PC Crusader Kings II

Scott Tortorice

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I’ve been really down on PC gaming of late. Heck, not just PC gaming, but video games in general. The reason why I became a gamer in the first place is because I was hooked by the wonderfully inventive and thought-provoking titles of yore - games that got you to furrow your brow in deep contemplation while you forged your own destiny in an immersive alternative reality. Alas, those days seem to be long gone. Gaming is thoroughly, if not completely, ruled by a steady diet of scripted ‘twitch’ titles that place a premium on adrenaline and little else. Not that those games can’t be fun – they most certainly are - but like an amusement park ride, once the experience ends there’s little reason to do it again. Worse, there is no reason to truly cherish the experience either because you know that what you just experienced has been repeated thousands of times before by other people in almost exactly the same way.

Such is the way of modern gaming…for most of the industry, anyway. Nonetheless there are still some brave souls out there who are fighting valiantly against this trend of “empty calorie” gaming. Paradox Interactive is certainly one such developer/publisher. Long known for their line of deep strategy titles, Paradox has just delivered a game that reminds me of what gaming, particularly PC gaming, used to be all about. That game is Crusader Kings II, a long anticipated sequel to the premier game of medieval dynastic politics. Sporting the emergent gameplay that made the original so popular, along with unrivaled depth and historical veracity, Crusader Kings II is a game that every strategy aficionado needs to check out, and here’s why….

A Game of Thrones

I suppose the best way to describe Crusader Kings II is to say that it is the video game equivalent of George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (the superb book and not the tawdry HBO series). However, unlike Martin’s book that dealt with the fantasy realm of Westeros, Crusader Kings II deals with the actual dynastic struggles of medieval Europe, a place no less vicious despite its decided lack of ‘White Walkers’.

Crusader Kings II offers the player a bewildering amount of starting choices. All of Europe is at your beckon call. Want to play the Holy Roman Emperor and have to deal with medieval geopolitics at the highest level? You can do that. Or perhaps you ambitions are more modest; perhaps you only seek to be the King of England. Again, you can do that. Or maybe you just want to play a lowly duke of some larger kingdom or empire – something I recommend for your first few games for reasons of simplicity. Again, the choice is yours. Basically, the player can select from a truly vast assortment of medieval personages that spans a 271 year period of European history, from 1066 to 1337 (actual gameplay continues until 1453). To say that there is nearly infinite replayability to Crusader Kings II is an understatement.

What is even more striking than the mammoth selection of playable characters is that many of them are well researched, complete with a fully fleshed out dynastic tree and a clickable Wikipedia button for further information. Even their in-game traits and portraits are accurately modeled to the extent that accurate historical information allows. The mind simply boggles at the amount of research that must have gone into this game.

But what is the game about? It is here that I must raise the first cautionary warning for people unfamiliar with the franchise: Crusader Kings II is old school, sandbox grand strategy gaming at its finest. That is, while the player’s primary goal is to increase the prestige and power of his family’s dynasty, just how he accomplishes that goal is entirely up to him. Don’t expect this game to lead you by the nose; rather it is all in your hands how you accomplish that goal, be it by military force, assassination, politic marriages, inheritance or merely awaiting a stroke of good fortune. The player’s goals are just that: the player’s. And with 400 years to play around with, he can take all the time he needs to see them reach fruition.
 

Scott Tortorice

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A Living, Breathing Europe

The game itself is played on a slick map of Europe, one that is divided into individual counties and ocean provinces, and can be panned and zoomed to the player’s preference. It is here that the player will do all his plotting and conquering. The map itself has a number of options that changes its display from simple topography, to showing religious affiliation, rebellion risk, prevailing culture, diplomatic relations, de jure duchies and kingdoms and more. Knowing which setting to use when is a crucial part of the game as this is definitely an information-driven simulation.

