Sunday, 30 June 2013

9th Century Gaming: Crusader Kings II

"It was the year 867 CE, and Caliph Al-Mu'tazz sat on the throne of the great Abbasid Caliphate. He looked across his many fiefdoms, and knew that this was not enough. Although he was only 20 years old, he knew it was his destiny to conquer Mesopotamia, Egypt, Arabia and beyond, all in the name of the Sunni faith. His starting point was strong, he had a well developed nation and mostly loyal vassals. His enemies were ripe for the picking! First though, he had to deal with his family, the thorns on this desert rose."
The start menu, from here to world domination

I had heard of Crusader Kings many times, but had never dabbled. The closest I got was experimenting with Europa Universalis III: Complete (it's not complete, two more expansions were later released), which ended mostly in disaster. I just couldn't quite get my head around the systems and my choice of England was perhaps a poor one. Both of these games are by Paradox Interactive, a rather wonderful slightly smaller developer and publisher from Sweden. They excel in these sorts of grand strategy games, and they have produced games that cover historically accurate strategy from the 9th Century to the 20th (Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, Victoria, Hearts of Iron).

Caliph Al-Mu'tazz the Great, head of the Abbasid Caliphate (892CE)

When Crusader Kings 2 was released, I was dubious that I would enjoy it. I'd tried to get into EU3, but bounced right off and figured that the learning curve was too steep. However, it was after reading about the upcoming Europa Universalis IV that I decided that CK2 would be added to my Steam wish-list in case of a big sale. Low and behold, only a few weeks later there was a massive summer Paradox sale, and on one particular day CK2 and all it's DLC was 75% off. I took the chance, and dived right in.
By 892CE, I had crushed my domestic opposition and started my conquests

After it installed I thought I'd just load it up and see if everything was in order. Just to check it was working I decided to start a character in the Middle East, and see what was on offer that differed from EU3. I only noticed it was two hours later because I was thirsty, and it was getting dark. Great games draw you into their world. Great games make you eager to return to them, to play just one more level, one more turn, one more conquest. Great games, like great films, books or music, capture your attention completely. Is CK2 a great game? Well, it's too early to tell but so far I'm having a blast.

The expanding Byzantine Empire caused me many problems, always attacking when I was weakest.

For anyone reading (does anyone actually read this?) who might not quite know what differentiates a Grand Strategy game from a regular Strategy game, let me just say the word "Grand" is not used lightly. I love games like Master of Orion and Civilization, classic turn-based strategy games. Both are detailed, complex and require real thought and patience in order to win. Crusader Kings 2 (and the other Paradox games) kick this up several notches. Rather than playing as a player-character entity, you instead step inside the world of a historical figure, and the landscape, territories and so forth of the time.
By 962CE, my Caliphate had broken apart and my character was a mere vassal.

This is no quick-fix game, no simple farming of a single resource and tank-rushing the opponents base. To start a war you must have a cause, but thankfully such things are often easy to come by, or can be fabricated if your spies are up to scratch (but if your spies fail, it can give them cause to start a war with you). Diplomacy is a must, keeping your vassals happy means giving them land and titles, but not too many or they may get aspirations for your throne. You cannot rule alone, and your court provides your council, your generals and your family. A bitter civil war can leave you weak and open to invasion by foreign forces.

A single province was in my control, plus a selection of vassals spread far too thinly.

One of the key ingredients in Crusader Kings 2 is the dynasty system. Although you play as a single person, your children are your lineage. Once your current player-character dies, you take control of your heir. You did remember to marry and have a son didn't you? Or change inheritance laws to allow your daughter to rule? If not, it's game over! (Thankfully the game does plenty to warn you of this!)

Something I figured out far too late: how to build in my demesne.

No matter how well you think you've set up your kingdom, when your character dies and you move on to the heir, there is the potential for plenty of trouble. Depending on your inheritance type, you might only get a portion of the previous territories, or you may end up with plotting relatives trying to steal the throne. Of course while you're trying to avoid a full blown succession crisis or civil war, it's the prime opportunity for some of your neighbours to declare war on you.

Whilst I've been busy in the Middle East, Alba (Scottish) have conquered most of the UK

In one example on my current game, I had been doing very well with my first character, and had carved out an empire that stretched from Mesopotamia to Egypt. Unfortunately, my heirs were not so lucky. Factions wanting independence, and various relatives vying for the throne crippled my empire, and in the end I was forced to surrender the majority of territories. This left my formerly huge empire a set of disparate fragments at risk of being invaded by neighbouring kingdoms.

Sweden are the real winners in the North, with a large empire

I ended up becoming the vassal of a smaller kingdom, with only one province in my demesne. However one of the best parts of Crusader Kings 2, is the ability to bounce back from adversity. If you have the time, patience and ability there is always the opportunity to reclaim greatness after what seem like such massive losses. It will take time, skill and a lot of scheming, but I have hope. The fractured nature of what was my grandfather's empire plays into my hands somewhat, as I can hopefully steal a few territories from weaker neighbours and begin my ascent back to the top!

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