Historical Game Spotlight: Crusader Kings II

by northernbeholder

I think it’s about time to ease back into some history on this poor old history blog.  Baby steps, though – let’s wean ourselves off the recent gaming binge slowly.  What better way than to talk about a game that is about history?  I say absolutely none, mostly because I want to talk about Crusader Kings II.

Paradox Interactive makes (and publishes) a lot of niche games, but their flagship products are the “grand strategy” titles – massive, sweeping strategy games that cover whole continents (sometimes the entire globe) and centuries of human history.  They’ve carved up history into several different game series, each entry in which represents new features, gameplay refinements and typically some manner of gameplay upgrade:  Crusader Kings (European and Mediterreanean area from 1000-1400 AD); Europa Universalis (World, but really mostly European, area from 1400-1820 AD); Victoria (World, but really mostly European and New World, area from 1820-1930 AD); and Hearts of Iron (World War II as any nation in the world). All the game series share some broad similarities: A massive world map divided into provinces, armies abstracted into “stacks” that move from province to province, and a massive amount of menus, sliders, and decisions to make to power foreign policy, technological research, domestic laws and your economy (the exact details of which vary from game to game).  It sounds like something you’d expect from a turn-based game, but Paradox’s grand strategies all occur in real-time, with the speed adjustable from a real:game ratio of 1 second:1 hour to 1 second:1 week, as well as a crucial pause function.  They’re all massive games with tremendous depth of mechanics and freedom of play.

So why Crusader Kings II?  Is it particularly accurate in its historical scenarios compared to other of Paradox’s offerings?  Not really.  As with the other games, you can choose from a wide variety of start dates, with the map, diplomatic relations and political situations updating to accurately reflect (within the limits of the game engine) how history appeared during that date.  However, the moment you start playing, all bets are off.  What decisions you and the AI controlling other states make will start changing history almost immediately – in small ways at first, which compound into larger effects, until half of France is occupied by the Almohazid Caliphate and the King of Poland has inherited the duchies of northern Italy.

No, what gets Crusader Kings II into this list is its simulation of the feudal system.  Unlike in the other games, much of Crusader Kings revolves around individual characters, each with a set of traits and quirks gained through inheritance, education and life experiences.  You, the player, control the actions a character that just happens to be a ruler, and when you die you play as your heir.  For you, the traits just define your ruler’s ability at various aspects of ruling (military leadership, intrigue, diplomacy, etc.) and makes it easier to do some things than others.  For the AI, however, the traits shape behaviour, and that’s a crucial thing, because all of your vassals are characters too, and they’re all run by the AI.  If you have a covetous or jealous vassal, they’re more likely to demand additional titles or honours, or perhaps scheme to usurp your throne.  A content or loyal vassal is more reliable, but may end up being assassinated by a rival or his own heir. On top of all that, their attitude will be affected by the actions their lord takes, so if you raise taxes they’ll grumble, if you declare that your daughter may inherit they’ll snarl, and if you seize one and throw him in the dungeons as an example to the rest, they’ll start breaking out their good king-stabbing knives.

Every kingdom in the game is a complex web of vassals, political alliances, plots and counter-plots.  Vassals may openly war with each other if their liege lord’s authority is too low to prevent it, or rise up in rebellion if they have some greater goal – or simply are thoroughly dissatisfied with how the king is performing.  In one of my games, my second-born son one day approached me with the backing of five of my own vassals and declared that, unless I gave him the title to the richest duchy in the realm, there was going to be trouble. Vassals in foreign states behave the same way, and if you’re eager to lay claim to a border fief or two, an effective prelude to war is to stir up your foe’s vassals a bit and see if they’ll go so far as open rebellion.  It’s self-scaling, as well; you can choose to start the game as anyone from a lowly count to a mighty emperor (as well as rising or falling in fortune depending on how the game goes), and the greater your realm and titles, the more vassals – and thus, troubles – you’ll accumulate.

The focus on the feudal system also extends into the system of royal marriage.  In Europa Universalis, arranging a marriage with another nation gives you a slight relations boost and a penalty to declaring war.  In Crusader Kings, it’s how you forge an empire.  Well-arranged marriages can put your bloodline’s progeny on the thrones of foreign kingdoms (allowing you to call for their aid in war), supply your heirs with inheritances outside your realm (meaning when they eventually inherit everything, your borders have expanded greatly) or give yourself legitimate claims on foreign territory to enforce through war.  The AI isn’t shy of doing the same, so it’s important to pay careful attention to who’s inheriting what in your realm – having one of your oldest duchies and most loyal vassals suddenly fall under the banner of a rival king because he died and his heir is of a foreign bloodline is no end of frustrating.

Is it a true and fully faithful recreation of feudalism?  Not entirely.  By necessity of being a game, some of the fine granularity and legalistic details are glossed over, the player can’t hold a title less than count, and even NPC titles don’t exist below the level of baron.  But the mechanics of the system allow for brilliant emergent gameplay, and it gives the feel of trying to juggle the demands and ambitions of multiple vassals very well.  Have a duke decide that the middle of a major war with England is the perfect time to press his demand for lower taxes – by force if necessary – and see if you don’t start to feel sympathetic to monarchs that had to deal with such men in real life.  Most importantly, it satisfies that crucial criteria of a historical game, and leaves the player thinking “Man, that’s interesting.  I wonder if that’s how it really worked…”