By: George Weidman
Fun fact: prior to the 1780’s, the nation-state didn’t exist. Well, the same concept of national identity that exists today didn’t. In those dark times, the political map of Europe looked a lot like it does in Crusader Kings II: an amalgamation of isolated city-states, family houses and dynastic enclaves who were only barely connected to one-another through the traditional authority of feudalism.
Paradox Interactive’s latest historical strategy game is enigmatic indeed, featuring a meticulously detailed and well-researched depiction of the old world with politics that are completely alien to new players. It is brilliant and it is grand, but it is also encumbered with a maximalist design that obscures both qualities.
Crusader Kings II has you taking care of a medieval nobleman who’s drifting in a sea of medieval nobleman. Its map is divided into hundreds (maybe even thousands—I didn’t count) of tiny counties, each owned by other individual nobles who share the space with separate cities and towns that are often owned by another layer of separate characters. There may even be more unlanded characters milling around in the game’s lists and spreadsheets than the important land-holding ones, as each one of these characters is surrounded by a sizable court of other characters. There’s room for an overwhelming amount of complexity. Every one of these characters is fully capable of plotting, usurping, or allying with one another in a way that is inevitably comparable to a certain popular HBO series.
Down to Earth
In Crusader Kings II, you’re not playing as God and nations don’t exist. Your role is limited and mostly boils down to watching the homeland while internal family dramas as well as external political struggles unfold around you. Victory doesn’t lie in conquering foreign lands or hoarding the world’s resources. In fact, there really aren’t any victory conditions at all. However, there is one conclusive “game over” screen triggered upon the death of a lonely and childless you. If any heirs are nowhere to be found during your character’s inevitable death, your dynasty is broken and the game’s up.
In fact, the brutal difficulty curve and macro-managerial focus of CKII suggest that dynastic survival is the only real goal. It’s an unforgiving game, and there’s a strict limit to the amount of land your character can hold. Even if you choose an easy start as one the more powerful rulers of medieval Europe, creating a truly imperialistic force is nigh impossible.
Through this tenacity of feudalism, your role in CKII is noticeably tamer than that of the usual RTS demigod. Basic gameplay revolves around networking with other characters to develop the kinds of relationships that produce quality heirs. Arranging marriages, alliances, vassalages and fiefdoms with your character’s chums are the path to whatever kind of success you’re aiming for. Three basic types of currency—money, prestige, and piety—determine how likable your character is to certain populations, and most major game-making decisions (such as declaring wars and changing laws) will require their approval before you’re allowed to press the “okay” button.
Menus Within Menus Within Menus
It’s a novel concept for a strategy game, but one that is hampered by an interface that sacrifices elegance for raw utility. There are 33 clickable buttons available on the main screen with countless more buttons and menus coming and going depending on the context. The maximalist interface is Paradox’s design trademark, but I found that it kept me from enjoying the game as much as I would have liked to. Compared to entries in the (admittedly much less complicated) Total War and Civilization series, most basic actions feel like they take a bit too many clicks to accomplish. The sheer amount of tables, spreadsheets, and lists all displaying their own handfuls of micro-manageable meters and buttons is simply information overload. I always appreciate complexity in a game, but I also appreciate elegant design as well. Unfortunately, CKII’s priorities are skewed far towards the former and rarely dip into the latter. It’s intimidating, and a good deal of the game’s core concepts and mechanics are lost underneath its layers of tabbed sub-menus and tooltip-activated budget tables.
These concepts and mechanics are also grounded in the dead language of feudalism—an unfortunate burden of the game’s aesthetics that I never really got used to. The game throws around terms like “agnatic primogeniture inheritance laws” and “dejure ducal claims” with nary an explanation behind them, and there’s no Civilization-style help system to guide you about (though there are in-game links to actual historical Wikipedia pages.) What’s the difference between a kingdom and a barony? A dynasty and a family? A vassal and a fief? The interface isn’t handy about teaching these things, but that knowledge is necessary to play the game.
I also never really got used to the more abstract and arbitrary rules of the game: how troops are recruited and trained automatically in the background; how armies can be raised in an instant; how units teleport from county to county via a garish movement meter; how passively you’re expected fast-forward time to more eventful periods. The game’s tutorial doesn’t address these peculiarities, and it’s up to the player’s own tolerance for trial-and-error experimentation to figure them out.
Final Thoughts – Is it Worth your Money?
It’s hard to recommend Crusader Kings II to people who aren’t already used to Paradox strategy games. But then again, it’s hard to not recommend it to newcomers who want this kind of experience. It took awhile, but the game finally got interesting around hour six when my patricidal Corsican sons could only unite under the cause of invading Muslin Spain, which was ruled by the overwhelmed and inexperienced four-year-old Emir Fath I (thanks to a lucky assassination plot on his father.) It’s a game that rewards the time you invest in it and encourages imaginative storytelling. Unfortunately, all these rewards require a tolerance for an interface and game system that are less than graceful. It also requires time. Fully exploiting CKII’s strengths could take hundreds of hours, which may actually be good entertainment value considering its B-list price point.
Take it for what it is—a feudalism-flavored expansion of the same ethos that made Europa Universalis a cult favorite. It was built for fans of Paradox’s unique interpretation of the strategy genre, but is still rewarding (but also demanding) for the rest of us.