Crusader Kings II is the sequel to the 2004 cult strategy game, suffice to say, if you weren’t aware of the game’s predecessor you’ll not understand all the hype surrounding this niche of a game, however this grand strategy is indeed a true diamond in the rough, and one that anyone can pick up, fall in love with, and gain five suitable heirs from.
Crusader Kings II is a game driven by its choices, and you can pretty much choose to do anything you want, within reason, but after all why would you even attempt to marry into a family that hates you, or declare war on your most trusted allies. The very biggest of decisions that you will face is given to you as soon as you load into the expansive map of the Medieval World, feel like ruling as the King of England? How about the Holy Roman Empire? Better yet, pick a lowly Earl and you’ll have a difficult road ahead of you. Whether the character you wish to play has holds one demesne, or fifteen, the choice is literally yours across all of Europe from 1066 up until 1337. Think we’re lying? We picked Earl Leofwine of Surrey in an attempt to take the South of England by storm in 1066.
You’ll find that if you pick a rather prolific character then plots will make up a large part of their lifetime; you’ll often be informed of worrisome rumors in the midst of your realm, with enough favour you can get them disbanded, but if you do not act on a plot quickly enough it will be carried out, and you'll find your heirs, or even yourself dead. Similarly if your Liege favours another as their heir, you could always see to it that they don’t outlive you, plots are truly the lowest form of warfare, but they’ll get you out of many sticky situations if you are highly favoured among your neighbours.
Un-pleasantries aside, Crusader Kings is focused greatly on relationships; get rid of all the pretences that you take into strategy games about building the biggest army and using the best tactics to ambush or rush your opponents. No, Crusader Kings is like The Sims of the strategy world, and this massive soap opera is just as addictive too, so rather than fretting over how large your army is, you’ll be more worried as to your heir that threatens a succession crisis, the vassal in your court with an heir outside of your fiefdom, or that Earl that just won't be friends.
One of the most important parts of the game that your dynasty depends on is succession; play your cards right and you’ll be in charge of a triumphant dynasty for centuries, however don’t hedge all your bets on one heir; just because you’ve picked a favourite doesn’t necessarily mean that he will not drop dead before you do, nor will you expect his brother to enact the plot on him that leads to his demise. With a possible 271 years to play out, you will reallt never have the same play experience, the AI is brilliant and will always do what you least expect, and when you least expect it, there is no way to ‘learn' the game, because you will never truly have a hold on it.
War strategies are not exercised in the blink of an eye, in fact war is long and costly and it’s not as simple as just conscripting new armies when your levies run dry, well it is if you’ve the money to back mercenaries, but generally if your levies are all gone, you won’t be swimming in gold, and before you know it your kingdom is occupied by your enemy and there’s very little you can do about it but sit and carry out diplomatic affairs whilst you liege grows impatient of your lack of martial aid.
What is fantastic about Crusader Kings II is that it works on such a simple level; the player can rule in their province, make decisions, marry off vassals, have heirs, have a few wars, and yet there are so many things that a player does not need to worry about, but can change if they wish to, such as laws, increasing technology research in specific areas or sending out councillors on jobs in your provinces, in playing on a much simpler level you are not missing out on half of the game, just playing to the point that you feel comfortable.
It is important to remember that you are not ruling a nation from your guilded throne, or pulling the strings of an empire; you are leading your dynasty, which will begin as only a handful of people, if you’re successful, and your social manipulation skills are topnotch then you’ll slowly see your plans take shape, if you’re lucky you’ll get granted new counties, be able to improve your fiefdoms with upgrades and in 100 years your little estate is closer to becoming the domain of a strong dynasty, just remember things will not always work out your way, and if you die without an heir, its game over.
It would be an understatement to say that Crusader Kings II has a learning curve; it’s more of a very steep hill that looks really tough, but as soon as you get over the apex you're plain sailing, and everything suddenly makes sense, which makes it all the more frustrating that the tutorials present in the game are not the most informative to truly understand the big picture, and really the best way to learn Crusader Kings is by doing. Although to be fair, once you’ve gotten over the fact that the game is all about the people and less about warfare, then you’re in!
A rather neat feature that will be very interesting to those a little less historically versed than others is the new knowledge base of Crusader Kings II that comes from Wikipedia itself. If there is a page on Wikipedia for your vassal or bishop, then you can look it up no sooner than it takes to click on their name. The inclusion of this feature is fantastic for the more curious of players that appreciate knowing who they are playing as, or who is sieging their land, it’s a surprise no other grand strategy title has done it already.
Best of all that is highlighted by the Wikipedia links feature is that everyone in the realm, from that courtier in Winchester to the King of Norway, has their own character full of good traits, the seven deadly sins, and general plights in their nature that can affect their everyday life. For instance a weak Marshall will be no good in a fight, or an ugly steward would not be very diplomatic, Paradox give character to... well their characters, your vassals are not just a bunch of statistics, they’re a group of tangible and relatable people.
Crusader Kings is undoubtedly one of the most fresh and engaging strategy games on the market, it’s simple exterior and complex approach makes it both an accessible game for a fan of the genre or a newcomer that just wants a go at putting their dynasty down in history. There is actually so little to fault the game on, so just do not be surprised when five minutes, turn into five hours.
Crusader Kings II is available now from all good retailers and digital distribution channels for the SRP of £29.99, although it has a slight learning curve, when you receive enlightenment, it will be the most addictive game you’ve ever played.