There’s another big expansion coming out for Crusader Kings 2 on the 28th of May. So on Monday I sat down to bring myself back up to speed with the game and polish up my rusty politicking skills; several hours later, I remembered why it was that I had spent 100+ hours playing the game in the first place. CK2 is a fascinating look into the convoluted hearts of power-hungry medieval rulers, and in order to succeed you must become one yourself. I love it.
The basic game does more or less what it says on the tin: you play a ruler of some section of Christendom (anyone from a count to an emperor), mostly during the time of the crusades (you pick a start date between 1066 and 1337, and the game ends with the arrival of the printing press in 1453).
You don’t play just one ruler, of course. That would be silly, because who could keep controlling their territory for that long? You’d have to be undead. Instead you have control of a single character, and when that character dies you play the next member of your dynasty to hold your primary title. Your choices and available actions are determined by your character’s abilities and traits, so it becomes critically important to groom your successors such that they will do a good job once you’re gone. So that you will do a good job once you’re gone? The pronouns get a little confusing, but it all makes sense when you play it.
Ok, I admit it, the whole game starts off a little confusing. The interface is very… in depth. I spent around 3 hours playing the tutorial, and then spent more hours fumbling about in Ireland, the kiddie pool of CK2. At 20 hours into the game, I was still learning new things about how to use the interface to further my pursuit of greatness. But the tutorial really does help (I think it’s been improved since), and you’ll be able to puzzle through most of the things you see once you’ve completed it. You’ll become conversant with all the little symbols used for traits and abilities and be able to read them at a glance, deciding whom to marry into your dynasty in order to provide yourself with strong future rulers. With familiarity comes an appreciation for how much the game really has to offer; there are so many options at your fingertips that you’ll nearly always have several different schemes going at once. There are a few changes I’d like to see made (like going back to being able to raise levies from the holdings screen, so that I have better control of the geographic distribution of my forces), but on the whole Paradox’s patches have only made things better and easier to use.
And besides, mastering the game’s systems and their interactions is extremely gratifying. As with what Jason wrote about having an intricate control system for piloting your mech, Crusader Kings 2’s deeply complex mechanics and interface are both initially daunting and ultimately rewarding. Having a competent Chancellor deliver claims on your opponents’ territory so that you can go a-conquering is just delightful. But playing architect to a series of marriages that cement your dynasty’s claim to another kingdom, and then assassinating all the people standing in your heirs’ way? Priceless. Well, potentially very expensive, but any good noble knows that trade and industry are beneath their station.
It’s no accident that Kotaku’s Luke Plunkett referred to this game as a “wonderfully deep marriage/backstabbing simulator” and raved about it in his review. It’s a medieval ruler sim and a darkly murderous soap opera at the same time. Fittingly enough, one of the most well-known mods for the game shifts everything to Westeros, from GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. Another recent release now lets you play in Tamriel, of Elder Scrolls fame.
And describing it as a marriage simulator makes a good deal of sense. In addition to the merits of alliances, breeding really is important: the game tracks a rudimentary form of DNA for every character, which determines innate traits (like Strong, Clubfoot, Genius, Imbecile, Inbred, etc.), and breeding like with like begets like. Unless there’s too much inbreeding of course. So you really do want to pay attention to acquiring as many good traits as possible, while weighing the risks and benefits of political attachments, more-than-kissing cousins, and various prestige concerns.
It’s also important to keep your many courtiers happy, or at least worse at intrigue than you are. The game tracks every character’s opinion of every other character, and people can and will plot the grisly murder of you and your loved ones. More than once, I’ve watched a string of suspicious accidents wipe out sections of my court and family, hapless in my inability to figure out who was to blame because I’d forgotten to train myself well in the arts of subterfuge. Another tip: make sure your spymaster is happy with you. Otherwise you’ll never see it coming.
The only goals you have are those that you set for yourself, and possibly the goal of improving your dynasty’s score. Your score is the total of the prestige and piety of each of your characters at the time of their deaths, pushing you to go big in hopes of racking up those points. But for me, the real reward of the game is in doing well despite adversity and enjoying the stories that you create. My lecherous Earl, the one who started the whole thing with his thirteen children and who lived to the age of 92 (outliving most of his offspring) after seizing and losing nearby counties not once but twice. The cunning Count Mael-Runaid, who befriended the duchess that ruled over him, convinced her to change the succession laws, had himself appointed heir, and then murdered the duchess to take her place. Queen Ben-Ulad the Wise, who took the armies of the freshly minted kingdom of Ireland and joined the crusades, turned the tide of battle and was granted the seized Kingdom of Jerusalem as her reward. All of that was one game.
There are so many other things that I can and should tell you about; acquiring a casus belli so that you can declare war, managing your succession laws to best consolidate your holdings without offending your vassals, dealing with the Pope, undermining your liege so that you can gain independence, the list goes on and on. But I’ll let you figure all that stuff out on your own. It was completely worth figuring out, for me. I love this game, and while it is occasionally daunting it’s also some of the best fun I’ve had in a good while. Nothing says sweet success like going from being a backwater Irish Earl ruling over my single county, to being King of Ireland, England, and Jerusalem.* Check it out!
*Of course, now I’m just the King of Ireland and England, and I don’t hold a lick of territory in England proper. Such are the vagaries of fate.
In addition to the vanilla game, there are several expansions already out, allowing you to play as a Muslim ruler, as a ruler of a Republic, and one coming soon that will let you play as a Pagan. There’s also one out that has to do with the Byzantines (and military improvements), and one that offers the wacky ‘what-if’ scenario of an Aztec invasion in the 1300’s (this one was unpopular at first for not being historical, but gained some popularity for offering what I understand to be FUN, in the Dwarf Fortress sense of the term). They’re all available both on Paradox’s store, and on Steam.