On the surface, Crusader Kings 2 is yet another generic grand strategy game where the only objective is to paint the map the colour of your selected country. But underneath it all is a sandbox of unlimited roleplay potential – a world ripe with selfishness, political decent, religious conflict and an awful lot of inbreeding because, as I’m sure you know, it is the only way to guarantee the purity of the bloodline for centuries to come.
But let’s reel it in a bit first before we go off the deep end…
Crusader Kings 2 is a medieval grand strategy games spanning four hundred years where you navigate politics, wars and religion to stabilise and grow your empire. The first thing you need to know about it is that, unlike most strategy games, you do not play as a nation, but as the person who runs that nation. To put it into perspective try to imagine your typical strategy gameplay loop; fuel your economy to pay for millitary – a loop seen earlier than Heroes 3 and Age of Empires, and still the centre stone of the Total War series because, in those games, you control a whole faction and everyone under it.
But by controlling the person who controls the faction that loop becomes more complicated because, as a person, you have strengths and short comings. For example, you might have a high stewardship skill allowing you to pay for large numbers of troops, but without a good martial skill you won’t be able to muster all that many men to fight for you, let alone lead them into battle. Speaking of which, even if you do have a high martial skill, leading them onto the battlefield yourself would be a terrible idea without at least a couple of traits pertaining go battlefield tactics, a martial education and a semi-decent personal combat skill. Without these things your survivability is no better than the average soldier.
What about diplomacy? Typically, strategy games measure your faction’s general relationship to another’s based on your interactions with them to see if an agreement can be made. But in Crusader Kings 2 it’s less about winning the heart of the nation you want to engage with, and more about the love of it’s leader. Because in a feudal medieval society, everyone answers the the man at the top regardless of if his leadership is good, bad or is even in their best interest. So you might have had a good relationship with France when the humble, content King was on the Throne. But when his young inexperienced son inherrited it, with the proud and paranoia traits, your relationship might be entirely different and your former ally might just become your biggest threat. Any pacts you had with his father will have dissolved and there’s no telling in what direction their new leader will take the country. Agendas change on a dime and thus the long term survivability of good relations with powerful countries is often outweighed by the immediate convenience of potential friendship with nearby lords.
Because you don’t control your whole faction and only the leader, it means even people in your faction have agendas. They might not like you. They might plot against you. They might try anything from assassination attempts on you to strategically securing favours to force you off the throne at the threat of mass rebellion. But if they like you, they might support you when you propose new laws, will be more likely to actually try and succeed missions you assign to them and will generally have your back in the games many random events. So while you could spend your whole time worrying about that kid on the throne of France, your worries will be short lived if you haven’t got your house loyal and in order when you find the very country you chose to play as hates your guts more than France ever could.
To compliment this, the game is just as much an RPG as it is grand strategy. Characters have skills, traits and dice rolled stats in events, all of which interact with those of other lords, and even lowborn characters, when those those events fire. The sheer scope and amount of unique scenarios the roleplay will put you into is hard to convey, so I’ll share a few stories with you:
Once upon a time I was the King of Wales and most of England. During some down-time I decided to study the stars and do some scholarly work. Instead of studying anything remotely scientific, however, I instead decided to ask myself whether anything was out there… A hop, skip and a jump more of debating this line of thinking led to me becoming a raving, paranoid lunatic convinced of some cosmic threat. For a few years it wasn’t so bad; the worst that happened was that I’d sometimes be found wondering the corridors naked and embarrassing myself in front of my courtiers. But then, one day, I decided (in my infinite wisdom) to fire my councillor and appoint my horse, Glitterhoof, in his stead. Glitterhoof had, erm, very little diplomatic prowess but did (somehow) fabricate a claim on a nearby English territory for me.
Later on, as my character approached death, I began to debate my mortality and sent my spymaster to scour the world for ways to increase my lifespan. He returned with a mystic woman who claimed she could teach me the secrets of immortality. And, wouldn’t you know, she actually did. I suddenly became immortal (supernatural events are rare and completely optional). I could still die in battle, but was immune to death by old age and disease. I also gained a unique bloodline that would give future members of my dynasty honour and prestige for being related to an immortal person. It was during this time that I decided to pick the “seduction” character focus and then steer my gaze towards Glitterhoof. Glitterhoof, bless her, was quite resistant to my bat-shit crazy 70-year-old ass trying to put the moves on her, but was eventually swayed. In the quiet of the night we made sweet, sweet love. In doing so I passed on my immortality to her! And my horse’s portrait suddenly changed to display lighting flashing from her eyes and mane. I had created a god among animals. Regretting the whole affair, Glitterhoof relocated to Scandinavia where the game listed that she later died under suspicious circumstances, implying that she had been made the target of an assassin. Apparently some Viking saw an immortal horse and dubbed it too dangerous to be left alive.
As for my character… Well everybody hated him because he was so unhinged. His own children were plotting assassination attempts against him, as well as leading political factions to overthrow his rule. So his reign ended in suicide after jumping from the castle’s balcony… Three times. The first two failed to kill him, probably on account of him being mostly immortal, but he got there in the end.
