On its fifth anniversary, a toast to the humour and humanity of Crusader Kings 2

Today, on the Big Love Day of Victor Von Valentine, Crusader Kings 2 [official site] celebrates its fifth anniversary. I’m celebrating too because though I love many games, this one has a special place in my heart. I’ve written about its brilliance before but today I wanted to focus on an aspect that deserves more attention, and that’s the way that the game functions as a period piece. With Chaucer and Monty Python as company, I’ve been thinking about the filth, humour and humanity of this grandest of grand strategy games. And the importance of farts.

The year of Saint Valentine’s martyrdom is disputed, but even the latest estimates place it outside the timespan of Crusader Kings II. His beginnings as a hawker of chocolates, flowers and cards are firmly within the game’s time period though; one of the earliest surviving references to St Valentine’s Day as a time for lovers is in Geoffrey Chaucer’s Parlment of Foules, a poetic dream vision about a bunch of birds trying to get laid. Instead of swiping left or right, or trying some speed dating, they perform courtship in the form of a parliamentary debate, which is just about the least sexy thing imaginable.

Nobody leaves satisfied, as far as I can remember, the whole thing being a performance intended to demonstrate various approaches to debate and argument rather than a medieval take on Hatoful Boyfriend. I don’t even think there are any fart jokes, which puts it pretty low on the Chaucerian rankings. Who wants to listen to a bunch of bickering birds when you can have this kind of action instead:

“This Nicholas anon leet fle a fart
As greet as it had been a thonder-dent,
That with the strook he was almoost yblent;
And he was redy with his iren hoot,
And Nicholas amydde the ers he smoot.”

If you’re struggling with that, here’s a translation (search for line 3806), but as long as you understand “fart” and “ers”, you’ll get the gist. A man farts so powerfully that he almost blinds another man, who then strikes him on the arse with a hot iron. It gets a bit gruesome then, with sizzling cheeks and broken bones, but all’s well that ends well, and everyone’s arse is more or less intact by the end.

The farting, which follows on from a literal arse-kissing, is part of The Miller’s Tale, a bawdy and farcical story of adultery and violence. It’s all a bit Carry On but it serves a purpose: the Miller is telling a tale of dignity undone, of the snooty and mighty brought low, and he’s doing so in response to the Knight, whose tale of chivalry and courtly love immediately precedes all of this crude flatulence.

In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer often lays out an ideal or a stereotype and uses the next tale to undermine it, or question it. That makes him a great commentator on his own time. With no shortage of hot air, he plumps up the fashions and fancies of the day, and then sticks a pin in them. His writing reminds us that so much that we imagine of medieval Europe is drawn from the imaginations of medieval Europeans – in the pageantry and the nobility and the chivalry and the courtly love, we’re seeing the aspirational fiction of the day, the glossy magazine advertisements, and the Tatler Magazine spreads, not the reality.

The reality is drinking and eating and working and laughing and lying and cheating and mocking and killing and farting and fucking.

Crusader Kings 2 understands all of that. The five years since release have brought all manner of praise for the emergent storytelling, the scale of its grand strategies and the sheer number of possible scenarios that can be found in its infinitely replayable historical sandbox. It is, to my mind, one of the cleverest combinations of dynamic character-based narratives and actual strategic systems ever committed to code, but on this anniversary I wanted to focus on its excellence as a period piece.

Like Chaucer and Monty Python, Crusader Kings knows that people are people, whenever and wherever they are, and it knows that at this particular point in time those people were filthy. In every sense. Filthy minds, filthy military camps, filthy heresies, filthy homes. Terry Gilliam explained how the realism of the Python’s Holy Grail film was an essential part of its humour, as well as an expression of Terry Jones’ interest in the actual historical era (which largely came through his reading of Chaucer).

Speaking of the “Bring out your dead” sequence, in which plague victims are gathered on carts, Gilliam says:

“[it’s] gorgeous. Shit has never looked so beautiful! And because of that, it’s funnier, because it feels so much of a serious movie, a real movie, with real people groveling in the mud, and then ‘I’m not quite dead! I’m feeling much better!’ It’s funnier that way.”

Crusader Kings II is working with similar material. You don’t see the dirt, shit and disease, but they’re invoked through the text, and, in the case of the sickness, through mechanics. People die horribly and while I’ve felt anguish when a beloved character suffers and shuffles off this mortal coil, I’ve laughed far more often than I’ve grimaced. Like the Pythons, and like Chaucer, Paradox are always prepared to send up their setting and characters with barbed humour or disarming riposte, but that doesn’t mean they don’t care about the craft that goes into recreating a period or place. In Chaucerian terms, those ripostes are “quites” (from “requite”), responses to previous tales or events that often pack a punch. Or indeed a punchline.

