Dynastic simulator, RPG, Conquest Strategy, Historical simulator, these are just a couple of tags that could be used to describe Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II. This title is one of those games where you are probably not even aware of it unless you are interested in history or have played other titles made by Paradox Interactive. The concept of the game sounds quite straight forward, in that you take control of a medieval noble and then dictate the future of your families endeavors. From here you would be forgiven if you thought that CKII was a conquest strategy game with this in mind you have only scratched the surface. Regardless of which county, dukedoms, Kingdoms or even Empires you hold or lose one thing remains, family.
Just like in the Italian mafia, family is everything. You choose who your character marries, then you choose how to educate your sons and daughters. When they come of age you marry them for power, alliances or just to get rid of them. The choices really are left up to the player. When your character dies, (more often than not disease, backstabbing or war take them way before old age) you continue on and play as your heir apparent. Usually this is your eldest son, however you can change the laws in your realm to fit your dynastic progression. Be warned though as every character has a personality of sorts and will seek to get what’s best for them. You can educate and guide your genius stat monster of a son into position only for him to die at the knife of his lazy younger brother. This is the joy and the horror of CKII.
The game play gives you an over view map of Europe (this can be expanded via DLC). From this map you can look directly at your realm or click your character portrait to see active people in your court. Each character in the game has five abilities; diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue and learning. A numerical stat will show you how good or how bad the character is at this ability. These numbers are based around genetics and traits both positive and negative. Your character could be ambitious, lustful, brave, diligent, deceitful or cruel to name just a few. Each of these traits also impacts the types of story events which take place. For example a lustful courtier could make a pass at you or a family member. An ambitious character might try to murder his or her way to the top.
Once you have a handle on the people that surround you the way you progress in the game is really up to you. The game has a meta points score but CKII is far more fun if you ignore this completely and set yourself game based targets. You could start as an Emperor and try to hold your Empire together by steadily expanding or start as a lowly count and forge your own Empire. Your goal could be to expand or eradicate a certain religion or culture, or even to change the course of History and create an alternate time line to famous events. You might want to put a member of your family in a place of influence in each nearby powerful kingdom. The choice is practically limitless and these factors make CKII immensely replayable meaning that no two games are the same or even similar.
The game manages the story of your character and dynasty through a series of pop up events. These can be for a range of things (effected by DLC) which help tell the story. For example, you might go hunting, a wandering mystic may visit you, someone will declare war, someone will ask to marry your daughter, your son may get the local milk maid pregnant. These events are fired somewhat randomly but have a set of conditions which will make them fire. These conditions are related to both your character traits, abilities and just blind chance.
The game can potentially cover a time period of approximately 600 years (again effected by DLC .. .see the pattern?) so the in game timer ticks a day in about 3-4 seconds. This can be sped up or slowed down. Often a very slow game will give you acres of space to micromanage but can suck a lot of real life time. At the same time I would not recommend using the max time setting as you will blink and miss some important developments or deaths. There is a balance that each individual player needs to strike between flow of the games time an important events. Such occasions may also effect your use of this timer. I sometimes play on ultra slow if at war or being attacked and ultra fast if my character dies leaving me with a child ruler who I need to come of age (16 in CK II).
The learning curve of CKII is both daunting and quite complex, unfortunately the in game manual is not the finest. No tutorial mode also means that this game is quite a trial and error mess when you have your first run though, however the paradox community forums are very active and good at offering support. Players generally recommend playing as an Irish count or Duke to start out with. Sometimes referred to as newbie island, Ireland is pretty much safe from large AI factions and can allow you to learn the basics in what is a microcosm of the main map.
As stated the community for this game is large and very active with a huge mod community. There are some really great mods out there but perhaps the best available is a Game of Thrones total conversion. Yes you read that correctly. So if you’re a fan of George RR Martins work you can take control of your favoured house and change the destiny of Westeros. There is also a very active AAR forum on both the Paradox forums and Reddit where people tell the stories of their characters and exploits. The game contains a few Easter eggs as well such as the inclusion of Uhtred of Babenberg (of Bernard Cornwell’s Last Kingdom fame) and Ragnar Lodbrok (of Vikings fame) in the Old Gods start there is also a ruler editor which allows you to create your own ruler which is a nice touch.
The potential of this game is truly massive, although considering the price tag it honestly should be. CKII which was released in 2012 has had many DLC updates which all add an extra something to the game if you were to buy the entire package outside of a sale it would cost you a whopping £200+. I don’t feel that any game is worth that amount but the core game with a couple of add-ons is well worth a punt. I would recommend Old Gods, Way of Life & Monks and Mystics if you were just starting out, there are however often deals floating about so its worth waiting for one of those before paying full price.
I truly love CKII and it really is a one of a kind game that you can get lost in your families destiny and story with ease.