My wife hates me. I gave her Aquitaine and she calmed down a bit, but I still think she's mad at me for some reason, and I've no idea why. If she doesn't buck her ideas up soon I'm going to have to kill her. In fact, my wife isn't the only one who despises me, it seems that everybody around here does. Within minutes of starting my first game, six or seven of my vassals have declared war against me. I knew that this wasn't going to be an easy start. Why oh why did I decide to be King John?
This particular story wasn't the first time that I'd marched into the annals of history, but it was the first time I'd done so armed with a working knowledge of the mechanics needed to survive in the medieval playground presented here by Paradox Interactive.
My first attempts at entering into Crusader Kings II's world of intrigue, deception, diplomacy and war were marred by panic. A barrage of menus, options and decisions laced with significance quickly turned enthusiasm into bafflement. Yet bafflement was soon replaced with intrigue.
Crusader Kings II is a real-time strategy game (or a dynasty simulator, if you'd prefer) and it is vast, both in terms of scale and ambition.
The basic premise is that you take control of an historical character and start the process of building a dynasty to stand the test of time. Starting at any point between 1066 and 1337, you are tasked with leading your family through history. The game ends in 1452, though it's not a win or lose situation, you judge your own success, comparing your accumulated prestige and piety with that of other successful dynasties.
It's a game that happens to you, rather than the other way around. You try to influence events as best you can, but these events transpire in a way that makes you feel part of them, instead of in control of them. By cycling through the menus and identifying things to tinker with and alter, and by making decisions when presented with pop-up choices, you steer your dynasty through history and, hopefully, to glory. Grand strategy titles like Europa Universallis focus on the building of empires, whereas this is more about building a legacy for your family. It makes it a more personal experience, and it is better for it.
Intrigue and diplomacy play a central role in this game, but there is still war to be waged, and in Crusader Kings II the battles are frequent and engrossing. The combat is real-time, but fairly basic. You move soldiers around the map, pinning down lesser armies and trying desperately to avoid bigger forces. Avatars clash and menus show the numerical progress of battle. You can get defensive bonuses, so picking your battleground can be just as important as the amount of troops you bring to the field.
Getting started is tough. There are so many options and with so much to consider, my first attempt ended up a daunting and confusing experience. I initially started off as William the Conqueror, but then proceeded to stare at a series of tutorial screens, my poor battered brain trying to absorb some of the vast amount of information being thrown at it.
I quickly abandoned that particular foray into history and decided to go back to school. A few tutorials on youtube, as well as a very helpful webcast by Paradox themselves, helped shed some light on proceedings and I was ready to go again. So, back to King John.
Interlude 2: The Death of King John:
Much like events in history, John faced adversity from his subjects. After a prolonged civil war, during which John was badly injured, he eventually succumbed to his wounds and died. Upon his death, the line of succession kicked in and his son Henry became king. Henry was only nine years old, and his first piece of business was defeating his mother's army; she declared war almost as soon as he was crowned. You can almost imagine the little man, scruffy hair and big blue eyes: "Mummy, but I thought that you loved me?"
Crusader Kings II doesn't take any prisoners. Well, it does; you frequently take opposing Dukes and Barons into custody after battles. Maybe it's best to say that it doesn't pull its punches. You rise and fall with the health and wellbeing of your characters, so protecting them against assassination plots quickly becomes a worthwhile obsession. But there is plenty that is well outside of your control; factors that are controlled by chance. Much of the time you are, as is so often the way in life, playing the odds.
Interlude 3: On Assassins and Chambermaids
Later on in the same game, the King of Scotland sent an assassin to kill me (now I'm one of John and Henry's descendants, I called him Nigel I think). He sent a murderer disguised as a chambermaid to my castle, and she took my eye. And all I did to him was kill his father and try to play the same trick on him. My first assassination attempt went beautifully. I had a near 50/50 chance of getting the kill, and thanks to my Spymaster and my own intrigue score, a pretty good chance of getting away with the crime undiscovered.
The first king died and his successor took the throne. I was trying to get some breathing space in my civil war and those pesky Scots kept coming over the border and picking fights with my woefully undermanned Northern armies; killing the king seemed like a good way of putting an end to the fighting. All it did was enrage his son and heir, who carried on the war. After my failed attempt on the young king's life, he repaid the favour: my chambermaid became his assassin and took my eye. All hail Nigel 'The Patch' Plantagenet.
Perhaps the most charming thing about Crusader Kings II is the storytelling experience it offers to gamers prepared to learn its intricate ways. This is a game about people, and the lives they build. I found the events that I experienced in the game became even more enthralling if I took a moment to consider them. Explaining these events to other people gave them further significance. This is a game that begs to be talked about, it wants you to revel in the history you create.
