I’ve counted my plots before they hatched, I’ve duked it out with my brothers and sons, and I’ve lorded over an entire continent. Now, having lost more than I’ve gained and suffered more than I’ve succeeded, I’m finally ready to share Wot I Think about the majestic Crusader Kings II.
Did the word majestic give it away, or did my previous bursts of excitement already give you an inkling of how I feel about the strategic role-playing grandeur of Paradox’ latest?
It’s more than a bit good at what it does so rather than immediately talking about how much I’ve fallen for its brutish charms, I’m going to try and summarise exactly what that is first. What does Crusader Kings II set out to do?
The most important difference between this game and the vast majority of grand strategy titles is that it’s all about characters. There are thousands of the blighters populating the world at any one time, with skills, traits, personalities, jobs and relationships. You are one of them. You’re not a country or a culture, you’re a bloke, or less frequently a blokess, with a family, some friends and a huge gallery of foes. When you die, you’ll take control of your heir following the lines of succession in your locality.
There are big players, like kings, the Pope and his antis, and the occasional emperor, but mostly there are courtiers, waiting to be plucked from relative obscurity, landed with position and maybe even some land, and then cut back down to size when they start bulging out of their boots. There are children to marry off for political gain and there are children to quietly dispense with because do you really want your entire dynasty to be in the hands of Reginald whose jousting ineptitude has left him with a few splinters of lance in the amygdala and a severe case of being an absolute moron?
No you don’t because he’d need someone else to do the job of running your disintegrating duchy for him and the brains behind his brains are likely to be your spymaster, who has been a little too chummy with that cousin you never liked who has a claim on your most fertile parts, all based on an ill-advised, lust-fuelled marriage that your grandfather made forty years ago. Best, then, to make sure Reginald dies before you do or you’ll have to change the laws of succession and that’s going to piss off a whole other group of people, weaken your stability and bring the walls crashing down around your ears.
Does it sound like a soap opera? A particularly violent soap opera, laced with infanticide, religious warfare and sexually transmitted unpleasantries? Maybe the religious warfare and disease weren’t clear in the above example but believe me, somebody in the story has almost definitely contracted a case of genitirritation and most of them have definitely killed people for not reading the same books as them.
It sounds like a soap opera because it’s a bit like one. It’s also a historical epic, a bloody tale of intrigue and even a sort of sit-com. In fact, when you find yourself playing a four year old count caught up in the collapse of the Kingdom of Wales, ordered to defend your lands against the suddenly and, to your childish understanding, inexplicably pissed off Bishop of Rome, it’s hard not to laugh. If you’d been an adult and a master theologian you’d understand that your king had decided to believe that the three in one is actually the one made three and therefore everybody had to kill everybody else and mutilate their corpses so badly that they wouldn’t be allowed into Heaven, which runs a no trainers, all innards policy.
One of the reasons that Crusader Kings II is brilliant is because it understands that losing is fun. In fact, I don’t think winning is as much fun. Better the slow and noble decline than the bloat of victory and expansion. I’m sure it’s possible to learn exactly how the game works and be better than it but there’s so much happening with every minute that passes (the game is real time but can be paused) that I can’t be bothered to understand half of it and I certainly don’t want to decipher it because I’m not viewing the world as a machine but as a collection of minds.
When gluttonous, heavingly overweight Count Peter, well into his sixties, was given the choice of turning his mind to God in his dotage, he said “sod that and pass the boar’s cheeks”. A bit of piety might have been good for him and the prestige would certainly have cheered up his soon-to-inherit son, but you should have seen the size of the man. He was gargantuan, like a medieval Jabba with sixteen bastard children off fighting the battles he was too corpulent to partake in. I could have snaffled up the good stats but I’d never have forgiven myself; Peter was snaffling nothing but a county’s worth of wild animals with a side of eggs.
There are times when I’ve been a man of influence, particularly when starting on these British isles, where I always find myself more in control. It’s not because I know the lay of the land or believe that roleplaying an Englishman requires a striving for excellence, it’s because it’s a lot harder to be surrounded by murderous landgrabbers when you’re on an island.
In fact, I’d suggest that anyone starting out who is afraid of being bewildered by the amount of things happening around them gives Scotland or Ireland a shot. They’re both good starting points and you can go through a couple of generations struggling over control of that little corner of Europe before you even glance across and realise that –
Oh my sweet pajamas, what in the name of God has happened to the continent? Judging by the number of Muslims in Spain whatever happened was definitely in the name of God, although it may not have been the Scotch one. And is France really supposed to be that big? And why is Italy entirely comprised of men hitting each other in the kidneys with swords?
My absolute most favourite thing about Crusader Kings II is that the world will happily continue without me. Maybe if I play my kids right I’ll be the centre of attention for a couple of years over the centuries covered, but most of the time this is one of the games that suffers least from Truman Show syndrome that I've ever played. In that respect, Crusader Kings II is up there with Football Manager and Dwarf Fortress. It’s a strategy game, it’s an RPG but it’s also a simulator. Yes, it’s not a historically accurate simulator, with plenty of alterations to reality made for balance and to sustain dynastic evolution, but it is a remarkable study of alternatives, a playground of ‘might have beens’.
