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Throne Together: A Crusader Kings II Preview

You’re old. Your wife’s plotting your downfall. Your son’s a dribbling imbecile. Your father-in-law hates your guts. And I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking “Yes, that is certainly my life. Why would I want to play a game like Crusader Kings 2, which models all of this in a medieval environment?” Well, I’ll tell you why. It’s because you can cheat on your wife, kill your idiot son, raise a bastard child as your heir and send your father-in-law to rot in prison for the rest of his days.

The first Crusader Kings came to my attention when I found an impressively colourful after-action report on the Something Awful forums. The game was another of Paradox’s characteristically in-depth historical strategy games, with the twist that it focused on the human elements of being a medieval regent. It was your job to steer not a country, but a dynasty though the ages, from the bad times, where your immediate family might resemble a wonky trolley of squabbling inbreds, and the good times, where a timely marraige to a gifted foreign Queen ushers in a new golden age of peace, prosperity and- most importantly- good genes.

As usual, some of the game was spent raising armies and going to war with your neighbours, but far more of your time was spent fretting over marriages, courtiers, children and potential betrayals, making the game more akin to a strategic soap opera than anything else. That was what made the AAR I was reading so fascinating. As the game progressed real characters took shape, characters who would be cheated on, killed, betrayed or would rot in prison for the rest of their days. In the years that followed, Crusader Kings quickly developed one of the biggest followings in Paradox’s stable.

This was back in 2004. Early next year, this game is finally getting the sequel fans have been clamouring for. What’s new? What can we look forward to? Well!

For one thing, the nobility of your country will now be modelled all the way down to individual barons, allowing for such gradual transformations as the real life case of the Swiss counts of Aargau, who over several centuries expertly weaseled their way from ruling a slice of Switzerland in 1066 to being the first formally elected Holy Roman Emperors in 1438. Not only will these low-level landovers feature prominently in your game, ready and waiting to be elevated or manipulated, you’ll actually be able to play as a count yourself, giving players new to Crusader Kings an easy way in. Ruling Norfolk is a lot simpler than ruling England, after all.

You’ll also have some extra options with regards to the children. “The kids are alright!” you might say. Well, fine, but when they’re not alright you’ll be able to send them away to be fostered by a noble of your choice until they come of age. What they’ll learn, how they’ll feel about being packed away and how the noble will feel about this dubious honour all depends on the personalities of those involved. Hand your firstborn over to a philandering, elderly drunk and you probably shouldn’t expect a young Richard the Lionheart to come home fifteen years later.

Adding further intrigue is the replacement of Crusader King’s child emperors with regents, men and women who aren't necessarily waiting in line for the throne but might end up getting a little too comfortable while they're up there.

Crusader Kings 2 will also see the addition of buildings to the series, which I suspect might send a ripple of doubt through the CK faithful, but even these are imbued with a human element. You’ll be able to build forts, cities and bishoprics, each adding to a region’s fortification and income, but each requires a leader, whether that’s a baron, mayor or bishop. Bishops sound interesting- bishoprics provide by far the best return for your initial investment, but a bishop has a possibility of being loyal to the Pope rather than you, meaning all that money you were planning on receiving gets sent overseas, though heretics will be less likely to spawn in the region and pious nobles will be happier.

That said, even building forts isn’t a safe bet. The lowliest of barons might end up having some obscure claim to your throne, which is where the new opinions and plots mechanics come in. In addition to traits, every character now has political and personal opinions, which will colour how he acts and who he supports. Ultimately, these might also lead to the cobbling together of a plot.

This part sounds awesome. Depending on his competence and the plot’s advancement, at some point your spymaster is going to tell you that people are plotting against you. Over time, this information will become more detailed, and with any luck you’ll eventually start getting the names of any conspirators. At which point you’ve got a very tricky decision ahead of you. You can strip the offender of land, put him in prison, execute him, or you could give him land, a title, a barony, a city to rule, or a position at your court. An order to execute a man of the people might not work, you see. It could cripple your own power base, spark a civil war or create a terrible enemy of his brother, who’s less of a firebrand but even more powerful.

Of course, trying to charm the hundreds of hungry hungry heritors that make up both your neighbours and your own kingdom is only going to work for so long. Sooner or later you’ll come to blows with some of them, and even the new combat system is trying to add a bit of personality to what was previously a matter of simply dragging armies onto one another.

In CK2, battles will be fought with three commanding nobles on each side, with each taking responsibility for either the left or right flank or the middle of the battlefield. As three phases of the battle (skirmishing, melee and pursuit) play out, you can expect the various traits of each general to mix things up a bit. A coward might scupper the whole battle by holding his forces back, a bloodthirsty man may chase down enemy troops before turning to support the general next to him, and so on. Traits will also affect which of the new combat events pop up, with these both demanding that players make a difficult decision, and adding even more colour to the proceedings.

Anything else? Well, there's a shiny new engine that these screenshots to a totally inadequate job of showing off, plus lots of interface tweaks.

So there you have it. Well, Crusader Kings fans? Was that everything you were hoping for? Or do you presently squat in that lukewarm paddling pool we call disappointment? Share with us!

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