Although we won’t be able to play Crusader Kings 3 until next year, last weekend I got to try the next best thing - a massive game of Crusader Kings 2 without a single PC involved. As part of the celebrations at PDXcon, Paradox turned the interior of the Nalepastrasse radio station (formerly the broadcast hub for communist East Germany) into a vast map of Europe, and gave 250 or so players the chance to swindle, excommunicate, marry and assassinate their way to the top of the feudal world.
I was curious to see what on earth would happen if you replaced CK2’s vast array of simulated bastards with real people, and how the sheer, breathtaking amorality of medieval power-grabbing would play out when you had to look people in the eye while doing it. As such, I enlisted the help of freelancer Rosh Kelly, and entered the melee for five hours of profound chaos. Here’s how it went down.
Nate: This place is like the physical distillation of a headache. A cavernous space under stark concrete vaults, it’s often used as a nightclub, and I can see why. Purple lights are glowing in the remnants of what is either dust or dry ice, and the air is throbbing with excitable chatter. As we herd towards registration to be given our character cards, I have the chilly realisation that most of the other players have read the entirety of the seven page manual, and know what they’re doing. They have Strategies. Luckily, however, I’ve got something better: a white sheet and a centurion helmet. It’s time to tag in the master of strategy himself: Ghoastus.
Ghoastus: Ave, citizens!
Rosh: This is like a model UN run by the devil. After finding the right table (there are six, each with a region printed on it), I squeeze through the mob of counts, dukes and kings surrounding it, and clap eyes on the beautiful county of Paderborn in Saxony. I am Cobbo, the count of Paderborn, and I have one ambition: rebellion. I didn’t care who I rebel against - ideally someone in power - but I’m dead set on shooting a proton torpedo right through the exhaust port of the medieval hierarchy. Far over the distant Alps is Ghoastus, my only friend in this purgatory, and the only being I can trust. I’ll need to find a way to tie down that alliance in case this whole rebellion thing explodes in my face.
Ghoastus: Ah, they have given me the province of Padua, in my beloved Italy! If my Duke is perturbed by the fact that one of his vassals is a ghost, he doesn’t show it - he huddles us all in, and begins to assign us roles in the duchy. Our churchmen will go to Rome to try and influence the vatican, our generals will prepare for an early grab on the riches of Venice, and our spymaster shall do… other things. Alas, my stats are appalling, although my stewardship is decent enough, and I am appointed master of coin, charged with collecting the Duke’s taxes in winter and making infrastructure investments.
Immediately, I begin embezzling, guzzling up everyone’s money as winter comes, and giving them a comical fraction back. While the churchmen are in Rome, I absolutely rinse them for ducats, pocketing the golden counters in the folds of my spectral mantle. The Duke is constantly away in council with the king, and I offer both generals tax relief in exchange for covering for me - when the Duke comes over for his due, we just insist it has been spent on “infrastructure”. Much like in real history, it’s possible to get away with anything, so long as your feudal betters don’t notice, or are paid not to.
As summer arrives, so does dear Duke Cobbo, coming over the mountains from the German lands with a proposal of marriage! I accept, of course, as it may come to aid me later.
Rosh: Married life is not what I had expected. When I return to Saxony with the jubilant news of my wedding to a Roman ghost, my peers immediately and enthusiastically try to convince me to have Ghoastus (my Ghoastus!) assassinated, “in case it gets us land”. No one bought anything on my registry list either. Thankfully, I convince them not to butcher my new spouse, and instead turned their attention to the King. Ever the master of subtlety, I manipulate their ambitions to serve my own rebellious ends: “Kings a bit shit, isn’t he?”
Ghoastus: I’m getting richer by the year, and my racket is safe: I’ve gained the generals’ trust by funding minor landgrabs against local unclaimed provinces, and am owed a few favours. But I need more land of my own, and Italy is getting crowded. Across the river Po to the south, the province of Ferrara swelters in riches. It’s under control of a rival duchy which we’re at peace with, so I’ll need a Cassus Belli. My intrigue stat is, for lack of a better word, dogshit, but one of my pet generals is a right schemer, so I send him to fabricate a claim on my behalf.
