With their combined focus upon the grand aspects of empire management and the minutia of historical accuracy, Paradox have had an indelible mark upon the strategy genre. Having reviewed Sengoku, and enjoyed the more familial focus of the title, Crusader Kings II dynasty driven take on Medieval Europe was an exciting prospect. I knew I would once again revel in forming my own empire and assuring its ascendency, but to enjoy watching it crumble around me…well that was something entirely unexpected and an indictment of just how incredible the pinnacle of Paradox grand strategy is.
For those unfamiliar with ‘Paradox grand strategy’ or those who have witnessed its fairly severe learning curve and failed to get passed it, Crusader Kings II offers the most accessible introduction yet. This isn’t to say it is any shallower than its predecessors, but with the robust hint system and in depth tutorials empire management has never been so easy – or rather clear… there is nothing easy about this game.
It begins, as always, with the still somewhat irritating ‘click and see how difficult it is’ player selection. The sheer number of personalities you can assume is astounding and brings the games focus on characters, rather than countries, immediately into the fore. The ability to start your campaign from any date within the 400 years span of the game is impressive in its own right, but when coupled with the degree of historical accuracy present it is downright incredible. Yet this isn’t a mere foray into historically characterised conflict, this is a game that turns history into something altogether more malleable.
The year is 1066, and the glorious English nation are under siege from William the Conqueror. I, patriotism coursing through my veins, forgo the intimidating task ahead of my nation and opt to play as King Malcolm the Third of Scotland instead. My intention, far more foolish than patriotic, is to carve up the northern regions of England whilst their forces are pre-occupied. Having taken my place on the throne I was ready to reign (If reigning encompasses getting distracted by the in-game Wikipedia links and researching the most prominent characters and a few ancillary pages as the game idled in the background that is).
With council positions to fill, the game’s expansive character traits emerge and some tough decisions present themselves. Do I take the Spymaster with the greatest intrigue rating in spite of his lack of loyalty and cunning nature or do I choose the more reliable, less able, candidate and just put up with the inevitable feeling of disappointment I get whenever he does anything? These dilemmas punctuate almost every aspect of the game. Having married an envious, greedy and wrathful woman purely due to her position within the Holy Roman Empire, I quickly realised that I valued power over personalities. Robust and impressive this trait system is not flawless, as certain traits amount to nothing in game, but it adds yet another layer of strategy and complements some of my favourite features.
One such feature is the non-militant ways you can exercise your influence. Noticing that an illegitimate son of mine was powerful and unappreciative of my leadership, I sent in my Spymaster (I went for the better qualified one in the end) to try and uncover any active plots. Months later one emerged: My daughter-in-law was planning to kill my heir, presumably so that upon my death her husband would seize the throne. It was my own fault; I had decided that they should be wed in spite of her ambitious nature, but this treachery ablated any trust I had in my son and I felt compelled to let her rot in prison. In this game success is succession centric and your characters death is nothing compared to the loss of a legacy. Situations like this arise throughout your reign, and you soon learn that trust is a weakness one can ill-afford.
Moments like these, as well as the various other machinations you will both face and form , ensure that even those who adopt a rather laissez faire approach to management and have no expansionist ideals will never be merely tourists in time. For those of you such as myself, with delusions of Grandeur and a profound lack of self awareness, the militaristic component to the game is going to be an equally prominent feature.
As an RTS on the macro scale, battles come down to little more than a numbers game. The ability to instantly raise levies, whilst affecting the relationship between yourself and your vassals when prolonged, makes the dice-roll battle system feel even shallower than previous instalments. However, this isn’t what Crusader Kings II, or any of the ‘Paradox grand strategy’ games, are about. The battles themselves merely represent the final stages of the process and are bare bones as a result. Years, decades and generations of your family may have gone into enacting this battle. Plots may have been exposed, prestige lost and all manner of inappropriate relationships formed as you flog your daughters off like some sort of paternal pimp.
Going through the mechanistic details of a game such as this is a complete disservice to the experience it offers. For those familiar with this, and related, series then expect that and enjoy the refinements as and when they occur. For those unfamiliar with game type then let me assure you that whilst multi-faceted and complex the game is flexible enough to accommodate almost any level of managerial interest. It is all too easy to adopt a role and then leave the laws and research focus as they were. You won’t be getting the most from the game, but it won’t necessarily punish you for it. As events arise enacting your leadership is as simple as choosing from a variety of options and waiting for the fallout, and you can be surprisingly hands off with the whole affair.
For those willing to delve into the minutia of management the game is more than willing to oblige your meticulous approach and is infinitely rewarding as a result. Certain elements come across as individually shallower than one may like, building city upgrades for example, but overall it all comes together to form a cohesive and complex package.
Crusader Kings II has probably already been bought by the grand strategy gamers amongst you, but it deserves a wider distribution than that. Its attempts to bridge the gap between its core demographic and those who have been too intimidated in the past has been carried out with true craftsmanship, resulting in little in the way of sacrifice and yielding much in terms of rewards. The more you play the more you understand about the mechanics of the game, the more you understand the more you get from the experience. I may not have been successful in conquering England (though I did manage to emerge as a significant power within Europe), but I was successful in finding my latest and greatest time sink – Real life step aside, I am far too busy making history.