Crusader Kings II Review
Crusader Kings II is more of a medieval Europe simulator than a traditional strategy game. You can take on the role of any landed noble in the Christian kingdoms of Europe circa 1066, from William the Conqueror to an obscure Italian duchess, and work toward whatever goal you set for yourself. Unite the Irish duchies under native rule, pacify the pagan provinces of northern Scandinavia, relive the Spanish Reconquista, depose the Pope and bring Orthodoxy back to central Europe – Crusader Kings II is the canvas on which you can paint your unique vision of medieval Europe. It’s also a densely packed micromanagement nightmare with military clashes abstracted to a fault, but them’s the breaks.
This game isn’t about building an empire that spans continents like a Civilization or a Total War, though a savvy player might be able to accomplish that with one of the stronger characters – like the Holy Roman Emperor – and a lot of luck. Instead, it focuses on immersing the player head to toe in medieval European politics and diplomacy. You don’t just marry your daughters off to secure alliances. Instead, you choose between three different types of marriage (matrilinear, for example, assigns any children to the mother’s bloodline), and try to work the particular inheritance laws of different countries in your favor. Savvy matchmakers with a heavy purse of gold can hire assassins, finding themselves in control of vast stretches of land without ever commencing formal hostilities.
Conquering territory has similar nuances. You can’t declare war without a valid legal casus belli, which is typically obtained by de jure titles reverting to you or your vassals (meaning you have a legal claim to lordship over the land) or by having your chancellor fabricate a claim. Once war breaks out, you’re as likely to capture the enemy lord in battle and then release him in return for his fealty as you are to successfully lay siege and take ownership by force.
Crusader Kings II is the most adept game I’ve ever played at generating dynamic narratives. Even at its most basic, the game’s events hang together in fascinating and occasionally hilarious stories. Once, as a minor duke of western Ireland, I prepared for war against a southern neighbor with designs on my territory only to die weeks before the conflict began in an ill-advised bear-hunting accident. Continuing the game as my original character’s son, I burned through the family treasury, ensuring that my vassals stayed loyal to me during the transition and leaving nothing to hire sorely needed mercenaries. My armies squeaked out a series of narrow victories against the aggressors, but after a few months of near-constant battle, I was sent into a coma from a blow on the head during a melee. With my underage sons unable to lead our armies, my mother the regent was forced to appoint a revolving door of martially useless minor nobles from our court to act as commander. Their collective incompetence resulted in one dying every few weeks, to the point that I had to invite random non-landed nobles to join my court just to have someone to keep the peasants from running back to their homes and welcoming their new lord from the south. Eventually my comatose duke died of his wounds, my eldest son came of age with a solid grasp of tactics thanks to his education at the hands of a warlike vassal, and he led our armies to glorious victory. At that point, I still had two hundred years to play in pursuit of whatever goals I set for my embattled dynasty.
Battle itself is abstracted to an almost absurd extent. You can assign commanders, and you have a tiny amount of control in how your troops are distributed, but all the number crunching goes on under the hood. In practice, you run your stack of guys into their stack and hope it works out in your favor. Crusader Kings II doesn’t even give you a choice in what kind of troops you recruit, much less go into a Total War-style tactical mode.
The stories that Crusader Kings II spawns are spiced up by three smartly designed systems. First off, characters have traits like lustful, wroth, cruel, trusting, and dozens more that affect both their stats and their relationships with other characters. Second, characters (yourself included) have ambitions and plots that you can interact with in many ways. A talented spymaster might inform you of a plot targeting your court (most of which originate in your court), but he or she may be in on it. Fulfilling your vassals’ ambitions could make them a loyal subject for years to come, or at least defuse a brewing rebellion. That malcontent third son won’t stop whining at you to get him married? Find a chaste, scheming bride who can’t stand his trusting nature and maybe she’ll have him killed to get out of the marriage – or at least not give him any sons to challenge your chosen heir. Finally, random events will send things sideways for everyone from time to time. Nothing like the Pope calling a holy war to get the ambitious King of England off your back when you’re licking your wounds from a civil war in Normandy.
Dancing across the intricate spider web of relationships that comprises the European nobility is both horrendously complicated and endlessly fascinating if you have any interest in this kind of intrigue. Every character in the game – meaning every noble family and pretender from Iceland to Arabia – has an opinion of everyone else. Titles are assigned according to several different inheritance laws. Brothers plot against brothers (and cousins, and fathers, and friends). Daughters are shipped halfway across the world to marry foreign lords in order to facilitate wars planned for a decade later. Crusader Kings II may lack the production values of an HBO series, but the character-level intrigue that shapes the fate of nations is exactly what makes Game of Thrones special – even if you have to fill in a lot of the blanks with your own imagination here.
Though whichever start date you choose is set up according to history, your campaign will quickly diverge from reality. In addition to your own actions changing outcomes, character traits are randomized as well. The King of Sweden could be a paragon of virtue with an unmatched tactical mind in one game and a slovenly drunk interested more in the serving maids than his crumbling kingdom in the next.
I haven’t even begun to explain several of the game’s systems, like how technology slowly spreads across counties or how native culture affects tax levies. Crusader Kings II dives deep into all that and more, and while you can occasionally work a minor system like tech spread to your advantage, you’re often better off ignoring it as fluff and concentrating on the real meat. I have no problem with extraneous depth existing for players whose appetite for minutiae is limitless, but the game could do a much better job of prioritizing information for those of us who prefer to focus on higher-level decisions. The many map overlays and sortable lists do a good job of presenting what they’re asked to – if you already know what kind of information you’re looking for.
This vast, churning sea of information is Crusader Kings II’s greatest strength, but it is also the reason the game is as niche as niche gets. You need to bring patience, discipline, and probably a notebook to even scratch its surface, but Crusader Kings II is massively rewarding in its own unique way if you’re willing to put in the time and effort it demands.