“The game that keeps on giving…”
I missed the initial release of Paradox Interactive’s (now) acclaimed grand-strategy game Crusader Kings II back in 2012. Much like my experience with Total War: Rome II (https://ethanreilly.wordpress.com/2014/09/27/total-war-rome-ii-review/) I came to it only after it had been patched and after the release of multiple DLC (Downloadable Content) expansions. Unlike the Creative Assembly’s effort though, Crusader Kings II seems to have been a beloved addition to gamers’ libraries from the very beginning. And unlike Rome II, I had no pre-conceived notions of what CK2 (as it is referred to) would be like. I knew it only by reputation…
A reputation, I’m glad to say, it thoroughly lives up to.
Set initially during the period 1066AD – 1453AD (initially extended by the ‘Old Gods’ and now ‘Charlemagne’ DLCs to include prior periods, starting from 769AD), Crusader Kings II is unusual for historical PC strategy games in that you control a dynasty of characters, rather than a single historical figure or nation. In this way, it has rightly been described as a “dynasty simulator”.
For example, a traditional start to the game would have you beginning as William the Conqueror, controlling him through the invasion of Anglo-Saxon England and the remainder of his life; then after his death, his eldest child; and after that character’s death, his grandchild; and so on, until the end date of the game or the extinction of his dynasty, whichever comes first. During that span of time you could conquer and lose kingdoms; scheme, plot and murder your way to greater heights of power and glory; or fall on hard times, see your lands and titles stripped away, and watch helplessly as your friends and allies desert your family to its fate.
Almost any avenue of war, diplomacy and deception is open to you; and the game mechanics mean that seemingly random events and outcomes will keep you surprised at every turn.
It’s a brilliant premise for a grand-strategy title, with a brilliant execution. The depth of the game is almost unbelievable, with any historical figure between the ranks of count and emperor being playable across a span of 700 years; in a geographical setting that encompasses Europe, North Africa, Asia and India (thanks to the ‘Rajas of India’ DLC). Where true historical accounts did not provide the Paradox team with enough information regarding rulers throughout the Middle Ages, every effort has been made to make the invented characters as historically plausible as possible.
This means that Crusader Kings II is both a historical and counter-historical experience. As soon as you start making decisions in the game, events diverge from the historical starting point; and many of your decisions, coupled with the unpredictable game mechanics mentioned earlier, mean that things can end very differently to what we might expect.
It’s not unusual to see the Holy Roman Empire expand and overtake Western Europe, or the Mongol Ilkhanate with its capital in Britain; or even, thanks to the ‘Sunset Invasion’ DLC, an Aztec Empire in Africa and Spain.
Anything can (and will) happen. And I think that’s the secret of CK2’s enduring success. Despite being over 2 years old at this point (a lifetime in gaming terms), Crusader Kings II continues to enthral long-term and first-time players alike.
The question now becomes, will Paradox continue to invest in this, one of their flagship titles? Or will ‘Charlemagne’ be the last major update we see?
Will we soon all be talking about CK3?
I don’t know. Mostly, I hope it’s the former – because I love Crusader Kings II for its complexity, intensity and historical accuracy (as much as any video can be historically accurate); and I see a lot more potential there.
But only time will tell…
Verdict: Many Were Called, Few Were Chosen.