Crusader Kings II.
Paradox Interactive games have evolved a long way since their first game, Europa Universalis (EU) released thirteen years ago. Essentially, this Swedish game company deal in grand, real-time strategy, and when I mean grand, I mean probably in an epic sense of world conquering proportions.I became a great fan of these games since Europa Universalis 2; at face value they are all strategy map games, but underneath the hood, there is some very interesting complexity occurring as the game runs in a real-time environment. Forget turn based moves, this game runs with the clock (unless you pause), with the games AI making decisions for all other different countries that are on the map. Musically, with EU2 at least, it was stunning, containing nearly two hours of period music of the later middle-ages, right up to the late 18th Century. Since EU2, Paradox produced many other games, dealing with different periods of history such as Victoria (19th Century), Hearts of Iron (WW2), Rome (self-explanatory) and Crusader Kings (Middle-ages), and for a history geek such as myself, these games and this company became the holy-chalice and saviours of grand-strategy gaming.
Paradox’s latest release (well, its over a year old and this review is well out of date) is Crusader Kings 2 (CK2). There is an evolution in gaming that is quite interesting to observe with the development of better hardware and technology, especially over the past fifteen or so years. Instead of the old 2D graphics that the early titles used, Paradox went with a proper 3D map which makes CK2 a visually pleasurable experience. The most defining and unique feature however is the character driven plot of the Crusader Kings games. Instead of just running and conquering different countries and dealing with their economies, CK allowed you to play as a King/Queen/Duke/Duchess/Count/Countess and develop relationships with other characters included in the games, such as marrying (either into your own relations or marrying another countries leaders daughter or son, creating a rather large family tree that could last the game time – 1066 till 1453 – the beginning and end of the Middle-ages). For instance, marrying your daughter into the family of, say, the King of the Franks would then create an alliance with that country and also, if played cleverly, could possibly gain a foothold and claims to that country later on. You need reasons to declare war with a valid Casus Belli, you just cant wage war on anyone, you need reasons, and claims to their land or throne are the only ways to gain power. Also, it could mean the opposite and then the King of the Franks, say in a different generational time span, could then lay claim to your country too. And the game allows you to try and use subterfuge and plotting and counter plotting (I think CK2s most defining and interesting, but rather bloody, feature) to try and influence who you want on the throne, usually by paying assassins or creating a plot amongst your vassals and courtiers to depose of someone just to get their power. And so on. The game has a large amount of characters, all with different character traits, skills (which are important to whom you want as your advisor’s, for instance a Spymaster to be effective would need a high Intrigue rating to uncover plots, steal technology etc), to make a very interesting and dare I say alternative gaming experience.
Since its release in February 2012, CK2 has grown from strength to strength with added DLC which has expanded, both the games time span (with the latest expansion the game date starts at 867 AD allowing you to play as the Vikings with a foothold in Jorvik, or any other Pagan country in Europe; even the Zoroastrians are playable) or now to have the ability to play either a Republic as a Doge or the Hansa; an Islamic add on allowing you to play as a Muslim ruler along with changed rules (multiple spouses, decadence rules and so on); or even try and heal the schism in the Western and Eastern Church playing as the Byzantines. There is a whole load of different DLC for this title, and it really has changed the game since its release quite drastically and very impressively. What I find the most defining feature of CK2 is the intrigue and plotting going on in the background with its character driven database. You can actually start to become attached to your ruler and their family inheritance and so on and inflict serious punishment on others who assassinate or plot against one of your members by sending to prison and stripping them of their lands and titles. Most new titles today will include DLC and this I believe adds to a games longevity and replayability. This is especially true in the case of Crusader Kings 2; well over a year after release and I am still putting in the hours with the greatly enhanced and expanded game. That, with the relative low price of the expansions, makes this game very good value for money.
One last word to say, the most challenging aspect of this game is the succession crises that invariably occurs when your current ruler dies. CK2 incorporates all hereditary laws, and one time per ruler you can change this; gavelkind, primogeniture, elective monarchies et al are here, as well as agantic and cognatic, allowing female characters to inherit if no sons are eligible. If you play the Basques, then that is default anyway, with female inheritance only, whereas with all the other nations, male preference is standard (as it was historically). Back to the succession crises; if you have a large ‘empire’, then usually civil war breaks out, maybe from a disinherited son who starts a faction, or vassals with different agendas or of a low opinion of you. Its part of the game, and when your ruler starts to get old, then you start to worry about the independence split or the call for a different heir to the throne. Another defining aspect of this title. Out of ten? I would give it a nine. It is immeasurably addictive with a fantastic feel for the period it is set in, great music, graphics and concept. If you a history fanatic as well as a gamer, then this really should be up your street or avenue.