The Game:  Crusader Kings II (2012)
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
System: PC (Windows), Linux, Mac
Buy It On Steam: HERE

We don’t usually report on free weekends on Steam, but we have to make an exception for a game that’s become dear to many a heart round these parts: Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings II, which is taking advantage of the Steam promotion to celebrate 1 million copies sold following its rise from obscurity to what will probably go down as one of the decade’s greatest sleeper hits.

ck21The Premise: The best way to describe CKII is as a Dynasty Simulator. You do a lot of the same things as you do in other Grand Strategy titles – expanding your kingdom, micromanaging your armies and cities, going to war, etc, etc. The twist, however, is that your main priority is keeping your family in power rather than simply growing your kingdom: the game’s large-scale timeline means that character you choose at the beginning has a fairly short lifespan, and unless you have a legitimate heir in place for you to assume control over, another dynasty assumes control and it’s Game Over.

Is It Any Good?: If you’re a strategy fan or history nut, this game is liable to become your crack. This makes the genetics game just as if not more crucial than the empire-building, with strategic arrangement of marriages – not just your own, but those of family members to allies – a major component of the game. It’s by no means a simple process, and is further complicated by the game’s clever, and often downright evil, genetics system which passes down positive and negative traits from parents to children. Nothing puts a crimp in your dynasty-building plans faster than your heir succumbing to a hereditary illness, or going insane due to inbreeding, or just turning out a bit stupid (Which will cost you when your current character dies and you have to play as them). What’s more, with marriage a vital part of securing alliances with other rulers, you have to balance the political advantages of a union with the qualities of the proposed bride, and what kind of genes you may be inviting into your bloodline.

ck23Of course, you also have a kingdom to run and expand as well, which leads to all manner of underhanded tricks such as rumour-mongering, religious contamination and straight-up assassination to undermine your opponents and set up a legal excuse for invasion – all things that your rivals or pissed-off vassals can easily do to you, making life as ruler chaotic and paranoid in an utterly compelling way. The game is fairly free-form, providing you with a range of options as far as what goal you want to pursue, be it domination through conquest, religion or simply keeping your dynasty alive and high in prestige for as long as possible. You don’t even have to conquer territory if you don’t want to (though you’re probably making things easier for yourself in the long run if you do expand at least a bit, if only just for income purposes). In many ways, relationships are where the game’s real battles are fought, both in marriages to try and ensure healthy and genetically advantageous offspring, and amongst your allies and rivals to ensure a strong and prestigious kingdom… and never assume that you can do these things by playing nice all the time.

Even the above description is only scraping the surface of what is involved in CKII: It’s a big game, unashamed in its complexity and demanding that the player muddle through and figure it out as they go along. Anyone who’s played Paradox’s Europa Universalis series will have a head start (The games share engines right down to their very similar U.I.s) but even then the ins and outs of kingdom and family management take a while to get used to with the game only offering fairly ineffectual tooltips as assistance. In a weird way, however, the learning curve just enhances the random, chaotic nature of the experience, making it even more compelling. It adopts the classic roguelike philosophy of failing and learning as the heart of the experience as opposed to some ‘win’ state or some comforting state of expertise. History, CKII teaches us, is the story of progress made almost by accident by generations of dysfunctionals and fuckups, and fucking up yourself is simply throwing yourself into the experience. History buffs in particular will have a blast remolding the history of medieval Europe into all manner of distorted forms and getting to play with the dynastic system in all its deranged glory, and beginners may want to check out this thread on the forums for a ton of useful links and tips.

ck24Most importantly, it forces the player to roll with the constant motion of events and the capriciousness of the personalities you encounter, making each ruler you play as a fresh role-playing experience. Plans sown at the start of the game rarely last too long, whether due to an unruly vassal making a power grab, an annexation plot going tits-up at the last minute or a sudden rush to sire an heir when your children end up stupid, warped and/or dead. No two dynasties in CKII have the same story, and in the hallowed words of Tom Sizemore “The action is the juice“: it’s never about how good you are at the game, but what the game throws at you and how you manage to either deal with it or fail in spectacular fashion.

CKII is daunting at first – actually, scrub that, it’s daunting forever – but if you’re prepared to go with it it’s one of the most rewarding experiences out there, bringing an innate sense of humanity that the strategy genre has traditionally lacked. Besides, what’s a bit of work when you can have a kingdom run by a syphilitic half-mad incest child?

Not much at all, my friends. Not much at all.

Bonus Points: If you’re thinking that this all sounds distinctly Game of Thronesy – which it should, seeing how much George R.R. Martin drew from real history in creating A Song of Ice and Fire – you might want to check the extremely popular and recently updated G.O.T. mod which transplants the action from medieval Europe to Westeros, giving you the chance to out-dysfunction the Lannisters at your leisure. In fact, the game is near-as-dammit Tywin Lannister Simulator with the risk of respawning as Joffrey.

ck22The game also has a quite staggering amount of DLC available, most of which is aesthetic and therefore skippable. However, Paradox have also supported the game with several meaty expansions which bring into the game several regions and new religions, including the Islam and Judaism (Sword of Islam/Sons of Abraham), expansions to the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Church (Legacy of Rome) and the Indian subcontinent along with Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism (Rajas of India). One expansion, Sunset Invasion, even lets you play out an alternate history scenario with Europe being invaded by the Aztecs.

Fans of Feudal Japan may want to check out Paradox’s Sengoku, which is many ways a precursor to CKII and shares many of its bigger brother’s features especially in terms of alliances and marriage. It hasn’t got quite the depth of CKII, though it again uses the EU/CK engine (They really seem to love that U.I.) which makes it pretty easy to pick up if you’ve played any of the other games.

MOAR LIKE THIS PLZ: Europa Universalis, Civilization, Total War, Sengoku