Rosh: As I sow my treacherous seeds, Bavaria to the south declares itself a republic. Excellent! Surely, now, it stands to reason that Saxony should do the same? One clandestine meeting later, I have secured the support of Bavaria’s new leaders for the Free Saxony project. During the chat, they casually mention an invasion of Italy, so I send a subtle warning to Ghoastus.
Ghoastus: Filus canis! The bloody Duke has started a ruinous war with Venice, and it’s costing us more than we could ever gain from winning. I’m nearly at the point of having to dip into my personal funds to cover it, and yet he keeps battering away at it like a hooligan trying to kick in a postbox. But it gets worse: my husband tells me the Bavarians are coming, and I can’t afford to lose the cash cow of the northern provinces. With a ghostly sigh of resignation, I empty out my ill-gotten gains to build a row of castles on the border. I hope Cobbo’s doing better.
Rosh: I convinced my allies that I have little coin to spark the rebellion (it’s a lie: I’m rich). So when they march off to war against the king, using their own coin to further my plan, my hands are almost completely clean - there’s no paper trail. Alas, it is not enough. The rebellion is a catastrophic failure, and word spreads that all the nobles of Saxony are to be put on trial for treason, even those who didn’t participate. Gulp.
Ghoastus: My sudden poverty is a bit of an issue, as I now have a CB for the invasion of Ferrara, but no cash to raise troops. Of course, the war is against my Duke’s interests entirely, as it will plunge our whole duchy into a war with its neighbour while two other wars are in progress - but I can worry about that later. I need money, so I ask the King himself to lend me a vast sum “for infrastructure”... and he just does it. Works every time. Now, I just need allies. One of the generals, a shrewd woman who has been helping me so far, is keen. But the rules say we can’t go to war together unless one of us is a vassal of the other - or we get married. Unfortunately, I’m already married. But as an outbreak of roaring and cursing draws my eye to the main stage, I see that may be about to change...
Rosh: The King ascends to the stage, announcing Saxony’s treachery to the world. A moment later the rebel Duke and his counts, me included, are marched on stage in shame. The King doesn’t seem to appreciate my heckling, which in hindsight probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do. Luckily, he doesn’t know I was the ringleader. Unluckily, I don’t think he cares. Lady Death (the game master in charge of mortal affairs) approaches the stage with scythe in hand, anticipating a bountiful harvest.
Ghoastus: Excellent! With that poor fool out of the way, I’ll be free to marry my new War Bride, and I might inherit all of his money to boot. It’s all coming up Ghoastus.
Rosh: My eyes lock with Ghoastus’ hollow stare, in what I think is a tender final moment. Our fates are sealed. But then, who but the Pope should appear on stage! He decrees with frothing zeal that we should not be punished for following the orders of our Duke, and while our liege is executed, we are all spared. You don’t get this kind of drama on PC, not to mention such badly written speeches.
Ghoastus: Urinae. Cobbo has been spared. No matter: I ask the Pope (a Pope? I think there are two now) for a quickie divorce, and have him conduct a shotgun wedding with the general, at the table where wars are calculated. Our armies are in place, and the Duke is way too busy with his Venetian nightmare to realise what we’re doing. Spring comes, and the troops march across the Po - Alea Iacta Est!
Rosh: Saxony is decimated. The land is split, and a loyalist has replaced the beheaded Duke. The Free Saxony project limps on, but we have to be more discreet now. While we plot the removal of the new lord, Ghoastus floats over to dump me. This hurts more than it ever did in the game.
Ghoastus: The invasion is a hideous disaster. I’m bankrupted, and am swiftly collared to attend a very tense summit between my Duke and the neighbour I’ve invaded on his behalf. My power grab costs our duchy a fortune in reparations, and my liege has to enter an unhappy marriage to patch things up. He suggests I probably shouldn’t be Master of Coin any more, which is fair.