At the upper right of the screen is the information bar. Here is why the player can track his progress, via his prestige and piety levels, as well as his wealth, demense limit, realm holdings and calculated score (based on multi-generational prestige and piety levels). The game itself plays out in real time, something indicated by the calendar date that slowly ticks away the days at the bottom of the information bar. As this is a game that takes place across centuries, the time scale can be sped up at will, something that is helpful when you want to get through those all too infrequent quiet decades. The game can also be paused during chaotic moments.

At the top left of the screen the portrait of the player’s character is shown, one that will age and become scarred in a believable manner over time, no less. Clicking on this portrait will take the player to a screen dense with information, including such vital information as heirs, siblings, spouses, parents, vassals, titles, and more. This information is crucial, for Crusader Kings II is not a game about iron-fisted combat – albeit, there is some of that – but about leveraging your personal relationships for maximum political power. Each one of these relations can prove crucial to the well-being and longevity of your dynasty. In short, these are the player’s pawns that can be pushed into becoming a queen…or king, if he uses them correctly.

Now, it is important to be bear in mind that each of these individuals, be they princes or mere courtiers, has a life of their own, down to individual personality traits, ambitions, and even a rating reflecting their approval (or lack thereof) of the player and other characters in the game. In other words, they are not mere automatons, but will actively pursue their own goals, sometimes to the detriment of the player. For example, I once had a loving brother who rode at my side into combat as my marshal. Well, this brother of mine was later revealed to be an ambitious schemer who was plotting to change the inheritance laws of my duchy so that my son would not inherit the throne, but rather he would instead. See what I mean about your loyal subject’s goals and ambitions conflicting with your own?

Adding to this interpersonal chaos - the heart of Crusader Kings II - are random events that can have a great impact, with many requiring a decision that needs to be made by the player. Some are small events, such as how to deal with a child who is acting badly with other children at court (do you scold them or encourage the behavior, risking the acquisition of a negative or positive trait in the process?). Others, however, can be of significant importance, such as with my scheming brother. What do you do there? Should the player look the other way and hope the plan will fail, or does he throw him into jail and potentially split the family and risk a civil war? Ahh…now you’re getting it. Making the right decision can often be akin to a deadly tightrope act.

But this is what makes Crusader Kings II such a distinctive game. It is very much a soap opera of the player’s creation. To watch your subjects - and those of every other realm in the game, no less, - to scheme, plot, flatter, and connive their way into (and sometimes, out of) power is a fascinating experience that is well worth the price of admission alone. It all makes for some sort of crazy medieval-themed Dallas!

There is another important point that makes Crusader Kings II thoroughly unique: the game is NOT over when your first liege dies. Rather, if the player has planned carefully and set up a sufficient number of heirs to survive the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune (or scheming pretenders), then the game continues, with the player taking on successive roles in his dynasty. CK2 is all about the dynasties, after all. As a result, the player will get to see successive generations of family, friends and foes rise and fall with the ages, making this simulated medieval Europe even more living and vibrant. And when the final year of this simulation draws to a close, the accumulated multi-generational prestige and piety of the player’s dynasty will be totaled for a final score, allowing for the comparison of his dynastic achievements against those of historical dynasties.
 

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It is Good to be King

Of course, as a medieval lord, the player will need to keep an eye on his kingdom as well as on his subjects. To help him manage his affairs of state, the player has a selection of counselors to help him rule. There are five such advisors: the Chancellor oversees diplomacy; the Marshal covers matters military; the Steward manages the treasury; the Spymaster…er, spies; and the Court Chaplain handles matters of religion and culture. In a fashion similar to spies and ambassadors in Creative Assembly’s Total War series, the player can take each of these individuals and place them on the map to activate certain functions. For example, he can place his chancellor in the county of a rival king and attempt to fabricate a claim, something that provides a valid cause for war (casus belli) and a chance to enlarge the player’s territorial holdings. Or the spymaster can be placed in one of the player’s counties to uncover scheming nobles. By using all his councilors in such a fashion, the player can work more than a little mischief while also improving the chances of his dynasty’s success. But keep something in mind: these councilors have a life of their own just as your other subjects. Sometimes the guy you appointed to collect taxes is the same fellow who just declared his desire to amass wealth. Hmm….that might not be a good match. Be prepared to replace your lackeys with more talented and loyal fellows if you want to succeed in this game.

