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.
Gamereactor: When you sat down to make Crusader Kings II, what was the one thing you wanted to improve on most from the first game?
Henrik Fåhraeus: I wanted the characters to matter more. I wanted to expand on their personalities, opinions and interactions in the hope that all kinds of interesting stories would tend to emerge. The original Crusader Kings resembled Europa Universalis more, with a lot of features pertaining to the country. Now, that's not a bad thing, but my vision is for each of our historical games to have its own unique "soul". CK is about rulers and family, EU is about nation states, and Victoria deals with the people.
It has been a long journey - three years - since launch, and yet you're still releasing new content and it's still a popular game. What do you think the secret to that success has been?
HF: Mainly, I think the game offers a unique form of entertainment. There really is nothing like it in terms of its scope and blend of gameplay (except for the original Crusader Kings, of course.) Secondly, I think that it succeeded with its goal of being a kind of procedural storyteller. It is clearly an "anecdote generator", and that caused the game to almost market itself through word of mouth and written accounts on the Internet. Lastly, I think people have grown to expect a certain longevity from these kinds of epic, open simulation type games; especially if they are hugely moddable.
It's a notoriously difficult game to get into. How have you made it more accessible for newcomers? Do you think there's more that could be done?
HF: I hear you. We made a major attempt at smoothing out the learning curve with the addition of the "Learning Scenario" in the Charlemagne expansion. There is a great deal more we could (and should) do, and it is certainly something we are taking very seriously in our upcoming games. I am not a great believer in separate tutorials; players want to get right in there and start playing, so I think in-game learning scenarios and advisor systems are the way forward. For CKII, we are focusing on making the in-game interfaces better and more intuitive (the first step could be seen in the patch that came with the latest expansion, "Way of Life", with its new diplomatic interface.)
How do you plan the expansions? What do you look for first, a good starting point, or a change to the mechanics?
HF: Mainly, we look at the areas of the game that we, the devs, find lacking. We also listen to our players, of course, and try to get around to the most wanted features eventually. Then we try to find themes for the next couple of expansions, and decide which new features should be added when. The greatest challenge for us is actually to separate paid expansion content from what should be added for free in patches. If we want to alter any of the core mechanics we can hardly charge for that. So, we usually try to unlock something, or add a slightly peripheral but still cool new feature as expansion material, and give players core gameplay improvements for free.
Are there any plans to revisit any more fantastical ideas, like the Sunset Invasion expansion, or should we expect future content to be increasingly grounded in history?
HF: I don't think we'll be seeing anything quite as fantastic as the Sunset Invasion expansion anytime soon, but perhaps material pertaining to medieval myths and legends...
How long do you intend on supporting the game? Just how much further can you take it?
HF: We've always said for as long as our players keep asking for more! That said, of course there will come a point when it's simply no longer viable for the company. The game is also getting extremely complex and increasingly hard to maintain and expand upon, but we are now in the middle of a major "tech upgrade" and bug cleansing effort that we started in parallel with the "Way of Life" expansion. We plan to release three more major expansions this year, and then we'll take stock and see where we are. Personally, I've learned so much from my mistakes that I'm dying to make Crusader Kings III, but that is still many years off...
How do you ensure the player gets value from an expansion? I'm not saying I agree with them, but some people have been less than happy with the amount of content offered in Way of Life. With so many smaller expansions, how do you make sure that they're substantial enough to warrant the purchase?
HF: Pricing is difficult since "value" is purely subjective. We try to match the price of an expansion with its design ambition and the amount of work that actually goes into making it. The trick, of course, is to put that effort into things that are immediately noticeable and impressive (a reason why, for example, AI expansions are a terrible idea.)
What's the process when balancing an expansion against the full game? With Way of Life, a lot of people just started seducing characters all the time. Was this something you expected? If not, how do you go about fixing something like that?
HF: I was a bit worried that might happen since it's simply such great fun being a medieval pickup artist! But then I had a minor epiphany; if people are picking a Focus purely for role-playing reasons, regardless of whether or not it will help further their goals in the game, that means we succeeded with our goal of making a role-playing expansion. That said, perhaps seduction is a bit too easy, and AI Casanovas were too prone to target player spouses, but these are things we can remedy fairly easily.
There's plenty of mods about, how many do you try yourselves and which are your favourites?
HF: I rarely play with mods for my own games, probably because I see the base game as my "mod"; my version of the game. I do love modding though, and usually fool around with other games I play (especially Skyrim.) I love the idea of allowing people to customise a game to their own liking. After all, the developers can only make the exact game they themselves want to play. However, I do keep an eye on what the modding community is up to from time to time, especially total conversions like Elder Kings and Game of Thrones, but also mods that add quality content without altering the core mechanics too much.
Have any of the mods inspired the team, and might you ever consider using the CKII engine and style and make another, completely different game?
HF: Sometimes we are impressed by mods... so much so that we hire the modders. I should know, because that was how I got picked up by Paradox back in 2001! More recently, we've hired Wiz, Martin Anward, of "CK2Plus" fame. I would definitely consider making a completely different game similar to CKII, but I would rather build upon the latest version of the Clausewitz engine.
What are you most proud about when you consider the totality of Crusader Kings?
HF: Definitely the fact that players keep telling the weird, the heartwarming, and sometimes the frankly disturbing stories they perceive while playing the game. That was always my main hope and ambition!
I don't want to put ideas in your head, but CKII, if you could get the interface to work, would be amazing on tablet. Is this something you've investigated before?
HF: It is something we are actually investigating. I think we could get the interface to work, but I'm not so sure about memory and processing power. Don't take this as any kind of announcement though; we are just doing some internal R&D.
And finally, what's next for CKII? What does the future hold?
HF: Next up for CKII we will finish our "tech upgrade" and spend a few weeks cracking down on the bug count. Then we will start working on the next expansion which is currently in the planning stages. The plan is to release the upgrades as part of the free patch that goes with that expansion. This expansion will not be event driven like "Way of Life", but more akin to "Legacy of Rome" and "Sons of Abraham".
Crusader Kings II is available to buy via a variety of digital stores, but you should start looking at the Paradox Store. The game and DLC is also available on Steam, and you can download player-generated content (such as the Game of Thrones mod) via the Steam Workshop.
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