Rosh: The loyalist Duke meets an unfortunate end. His allies suspect the King, while the rebellion celebrates a perfectly executed… execution. The region is still divided, but the King is distracted, and I use the chaos of the Duke’s death to consolidate power among my friends.
Ghoastus: Disgraced and penniless, I decide it is time for my spirit to fade from Europe. I go to negotiate with Death, and get into a spirited discussion of whether a ghost can die. Eventually, she grants my wish, and I disapparate in shame, leaving Padua and my remaining fortune of one (1) to my wife. Apparently, however, I have a bastard son, who is part ghost, who will now be played by Nate.
Rosh: It turns out the Duke I had assassinated was basically keeping the kingdom together. In his absence our neighbours invade, a plague spreads and the peasants revolt in the south. Just like in Tory Britain, however, absolutely no one is paying attention to the north. Our little coalition is no stronger than last time, but the madness overtaking Germany favours us - it’s time to make another go of the rebellion.
Nate: The character Death has given me is a powerhouse. Called Bill the Wild, he has no land, no money, and a whopping military strength of ten. I imagine him as a wall-faced brute who sleeps in roadside haystacks, and wakes each day with an echoing roar of dismay. Newly empowered, I return to Italy, where I serve Ghoastus’ wife as a mercenary. It’s grim going - as Bavaria mounts a second invasion, Bill is sent to guard a mountain pass virtually solo. Although he’s a proper beast, the invasion is gargantuan, and Northern Italy is overrun. This new life is off to a bad start, and with the end of the game in sight, it looks like I’m going to end in a worse position than I started in.
Rosh: The entire world is going to hell. The end is approaching. There are popes everywhere, and I’ve no idea if any of them are even legitimate. Kings are being slaughtered, crusades are being launched, and everyone is making their final grabs for power. Now is the time for Free Saxony. But even with a surprise attack against an increasingly overwhelmed King, we’ll need a military powerhouse to lead the charge. Luckily I’ve heard of a glum italian brute who might be available.
Nate: Bill is bought by the Saxon rebels as a mercenary, and promised lands of his own in the north. He finds himself at the head of a colossal army, funded by immense riches, and steaming directly towards the King. Is this how it feels to be in a Joe Abercrombie book?
Rosh: Shit! The Duke who was holding the war chest for the rebellion gets assassinated, and Death has pinched all the funds. Shit, shit, shit. The King knows about our plot, and has the finances to marshall soldiers and assassins. We’re committed now though, and Cobbo knows he won’t get spared a second time - so I go begging to Bavaria for cash to keep the armies together.
Nate: Cobbo is panicking - the army will fall apart if we can’t raise more funds. I rattle the tin at Ghoastus’ old Duke on the off chance (he’s a King now), but he just laughs in my face. Oh well. I flagrantly steal a huge pile of money from some French Dukes while they argue about protestantism or something, and hand it over to Cobbo.
Rosh: It’s the end of the game, and it’s all come down to this. We’re exhausted - unlike playing CK2 on a PC, five hours of acting it out in real life leaves you with battered feet and vocal chords like ripped carrier bags. But we’ve got the troops to the field, and we’re throwing everything we’ve got against the might of the King. The left flank holds, but a terrible roll of the dice sees the right flank routed, collapsing before the loyalists. As half of Germany watches on, bellowing support and condemnation, it all comes down to Bill the Wild, at the head of the central column.
Nate: I roll a four.
Rosh: It’s enough. Just. There’s a moment of silence as the game masters try to work out what has happened, and then a cheer rings out across all of Saxony, now free of its perfectly reasonable king. My dreams of glorious revolution are fulfilled, and Cobbo celebrates by dividing the leftover rebellion money with Bill, who is granted a duchy for his efforts. But one rebel is missing from the celebration. It turns out he had been laying siege to the Vatican during the madness, and has somehow become yet another pope. In the final act of the game, he recognises the Holy Free State of Saxony. We are golden gods.
Nate: If we have learned anything, it’s that you can’t have too many popes, that more strategy games should have flagrant embezzlement mechanics, and that Crusader Kings 2 plays out like an absolute fever dream if you let it escape a computer.