Crusader Kings 2 is the first game I’ve played where I truly felt like what I was doing was morally wrong to the point of being evil. It started innocent enough, I was Duke Aed, and I just wanted to see Ireland unified under the one king (that one king being me or my heir). As I slowly plotted my way to this position I realised what a mean piece of work Duke Aed had become. He had taken the lands around him by force through purely fabricated claims, he had locked up and executed his brother for heresy, betrothed his children to future duchess’ then once the marriage was consummated started a war for claims to their lands, screwed any women he wanted and openly legitimized the bastards while going through about four wives (some of who died in mysterious circumstances). It was at this point of reflection, I realized how much I liked Crusader Kings 2.
Crusader Kings 2 has been labelled a grand strategy game but I think it’s more apt to refer to it as a dynasty simulator. When the character you are controlling dies, control passes to your heir, even if that heir is locked away in a prison cell and completely mad or hated by the entire world. It’s your job to not only look after your current character, but their son, their son’s son, and watch over who ever they are marrying to ensure a strong dynasty and lasting control of your realm. Better brush up your knowledge of medieval politics because things can get nasty if you don’t keep a close eye on who has a claim to what lands and how much they like you. A kingdom can quickly be snatched from your hands when the old king dies and everyone hates the new one. At one point I had my son and heir (who I had employed as my Court Chaplain) thrown into jail because he had become a heretic. I forgot about him and when my current character died he emerged from his cell, just as convinced of his unholy beliefs as before. It was about two months later when nearly all my provinces had revolted against me, my kingdom crumbled to dust.
Crusader Kings 2 isn’t really a game about managing your armies. Sure armies are there, you will raise levies and hire mercenaries and march them across Europe but at its core Crusader Kings 2 is about managing people. Every single European noble (some real and historical, some randomly generated) are present at every moment of Crusader Kings 2 with their own stats, traits, family, and court. The real-time action can be paused at any moment allowing you to trace back ancestry, who sits at what court, which nobles want to get married and who wants to kill whom creating a massive web of intrigue across Europe. Nobles will also pursue their own lives without you watching them. If you’re a backwater Count in Russia the AIs will still be conquering and back stabbing each other throughout Europe happily creating their own version of history without you in the limelight. It’s up to you how involved you get with the drama, ignoring it and focusing on your incestuous little family or marrying into great houses and conniving your way in to the big league. Regardless of the scope of your grandeur you have to manage relationships of the people around you. Happy vassals that like you will pay more tax, wives and children that love you won’t try to kill you, and half brother’s that happen to be emperors are much more likely to send their military might to help you in your petty wars if don’t act like a dick.
The nobles are the star of the show in Crusader Kings 2. Their stats and traits determine how good they will be at certain jobs and how they will act. This gives them each a surprisingly large amount of personality considering the sheer number of them acting like twats at any one time. I had a son who was a misguided warrior meaning he had been trained in warfare and martial arts but lacked all talent for both. That by itself is fine, but the poor fool had an undying desire to become my Marshal (The council member responsible my military). I felt sorry for him, nagging me for months on end for the position. I almost felt bad when I had him assassinated. Stats and traits will also affect how the person you are controlling acts, their personality limiting the way you can respond to what happens around you. Lustful kings will not be able to deny courtiers seducing them leading to untold bastards but kings with a little more self-control won’t end up in beds outside of their wives. Decisions you make during the game will also lead to you inheriting certain traits. King Aed of Ireland in his old age was partial to a spot of hunting much to the dismay of his wife, daughters, and sisters who thought it too dangerous a sport for an elderly man. King Aed was too proud and brave to stop hunting so I was unable to control his decision to continue to do so, the women around him hating him a little more each time he got back on the horse.
As you can probably gather, Crusader Kings 2 is a pretty complex game. Luckily the interface is easy enough to use and the tutorial will help you work every thing out. That said I don’t think the tutorial gives you much direction as to what you’re actually meant to do. You get 400 years to play around with to see how large a score you can get, derived from your characters cumulative prestige and piety. And that’s basically it for structure; 400 years to do whatever you like. This is what I had a bit of trouble working out at first, you have to give yourself a goal (or maybe a few because 400 years is a long time). While things can definitely go pear-shaped, and your empires will crumble, it’s still a fun experience because of all the personality pumped in to each character. Like Dwarf Fortress before it, Crusader Kings 2 is fun to lose.
I’ve got to mention that if you have an interest in Game of Thrones (which is most of the world right now), this is a pretty good simulation of the back stabbery and selective marrying that goes on between the houses of Stark, Lannister and Baratheon. I haven’t noticed the option to marry brother and sister as of yet, but you can certainty march prisoners out and execute them to your heart’s content.
Crusader Kings 2 sets out to give its players 400 years of medieval noble dynasty simulation and I honestly don’t think Paradox could have done a better job. What’s more, rather than being dry or boring in any way the emergent medieval history played out in Crusader Kings 2 is thoroughly entertaining for the entire four centuries. You will laugh, cry, and be enthralled by the lives of the scheming little nobles in front of you whether you’re winning or losing. Who needs set pieces when the random moments generated in Crusader Kings 2 are so drama laden and memorable? No game’s perfect, but it’s the best medieval grand strategy game come dynasty simulator I’ve ever played and as such Crusader Kings 2 gets a well earned 5 out of 5 stars.