After reading the latest feature on Gamasutra on Crusader Kings 2‘s design I felt compelled to write up this list of reasons why YOU should play this game. Here goes:
1. It’s the most accessible grand strategy game by Paradox yet
Paradox Interactive is one of those companies that succeeded in staying independent by finding a very particular audience with games that aren’t made anywhere else. One can really sense that the people who work on these games aren’t just highly intelligent and capable game designers, but that there is a real drive and passion to push the boundaries of gaming in a very specific way. There’s some other companies like that, that come to mind. Bethesda for example, seem to be always striving to get that little bit closer to the ultimate open world fantasy RPG with every Elder Scrolls iteration.
The different grand strategy franchises of Paradox (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, Victoria, Hearts of Iron) each have their own ideal goal that they strive for. Europa Universalis strives to be the best grand strategy politic/military and diplomacy nation simulator set in the renaissance spanning the entire world, Crusader Kings strives to be the best medieval nobility and lord simulator, Hearts of Iron strives to be the best World War 2 nation governor and military simulator and so forth.
Because Paradox’s developers are heavily focused on creating sophisticated grand strategy simulations, one of the real challenges is to make these intricate systems understandable and accessible for players, and with that comes the hardship of designing user-friendly user interfaces. Not quite unlike the challenge software companies face in other fields, such as Adobe with Photoshop.
A result of that is that these games are very abstract and one needs to spend a relatively large amount of time simply learning the basics of the game, and not many people are willing to do that. People who have a real motivation to learn these games are often those who are specifically looking for this type of game, and can’t find a better one elsewhere.
I tried to get into a Paradox game back a few years with Victoria because the premise sounded really interesting, but was completely lost. Then I tried Hearts of Iron 2, and I failed miserably too. After these tries, Paradox games left the impression that they were out of my reach, and I turned to more readily gratifying games, all but forgetting about the genre of grand strategy.
Then recently I saw Crusader Kings 2 on sale on Steam. Quickly I checked what the general consensus was and it was positive. But most of all, the game was apparently relatively accessible, compared to Paradox’s previous games. I promptly bought the game and dived in, telling myself not to give up too easily this time.
And lo and behold, it clicked this time. I played through the tutorial and it wasn’t all too painful, I did get an overall grasp on how the game is played, but the tutorial won’t (and can’t) teach you everything. I still felt pretty lost though, but YouTube had me covered. I recommend this series by SeeKayEm99 who runs you through a basic Crusader Kings 2 game explaining in more detail the finer nuances of the game, with an appropriate sense of humor as well.
I’m looking forward to playing many more campaigns and later checking out the DLCs, and then maybe I won’t have trouble playing the upcoming Europa Universalis 4.
2. You can play this game in a relaxed way
You can play this game without getting too stressed out and feeling under pressure of managing a large cast of nobles under your reign and simultaneously making politics with other realms. This was really unexpected to me. I expected to be micromanaging every facet of my kingdom, but this is not what this game is actually about. The player takes the role of a king, not a kingdom, an emperor not an empire. This means that you don’t have to micromanage everything, because in reality, lords let their vassals manage their own fiefs themselves. What you are concerned with is the relationships with these vassals, and all that that entails: plotting and getting plotted against, forging alliances with the intricate marriage system, making sure your heir doesn’t turn out to be a moron and much more.
The game is real time with a pause button and it lets you speed up or slow down the passing of time as you like. Once you have done the basic tasks of appointing the council members and giving them tasks there isn’t much that you necessarily really must do. The game prompts you now and again with a choice caused by an event (“The King has invited you to his feast, do you accept or decline?”) that you must make, but most of the happenings in the game aren’t too urgent. The game gives you a steady flow of decision making opportunities such as marrying off your second daughter, or choosing what ambition you will go after next (have a son, improve your diplomacy skill) which will give you bonuses once you eventually fulfill them. If you want to, you can play and only react to these prompts or you can go much further than that and really engage with the various subsystems of the game and interact in more detailed ways.
After a long day of work, I come home and wouldn’t expect to bother playing a complex strategy game, but with Crusader Kings 2, once you feel more confident in your knowledge of the game’s systems and comfortable with it, you can play this game almost casually. It keeps you engaged and interested without stressing you out (until you die and your heir is your eldest daughter that you didn’t marry off matri-linearly and therefore all her children belong to a different dynasty).
Another reason why the game plays in such a relaxed fashion is that failure can actually be entertaining and there really isn’t a win condition. Maybe keeping your dynasty going through the games time span could be seen as a ‘victory’ but only in the sense that it isn’t a game over. The real appeal of the game is the organically emerging story that shapes itself while you play the game. There is always a reason why your dynasty ended, some of it caused by you, some by factors out of your reach, but it is always plausible and always entertaining.
3. It is innovative and different from most other strategy games
I have never played a game like this. There is strategy involved and it does feel like a board game, but it doesn’t play like other games in the genre. It’s not focused on war, yet the decision to go to war is a major one that will have consequences. You’re not focused on conquest necessarily like in most other strategy games, but you can. I think the main difference is this absence of an imposed need to gain dominance over your enemies. The entire angle of the player being a person rather than an omnipresent cursor that controls a country really sheds a different light on the usual aspects of grand strategy, be it foreign or domestic affairs.
4. It is a better RPG than most RPGs
I’m actually much more of an RPG gamer than a strategy gamer. Though for some years I find myself more and more disillusioned with RPGs. They never seem to allow me to live my basic fantasy: to live my own adventures. Almost every RPG, be it Mass Effect or even Skyrim more or less clumsily tries to force down a pre-written story down my throat at the end of the day. For all the talk of “OMG you can do anything Skyrim! You can even burn chickens with Fireballs and go to any city in the world!”, there is hardly any meaningful action that truly affects the game world, unless it was scripted into the game prior. This is because to actually create the necessary systems that simulate and faciliate meaningful actions pose a daunting technological challenge. A challenge that is so hard and would potentially cost so much money to meet, that most companies simply cannot afford to.
Crusader Kings 2 is one such game, it just doesn’t try to let you be a knight in a medieval fantasy setting. Because it is a game about being a lord, it is presented as a strategy game, but sometimes it feels like it really is a strategy game within an RPG. Because of the sophisticated simulation powering the strategy element, it gives the player to possibility to actually role-play. This was made so intentionally, and nowhere is this more evident than in the event prompts where the player can choose how to react to some random event. Not all the choices are balanced. Some choices are obviously more beneficial, but not all are in character. If your character has the trait “cruel”, he should be more likely to put a prisoner into the deeper dungeons, rather than give in to the prisoner’s request and transfer him into a nicer cell. A truly nice touch.
5. There is a Game of Thrones mod
Crusader Kings 2 is a game that seems tailor made for the plotting and politics of the universe created by G.R.R. Martin. If you’re a fan of the A Song of Ice and Fire books or the TV series and would like to slip into the role of Tywin Lannister to see what would happen if he took the Iron Throne during Robert’s Rebellion, this is the ultimate game for you. Crusader Kings 2 allows for pretty much all the character drama seen in the books and series out of the box, but the mod team is very dedicated into customizing the game to fit the universe even better, from creating a maester council position to creating an amazingly well done map of Westeros with all the subregions like the Riverlands or Dorne. If you had been waiting for a decent official Game of Thrones game, just buy Crusader Kings 2 and get this mod. It is continuously in development and there is already a large fan base.