The original launch version of Crusader Kings II only lets you play as Christian characters. This isn’t altogether surprising; after all, it’s a game about the papal crusades. The Sword of Islam expansion, on the other hand, adds the ability to play as Muslim characters – and that’s not as small an addition as you’d think. This a complete overhaul of the original game, warranting a real “expansion pack” label rather than a quick patch. Once you start playing as a Muslim character, you’ll notice straight away differences in the UI, the war system, the diplomacy system, and more.
Notably, there’s a new counter in the top-right of the screen, alongside wealth, prestige, piety, and the other usual ones. This one is called “decadence”, and it’s a percentage representing how decadent your character is. Your decadence grows based on how much land you directly own, as well as some other variables, ultimately representing how greedy you are. You want to keep this figure as low as possible, as higher decadence leads to lower morale in battle and lower tax revenue, but this means giving land away to other dynasty members and being a charitable person.
This is quite at odds with the nature of the game when you play as a Catholic nation, when you are strongly encouraged to grab as much land as possible whenever you can. There are also new “cassus belli”, or reasons for war, for Islamic characters, but it’s hard to take advantage of them without incurring wrath from your Caliph or neighbouring countries. For example, there’s the new “conquest” cassus belli: you can claim any county that is adjacent to one of your own, at the cost of a little piety. This is really useful if you want to usurp a duchy, or steal other Islamic land.
The downside here is that you will generally lose piety on a monthly basis if you’re attacking a fellow Muslim nation. If you’re Sunni, you can invade Shia countries without any problem, and vice versa, but attacking another Sunni nation means the Sunni Caliph will not look down on you favourably. The fact that there are two branches of Islam, Sunni and Shia, also makes Jihad a little more complex than papal crusades: if the Shia Caliph declares Jihad, but you’re a Sunni leader, then you can’t join in, and so forth. This really divides the strength of the Muslim community.
That’s especially noticeable once you declare a holy war on any Catholic nation as well; any country in western Europe will suddenly pull in all of its neighbours to join the war, and you’ll likely be overrun. I prefer playing as smaller nations in Crusader Kings II, because it’s all the more satisfying to conquer huge parts of Europe with them, but a small Islamic nation will face the problem of being constantly bullied not only by Catholics, but also by neighbouring Islamic nations. It’s challenging, but at the same time, it’s even more satisfying to emerge the victor from that situation.
Sword of Islam also expands the map a little bit, so that mainland Africa is no longer just the inaccessible “Sahara Desert” south of Morocco. There are now bits of Mali, to the south of which are Pagan nations at the start of the game in 1066 (but these never last), and a few additional counties, although they make the map look disorganised compared to the original. These additional counties almost look like esoteric ladders heading south through Africa; it’s not as aesthetically pleasing as the original map, but more land certainly makes the game more interesting.
On a more personal scale, men can now take as many wives as they like, and women can never inherit; your heir is always your most powerful son, or the closest relative. This means that picking your heir is as easy and grabbing a son and granting him plenty of land to make him most “powerful”. This actually makes succession a much simpler event, with no major risk of land being lost, but being unable to organise matrilineal marriages can make the prospect of marrying your dynasty into inheritance quite difficult.
I’m not going to touch on the differences to the Council, which now includes posts like Grand Vizier and offers slightly different functions, but I do want to lay praise upon the intrigue option that allows you to go on the Hajj to Mecca. This option puts your nation into a regency for a little while during which your character is making his pilgrimage, and is littered with event pop-ups which are so frequent that the game begins to resemble interactive fiction. You’re given scenarios, offered options, and the result is an engaging character experience in a game with very few of them.
In short, this is definitely worth the purchase if you’ve already exhausted the original Crusader Kings II, but I wouldn’t recommend an Islamic play-through to less experienced players; it’s best to try a few Catholic rules first. It’s more challenging than playing either a Catholic or Orthodox leader, and you won’t have as much fun if you’re constantly fighting off invasions and infidels. At £7.95, Sword of Islam is a steal that adds an enormous amount of additional content – just be sure you have the time and experience to enjoy it properly.