Crusader Kings 2 Review
1066. A date particular to the memory of British schoolchildren. At the head of a large force of Norman soldiers, Duke William the Conqueror disembarks on England’s southern shore. Marching his armies towards the capital, he seeks decisive battle with Harold II, the Saxon King.
Harold’s levies stay in their castles, bogging the invaders down in a series of sieges. He then convinces the Holy Roman Empire to intervene on his behalf. The Emperor arrives with a huge army, overwhelming the Normans through sheer weight of numbers. In a battle outside London, William receives a crushing blow to the head, rendering him comatose and incapable of ruling. The Norman Conquest fails. Hard.
Crusader Kings II (2012)
Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Paradox Interactive
Publisher Paradox Interactive
Released: February 14, 2012
If that doesn’t sound like history to you, that’s because it isn’t – the events described above took place during a game of Crusader Kings II (“CKII”) I live-tweeted for GameFront. As the game wore on, the Duchy of Normandy would continue to crumble, beset by rebellious vassals outraged by the homosexual behavior of William’s son and grandson (seriously).
Crusader Kings II can conjure up all manner of historical “what-if” scenarios, but it’s more than that. Thanks to flexible, detailed, randomized design, the game creates entertaining, procedurally generated stories. It may not have the lush graphics and careful scripting that define modern narrative games, but the drama is all there, if you use your imagination.
At its core, CKII is about characters. Each game contains thousands, living, dying, marrying and fighting, all under the control of the masterfully programmed A.I. Though they’re defined initially only by statistics, traits (e.g. slothful, craven, just), and a small portrait, you’ll get to know these people intimately as the game goes on. As years pass and kingdoms rise and fall, their portraits will age and change. You will learn to hate the sight of your ungrateful son’s double chin, when his rebel armies win yet another victory.
Each one has an ambition, driving him to “get married” or “become a duke.” More importantly, each character has a complex and statistics-driven opinion of every other character in the game. Click on a character, and you’ll see a small number next to the portrait, representing her opinion of you. Numerical credits and debits chronicle religious and political conflicts, personality clashes, and decades-old blood feuds.
By giving gifts or revoking titles, you can drive the numbers up and down, on a scale from 100 to -100. Strange as it is to say, micromanaging the opinions of the people you want to stay friends with occupies the bulk of the gameplay. A feudal lord is only as good as his vassals, and vassals need to be kept happy. Anger the wrong one, and your dynasty might suffer the consequences for generations. An inexhaustible array of random events keeps you guessing, affecting character relations and traits with unmerciful fickleness.
Apart from placating overzealous Prince-Bishops and envious Earls, you’ll also spend a lot of your time arranging marriages. Success in CKII depends on cultivating the long-term success of your dynasty, achieved by marrying your sons to powerful princesses and bethrothing your daughters to lords of the appropriate rank. The game provides a handy character browser, a kind of bride supermarket which filters out heathens, commoners, and the unmarriageably young (<16) at the click of a mouse. A carefully crafted genetics system ensures that parents pass traits down to their children, for better or worse.