Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Interactive
System Requirements: Windows XP/Vista/7, Intel® Pentium® IV 2.4 GHz or AMD 3500+, 2 GB RAM, 2 GB free hard drive space, NVIDIA® GeForce 8800 or ATI Radeon® X1900 video card, Direct X-compatible sound card, DirectX 9, 3-button mouse, keyboard, speakers, Internet connection for multiplayer
ESRB rating: Pending
Release date: February 7, 2012
In the wake of Paradox Interactive’s release of Sengoku, it shouldn’t surprise anyone in the game industry that Paradox is looking to create a sequel to the game that started them down the path of dynastic struggles and medieval warfare: Crusader Kings. While Sengoku is a budget offering depicting the Warring States period in Japanese history, Crusader Kings II advertises itself as a full price title that offers players the chance to “Increase your lands and fill your coffers, appoint vassals, battle traitors, introduce laws while interacting with hundreds of nobles, and create the most powerful dynasty of medieval Europe.” Luckily, I was given the chance to preview it for the past few weeks. And I have to say that even in its unfinished, beta condition, it is an engrossing game filled with the kinds of difficult choices historical medieval rulers would have faced, albeit with a slicker interface.
Like its predecessors, CKII is a game that fuses some RPG elements together with strategy gaming. As the player, you do not control a country or nation-state (they don’t even exist in the period, so that’s a good thing). Instead, you control your ruler and his or her titles and lands. You might choose to play as the Duke of Aquitaine, or perhaps the king of Denmark. But at all times, you, as the player, will find yourself managing just your ruler and their personal territory in the context of Western or Eastern feudalism. Rather than run all the lands yourself, you have vassals and family members who rule in your name throughout your realm. Particularly large kingdoms might see a player running 10-15 holdings themselves, but interacting with 40-50 vassals who rule another 200 holdings. Thus, even as you manage improvements in your lands and raise armies in strategic gaming fashion, you spend a considerable amount of time interacting with other characters. Appeasing and pleasing vassals and your family takes work and is complicated by the fact that the game assigns a variety of personality characteristics, called traits, that influence how much different characters like each other. While you, as the player, control your ruler’s actions, there will be characters in the game that just don’t like your ruler because he is a gluttonous coward or a prudish busybody.
Unlike most RPGs, the characters in the game are not following narratives. There is no story as such, so no one should confuse CKII with King Arthur: The Role Playing Wargame. The AI plays all of the other characters and tirelessly works to advance the political interests of all the NPCs in the game; the catch is that the game is set in the period starting in 1066 and stretching for the next 400 years. Advancing your political standing has less to do with researching sword +5 and raising taxes and has more to do with typical medieval pastimes like arranging marriages, plotting against your liege, crusading, and manipulating the church. During my time previewing the game, I found myself actually taking an active role in the marriage prospects of my children so that I could arrange alliances, even as I fretted about the fertility of my rulers, assassination attempts from my own family members, vassals trying to take the throne from me, and even backing an anti-pope. Treason, plots, imprisonment, executions, and even assassination are all tools used against both foreign enemies and domestic threats. Hardly a decade goes by in the game without the player facing enough plotting and scheming to make Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Richard III feel right at home.
Most strategy games are focused on a “conquer everything to win” style of gameplay. However, CKII focuses on a different approach. The goal is to make your dynasty the most prestigious, so every time your ruler dies, their piety and prestige gets added to the dynasty’s score. Since piety and prestige are also spent buying claims on foreign titles and asking the church for favors, players must take the time to budget their resources accordingly. While I never painted the entire map with my dynasty’s color by conquering everything at any point, it wasn’t because the game was too hard. It was because there was always something important to do that kept my rulers occupied and busy. While some inevitable snowballing of political and economic power occurs as your dynasty gains power over the years, being the ruler of a large swath of European territory changes the nature of the game. While it is nowhere near the gameplay in Spore, CKII sees players dealing with very different challenges when they are minor rulers in some backwater as opposed to powerful rulers over an empire in the richest areas of Europe. Smaller rulers not only plot and scheme against neighbors, but they find it much easier to manage their small families and their assorted claims. Kings and emperors find that even if you can levy 100,000 troops and take in hundreds of ducats in taxes every year, it means almost nothing if every time your ruler dies, half the empire breaks into a civil war because 24 separate dukes all have claims to the throne and the Pope is threatening to excommunicate you over the investiture conflict.
Combat in CKII is not a rehash of games like Medieval: Total War. Combat is influenced indirectly as it is in most Paradox titles. The good news is that characters control these combats, meaning if your cowardly brother is running the left flank of your army, he might just run away with 3000 men at the very moment you need him to hold fast. By taking away control of armies form players, the game ironically gives your strategic decisions more weight. Angering good military leaders within your realm is dangerous, as is letting your vassals have too much freedom. They might instead spend time fighting each other, wearing out their armies and killing/maiming their aristocratic leaders, weakening your whole kingdom in the face of potential foreign aggression.
The preview copy Paradox gave us has updated itself several times via Steam as I was previewing it. This prevented me from playing an entire game from start to finish (save game incompatibility), but I have had a chance to see various mechanics improve and balance over the past few weeks. Every time it updates, it becomes more engrossing. Crusader Kings II is slated for release in February, 2012, and I can’t wait. It has the potential to be a medievalist’s dream without bogging players down in historical minutia.