PC Review: Crusader Kings II

The realm was in chaos. While my father had spent his 20 years on the throne pacifying the English nobles, and expanding my future kingdom, he had thought the line of succession was safe. But in the final days of securing the kingdom, the great William caught the deadly pox, and never recovered. Claiming the throne that was mine by right, I found little but treachery from all the great English houses. York and Norfolk, Cornwall and Sussex, all of the dukes raised their banner against the throne. Some supported their independence, but others sought to put my brother in my place- a weaker king, lacking both the right and the will. And so, with the support of only my house and a few righteous nobles, and armed the purse left from my father’s good governance, I rode to war…

Crusader Kings II is a continuation of the epic Paradox series of grand strategy games that started way back with Europa Universalis, and has been taken to nearly every era imaginable, from ancient Rome to World War II. Crusader Kings II is set in the backdrop of medieval Europe, from the events of 1066 (which we’ll get to shortly) through the Crusades and terminating in the year of the fall of Constantinople, 1453. In that period, assuming you survive, you’ll experience war and rebellion, plague and deceit, and generally any sort of treachery and malevolence you could conjure up.

Want some friends? Bribery always helps.

You lead a ruling house of your choosing. In the game, you’ll have control of the head of whatever kingdom, duchy, sheikdom or county you choose. The goal: to build your family into a dynasty that will last the ages. Your king or duke will rule until his death, at which point you’ll assume control of his blood heir. If your dynasty dies out, the game ends, and you’ll be taking to a screen which compares the achievements of your line to that of the great (and not so great) dynasties through all of history. Your achievements are measured by the successes of your reign, and even simple survival (which is more difficult than you think) is a key measure of your prestige and final score.

Gameplay is the classic real-time pausable model used in many Paradox games, with armies controlled only at a grand scale, and the world map populated by the various provinces of the realms of the age. The map itself is utterly beautiful, Paradox having come a long way from the days of simple functionality in an attempt to achieve something that not only works for the user but is also eye-catching as well. Each province (or county as they are called in this game) contains towns, churches, and castles, each of which will levy soldiers for you in time of war, produce taxes for you (depending on your policies as a ruler, of course) and each will need to be reduced in order for you to take the county by siege. The multi-faceted nature of the provinces make them feel much more substantial than simple space on a map, and the existence of multi layers means that a given area can be owned by several different lords.

Kaiser… not just a roll, but a leader.

As a lord (a duke, a king, or what have you), you will have vassals in charge of your various holdings. Lords of the era were forced to cede vast amounts of power to their lessers, as technology to monitor the whole did not exist. Thus, your primary concern will prove not the conquest of your neighbors, but the condition of your vassals. Treat them well, and they will ride into hell with you. Treat them poorly, and they will plot and scheme and rise in rebellion. You will also need them on campaign, as you do not have a standing army. Instead, when the time for war is now, you call out your vassals (think calling in the banners in Game of Thrones). Not only do they help administer your lands, but they are the source of your armies and navies.

This is not a pure game of war, mind you. You also forge alliances through marriage, host tournaments (this will make everyone in the land adore you, and perhaps maim a few lords), conspire in assassinations, throw schemers in prison, and even go on crusade. The give and take between the various elements of the game provides for an experience  that is both massively entertaining and indicative of the constraints of the historical era. My first game saw me as William the Conqueror in 1066, taking England as my own. After 20 years of rule, in which William expanded his domain to include much of Wales, murdered his own wife to spend more time with his lover, fought off rebellion, staged massive tournaments, and generally improved the state of affairs, William died on campaign in Brittany. His son Robert rose to the throne, and was immediately throne into the War of English Succession, as every duke in the realm rose to claim their independence, and several back one of Robert’s brothers as claimant to the throne

If your dynasty history looks like this, pat yourself on the back.

So did Robert win? With judicious use of the gold his father had amassed during his rule, Robert called in thousands of mercenary troops, and one by one, put down each lord with brute military force. To some, Robert showed mercy. To others, he stripped them of rank and title, putting his allies in their place. And to a select few, including his own brother, he gave the ultimate penalty. Mercy should not extend to the most wicked. The narrative your gameplay tells, the history of your kingdom as it unfolds, is the biggest hook of Crusader Kings 2. Play becomes not a mechanical conquest of neighboring countries, but a complete looks at a kingdom’s story as it winds through the ages. The game lays out the tools of history for you, and gives you the opportunity to tell whatever story it is you wish to tell.

Crusader Kings II is not for everyone. It is complex, and the learning curve is steep. There is a tutorial, but a few moments spent on a complex system is insufficient to prepare you for the depth of what you’re about to experience. The design of the tutorial is truly unfortunate, as it doesn’t really include the interactivity necessary for teaching the game systems properly. I was an experienced Europa Universalis player, which provided me with the gameplay basics, but the uninitiated are going to wander lost for several hours before they can truly appreciate what the game has to offer. For those willing to put in the time, however, the game will offer a deeply engaging experience, one which you will find not only entertaining but also rewarding.

When fighting the Muslims in Spain, best get a few more friends than this guy has.

Pros:

  • Captures the nature of the era
  • You build history how you wish
  • Immensely fun strategy

Cons

  • Very weak tutorial for such a complex game
  • A few odd bugs (I had a never ending tournament which maimed an awfully large number of nobles)
  • Switching from being king of all England to king of my living room too jarring

4 out of 5

*Note the game was reviewed using a copy of CK2 provided by Paradox. This copy included the recent Sword of Islam expansion, the content of which I hope to take a separate look at on a later date

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Author: Tony Odett View all posts by
A member of the Perfectly Sane Show crew and Vagary.tv's Features Editor, Tony brings the smart and funny (and the rapine and pillage...). Also known as The Strategy Gamer, Tony declares it his duty to get as much coverage as possible for what should be everyone's most loved genre.