That Crusader Kings creates a sandbox of historical humour and experimentation while dealing with torture, imprisonment, incest, infanticide, religious warfare, discrimination, plague, assassination, betrayal and persecution is remarkable. It does so by taking its setting seriously, both in a scholarly sense and , more importantly, in its treatment of the players in its plots.

In my review, five years ago, I said that Crusader Kings 2 was “the most human strategy game” I’d ever played. It still is, and more so now that its pool of humanity has grown with the addition of new faiths, cultures and people through expansions. As the famous quotation goes: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” Paradox, on the bizarre and brilliant canvas of the medieval mind, remind us that we can find common humanity among the inhabitants of any foreign country, even one a thousand miles away and a thousand years ago.

They do that not by throwing facts and figures on the screen, but by taking preconceptions of the period, placing them on the stage and then deconstructing them, with laughter and catastrophe. There’s nothing more Chaucerian than that.

Paradox are celebrating Valentine’s Day with a free South Indian Portrait Pack and big reductions on several of their games, including Crusader Kings II, Europa Universalis IV, Cities: Skylines and Stellaris.

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32 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Drib says:

    I have tried and tried to get into this game.

    It seems to generate such stories, and I love that kind of thing in say, Dwarf Fortress, or Stellaris.

    But CK2 is so absurdly dense and overcomplex and nothing ever happens and the tutorials are straight garbage.

    I just have no idea how not to bounce right off.

    • MrMetlHed says:

      I would pay for an expansion that updates the graphics, UI, and brings in some better tutorials. I’d much rather they do that than a CK3.

      • brucethemoose says:

        The Clausewitz engine just needs an upgrade, IMHO. Which unfortunately means a CK III and a Stellaris II instead of DLC upgrades.

        • Logeres says:

          That’s not true. The developers have said several times on Reddit that Clausewitz is a very minimalistic engine, with almost everything happening within the game code.

          As a matter of fact, they’ve been slowly hacking away at the CK2 UI for several patch releases now. It used to be even worse. I guess a larger overhaul just isn’t worth it at this point.

      • ButteringSundays says:

        Really? I mean it’s not snazzy, but it’s by no means unattractive. I think the map looks nice, and the only complaint I have about the UI is the scaling. I personally think that would be a terrible waste of resources.

        • Person of Interest says:

          The bad UI scaling and terrible text rendering are all that that keep me from diving headlong into this game. I’ve tried the font replacement mods, but they’re still limited to fuzzy bitmap fonts.

          Updated, functional in-game tutorials would help a lot too.

          (I have the same complaints about Kerbal Space Program.)

    • brucethemoose says:

      You aren’t alone.

      I have… oh dear… erm, way too many hours in Stellaris. And I bounced right off CK2, despite being the more “mature” Paradox title.

      Part of it is exactly what you said. Though Stellaris’s scifi world is more appealing than CKII’s Middle Age one to me (which is why HOI is somewhere on my todo list).

      • UKPartisan says:

        I have tried and persevered with Stellaris, but honestly I find it dull as dishwater and I love Sci-Fi games especially of the 4X variety. Hopefully it’ll get as good as CK2 with further expansions, but as it stands I find it somewhat of a half-baked crawl of not much going on. I’m sure though, I’ll be eating my words after a few more updates.

        • brucethemoose says:

          Try setting it to a harder difficulty. The pain of losing is part of the fun.

          Mods help too.

          However, if you don’t like the core combat/building mechanics now, that isn’t going to change much :(

    • syndrome says:

      As much as I love the concept, and I played CK2 in order to understand it better, it baffles me how it gets this absurd popularity, like it’s actually playable. For me the whole game was just a gimmick in an open historical sandbox environment, that sweeps back and fro over my intentions like a tide would on a moon of Jupiter.

      I adore the concept, and I loved to see what will happen next with my character, but I still don’t get what’s the big fuss about. It’s not even a game (it’s more a hardcore schoolbook with too much information in the sidebars), and I cannot fathom how can anyone find it perpetually enjoyable as it doesn’t have any challenge worth of retrying.

      And I am not usually that dense or achievement-oriented when it comes to open-ended games, mind you.

      • Gothnak says:

        My favourite game was playing as Scotland, the initial plan was just to survive the rest of the family trying to overthrow me. I then took a region in Ireland and though, ok, i’ll do that, took the whole of Ireland and then married someone with a claim on parts of Portugal. Then took half of Portugal and then decided ok, i’ll take on England. That was a complete fail, so backed out and ended up marrying into parts of Brittany.

