succession system, and you’re pretty much stuck with it in perpetuity (it takes a while to figure out the game to the extent that you can reform Germanic paganism). The second problem is that it is relatively easy to snowball into a pretty big, and wildly unstable realm pretty fast. That can present a frustrating situation for a new player.

    I haven’t personally found a youtuber that I really like. I often find myself annoyed at their oversights and peeved by their foolish priorities (haha). But I guess I’m at the point of “mastery”, if that’s even a thing with CKII.

    Learn by losing, ultimately. Like Dwarf Fortress, it’s too complicated to not present some frustration to a new player. But if you can stick it out, it’s worth it.

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      teije says:

      This is very good advice for starting out – Duke level vassal in large state.

    • brgillespie says:

      It’s always fun to jump into the deep end, but I can foresee intense confusion for a new player starting as a Norse warlord somewhere. The combat mechanics take a while to get used to, let alone raiding.

      And then, of course, there’s gavelkind…

  15. Shar_ds says:

    I’ve just started a new game as the Patrician of Gotland after the Byzantines rather destroyed southern Italy game.

    It’s curiously enjoyable! A very different game to the usual court interplay, but genuinely hilarious with the new Way of Life DLC and the Intrigue focus. I am now “The Spider” after spying on and imprisoning pretty much all of my rival patricians :D

  16. Catchcart says:

    I always feel a little annoyed at the complete lack of honourable mentions for CK1 in these write-ups. It’s like reviewing Thief without mentioning Thief The Dark Project. CK1 had the basic ingredients – strategy meets RPG mets Sims – and in far less measured amounts. Hell, within a year or two the Holy Roman Empire would have crumbled, the King of Denmark would be pope and there would be a Crusade on for the Austrian Alps. Or something. It was crazy and absurd and fun. CK2 is a better game but oh so grown-up and serious compared to it’s younger self.

  17. sinister agent says:

    I wonder if the follow up would be best spent expanding your interactions within your land. Dealing with commoners and other non-noble but still influential parties. Not so much managing, as that’d just turn it into every other empire game, but dealing with the individuals.

  18. P.Funk says:

    After being compelled to read some CK2 AARs in lieu of this story I was suddenly reminded of how obnoxiously strenuously the Paradox forums are moderated.

    I remember once bumping a many years old HOI3 AAR where the pics had disappeared and saying “I don’t suppose anyone saved this one to their hard drive did they?” because it was a samshing good AAR. It was one of those ones where the guy did a spreadsheet thing and explained his min max strategy.

    Oh, well I got a warning post and had my post deleted and the thread was locked because… err I was necroing….

    I fucking hate places like that. Seems a shame given the very emergent nature of the games they make that they’d have a forum that breaths so tightly.

    • TobleroneRoloCombo says:

      I wouldn’t call the Paradox forums are moderated “strenuously,” at least as much as you describe. Generally, support of “removing” unfavourable populations is tolerated (at least in the OT forums,) and certain comments against female posters are actually pretty common.

      That said, any topic on piracy gets immidiately closed-down within the first few posts. Perhaps it’s certain key words that trigger a mod response?

      • TobleroneRoloCombo says:

        I hope I’m not being too ambiguous as to what “certain comments” means, by the way.

  19. Neodymium says:

    With two days of free play left the price on Steam seems to have returned to $40AU, which sucks because I was planning on buying it at $10.