If you asked me how do you ‘win’ at Crusader Kings II, I would have you say you don’t, not really. Sure, there is an overall ‘goal’ to get as high a score as possible when the game ends, but in a game that’s focused primarily on legacy, playing is winning, and the more you play, the more you win. CK2 is the latest title from Paradox Interactive’s internal studio (now named Paradox Development Studios). Sequel to the original 2004 Crusader Kings, this new game takes advantage of everything Paradox has learned, and everything they’ve done in the past 8 years, and puts to together to form one of the best paradox titles so far.
Crusader Kings II
|Europe in 1066
is a grand-strategy game with a twist. Starting in 1066 and lasting for 400 years in real-time, instead of just being a faceless embodiment of your nation, you play as an actual person, which gives the whole grand-strategy/management part of the game a bit more of a personal element. Think of it a bit like The Sims
if it helps, as every character in the game has stats and traits, and they grow old and die just like any other person would. You can marry, get divorced, and have children etc… and once your character dies he (or she) is replaced by your legitimate heir. So long as you keep playing as someone who is part of your blood dynasty, you’ll never truly lose the game.
As far as winning is concerned, each dynasty has a ‘score’ which is added to after each successive character dies, and how much is added depends on how much prestige that character earned during his or her lifetime (you can play as women on occasion, but due to the nature of the times it’s rare), and when the game ends (which is, as we said, usually when your family tree dies out), the higher the score you have, the better you did. Since you’re only playing against yourself in the offline mode though, even getting a high score doesn’t really matter. There is a multiplayer mode, but it’s basically the same thing except you can have up to 32 real people in control of dynasties instead of the AI, which adds yet another interesting element to the game.
How the game plays depend on so many different factors, it’s going to be hard to list them all, but we’ll give it a go. In terms of general play paths, it initially really depends on where your family starts in the pecking order– You can choose to play as a Count (the lowest playable rank), a Duke or a King/Emperor (there are only two playable empires in this game). A dynasty’s rank can change, so if you’re defeated or your liege hates you, you can be demoted, and if you’re lucky enough you can even promote yourself or get promoted. Where your family is located, and who the liege is, is also important. Playing as the King of England, for example (assuming you start at the earliest date possible – you can choose to start anywhere in the 400 year span, and there are several preset start dates as well), means you’ll have to fight off the Norwegian and the Norman invasions at the same time. Playing as of the families in Spain will mean you will always be battling the Moors, and the Byzantine Empire is usually rife with civil war and wars with the middle-eastern Muslims.
And that’s just the combat side of things – there are several other areas of gameplay available as well. Counts and Dukes can gain higher ranks and glory by implementing plots – plots to lower crown authority in the kingdom, plots to kill a particular person, whether it be your liege, your liege’s wife, his heir, your own wife… there’s also plots to gain places of importance within the nation like Marshal and Steward (although actually gaining these titles doesn’t seem to do much aside from net you some minor bonuses, which is a shame). Diplomacy isn’t as straight forward as in modern times, and alliances only really come about by tying dynasties’ together in marriage – and even then that’s only if the other family likes you more than whoever you’re fighting.
|You and your family. Imagine Jeremy Kyle, with more beheading...
Keeping up? Good. Managing your kingdom is also less of a direct affair then maybe you’re used to. Not quite to the same level as, say, Majesty, but you can only really directly control a handful of counties or areas depending on your stats and rank. Everything else has to be given off to other characters who then become your vassals, and how they manage their own Demense is their own affair. Even then, you can only control directly the principle Castle in an area, and any sub-domains – Baronies (which are castles, towns or churches) also have to be controlled by NPC’s, although you can still invest in them if you wish.
Technology also isn’t ‘researched’ in the normal way; ideas just simply spread using some back-end formula that you won’t really understand unless you go digging. You can choose certain focuses that help speed up the development of certain techs. Then there’s religion – You can only play as nations that follow a Christian religion (no matter the denomination), which means you’ll have to contend with the pope. If you’re not careful you’ll be excommunicated, and if your local bishops like him more than you, you won’t get any money from them either. The Pope will also call all the crusades, and you can also set-up an Anti-Pope, if you wanted.
This is only scratching the surface; there are loads more subtle gameplay elements that help shape each individual playthrough. We’re trying not to put the game on too much of a pedestal, but we hope you believe us when we say this is a very engaging game. There are no really glaring bugs, the AI seems fairly competent, and there’s plenty of replayability. Still, a couple of points should be kept in mind – the higher up the ranking tree you get, the less intrigue options that are available to you, to the point where playing as a King is actually pretty boring on that front, as you’ll spend most of your time expanding your kingdom, putting down revolts and (if you have time/funds) crusading.
You could almost argue that this game is slightly misnamed as well. Whilst crusading in the holy lands is a prominent theme, we’d be surprised if you spent much, if any, time actually crusading. The further from the Holy Lands your chosen realm is, the harder it is to get over there, and so much goes on in the game it’s actually pretty easy to ignore the calls of the pope – civil wars, rebellions, expansion against neighbours… not to mention if you’re a vassal your crown laws may forbid you from crusading on your own. There are so many more immediate issues that, despite sinking a significant amount of hours into the game, we only went on a real crusade once.
Some of you may also be dismayed that the Muslim and other non-Christian nations are still not playable – something only the modding community could make happen with the last game. Have no fear though; Paradox is still very much about the DLCs, and what better theme for a major expansion than playing the other side of the coin. As we’ve already said, this is a highly polished game already so whilst there’ll still be the usual commitment as far as post-release support goes, we’d be surprised if much work will be needed immediately.
Whilst the subject matter and the set-up may not be to everyone’s liking, Crusader Kings II is definitely the most impressive Paradox game to date. The game mechanics are an interesting twist on a well-known genre, the code itself is highly polished, and it’s just a really fun and interesting game to play. Some minor improvements could still be made, and this really is a game of patience, even more so than other Paradox games. Like we said at the beginning though, playing is winning, and there’s something quite satisfying about leading your house to power and glory through whatever means you can, for as long as you can. Putting down a serious revolt, seeing a plot come to fruition, winning a protracted war… many things can be considering the ‘top’ moment in this game.
|To capture a province, you need to first take the principle holding, and then every barony in turn
CRUSADER KINGS II VERDICT
Whilst the subject matter and the set-up may not be to everyone’s liking, Crusader Kings II is definitely the most impressive Paradox game to date. The game mechanics are an interesting twist on a well-known genre, the code itself is highly polished, and it’s just a really fun and interesting game to play. Some minor improvements could still be made, and this really is a game of patience, even more so than other Paradox games. Like we said at the beginning though, playing is winning, and there’s something quite satisfying about leading your house to power and glory through whatever means you can, for as long as you can.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Putting down a serious revolt, seeing a plot come to fruition, winning a protracted war… many things can be considering the ‘top’ moment in this game.