In a different game I started as the King of Scotland in 1066. It seemed a fairly straight forward place to begin; I was neighbouring England, and I knew enough about the history of the region to really enjoy events that took place outside of my own domain.
At this point I had taken the time to watch even more tutorial videos and ransack the manual repeatedly, so I felt much better equipped to deal with the challenges that would be thrown at me. To example how deep this game's mechanics are, I'll point out the manual: a fifty-page titan more thesis than quick-guide - but completely essential.
Interlude 4: The Auld Enemy
Within a few years my Scottish king had married an English noble lady with a strenuous link to the English crown. After a civil war had finished (an alternative series of events that transpired instead of the Norman conquest), the strenuous link became a genuine claim and my son and heir was crowned King of England. It was a triumph for me, because when you die you assume the role of your heir; within three generations I had maintained control of Scotland and landed the throne of England.
I was delighted, that is until all the English barons turned on me. It seems that I was too big for my boots. I'll cut a long story short; within another two generations I went from the King of Scotland and England, to being the Duke of Norfolk. A significant fall from grace I think you'll agree. I've still got a claim to both thrones, but without the resources to fund the invasion force required to take control of the surrounding countryside, I'm left with nothing to do but sit in my castle and dream of what could've been. I'm saving up for the war that will restore my family's honour, it's just going to take me some time to get the money I need.
The graphics on Crusader Kings II are functional. That's not to say they aren't very good, but this is not a game that pushes any boundaries. The maps are all very detailed, their bold styling is very pleasing to the eye. Switching between different views gives you access to different information; on one map you can see religious influence, another shows independent states, another shows you general terrain. Once you understand what these maps mean, and can use that information to make decisions, they come in very handy.
Considering the complicated nature of the game, the menu system is also nicely designed. Although it is very intricate, it functions well. It will take you a while to understand where everything is and what requires your immediate attention, but once you know what you're doing, everything is pretty easy to sort through. Which is a good thing, because this is a game that requires plenty of sorting. There were moments when I wished for a more detailed search engine, as working through lists looking for potential brides can be time consuming.
Each character is represented by a portrait that ages over time. Whilst there is plenty of variety in these images, because of the size of the database of characters there is a fair amount of repetition. This is most obvious when assigning guardians and arranging betrothals for children, where the generic portrait is always the same. I think there are already mods out there to address this situation, so it's not a big gripe.
There is a nice soundtrack, but after many hours of play you may be tempted to play your own tunes. It's not a criticism though, the ambiance is complemented perfectly by the music, but after thirty or forty hours you may want to listen to something else. There are also generic sound effects that can be heard when you select specific menus. These are fairly basic effects and aren't intrusive at all.
The only significant problem with Crusader Kings II is the level of complexity. I've mentioned that the tutorials are fairly essential (unless you've played the original), without them you'll find the learning curve is almost vertical. This is the opposite of pickup-and-play, it's more like prepare-and-play. I needed to invest a significant chunk of time on learning the ropes. I could have stopped after about an hour and gone on to have a perfectly enjoyable time with the game, but I wanted to be good at this one, and so more time studying was required. To be an expert at this game would require true dedication over many years.
There is a multiplayer element, but it takes time to get into it. If this is something you want to explore, you'll need to put in some groundwork first, as dropping in and out of games isn't really an option. Up to 32 players can compete in local multiplayer, but Paradox recommends 12 players over the internet. Gameplay is much as it is in single player, but with the added spice of pitting your dynastic wits against fellow humanoids.
I have no problem giving this game a score of nine. It absolutely deserves it. Anything less would be heresy. But it's a nine with a warning. To successfully progress in the game, the right conditions need to be observed; everything needs to be just right. This could be considered analogous of the games overall appeal. If you enjoy European history (especially the Medieval era), genealogy, storytelling and/or strategy, then Crusader Kings II will be one of the most impressive games you will ever play. However, if you prefer your games more immediate and/or gun-tastic, you probably won't get on with Crusader Kings II's slow pace and menu-heavy approach. This is the absolute antithesis of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3.
As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Crusader Kings II. It kept me up until the early hours of the morning and it got me telling people about the history I was rewriting (whether they wanted to hear it or not). The rich blend of history, war and intrigue left me completely immersed in what is a deep and compelling strategy simulation. I was told interesting and exciting stories and was constantly entertained, often when I least expected it. Really, that's all you can ask of a game, and that's why Crusader Kings II is my new favourite strategy title. The King is dead, long live the King.