The player can also tinker with other areas of his realm. For example, the law screen allows the player to set the levee and taxation level of his vassals, which are dived amongst cities, bishoprics and castles. Cities generally produce the wealth of a realm, while castles are the military backbone. Bishoprics produce a little bit of both. Determining the proper levee and taxation level for each is a delicate dance that must balance realm needs with the approval of your vassals. For example, what good does it do to have high city taxation when you spend that extra money putting down peasant revolts?

Also on this screen is the law of the land concerning the all important rules of succession. There are now four methods available (primogeniture, gavelkind, seniority, and feudal elective), along with three gender conditions (agnatic, agnatic-cognatic, absolute cognatic). Determining what combination is best in what situation can be tricky at best, especially given the vicissitudes of fate in this game, so I am not even going to attempt to explore it as it would merit at least six pages on its own. Let’s just say that I find it generally sufficient to leave well enough alone in most games as tinkering with inheritance laws can have some fantastically wild implications that might end your game before it’s even begun. However, your mileage might vary with this fascinating mechanic.

Other screens of note include: the technology screen, where 24 different areas of research (from siege equipment to spiritual art) are divided amongst three categories (military, economy, culture). This being the Middle Ages, technological progress is slow and can take years for a minor advance to occur, but the player can speed things up by focusing upon one area in each category. As higher levels of technology is achieved, new upgrades become available for cities, temples and castles, as well as for your soldiers - something that can provide a critical military and economic edge in times of crisis.

The religion screen is also important as the player’s relationship with the pope and his bishops can be crucial. Generally speaking, the player wants to stay on the pope’s good side unless he enjoys excommunication, something that makes you conquest fodder for rivals. Of course, in that case you could always install your own bishops and set up an anti-pope…yeah, you can go there. But be warned: religious infighting can delegitimize an entire faith, leading to an outbreak of heresy.

Perhaps the most useful screen, though, is the one that covers diplomacy. Just about every character in the game can be interacted with via this screen, from assigning honorary titles for a boost in approval, to arranging a betrothal that could eventually see one of the player’s children married into a suitably prestigious family…assuming the betrothal isn’t repudiated later (I once had to cancel a betrothal when my daughter’s future husband turned out to be a heretic!). Of course, even matters of war and peace can be conducted on this screen, speaking of which….
 

Scott Tortorice

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To War!

Unlike other strategy games, in Crusader Kings II the player needs a valid casus belli (cause for war) to actually go to war. Usually, a valid (if fabricated) claim to another county will suffice, but instances of heresy or outright religious warfare (crusades or jihads) will suffice just as well. Once a casus belli has been established, the player then needs to raise either his personal levees, and/or those of his vassals.

Raising personal levees are usually without much risk, but raising those of your vassals is chancier as mayors and bishops aren’t too keen to see their men marching off to war instead of working the land and markets. Of course, the player could always hire some mercenaries, or, if it is a religious war, some crusading holy orders for assistance, but these will cost you gold and/or piety, so do so at your own risk.

Once raised, armies will march off to war…literally, as the player can see animated figures march across the map. When forces meet, a battle will begin, one determined by terrain as well as leadership. The army interface is a nifty new feature to the Crusader Kings franchise, and allows the player to see his army, and that of his opponent, depicted on the screen as three wings of a whole. Each wing – left, center, and right – displays its own commander (if present), as well as force breakdown (light infantry, cavalry, bowmen, et cetera). As the battle unfolds, this screen will show what tactic each wing is pursuing, from skirmishing to forming a shield wall, as well as other options. Eventually, individual wings will break, allowing the other side to pursue and run down the fleeing foe, or stay in the battle and flank the remaining enemy wings. Even though this battle depiction might lack the graphical flare of an RTS game, I find it to be just as engrossing.