        That story is fascinating, all the twisting of politics to try and take a region here or there, but the core gameplay is so obtuse it makes it a bloody hard slog at times.

        • Superpat says:

          I have loads of fun marrying my lesser family members into far away counties and baronnies owned by single women, sometimes they can end up in places you never think of

      • Imperialist says:

        Except it is a game. Sure on the outside, or to a novice it is a whole lot of “waiting for something to happen, possibly in your favor”, but to someone who grasps the intricacies of the system…its a huge sandbox of infinite replayability. The most general playstyle that people seem to enjoy the most, is to start out as a count, and scheme, bribe, and force your way into a position of power. Start out as a mere vassal, claw your way into the throne…or found your own nation through coordinated rebellion. Then, to history buffs, theres all the what-ifs you can imagine. Plus the billion combinations of character, culture, religion, etc…you can really create your own identity…and sometimes its absolutely enjoyable watching your dynasty snowball into great successes…or failures.

      • carewolf says:

        It is not that dense. Though it was probably easier when I started with the base game and only had new rules added once a year with a major expansion. Too bad the base game is hardly playable anymore as many of the DLCs are increasingly mandatory.

        • GrittyGaming says:

          Actually, it is that dense becasue of the size and ever increasing pool that is CK2’s character pool. The most daring players even start the game as just a courtier with no titles at all and allow themselves to be sweft away in medieval politics until the right moment presents its self and they take the throne of some feudal count or king with ease. However, I will agree with you on the pricing and audacity of some of the dlc packages that are basically mandatory to have a full experience but for someone woh is into CK2 as much as I am, they are actually a good thing. Meaning the devs still and as far as we know in the near future are committed to preserving and making the game better over time. Which is definitely something that is getting rarer these days. Lastly, if my comment wasn’t long enough, at least for newcomers now, the game is only 40 bucks and if they wait until a sale they can get CK2 and all of its dlc for that same low price. If you made it this far, thank you for reading my comment and I hope I added soemthing to the conversation. :)

          • Blackfish says:

            I don’t think you can actually play as an unlanded courtier in CK2. :P

    • CartonofMilk says:

      I bounced right off Stellaris after maybe ten hours because it wasn’t CK II in space (not that anyone said it was gonna be). I think CK II ruined every other strategy game ever for me. That is unless there’s more built on its frame in the future.

      I have nerded out SO much on CKII i wrote my own wikipedia entries for my first game’s characters in a text file somewhere. I’m not sure why. Because i’m a nerd clearly.

      And you know i wanna say…. the last strategy game id played before CKII was medieval II Total War. And i had never played any real grand strategy game. Total War was the extent of “complexity” i’d experienced in a strategy game. And yet i adapted to CK II fairly easy. In fact after my first week my main thought was “this game was presented to be a lot more daunting than it actually is”. I don’t know… i think it’s nowhere near as impenetrable as it’s been presented to be? In fact, i found it rather easy to get into. At the very least after the first 5 or 6 hours. Then there were all the subtleties yet to understand but…i dunno… i don’t find it hard to grasp. Midn you it COULD be because i started as an independent count. I REALLY do not reccommend anyone starts their first game with a kingdom or nevermind empire. I mean yeah esentially for the first 50 years i had barely nothing to do, but i got to learn how the game works incrementally.

      • GrittyGaming says:

        Love your enthusiasm and if you have time, I am trying to create a channel on Youtube for this exclusive topic where I will attempt to play enough playthroughs to the point that I have experienced every possible facet that CK2 has to offer for me and my viewers (GrittyGaming=Youtube Channel). And I would love to have a co-op lets play of CK2 if your interested.

    • ButteringSundays says:

      Interesting. The tutorial is indeed broken, but I didn’t find it dense or complicated. At least not in a prohibitive sense.

    • ooshp says:

      Tutorials? The interwebbings has been far superior to tutorials for any vaguely complex game since… I can’t think of a date, but let’s go with 640×480 being a standard.

      No wonder you couldn’t work out how to make it go, tutorials for complex games are universally terrible.

  2. Gothnak says:

    I wish it had a better upgrade tree for units and regions and more understandable combat.

    At its core, it’s brilliant, but there are so many elements of the game that are just done way better elsewhere. Often i’m sitting there going… I guess i’ll upgrade this building… I guess i’ll send my priest here… I guess I’ll build this unit.

    e.g. Gimme Total War but with the diplomacy and backstabbing and family politics of Crusader Kings 2.

