Crusader Kings 2 by those lovely chaps at Paradox Interactive has been out for well over a year now and already has several packs of DLC available for purchase. It is a game in which you take control of a specific Dynasty in the Medieval World and you must get your heirs, your descendants to the top of the pecking order over a period of hundreds of years. You start of as a single character and upon their death you take control of your next direct heir. The game has no win function really but the idea is, as it is any real-time strategy game, to rule the world and become Emperor of everything. The way you lose is, unlike any other RTS, not based on whether your Empire and the people you rule are still around but is instead based on whether your Dynasty survives. And if all of your descendants die out or fall out of power then it is game over and you get to see how much impact you had on the ancient world rated alongside other notable figures.
It is a truly remarkable game and extraordinarily well put together. Unlike any other RTS where, no matter what they’ve done, the focus is always the combat, the focus of Crusader Kings 2 is the diplomacy and the scheming and plotting which truly went on in every court of the medieval world. My initial impressions of the way the game looked was that it would be a better and more diplomatic version of Medieval Total War 2, and the real-time map gameplay sort of backed that up. Instead what I found is the best comparison is the book Game of Thrones. It’s not about the battles, the swords or the killing, it is instead about carefully positioning your enemies so that they get out of your way without you ever having to raise a weapon. It’s a very unique and very intelligent game. It’s also really, really bloody hard. And I mean, we are talking so complex and frustratingly taxing that I will admit to have never actually completed any campaign.
Allow me to tell you the story of my first two attempts to play this game. The first was around the time of release last year, I open up the game and am instantly impressed with the nice graphics of the menu and I am looking forward to a more detailed and good-looking, but no less gorey, Medieval 2. I quickly start up a new game, because tutorials are for scrubs, and am already over my head. I am given the choice of being an Emperor, a King, a Duke or a Count. Each starts of the game with a specific size of area. A Count owns a County and is thus the weakest in game character that you can play as there is no smaller area of land than a county. A Duke owns several Counties, and has a number of Counts as vassals. A King and an Emperor are simply the next stages in line. To give you an idea of the scale, the country of Scotland, ruled by the King of Scotland, has at the start of the game four dukes and (if memory serves) 10 or so Counts under his control. The Holy Roman Empire has something along the lines of 80 counties. And you can play as a very large majority of the Counts, Dukes, Kings and Emperors in the game.
I stare at this menu and assimilate the knowledge slowly. I then decide to go the King of England, it seems a strong opener as I will have a powerful country but I won’t start off owning half the world. I start the game, my confidence having already taken a knock. I then spend another 10 minutes looking through all the in-game menus. I discover that I can interact not only with the other Rulers around the world but also their dukes, and counts and even the individual non-noble people in each person’s court (a count at that start tends to have along the lines of 12 people resident at their court). I can also do the same with my own vassals and all their own vassals. In short I can do a huge variety of diplomatic interactions with somewhere in the vicinity of a trillion billion people. Not only that but I also immediately realise that every single menu has options and interactions and actions which I do not understand, half my vassals hate me and I don’t even know how to build an army. With my tail between my legs I scurry back to the tutorial, which is actually not for scrubs but indeed should be done by any reasonable and sensible person.
The tutorial however does little to assuage my troubled mind. Half of the approximately 15 tutorial segments do not appear to work properly and the other half do not provide me with enough information to play the game. And so, I give up. For well over half a year I sit there and ignore the icon on my desktop which emphasises my failure until finally I have had enough and I give it another crack. This time I take it more slowly, I go through all the tutorials I can, unfortunately some of them are still broken an issue which I think takes massively away from the game. With a game this complex, having buggy, non-functioning tutorials is the worst possible thing they could do. And yet they still don’t fix them. And then I start up a new game as a Count in Scotland. The way I see it is that with absolutely no land or responsibility the only way is up.
Even with the tutorials getting to grips with the game is still immensely difficult. As there are diplomatic interactions with absolutely everyone, and even as a count I still had a town, a church and a castle in my control (each with their own ruling figure), there are millions of options right off the bat. Plus the fact that the way people interact with you depends on how much they like you adds another layer of intrigue in. And there is the kicker, it’s all about intrigue. It’s about plotting and scheming, perhaps starting a plot to overthrow the King and replace him with yourself, perhaps you want to kill the King’s son so that he has no heirs, perhaps you need some new suitors for your own children to carry on your own bloodline, perhaps that one courtier who hates you and will not supply you with the correct amount of taxes needs to be “replaced”. If I were to go through every option available to you in the game I would be here for ever, so I’m going to have to avoid doing that. I will say that the massive depth and scale of the game is extraordinarily impressive, the diplomacy is actually very convincing and in general I truly felt like one of the characters from a Game of Thrones. I genuinely had several moments of feeling like “In the Game of Thrones you win or you die”.
