TPG Command Performance: Crusader Kings II Preview

By: Armaan Khan

For the last two weeks I have been bombarded with stories about Skyrim. People were, and still are, talking about all the wonderful emergent adventures they’ve been experiencing in Bethesda’s latest fantasy product. But while everyone else has been off having fun slaying dragons and doing whatever, I have been quietly playing the beta of Paradox’s forthcoming real-time strategy game, Crusader Kings II.  So, why am I talking about Skyrim? Because I have come to the conclusion that CK2 will be the Skyrim of historical strategy games.

It’s Good to Be King

Crusader Kings II is a medieval political-intrigue sandbox simulation set in Europe during the 11th to 15th centuries. You are asked to take on the role of a noble and build your family into a dynasty that lasts for centuries. Unlike other strategy games, which would have you assemble a mighty army and go a-conquering across the land, Crusader Kings II requires you to take a more diplomatic approach. Instead of waging war willy-nilly, you’ll have to navigate the minefield of medieval politics, competing against literally hundreds of other characters in order to acquire prestige and piety, which are the measures of success in the game.

There’s a ton a freedom to play within that minefield in whatever way you see fit. Want to become a pious bishop-king, who rallies to the Vatican’s side whenever a Crusade is to be had? I did that. My decisions along the way resulted in me estranging my wife and losing all but one of my holdings to disloyal vassals, but it also impressed the Pope enough that he showered me with gold. Additionally, the piety rating I gained allowed me to hire the services of ten thousand Knights Templar, making me the dominant military power in the region.

Want to sit quietly in your corner of the known world, building up your holdings with markets and fortifications, so that you can slowly accumulate gold, prestige, and piety over the long term? I did that. It was a boring life, but also a stable one. Plus, no one tried to kill me or usurp my property, which was a nice change of pace.

Want to live a bacchanalian life, wasting all your money on feasts and hunts, and sneaking into the bedchambers of women who catch your fancy? I did that as well and, incidentally, ended up with a ton of children running roughshod throughout my court. I also neglected to have them properly educated, so they grew up to become highly unlikable folks who suffered sudden and mysterious ends.

I supported plots to overthrow English kings, foiled the plots of others, jailed political prisoners (then had them surreptitiously executed), and hunted a white stag. I started a personal crusade in Spain, which continued across generations until victory was finally secured.

A Legend That Will Live Forever

Every time I walked away from my preview copy of Crusader Kings II, I had a story to tell. None of it was ever scripted, but came about as a result of my decisions and interactions with the simulation.

This emergent storytelling, as well as the focus on intrigue over more traditional strategy tropes, is at the core of the Crusader Kings II experience. While warfare, infrastructure/economic management and technological research do exist, they are very limited compared to other games in the genre. There are only a handful of buildings available to you, and unless your character is directly in charge of a particular city, you won’t be able to actually build any of them. There are also only three or four different military units, and combat is simply a matter of moving your army into a county where an opposing army is standing, and letting the number cruncher do the rest (generally speaking, the bigger army will always win). And the less said about the technology system, the better.

These limitations may bother gamers who are looking for a more traditional strategy experience, but I think it’ll actually strengthen the final product and turn it into something unique. Crusader Kings II is clearly going to be a game about people, not armies or empires, and that is what sets it apart from the rest.

But, For Now, Patience Young Prince

You’re probably wondering why I called Crusader Kings II the Skyrim of strategy games. It’s because of both games rely on emergent storytelling. They give you incredible freedom to find the most fun within the world that they have built. Skyrim puts you in a fantasy land surrounded of dragons. Crusader Kings II puts you in medieval Europe, surrounded by the most dangerous predators of all: ambitious nobles. They both make lasting impressions on your memory, and compel you to tell the stories of your exploits for days after you’ve played. It’s rare to encounter games like that, which is why I’m anticipating Crusader Kings II scheduled release on February 7, 2012.

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4 thoughts on “TPG Command Performance: Crusader Kings II Preview

  1. CK1, despite its age, was the first Paradox game I bought, mainly because I was looking for strong games that would play on my Macintosh. Since then, I’ve been a strong Paradoxian, though their current generation of games have now outstripped my computer. I converted my brother. The best part about CK1 was the story that the events told to you, which weren’t historically scripted, but rather happened randomly. You’d have a rival who’d be a powerful duke in your kingdom (maybe he was a loyalist of the previous king you usurped) and he’d revolt, triggering a civil war. But you might not be able to get rid of him, since he was very powerful, so you’d instead have to keep him around, despite knowing he’d rebel again. That kind of storytelling was really powerful, and it’s why I still play CK1 today, while my use of Paradox’s other grand strategy titles have fallen off.

    I’m glad Paradox expanded the scope of the “grand strategy game” by applying it to human relations, an which I think the whole of gaming is often very deficient in. In a lot of ways, it’s more compelling to tell the “human” story of interactions between the characters, rather than the interaction between realms.

  2. Sounds like my sort of game, but I want to see my knights charging across the battlefields of europe. I’ll stick with King arthur 2 I’m afraid.

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