As a big fan of Sid Meier’s Civilization series since playing the original game on my old 386 PC in the early nineties, I quite enjoy the empire-building genre of game. Sitting back and ponderously shifting attention between the far corners of your realm is something I find relaxing and a healthy diversion from action-orientated games. Crusader Kings II is a different style of empire game altogether, the emphasis not being on macro-scale city placement or resource production but on the interactions between individual members of your dynasty. A relationship-’em-up, if you will.
The year is 1066, William the Bastard is poised to invade England, and the map of Europe before me is a patchwork of greens, reds, browns and blues representing the tumultuous and fragmented land ownership of the age. Each small scrag of land depicts the demesne of a single aristocrat, sitting proudly but cautiously on his throne amongst hundreds of potential suitors to his titles and daughters.
I am given the not inconsequential task of choosing a character in the game to represent me at the start of the game, I could opt for anything from a humble Earl in Ireland, to a Sunni Wâli-Emir in Southern Spain, or even just go straight in as the leader of the sprawling Byzantine Empire. I decided to keep it low-key and start off with a small duchy in north-east Poland.
OK, first things first, let’s get a feel for my current situation. I’m a duke in control of four smaller counties, I’m surrounded by Pagans to the north and east and the rest of Poland to the west. To the south are other large Kingdoms that seem unlikely targets for conquest. On the face of it it seems that I may be sitting on the land I currently own for a while. That is, until I check who my heir is…..The King of Poland?? Turns out he’s my brother, and as I am a childless ruler he stands to inherit my titles! Brilliant, this means I just have to keep the status quo until my guy dies and my next character will be a powerful king with many counties under his direct control – those heathens in Prussia don’t stand a chance! It gets even better when I look at my character sheet and it tells me I am “Infirm”, perhaps my current ruler doesn’t have much left in the tank? Although he’s but a youngster in his early 20s, I’m willing him to die as soon as possible.
It doesn’t take long for my dreams to realise, the year is but 1071 when my weakling Duke’s health deteriorates into incapability and he eventually shuffles off his mortal coil and the game shifts me up a notch in the feudal ranks to king. I immediately take stock of my sprawling fiefdom: five county, three ducal and one monarchical title in my possession, enough to create an army to crush my non-Christian neighbours in a Holy War for control of the Baltic coast. My king is a good man with strong personality traits and my next heir is the Duchess of Bohemia, this could mean that if she inherits then her children will have claims on both the Poland and Bohemia which would give me control of a huge swath of central Europe. I can’t believe how lucky my inheritance has been so far.
Right, no time to waste, Holy War is declared to the north and my armies are raised and marching on Prussia in a matter of months. I have some friends in Russia (probably through marriage) that are called in to help and they offer some much needed extra troops for the campaign. All is going well – I have far more troops than my enemies and I am systematically ransacking their towns when…wait….what?…no…..
Game over? As the final score window stares mockingly out from the screen, a feeling of despair washes over me as I realise my error. In my eagerness to pass my titles on to that cursed duchess in Bohemia, I had instated elective succession in my Kingdom. Only thing is that my vassals didn’t agree with my choice and voted for someone outside of my family. This wouldn’t have been such an issue for some years, unless the unthinkable were to happen and my King would suffer an untimely death, but that wouldn’t happen, would it?….Yep: KIA. I really didn’t think that my king could be so careless as to get himself chopped up in battle, but the silly bugger managed it anyway. So that was that, end of an era.
I couldn’t help but feel a bit guilty for having destroyed the Piast family’s legacy and standing within six short years of gameplay, but that just served to make me hungry for another try; perhaps I could keep my succession laws under control next time? Maybe a child of my own would be a more suitable candidate as my heir? I clearly still had much to learn.
The main hook this game has for me is the lack of any real victory condition. It takes some getting used to this absence of objective or obvious direction, but soon enough it becomes clear that this is precisely how it should be. Why should these games attempt to make you “win” anything? What does winning even mean in this context anyway? Sure, you could argue that becoming Grand-Arch-Mega Emperor McAwesome of Everywhereland would suggest to some that you’ve beaten the game, but what if you’re not so imperialistically inclined? Perhaps you just want to reinstate the title of King of Ireland and unify the counties of the Emerald Isle under a new crown, perhaps you want to defend the Kingdom of England against invasion from the Nordic countries, maybe you just want to set yourself a challenge of usurping the French crown within a hundred years. Any objective is a valid one – this is very clever game design, as the player feels like they have achieved something regardless of how the developer wanted you to play the game and it encourages people to play the game in new unexpected ways.
This game is compulsive to say the least, the “do a little bit better each time” aspect of the scoring system (based on the cumulative prestige of your rulers) makes you want to go back to 1066 again and again to see if maybe you could forge an alliance with England that bit earlier, or if you shouldn’t have invaded Hungary when you did last time. It’s quite unlike any other game I’ve played, with exceptions to the other games from Paradox in a similar vein, and it’s going to stay on my computer indefinitely. It’s not the quickest game to jump into but I just know I’ll be coming back to it time and time again.