Of course that’s not to say there aren’t drawbacks. First of all the combat is really quite bizarre. My first experience was when a neighbouring count in Scotland actually betrayed the King and broke away from Scotland underneath his Duke. The Duke was not a King, but he was independent of Scotland now. WELL! I’m wasn’t bloody having that, ye dirty traitor! So I send the word to my vassals that they must raise their levies. The game is done in the old feudal system where each individual town, city, church, castle, supplies a certain amount of troops. The total they do supply of course depends on how much the ruling figure of that community likes you. So with three relatively good relationships I was able to summon, from across my county, to my ‘capital’, 350 troops. Time to teach some traitors what for! I march them straight towards the bastard’s county. And then nothing happens. At all. My vassals get pissed off at me for making them pay for the soldiers for more than a half a second but other than that my small force just stands there looking silly. It turns out that I actually need to satisfy several conditions in order to declare war on the count. He needs to be independent, otherwise I have to declare war on his Duke. Okay, so let’s see about that! Nope, that’s no good either because in order to declare war on the Duke I need to have a good reason to do so. The only one available to me is that I must have some claim to the title of the Dukedom, one perceived to be legitimate. I’m sorry, but seriously? I’m pretty sure that in those days people didn’t really abide by the Geneva Convention. There was no such thing as “too much force” and frankly I’m pretty sure that in those days taking another man’s land was only dictated by who held the biggest sword. What do you have against FIGHTING, Paradox?! It’s possible for me to forge a claim on the title but it seems to take months of game time and so a fair amount of real time as well. Eventually my agents did actually manage to forge a claim for me, but then the Scottish King actually declared war on the Duke anyway, and as he was my liege I was able to go to war with him. Ages of sitting around doing nothing wasted.
I don’t sulk for long though and dutifully go to war, FINALLY able to send my army against those of the neighbouring count. Combat takes place in an unusual system. Two armies meet (whether on a field in in a siege) and every tick of combat the numbers of both sides decrease depending on the difference in strength between the armies, the ability of the commander in charge of each of the three flanks, the composition of the army and other random factors which can come into play affecting morale and numbers. It’s a little frustrating and frankly I wish there was more interaction, because it does seem slightly random and uncontrolled. It gets worse though, besieging the enemy town requires you to have a certain amount of troops, you have to outnumber them by a certain amount in order to win the siege, but luckily I have just enough. I win the fight and take the county… Only for nothing to actually happen. The minute the state of war is lifted the county does not pass to me but to some other vassal of the King, which is also ridiculously frustrating. I did all that work, all that war, and I got nothing out of it… I sit there, staring at my computer in a state of confusion and then I sulk a bit more.
I didn’t get to sulk for long though because shortly after this my Count character died, and I lost the game. For some reason my main heir, who was an adopted child I started off with, did not count as part of my dynasty. And because he inherited everything, and nothing went to my other PROPER children, I had no land left and so I lost. Fuck and buggery.
Currently I am slowly working through a game as a Duke in Scotland and my current aim is to succeed in a plot to overthrow the King and replace him with me. The thing is though, forging a plot takes a long, long time, you need to gather support of nobles and even then there’s a chance it will fail. In the meantime I’m trying to get money from taxes to build new buildings and towns and I’m also trying to conquer new counties. But here comes the game’s biggest problem. I spend an awful lot of time just sitting there watching the amount of money I have slowly increase so I can use it. Occasionally I do a little diplomacy to try and increase my family’s standing but for the majority of the time, despite so many options, I don’t seem to do anything.
I feel like I either do not properly understand the game and all the options available to me or, if this is not the case, the reality is that you are meant to sit around waiting for stuff to happen an awful lot of the time. Never before in a game with so many separate options have I ever felt so unneeded and useless. In fact a brief look around online informs me that it seems that people play the game for days, hours and hours spent, and then when they reach the end of the time available to play in their family is in really no better state than when they started. It seems that the game gives you the illusion of being able to change things but in reality you and your actions have as much effect as lobbing pebbles into the ocean.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s a very, very good game. I think it looks great, I think the combat is probably actually smart (and I just don’t understand it) and I think the massive variety of diplomacy from arranging marriage to assassinating a character to interacting with the church is amazing. But I also feel that it’s just too damn complicated for me. I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on, I felt it wasn’t well explained and I felt that the actions I did take had too little effect. Part of me thinks the problem stems from a lack of understanding about the vast majority of the game’s complex and wonderful systems. But the other part of me thinks that in reality there really isn’t actually that much you can do in the game and what you can do is pointless. All in all it’s good but the learning curve is just so damned steep…
You know, I want to tell you one final story before I finish up here. This story will hopefully get all my points about the game across in one go. The most recent thing to occur in my Scottish Duke game was several series of wars. After waiting the for a good 20 years of in game time I finally managed to obtain the neighbouring county, the same one I mentioned previously ironically. However, I only managed it because I was lucky enough for my King to attack the Count’s Duke and thus make the County independent. This meant I could finally attack it and take it for my own. Only a few years after this I also finally succeeded in forging a claim for the Scottish throne, a strong one. This was then subsequently followed by the King wasting pretty much all his armies on some pointless wars in England AND then another Duke declaring war on the King for the country of Scotland. I instantly staked out my own claim and, somehow, rallied most of the other nobles around me. The war lasted almost a year and half of in-game time in which I conquered most of Scotland from the King and destroyed several of the other rebel Duke’s armies. And then finally… I won… And was crowned King of Scotland… It was absolutely glorious. And you see here is the point: the winning and actually succeeding in bringing my Dynasty such great power from such little power felt absolutely amazing. I genuinely felt like I was some character from Game of Thrones, scheming and plotting my way to become top dog. The other point is that I have absolutely no idea how it came about and frankly it seemed more a great deal of luck than a great deal of skill. It was just a series of fortunate events which happened to me which lead to my rise, I had no real power over them. So there it is again: you have very little power over the events of Crusader Kings 2… But even so it still feels like an amazing game to play.
Naturally, of course, I rage-quitted when after 2 months in power every single one of my vassals tried to overthrow me and I was left defending myself against 3000 troops with approximately 500…