Crusader Kings II Offers Endless Intrigue
Issue   |   Tue, 02/26/2013 - 23:20
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Though its design is simple, Crusader Kings II provides hours of historical and absorbing gameplay.

Rarely does a game offer such imaginative potential and replay value that I opt to come back to it again and again. Even in the most content-packed games, I usually max out around 30 hours. But as I was recently browsing my library of downloaded PC games, I noticed something surprising next to one inconspicuous, low-budget game: “104 hours played.”

Crusader Kings II was an impulse buy. The summer of 2012 had me moping around my suburban home, waiting for the day when I could return to campus for my summer job. I saw the game for sale online, read a few reviews and in a fit of boredom purchased it for $20. Twenty dollars down the drain, I thought, as the game sluggishly loaded.

The rest was history. Forgive the pun — Crusader Kings II is a historical high-strategy game that places you in the shoes of any European landholder from 1066 to 1453. Recommended choices include William the Conqueror, Harold Godwinson, Alexios Komnenos and Richard I of England, among others, but the game doesn’t limit you to these famous figures. You can play as anyone, from a King of Castile to a Count of Ascalon. The game’s numerous expansions push these boundaries further, allowing you to play as Muslim rulers such as Saladin, or as the head of one of the many merchant republics like Venice or Genoa.

The game is anything but conventional, foregoing advanced graphics or clear-cut objectives and focusing instead on depth and breadth. The entire game takes place on a color-coded map of Europe and surrounding regions, and gameplay is achieved through menus and pop-up queues. This sounds quite tedious, and the learning curve is indeed very steep. But if you can make it past this barrier to entry, the game becomes a thrill. Your vaguest goal is to achieve prestige for your dynasty, which generally means climbing the ranks of the feudal system and desperately clinging to what you’ve earned. You effectively do this by creating smaller goals for yourself as you move along, and executing those goals with a series of discrete actions.

Let us look at an example. In one of my favorite scenarios, you start the game as ruler of León, one of the three Castillian kingdoms of the dynasty Jimena in northwestern Iberia. In an instance of short-sighted family planning, you and your two brothers have each inherited one kingdom from your father, and each of you is an ambitious cur. Each of you is also wifeless and childless, meaning that should one of you die, the oldest remaining brother will inherit those lands. Already the scene is rife with tension.

First things first: you need to find a wife. After browsing the character menu for suitable candidates, you find an eligible princess of France. She’s undiplomatic and bad with money and that will negatively affect the quality of your rule; but friends are hard to come by and those big French armies may be useful to you later. You seal the deal and turn your attention to your brother to the east, the king of Castille. He’s also had the bright idea to marry, and he chose a fertile princess of the Holy Roman Empire. You must eliminate him before they conceive. A bit of reconnaissance leads to the discovery that his newly-betrothed wife and his newly-appointed spymaster despise him. Twiddling your fingers maniacally you enter into a plot with them, and it isn’t long before a bit of poison is slipped into the king’s wine. Castille is yours.

Finally, you turn your attention to your other brother, the king of Galicia, only to find that his lands have been overrun by Andalusian Muslims. The French alliance would prove useful, but the French are involved in their own civil war and can’t spare an army. What’s more, word has leaked that you were involved in the death of your brother, and his former vassals are none too fond of a kinslayer. And to add to your troubles, you discover that your wife is a lesbian; the prospects of having a suitable heir any time soon have grown faint. Certain doom is around the corner, but at least you’ve come out on top of the Brothers Jimena. In a last-ditch effort you send a desperate plea to the pope, who rewards your piousness with a sack of gold. With the gold you hire a mercenary company and can survive for a few more precious years.

In one such scenario I conquered my way all the way to being Emperor of Hispania. Alongside the depth of “Crusader Kings II” is an incredible breadth to match, which is the source of the game’s limitless replayability. Rather than starting as the Leonese in northwest Iberia, you could start as the Navarrans, whose unique Basque culture allows women equal inheritance under succession law. Rather than starting in the year 1066, you could take off 200 years into the future after the creation of the Kingdom of Portugal. Or, you could start a campaign somewhere else and defend England from the invading Normans, or restore the glory of the Roman Empire as the Byzantines. The possibilities are nearly endless, and the story is yours to create.

What makes this game stand out from all the other high strategy games on the market is its human element. You don’t play as an abstract nation but as a person to whom it’s very possible to become attached. More than once I’ve furiously resigned from a session after my prize heir fell sick and died, leaving his ineffectual younger brother as the next in the line of succession. The game will prompt you to do horrible, terrible things in the name of your dynasty’s prestige. Sending assassins after a newborn child and blinding/castrating your political prisoners are not off the table. Whether you choose to rule with honor or pursue your goals ruthlessly is left entirely up to you, and you won’t find the game judging your choices. But if we’ve learned anything from our Game of Thrones friend Eddard Stark (SPOILER WARNING), it’s that nice guys finish last.

While we’re on the subject, it’s actually possible to play as Eddard Stark in “Crusader Kings II.” Members of the game’s vibrant modding community have put out a downloadable addition that simulates the political intrigues of Westeros’s Seven Kingdoms. It’s a perfect fit. Those willing to search around for mods will be pleased to find a number that stretch the game’s boundaries even further. In addition, the development team is constantly putting out expansions that add in interesting features or allow more playable factions. Recently they released a small expansion which — in a small revision on world history that would make Jared Diamond convulse with laughter — has the Aztecs crossing the Atlantic and invading Europe in the late 13th century. Another expansion currently in development allows the player to control the various pagan rulers, including the Norse, Mongols, Baltic tribes, Zoroastrians and more.

“Crusader Kings II” is not for everyone. Those looking for a casual experience or an opportunity to play with friends should stay far away, unless they’re willing to try something new. That said, I can’t recommend this game enough to my fellow college students, history major or otherwise. The game will teach you intuitively about medieval-era politics, and besides, it’ll be a blast. Play a bit in between assignments, accomplishing minor objectives, or dive in headfirst during a break. You’d be hard-pressed to find a game that matches its capacity for exploration.