It’s almost impossible to review a game such as Crusader Kings II. For those of you who aren’t interested in grand strategy games or are without a passing interest in the historical time period, I’m not really quite sure what I could say to change your mind. Crusader Kings II is an intimidating title and it does take an investment to get into it; however the scope of what is offered is downright incredible. While I’m not quite sure if there’s a magic phrase I can utter to convince you to give this a try any more than I’m convinced that there’s something I could say to dissuade current fans, bear with me as I break down just why this may be one of my favorite games of late, even if I still have no idea what I’m doing.
I started off as Kaiser Henriech VII overseeing the mighty Holy Roman Empire and I went in with one very simple goal. I wasn’t interested in foreign lands, and I wasn’t interested in protecting the faith through crusades; I simply wanted to maintain prosperity in my empire. Well, this was going to be a monumental task from the beginning. Within a year, I had ostracized the Pope, infuriated Sweden and had peasant uprisings throughout my borders. I immediately flashed back to Futurama when Fry was the emperor of a planet after accidentally drinking his predecessor. I may be in charge here, but I have absolutely no idea of what I’m doing and I get the feeling my reign may be cut short.
Crusader Kings II is a massive title where up to 32 players can play online in a real-time strategy format. The ultimate goal is to keep your dynasty alive as long as possible while racking up prestige and piety points. When your character dies, all of the points you have accrued are added together and you take over as the next in line of succession. You’ll continue down this road until either line has died off or you’ve lost all of your land. At that point, the game ends and your score will be compared to some of the great houses of history.
As steep as the learning curve is, Paradox Interactive has gone to great lengths to help players jump in. The tutorial system breaks down most of the major facets in the game into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels, and you’ll be able to play through them fairly quickly. I did run into the occasional issue in the tutorials, where the game wouldn’t advance, but it was easy enough to back out and jump back in without losing much time. I can’t say for sure that this was an issue with the game or if I was simply doing things wrong, though.
The interface seems quite imposing at first glance for newcomers, but it’s more streamlined than I had first imagined. Paradox went to great length in order to make sure that users would have all of their major tools right at their fingertips, but there are endless menus for more experienced players to get lost in. The map itself is presented as a gorgeous rendering of the landscape, but since most of the time you’ll be staring at color coded patches of land more reminiscent of a Risk game, it’s easy to overlook.
The vast majority of my time in game was spent harboring relationships with my neighbors. See, I imagine myself as a benevolent dictator, and I went out of my way to make sure that my vassals were sated. I offered lands as a reward for good deeds, appointed royal titles and reached out to my neighbors to educate my children and arranged marriages for my council. Just like your character, everyone else on the map has their own aspirations that you can help them with as well. My brother had the aspiration to be married; I worked a deal for him to marry the daughter of the Prince of Poland. My nephew had the aspiration of usurping me while taking over the Holy Roman Empire, so I sent him to a dungeon. So, maybe I’m not all that benevolent.
Apparently, this became noticed by a few of my lords. My spymaster started catching wind of a plot to assassinate my son, the rightful heir to the empire. I immediately sprang into action and tried to imprison the conspirators, but ultimately failed. This started the civil war that was my eventual down bringing. Five lords took up arms against me, and while I was able to defend against most of them, I eventually fell in battle leaving my son to restore peace. Ultimately, he lost control of the throne, but still owned a major portion of the land.
The actual combat system is fairly hands off. Once your troops arrive at the battlefield, there isn’t anything you can do but hope that your morale and numbers are enough to beat out your opponent. You can split your armies into flanks to add a bit of strategy, but I never remembered to do this in the heat of battle, so I can’t comment on how much it actually helps.
Your armies are raised from your personal levies as well as those of your vassals. While they can’t refuse you, they will start to complain if their armies have been out for too long, and it’s not really the best idea to tempt fate by toying with their liege. Luckily, you can call levies individually so you can give someone a free pass on the upcoming war if they’re not especially happy with you. There are also mercenaries available for hire, but they come with a steep price. Mercenaries require an initial payment as well as wages, but will be happy to take land from you if you’re unable to pay. Holy orders will only fight Muslims or Pagans, and while Muslims won’t cost you any gold, you’ll lose standing with the church.
Peace time is anything but tranquil. There are a myriad of plots, decisions and ambitions to contend with when you’re not decimating your opponents. Ambitions are fairly simplistic on the whole; get married, have a son, earn a title from your liege or over throw his empire. However, plots manage to take on a much more sinister scope. The vast majority of them revolve around assassinating political rivals or overturning laws. In order for your plot to be successful, you’ll have to invite other nobles to join your cause, but that’s only going to happen if they like you more than the target.
Decisions are more standard occurrences, such as inviting a noble to court or throwing a festival. These often invoke a bit of role-playing, where you’ll be given a chance to make a few minor decisions, but there’s not a lot of variety to be found. The outcomes of these usually lead to some sort of character trait that will impact your play down the road. For instance, I was a king who took pleasure in the minor things and could never manage to turn down a second helping of rabbit pie. My gluttony was looked down upon by the church and by women, so I had to work twice as hard to earn a woman’s affection. Sometimes, games mirror real life a bit too well. Luckily, there are random events throughout the game so your character will constantly be evolving, losing and gaining traits as time progresses.
The major issue I found with the peace time decisions was that they seemed to favor the lower ranking nobles. As King and liege of an entire empire, there wasn’t really a lot available to me. The only ambitions I remember being available were to have a child, get married, and be seen as a paragon of virtue in the eyes of the church. Once my son was tasked with rebuilding the empire, there were many more options available revolving around rebuilding his power.
Dealing with your lords and vassals can be taxing at times. More often than not, they’ll be fighting amongst themselves over land, or plotting assassinations. While having to lead a nation of spoiled children only interested in obtaining more land and power may be historically accurate, I caught myself more than once cursing some Duke for not being able to handle his own problems.
The small amount of events you can cause through decisions are always the same, so they lose a bit of their shine and become more of a vehicle for stat padding. While the random nature of the game will offer different outcomes, I can’t help but think that Paradox was stepping on the door to greatness with this mechanic but never quite walked through.
The magical part of this game is that random element. My game will be vastly different from yours just due to the nature of how we approach problems. I ignored the Crusades and bought my indulgences from the Pope, but you may work hand in hand with him in an effort to enlighten the world on the virtues of Christianity. The amount of individual freedom offered here is simply staggering.
My son never did recover my empire. He spent the majority of his life fighting a brutal civil war that was heightened by the surprise invasion of Sweden and the betrayal of Denmark. My legacy lived on through him and was passed down to his son as well as his son after that. It all came to an end when a plot to over through the current ruler was discovered at the last moment and he found himself alone against the entire empire. He was taken alive in battle, and without an heir, he died alone in a dungeon somewhere near France. Not the magical end I had envisioned when I took over the reins of the mightiest empire in Europe, but somehow very suiting. At the end of the day, my legacy is nothing more than a footnote for the history books. Now, it’s time to see what I could do if I owned all of France.
This review is based on a copy of the game which we received for review purposes.