After a successful battle, the hard work of the siege begins for running the enemy army out of town…er, the county, is not sufficient. Now, each holding (city, castle, or temple) must be successfully sieged before the entire county can be considered occupied, and even then it isn’t enough to claim the title for the county. Rather, the contested territory must then be held for a period of time until the player’s war score, shown at the bottom right of the screen as a percentage, is sufficiently high to force the other side to surrender the title. Of course, other options are possible: such as a “white peace”, basically a return to the status quo ante with a resulting loss of prestige for the attacker, to an outright surrender with a huge lose of prestige. Wars in Crusader Kings II are believably lengthy and costly, so be warned.

So What’s Not to Like?

I think my only true disappoint with Crusader Kings II are the “ambitions and plots” found on the Intrigue screen. Ambitions and plots are supposed to be overall goals for the player, unfortunately there are far too few of either, and the ones that are available are rather useless or uninteresting. For example, ambitions are dull and limited to such innocuous activities as amassing wealth or getting married. Yawn. Plots, which sound much more interesting, are either bland too, such as plotting to change a law, or too arbitrary, such as killing a spouse for no good reason. Really, the plots and ambitions are the one part of CK2 that feels unfinished, as if the current selections are merely placeholders for later content. What I would give for a greater selection, or, even better, being able to set my own ambition or plots! For example, there have been many times where I wanted to remove a disliked vassal from power, but dared not because I would suffer too much of a popularity hit from my other vassals. How great it would be to be able to create a plot to frame the vassal for a crime, thereby giving me the ability to remove him with clean hands. I hope to see such a capability in CK2 one day.

I also would like to see a bit more explicit cause and effect with some events. Every now and then, something will happen in the game that doesn’t have clear consequences. For example, I was once given the opportunity to blackmail a vassal. Well, I agreed to do so…but never discovered just what the blackmail achieved. Another time, I was leading an army that was crushed in battle, yet my co-commanders and I all magically appeared back in our duchy. While I did get a scar, announced somewhat disjointedly from the actual battle, I never received any other message about how we escaped the carnage. It’s times like this that CK2 needs a bit more explication. The same goes for dead characters. I just know that more than a few of my relatives and courtiers died from foul play, but there never is any indication of this. I would appreciate some clarity, such as “natural causes” or “suspicious circumstances”.

Lastly, I would caution anyone who is interested in this game but is new to the franchise to try the demo first. As mentioned above, Crusader Kings II is old school grand strategy gaming, and that means a steep learning curve. To be quite honest, I am still not entirely certain about how certain game mechanics operate due to the multi-layered complexity of the gameplay. What this means is that even after putting hours and hours into the game, I am still discovering new things to explore and new mechanics to master! Although its much improved user interface and plentiful tooltips help alleviate some of the confusion, as well as a comprehensive set of tutorials, be prepared for some very slow going early on, with lots of referring back to the (too thin) manual and the asking of many questions on the official forums.

Closing Comments:

Crusader Kings II is a masterpiece of a game, and one that has reminded me of just what is possible in the world of PC gaming. In its deep historical waters, there are hundreds (thousands?) of hours of gameplay awaiting those hearty souls willing to master its complex, sandbox gameplay. The effort is worth it as Crusader Kings II will immerse the player in a medieval experience unrivaled by any other game; one so rich that the player will always recall each thoroughly unique tale of royal scheming and high jinks with fondness long after the game is over. And despite writing over 3000 words, I still haven’t mentioned other aspects of its gameplay, such as its multiplayer component, awesome music and mod friendliness! It is rare these days to see a game that gives so much for so little. Simply, Crusader Kings 2 is a game fit for a king.

9 out of 10
 
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