“Want to earn an immeasurable amount of respect from me?” began a proposition I put to an acquaintance almost a month ago. “I’ve 35 years or so left in this game of Crusader Kings II, where I control all of the British Isles, most of Spain and Portugal, all of northern Africa, Sicily, and most of Hungary. I’ve just declared war on the Byzantine Empire, who control most of Eastern Europe and reach the edge of the map to the north and south. If I win, they’ll become one of my vassals. All you have to do is take this save game and win the war.”
I wasn’t kidding. If he had accomplished that task, I would have been beyond impressed. In the end, he didn’t even try, but I’m sure he would have failed in any case, not being privy to the information I gleaned throughout my reign (or reigns) as the king of Scotland – a Scotland whose borders encompass at least a dozen times that of modern-day Scotland. How would he know that the dukes of Connacht, Tangiers, and Brittany are prone to rebelling? How would he know that truces with certain superpowers would be ending in only a few months? He wouldn’t.
I know these things intimately because I’ve sunk hundreds of hours into this one save game, and I can recall information about the fantasy world it represents at will. It’s almost like sitting through a history class and learning about wars, assassinations, and border changes, except that these are all make-believe. Another key difference is that I’ve spent much longer familiarising myself with characters and countries in this game of Crusader Kings II than I ever did studying history at high school. At the same time, this game has inspired in me an interest in history, something my teachers never could.
As much as Crusader Kings II is a game, it might be described better as an interactive experience; to put it bluntly, it’s a simulation of Europe in the 11th to 15th centuries which feels completely accurate, and is littered with little indications of its historical roots, like buttons on character pages which instantly summon Wikipedia articles on their real-world counterparts. Taking control of a real, historical figure and then leading them down completely different paths is an incredibly fun endeavour, especially when you can see the effects one hundred, or even two hundred years down the line.
Those more accustomed to “traditional” strategy games like Total War will potentially be flabbergasted by the inability to declare war on just anybody you’d like. Indeed, even players of past Paradox titles like Sengoku might be taken aback at the “cassus belli” system, which demands that certain criteria are fulfilled before war can be declared. These range from simple religious persecution, such as declaring a holy war to take land from Sunni Muslims, to more complicated “de jure” claims, and the occasional fabricated claim which can be produced (with time and cost) to take land without a legitimate right to it.
The way in which “de jure” and “de facto” rulers in Crusader Kings II works is a large part of what makes the game so compelling. All land is split into counties, each of which belongs to a de jure duchy (or equivalent title in other cultures) and a de jure kingdom or empire. Any character, including the player, who controls at least 50% of any duchy or kingdom’s de jure land can usurp the title, making him the respective duke or king, but usurping a title doesn’t give you land. Rather, it gives you a cassus belli to invade any kingdoms holding counties that are part of your de jure territory.
That makes winning land just as much about diplomacy as it is about raw military force. Vassals are much more likely to revolt if you’re not their de jure liege, whereas some independent nations might even accept an offer of vassalisation if you are. Fabricating claims on a county can take years, and will cost not only cash but also prestige and piety, two valuable figures which contribute to your final score at the end of the game. You have to usurp smaller titles, like duchies, in order to gain land and then usurp larger titles, like kingdoms, and launch a major invasion of another realm.
There are a couple of other matters which come into play as well: crown laws, which you can change with enough vassal support, only affect your de jure land, and not your de facto land. That means a county which belongs, de jure, to another ruler, can defy your crown laws: it might declare war on an adjacent county, something usually forbidden by your particular level of crown authority, or it might be paying lower taxes than you’d like. You are occasionally given opportunities to vote on a proposed law change in said nation, but it’s not the same as your domestic level of control.
Succession comes into play as well, since you’ll continue playing as your character’s heir upon their death. If you hold five kingdoms, certain styles of succession make it difficult to hold onto them all. Elective is usually the way to go, as it allows you to nominate a specific successor, but your vassals will also be free to nominate a successor. When the duke of Galloway, known and respected widely for his piety and stone-fisted rule, became the preferred heir to one of my thrones, it wasn’t only morally ambiguous for me to assassinate him, but also difficult as I found few supporters.
Moral ambiguity is something that arises often in the game, as its gameplay is almost designed to completely bend your moral compass. You’ll find yourself asking “is it really so wrong to murder my wife in order to marry a foreign queen and secure an alliance in my holy war?”, and perhaps even discovering that it is quite simple to organise the murder of a child cleverly placed into the care of your spymaster – the man responsible for arrests and assassinations.
What I hope I explained here is that Crusader Kings II is complex yet incredibly fun. It’s arguably the most polished and comprehensive grand strategy that Paradox have ever published, and whether you’ve played their previous games or you’re new to the genre altogether, a bit of patience and a wild imagination will go a long way in making this an amazing game experience. Personally, my imagination is dwarfed only by my fantasies of grandeur, something vital for going through the challenging, realistic portions of this game – and that’s why Crusader Kings II appeals to me.