Making history in Crusader Kings II [Preview]

23 Nov 2011  by   Paul Younger
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It’s tough being a medieval Duke. Not as tough as being a medieval peasant, obviously, but status brings its own set of aristocratic problems. Who will succeed me when I die? If one of my vassals fails to produce an heir, will I lose a slice of land to another dynasty? Can I get away with tossing another jester in jail when he mocks me at my own winter feast?
These are the sorts of issues you have to deal with in Crusader Kings II (CKII), the forthcoming sequel to what was perhaps Paradox Interactive’s most accessible title. Of course ‘accessible’ for Paradox still means ‘extremely in-depth’, but it’s always seemed simpler to get to grips with the aspirations and schemes of individual courtiers than with the nationalist dreams of entire states in series’ like Victoria or Europa Universalis.

I’ve had a couple of days to play around with this preview build of CKII and the more I do so, the more I suspect that Paradox’s previous release (Sengoku) was a kind of trial run for this sequel. The two games are similar in outlook (despite being set in wildly different eras and locations), being based around the ambitions of a chosen dynastic family, but CKII is already looking like it’ll offer a lot more to keep players interested and involved.
That turned out to be Sengoku’s main problem. While the (relative) simplicity and stripped-down nature of the game gave it a welcome sense of focus, the lack of activities (besides limited plotting and endless warfare) undermined the fun. Ultimately, all roads in Sengoku seemed to lead to much the same place; a lot of samurai hitting each other in order to grab territory.

In CKII I’ve been happy to just sit back and rule my own little corner of France (Toulouse, as it happens) without recourse to military matters. William and Harold are going toe-to-toe in Britain (the game opens in 1066 and runs through to the late 1400s), while Spain is a hotbed of Catholic-on-Muslim holy war action, but the main concern in my part of the world has been the lack of children produced by my lustful Swedish bride, Maria.
She was in her late 30s when we married, so kids were always going to be a gamble, but what clinched the match was her claim to the Duchy of Uppland, giving me a potential foothold in Scandinavia. However, my lack of children meant my brother was direct heir, with another, younger, brother next in line.
I kept the former happy by making him Marshal of the realm (maybe a risk, since that gave him some military power) and giving him a landed title. The other brother I married off to Princess Emma of France, giving him a distant (but nonetheless possible) claim to the French throne. With these two satisfied, my chances of waking up with a knife freshly installed in my back were much reduced.

Overall, events have been flowing much thicker and faster than they ever did in Sengoku. Already, in under a decade, my character has fallen ill, held lavish feasts, hunted a wild boar, uncovered plots against a courtier (and thrown the plotter in prison), had to replace the ‘Lord Spiritual’ councillor because he turned out to be a bit of a raving heretic and been granted the title of ‘Master of the Horse’ by the King of France (not too sure about that last one, it might’ve been a sly comment about my long face).
My options for intrigue also appear to be much expanded from the machinations of feudal Japan. If, for example, I wanted to skip over my nearest brother as an heir, I could risk dumping him in prison (and subsequently having him executed) or just hiring an assassin to do the deed for me. Both of these options could also go hilariously wrong; but screwing up in CKII can actually be just as fun as pulling off a major succession coup via a series of shrewd marriages.
Alongside more devious plots, player characters have personal ambitions which range from the fairly simple (get married) to the rather more long-term and complex (turn the French throne into an elective monarchy). These are self-set, so you can somewhat tailor them to your own playing style.

If necessary, you can even try to have the laws of succession changed to suit your devious purposes. The new rules will inevitably anger the person (or people) skipped over by the doctrinal change, but the important thing is you’ll get your own way. And hey, sometimes annoying members of your family can be a smart way to goad them into war and provide a ready-made excuse for you to smash them in battle (or lay the first paving stone in the road to your execution).
CKII takes a similar approach to warfare as many of the other Paradox strategy titles, with troops being raised as levies by your vassals (who’ll get increasingly weary of your military adventures the longer they have to cover the costs of their soldiers) along with the option to hire mercenaries or even some holy orders of knights (though these guys won’t fight against their fellow religious brothers). There are a few more troop types than in Sengoku, but battles are automated and statistics-based in the same way (broadly; if you have more troops, favourable terrain and a superior general, then you will triumph with ease).

This game also throws technology into the mix, giving you the opportunity to (slowly) develop a superior edge in the areas like warfare, economics and philosophy. Expansions in these fields seem to happen somewhat naturally as time ticks by, but you can choose to send the aptly-named Spymaster from your council to go and pilfer tech from nearby realms. The very same character can also be used to build up a spy network and make it easier for you to bump off unwanted subjects.
Given the time period in question, religion naturally plays a role in most of your affairs. Actions taken may boost or hurt your ‘piety’ value, which runs alongside the ‘prestige’ figure (relating, essentially, to where you’d rank on a ‘hottest rulers of the land’ list) as a key statistic in the game. The Pope is a powerful figure, whose authority you probably don’t want to challenge unless you’re absolutely certain you can win (there’s the intriguing possibility of setting up a puppet ‘antipope’ if you’re a strong enough monarch).
The Byzantine Empire is still a force too, and one which you can sweep to greatness if that’s your inclination. Unfortunately though, it’s not possible to play as any of the Muslim Emirs (at least not yet, I smell an expansion here).

It’s impossible to cover every intricacy of CKII in a single article, but for a game with a three-tiered, 27-part tutorial it’s not actually that hard to get stuck into (it seems weird to say that, I know). A spiffy new map (stretching from Iceland in the North West to Turkey and the western coast of Africa in the South East) provides a multitude of ways to view the ebb and flow of power in the medieval world, and the menu navigation is quite a bit less painful than previous Paradox efforts. Most menu screens have easy shortcuts to further details (every character screen has a diplomacy button, for example) and (at last) there’s a back button for returning to previous layers.
Thanks to the usual flexibility of Paradox titles you’ll be able to approach CKII as anything from a lowly count to a mighty king, meaning it should provide all the medieval double-dealing and familial ambition you could hope for.
Crusader Kings II is due for release on 7 February.

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