    • EvilMonkeyPL says:

      Combat, for the most part, is really rather simple.
      It boils down to ‘just have more men’. And don’t pick a fight across a river into the mountains. Recruit your cultural retinues.
      THAT’S IT.
      You should instead focus on educating your ruler, breeding your dynasty, marrying your children to get claims.
      Technological progess was very slow in that era so the fact that pdx decided to do away with unit upgrade trees is I think liberating, allowing you to give almost all your attention to politicking.
      And one simple thing – set yourself a goal for the campaign, something big, like getting your dynasty on every throne in Europe. Reforming a faith. Growing a specific empire to its historical borders. Maybe even start a eugenics program to see if you can, over the span of 700 years create a perfect ruler.
      I love this game so much I can talk about it for hours, so I’ll stop this aimless comment right here. Cheers.

      • Gothnak says:

        I thought it was just numbers, and then i’d lose.. :p…

        Commanders, tactics, unit attack/defence, morale etc.. It must all do something, and i have no idea what.

        Change the combat to something nice and turn based with stats and commands, that’d be me set for life.

        • EvilMonkeyPL says:

          Welp, if it’s not for you it’s not for you.
          I think I will celebrate CKII 5th anniversary by picking up my Scandinavia game where the plague ravaging my homeland has pruned my dynasty to it last (gay) male (and with succession laws not allowing females to inherit), I have a MASSIVE rebellion with four out of five vassal kings wanting idependence, and my forces barely handling a crusade to conquer the iberian peninsula on their own.
          But at leas I have got a cat.

        • carewolf says:

          They all do something, but it is mostly irrelevant. Just bring more men. The details only become important when you are fighting other cultures with different units than you, and you should be far enough ahead at that point to just stop them with more men.

      • Landiss says:

        The problem with CK2 combat, the last time I played, was the absurd combat tactics, practically outside of player’s hands, that could dramatically affect battle outcome and I don’t think you can learn about them in game except during battle. I’ve quickly checked the wiki and yep, seems to be still there:

        link to ckiiwiki.com

        Basically, during combat leaders choose a tactic from a limited range available to them. What specific tactics are available and what’s the probability of using them depends on army composition and your commander. The effects are so huge that it can very often be decisive and the way player can interact with it is very limited. This makes the battle result more difficult to predict (at least for non-experts) while not really adding much depth.

        To be honest, I am yet to play Paradox game with satisfying combat that makes sense. I haven’t played any game from the Hearts of Iron series yet, I suspect this aspect is the most polished there.

      • Blackfish says:

        I actually think CK2 has one of the better tech systems among Paradox games. Technology is calculated on a per-province basis, and more advanced tech gradually percolates through the realm based on various factors.

        This strikes me as a more realistic depiction of technological advancement, and the fact that EU4 adopted a similar model with institutions makes me hopeful that EU5 (whenever that comes) will ditch the current tech system in favor of this.

  3. Lacessit says:

    I became the first ruler of the Polish Merchant Republic in 1157 (last week) I am an Italian. The Byzantine empire (or ‘the in-laws’ as I call them) might have helped a tad.

    Any game that makes stuff like that possible is sheer genius in my book.

  4. deiseach says:

    “they perform courtship in the form of a parliamentary debate, which is just about the least sexy thing imaginable.”

    That’s what Diane Abbott said.

    I’ll get my coat…but before I do, let me say that I played CK2 a lot a few years back. I’m interested in the history of early medieval Ireland so this was grist to my mill. But then I rose from being the ‘king’ of Mumha all the way to being Emperor of all these islands which I renamed, in a nod to the imperial purple, to Hibernia. All this was at Ironman level and included a battle with the Holy Roman Emperor where armies in the region of 80,000 engaged in an epic struggle for supremacy. After that, trying to do something similar in Iberia (or wherever) didn’t have much appeal. Still, a top gaming memory.

  5. Premium User Badge

    Captain Narol says:

    CKII is my favorite game ever and I never stopped to play it, starting a new game in a different location makes things totally different and opens new challenges, while the new stuff in every DLC also contribute a lot to make things interesting still.

    Now I really wish they do a mix of CKII and EU Rome next, as antiquity is my favorite historical period and most mecanisms could adapt well. Some mods seems to try that but none seems really finished yet.

  6. UKPartisan says:

    One of my favourite events that happened in CK2 was early in a new game, I somehow brought in an Ethiopian eunuch to court who by 772 had ascended to the title of Chancellor Semere the Eunuch of Alanland a little corner of Ireland I named after myself. The first ever Irish-African politician…Brilliant :D

    link to images.akamai.steamusercontent.com