My most memorable game to date didn't involve forging a mighty kingdom. I was playing a count on the borders of the Kingdom of Hungary. I was, by necessity, mostly passive. That’s when speeding the game up comes in useful. At its fastest rate, the years tick by fairly quickly, with automatic pauses when decisions need to be made. My king would occasionally call me into service, usually when he himself had been called into service, and my armies would dutifully chop their way through infidels or vulnerable neighbours. Other than that, I made marriages for my children, attempting to make something out of them so that when I passed on I wouldn’t have a total incompetent in charge of my tiny realm.
It was sometime around 1100 that everything went wrong. The young king called up all his levies and took us off adventuring into the east. As soon as the troops had marched out of earshot, the dastardly duke of Transylvania, one of the king’s vassals and possibly a vampire, began to assault all of Hungary with armies of his own. He declared independence and chipped away at the lands surrounding him, and Hungary, for the first time since 1066, was fractured.
But then, but then. An exchange of the mighty cash reserves I had built up in my passivity allowed me to hire mercenaries, raise my personal levy and march on Transylvania. I, the forgotten and the subservient, made Hungary intact once more.
I’d like to say the story ends with me being granted titles and bounty on the king’s return but that’s not what happened. I faded back into obscurity even as the borders of Hungary eventually expanded. There have been times when I’ve received thanks for noble deeds and times when I’ve received greater thanks for committing atrocities, but mostly Crusader Kings II doesn’t pander to the player.
And that is precisely why it isn’t an impenetrable mess of a game to the uninitiated. The game is not overwhelming, not in any way whatsoever, because it lets you get on with things, never forcing you to balance imponderable digits against one another. There is a great deal of information but you don't ever need it all, and it’s only when at war or engaged in particularly complex plots that you’ll need to repeatedly pause the game to make sure your strategy isn’t failing spectacularly.
Most of the time, things will continue to happen and it’s very hard to find yourself in a dead end that isn’t logical and based around the readily understandable actions of people. This isn’t Victoria or Europa Universalis where having a slider in the wrong position can lead to severe punishment; Crusader Kings II is about people and what makes them tick.
The interface is simple as well, even though it may look daunting. You’ll only ever have to click the right button to interact with people and move armies, and the left button to bring up information, whether cycling through map overlays or selecting tabs. And there may seem to be a lot of them, but don't be daunted. Ignore what you don’t understand until the need arises to understand it. Context may help when an event occurs, or you can dip into the dry but useful tutorials.
If you’re not terrified of maps then you can play and enjoy Crusader Kings II. It’s that simple. Do you like pondering alternate histories and creating grand narratives? That's what this game is about. Do you enjoy courtly interplay and elaborate plots of succession, marriage and murder? That's also what this game is about.
Heck, do you like A Game of Thrones? This is the best Game of Thrones game you will probably ever play, unless you really need the fantasy element and if you do, then for God’s sake just pretend that pagans are riding wolves and French people have six eyes or whatever it is you need to do, but play this game. There’s incest and intrigue aplenty and isn’t that what GRRARGH Martin is really all about?
There have been so many strategy games in recent years that have made me wish I was playing Crusader Kings instead and when Sengoku was among them, I was worried. It seemed like a poor foundation on which to build a sequel to one of my favourite games, lacking the complexity of interaction that I craved.
I needn’t have worried. Crusader Kings II is everything I wanted from a sequel and it's a sequel that I hadn't expected to ever see. The interface is improved, it’s visually far more attractive and the simulation model seems to create more interesting alternate realities. It’s also (for me and by most reports) almost completely stable and although I can imagine what will be added in the expected (and I’ve got to admit, hoped for) expansions, there are no features missing that I expected to be included. I haven't even dabbled in multiplayer yet, which is also a thing that exists.
The biggest complaint appears to be the inability to play as Pagans or Muslims. It’s easily fixed with mods and I for one am glad those characters haven’t been crudely forced into the hereditary models followed by the dynasties of Christendom. If they are playable in the future, I hope the experience is quite drastically different, otherwise the brilliant emphasis on culture and people that is the game’s core would be compromised.
Now, what did they get wrong? Levies seem to replenish a little bit too fast.
There's so much I haven't written about but my initial draft was the typed equivalent of a man waving his arms and making incoherent sounds of delight and excitement. It's such a huge game that people will find different ways of enjoying it and, of course, some people won't find anything to love at all. Those people are dead inside. Anyone interested in emergent gameplay, dynamic narrative and the humanising of strategy would do well to spend a few days in the company of Crusader Kings II.
For me, the genius of Paradox’ best grand strategy titles has always been that they don’t tell you what to do or how to win. Instead, they give you the tools to find your own way through history and let you live with the consequences. When the consequences are so human they mean all the much more and this is probably the most human strategy game I’ve ever played. If it doesn’t wind up being among my very favourite games of the year, spectacular things will occur in the next ten months.