I should preface this article by explaining how much I regret failing to cover Crusader Kings II on its launch; the team at Paradox were kind enough to provide me a free copy of the game, and I was too swamped with other tasks and assignments to delve into yet another grand strategy and offer my opinions. That’s because grand strategy is a genre that appeals to me on paper, but which I often find convoluted and difficult to play in practice. It marred my ability to review Sengoku well, and explains why I relegated Europa Universalis III to a colleague. Crusader Kings II, though, as I discovered when I finally played it, is a very different beast in the best way possible.
For one, it feels simpler without actually dumbing down any key mechanics. Yes, there’s a vast diplomacy system which is difficult to master, and a newbie will face a steep difficulty curve, but for once the tutorials seem both comprehensive and concise, and the general flow of gameplay as forthcoming with details as possible. The development team are clearly not neglecting fans either, as a number of patches have seen the light of day since the game was first released, smoothing out a lot of functions that were rough at first, such as crusades. Over the past few weeks, I’ve familiarised myself with the game controls, and I’m now on the verge of finishing a full game.
That’s more of an accomplishment than you might think, because a “full game” consists of around four in-game centuries, over which you’ll have to defend your land and take care of a number of threats within and outwith your kingdom. I started as the King of Scotland in the earliest possible year, 1066, which didn’t put me in the best possible position: chunks of the west coast belonged to an independent nation known a The Isles; the county of Caithness belonged to Norway; and, of course, that terrifying and huge country called England loomed to the south. Despite that, I managed to turn things around in the four centuries, slowly but surely, and it wasn’t entirely easy. See, the length of a game of Crusader Kings II and some other minor decisions greatly influence the way players will react to certain events.
For example, my favourite experience: in the 13th century, I received a letter from the Duke of Moray threatening me to lower crown authority in the Kingdom of Scotland. This would mean that my vassals would be able to wage wars within my kingdom, and that they would be obliged to offer fewer of their men to my command in national wars. I didn’t take too kindly to the threat, so the Duke declared independence, and unfortunately, he took a large amount of land with him – and that of his few allies as well. Suddenly, large chunks of my land were no longer under my control, but I was confident I could emerge from the war as victor, reuniting the rebellious counties with my country. That wasn’t the case.
As a result of some very odd diplomatic functions I don’t quite understand, the Duke died, and his land was inherited by his son. The war ended, apparently inconclusively, and his former allies stood down, but the land belonging to Moray remained independent instead of reuniting with Scotland. Under the war system of the game, that would mean potentially two centuries’ worth of wars for each of Moray’s counties to be recovered. I can’t put into words how frustrating that was, and what unadulterated anger poured into me. Were this any other game, I might have reloaded a previous save, but Crusader Kings II is designed in a way that discourages this, and rightly so.
The effort I put into building a kingdom of that size directly translated to my anger at its deconstruction, and without the inconvenience in undoing it, my work becomes somewhat less valuable. Crusader Kings II isn’t just massively time-consuming, but also incredibly immersive, perhaps proving once and for all that “immersion” does not equate to first-person realism. After all, I’m a non-religious pacifist in real life, but a devout Catholic, veteran crusader, and executer of heretics in-game. It’s also inconvenient to load from an older save unless you wish to quit and restart the game, go through the humiliation of “resigning”, which will tally up a final score based on your line of rulers’ total piety and prestige and tell you how internationally relevant you were (which, if you resign early, is often not very).
Despite handling an additional two revolts in Spain and Portugal at the time, owing to my death and replacement by my less-renowned heir, I eventually recovered all of Moray’s land in around thirty years. My first move was noticing a Sunni nation invading part of Moray, and so I stepped in as an ally and fought them off, still having an early hope of recovering Moray’s lands as a whole instead of individually and not wanting to see some lost beforehand; secondly, I saw a handful of Moray’s vassals revolting in wars of independence, and joined them as allies too, after which they each rejoined my kingdom as vassals. Finally, the decimated Moray stood on my doorstep with a leader still too proud to accept my offer of vassalisation.
In the end, I started a plot to have him killed, and found men in his court who were happy to back me on it. Together, we displaced him, and his young son was much more reasonable and happily rejoined my kingdom. It was probably the most intense portion of my game, in which I paid the utmost attention to every possible detail, as opposed to the preceding years of a laissez-faire attitude and the game set to fast-forward. As a reunited kingdom, and in the century of gameplay left, we eliminated the Sunni faith from eastern Europe and Africa. How impressive is that for what began as a wee northern nation? I can’t say I’ve ever had as much fun as that in any other strategy game, much less any of Paradox’s other grand strategies.