As another character, where I played as a petty Queen in Italy, I decided that Catholicism is bad and joined a satanic cult. After a decade or so ascending the ranks by sacrificing prisoners to satan and attending more orgies than I can remember, I was second in line to leadership of the cult. It was at around this time that the leader approached me and asked if I’d like to be the person to give birth to the antichrist. After a whole 30 seconds of thinking over the long lasting reprocusions of doing such a thing, I went ahead and agreed. It was a long night of nothing but the best sex I’d ever had before I was surely with child. Eventually he was born and, through the manipulation of our tanistry voting system, designated as my heir. But before he could come of age and make use of his title and demonic powers he died of the flu and, because of the depression I suffered thereafter, I also died from yet another tumble from the castle’s balcony. Sadly, the coming of the anti-Christ was cut short by the lacking of medical technology in feudal Italy.
One of my favourite mods adds a Dungeon Master to the game who decides to screw the world over every few years. Sometimes he dissolves entire empire’s, sometimes he kills everyone’s eldest child to mess with succession and other times he decides to turn every person in a given province into solid gold. It’s ludicrously unbalanced, but also hilarious and scary because of how well it fits into the game.
There are also a large number of total conversion mods allowing you to play in various worlds from other franchises such as World of Warcraft or Avatar the Last Airbender. But, to no one’s surprise, my favourite is the one that puts you in The Elder Scrolls.
In my playthrough of the brilliant Elder Kings mod, I played as a 200 year old Telvani wizard in Morrowind. My liege loved me and so gave me a very important position on the council, with which I did everything I could to consolidate power for myself. I bribed, thieved and underhanded my way into starting a civil war which ended with me installing a puppet-queen on the Telvani throne who would do pretty much anything I asked. Eventually this imbecile got foolish, radical ideas of “independence” and “thinking for herself”, which I decided to strictly forbid by getting rid of her. I did this through decades of blackmailing everyone in Telvani society and securing political favours surrounding a political party led by me with the singular purpose of wrongfully giving me control of the entire Telvani faction. We then had the largest civil war I have ever partaken in. Half the people on my side hated me and didn’t want to fight for me, but had to because I’d backed them all into a corner of fear and dismay. For a while it was going well because of how me and my allies vastly outnumbered our liege. But then, because she was a legendary wizard herself, the woman summoned a horde of demons to join her army that proceeded to ruin us.
For a while it all seemed hopeless. She just kept summoning more and more, and more. But then I remembered that I too wad a master wizard so, naturally, used my alteration magic to… Turn her into a chicken. That’s right, for approximately a year or two she lived her life as a chicken with the ability to do absolutely nothing except garner the respect of other characters who had met the same fate. During this time we turned the war around and won it because it turns out that soldiers don’t respect a person who falls victim to being morphed into an egg laying animal. She did eventually return back to elven form, but not in time to stop us. Suddenly I was the leader of the Telvani and nobody was on board with it. Everyone hated me because, lest we forget, the only reason they helped me achieve my goals was because I blackmailed them into doing so with decades worth of favours and infomation. But the truth was that they couldn’t stop me and thus I reigned supreme. Anyone who disagreed with me “disappeared”, replaced by one of my many loyal heirs or, if they were too important to let go, bribed into reluctant loyalty. Some put up a fight. Some rebelled. They had hordes of skeletons illegally summoned upon them. The Elder Kings mod is whack, but what makes it so fun is how it takes the engaging and emergent storytelling from the base game and dials it to eleven, using the lore of the Elder Scrolls to that advantage.
Long story short, this game is pretty incredible. Modded or not. It’s got a huge amount of things to do in it and expertly blends traditional grand strategy map painting with bonkers roleplay. Without mods, in the base game, you can even make the world be ruled by animals against whom the humans must survive against. I once fought as a Spanish polar bear against the tyrannical reign of a Scottish hedgehog… And lost. Truly, the potential in this game is limitless.
However, like the majority of Paradox games, its monetization is also limitless. You have to pay money to simply play as a Viking, as a Jew, as a Muslim, as an Indian, or as a horse-lord on the Steppes. You have to pay money to name your children and influence their education, and to join special societies. You even have to pay money to make a custom character in a game that dedicates 50% of its time to ludicrous roleplay where your starting character is often the most important. Without this stuff the game is incredibly bare bones.
Since support ended for it, however, the game did go free-to-play with a subscription service that gives you access to all the overpriced DLC that should have been in the game anyway. This is more accessible than having to buy all the DLC individually because you can just cancel the subscription when your playthrough is done. Still, it is a shame that a game this good is plagued by such money-grubbing tactics. Alas, that is the fate of all modern grand strategy games, it seems, especially those made by Paradox.
But it won’t stop me from recommending this game and you getting your hands on whatever DLC you can because it is just that good. There is some DLC that’s pretty essential, and some that you can completely skip – For instance don’t buy Sunset Invasion; it’s just £10 for the game to spawn a horde of angry Aztecs who inversely invade Europe and consume the entire western side of the map almost effortlessly. Waste of time, no fun, don’t get it. But anything pertaining to adding new dynamic events, roleplay elements or cultures to play as is worth it. Most Steam reviews will point you in the right direction if you’re confused… But then again, the fact you need to refer to out of game sources about what DLC to prioritise is just another bullet in the foot of the developers.
Predatory, yes. Fun, also yes. Maybe dip your toes into the water before making a full commitment.