I reviewed Crusader Kings II shortly after I started working for Gamereactor, and it was the first time I'd played a Paradox strategy game. As such, and as those of you who have played a game of this kind (and/or one made by this studio) will know all too well, it was a challenge to get into. However, once I'd done some research, figured out the various laws of succession, and gotten to grips with the incredibly intricate user interface, I discovered a wonderful game waiting for me.
Crusader Kings II has been one of the few games that I have returned to time and time again in the past three years, and I'd go as far as calling it my favourite strategy game (that, or maybe the new Xcom), such is my affection for the unique blend of role-play and dynastic simulation. Only the first Civilization has had a comparable impact on me. While I fondly remember the birth of the real-time strategy genre, with Command & Conquer, Warcraft II and Dune II all getting plenty of playtime on the family PC, as I've gotten older I've drifted more towards more thoughtful, less action-orientated titles, and to turn-based strategy. That perhaps explains why I enjoy CKII; it offers a campaign that affords me room to pause and ponder my actions.
I didn't realise it at the time, but when I wrote my initial review and laced it with anecdotal stories based around my experiences in the game, I was doing the same thing as many other players; sharing my personal experiences with the game. In this respect, when it comes to offering up interesting and unique player-driven stories, it's hard to think of a title that delivers more scope or opportunity. There's so much going on, so many different variables and interpretations, different characters with different motivations - there's a huge amount to explore and discover.
For the uninitiated, CKII is a dynasty simulator. When the player presses play they're ushered through history, and must tweak a plethora of settings and options in order to govern and expand as they see fit. However, where games like Europa Universalis IV are about the empires that you build, Crusader Kings is more focused on the people, the characters. The player assumes the role of the head of the family, and must marry, have children, inherit, and plot their way to prominence and power.
Regularly the player-character is presented with pop-up scenarios that carry with them potentially game-changing decisions. There's also interactions with other characters, from both within your own dynasty, and from without. These interactions shape your domain, and your character's individual story, which itself can end at any time. When one character dies the laws of succession kick in and the player then takes on the role of the deceased's heir. Each character is given new stats, and so each succession represents a change of pace - for example one character might be wise and well-respected, while his son and heir might be a total toerag, or an imbecile, or a serial womaniser. It's up to the player to adapt as required, and steer the family through history and its many ups and downs.
Expansions like The Old Gods and Charlemagne have pushed the start date back, dragging the game into the dark ages, introducing paganism, and providing the player with even more history to wade through. Another nice feature is the save convertor that allows the player to take their dynasty and implant it in Europa Universalis IV, in the process offering a player the chance to weave their way through a potential millennia of history.
DLC expansions can be split into different categories, but it is to Paradox's credit that they've continued to evolve and develop their game, and will continue to do so for at least the rest of this year (see the next page for more details). On the one hand there's the aforementioned expansions that stretch out the experience either through more years of game, or via an enlargement of the game world, and on the other side of the spectrum there's the updates that focus on the events that players will experience in the game.
In reality there's usually a mix of elements in each expansion. The most recent - Way of Life - offered players the chance to revel in the role-playing side of the game, with a particular focus on the romantic (or not, as the case may be) activities of the characters. Many people found that there was too much seduction going on, but this never bothered me all that much, as I wasn't on the receiving end of too many affairs, and because my own role-play wasn't focused on sleeping with as many characters as possible; as such it never turned out to be a huge problem. In fact, I rather enjoyed the latest expansion, and the one before it, Charlemagne.
Being honest, Sword of Islam, Legacy of Rome, and The Republic all kind of passed me by. I've got them all now, and although they enhance the overall package, I didn't rush out to buy them. It took one particular expansion - The Old Gods - to pull me back in after some months away. Viking raids might be frustrating while you're trying to build an empire on the east coast of England, but it was a nice opportunity to take control of a pagan country and make a play for world domination, and the earlier start date was also intriguing.
I've yet to dip into the new eastern lands opened up in the Rajas of India, and the only expansion I routinely turn off before I boot up the game is the Sunset Invasion (a fantasy scenario where the Aztecs invade from the west). Later, after another hiatus, it would be the quick successive content drops in the form of Charlemagne and Way of Life that had me hooked once again.
Thanks to the robust range of expansions, there's so many different directions that a player can take, whether that be a fresh starting point in history, or new geography to explore. I think it's fair to say that the replay value of CKII is immense, only rivalled by similarly dense simulations and strategy games (Football Manager and Civilization, I'm looking at you). There's intricate pockets of history to explore, characters to discover and experience, twists and turns around every corner, and enough player-generated stories to fill a rather large tome. Even after three years, Crusader Kings II is in great shape.
I'm clearly a fan, and with that in mind I had some questions for PDS game director and CKII lead designer Henrik Fåhraeus. I asked him about the game as it is, his thoughts looking back on the past three years, and his hopes for the title looking ahead to the future. Head over to the next page to see what he had to say.