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Crusader Kings II review

Great
AT A GLANCE
  • Fun stories spring from gameplay
  • Detailed medieval simulation
  • Backstabbing and duplicity
  • Learning curve intimidates
  • Interface could be improved
  • Currently feels Christian-centric

We gamers are always talking about the “stories” in our games, like how so-and-so RPG had a great one, and this other game’s was pathetic. But usually we’re really talking about canned plots, prefabbed rollercoaster rides dreamed up by the designers. Unfortunately, it’s rare to find games that give you the freedom to experience your own unique stories. The Sims is a prime example, and now it is joined by Crusader Kings II, Paradox’s latest and possibly greatest medieval fiefdom simulator.

The game takes place between 1066 and 1453, and there are literally hundreds of characters throughout that span that you can play as. Being a king is very different than playing a count, but neither’s journey is less interesting.

The stories spring up effortlessly. We first noticed when playing as Kaiser Heinrich IV of the Holy Roman Empire, around 1070.  We royally pissed off, as kings by definition do, Duke Lothar-Udo II of Brandenburg, who was next in line to the throne. Not only did we fire him as chancellor when someone better came along, we also installed our newborn son as our preferred heir under the empire’s agnatic-elective succession laws. He quickly gained the majority of the vassals’ votes, putting the Duke out of his future dream job.

This was around the time that our spymaster starting reporting that the Duke was plotting to murder young Heinrich Jr. Confronted with the evidence, the Duke politely backed down, apologizing for any trouble caused. Sure, no problem. A few months later our spymaster burst in: Lothar-Udo, murder plot, Heinrich Jr. Again: so sorry, my bad. This cycle occurred three times before Heinrich Jr. turned six, at which point we sent him off to be educated by the Duke. This not only struck us as hilarious, but the good feelings engendered by this seemingly reckless act of poor parenting finally stopped the Duke from wanting to murder his new pupil. Or at least he stopped acting on those feelings, and our heir got a good education in diplomacy: win-win.

These stories play out constantly, whether you play a provincial count or a godlike emperor. While your goal is ostensibly to sustain your dynasty as long as possible, Crusader Kings II is more about the journey than the goal. Getting there is more than half the fun.

This heady, complicated mix has a substantial learning curve, so it’s not exactly the type of game to pick-up-and-play. The vocabulary alone will give most non-medieval studies scholars pause. Among the terms we had to grok: demesne, de jure, agnatic-cognatic, gavelkind, primogeniture...the list goes on. And do you really know exactly what a prince-bishop is, or how a duchy differs from a county? You will after playing CK2 for a day or two, but it’s pretty scary at first.

It was definitely touch and go for our first few sessions. CK2 is unabashedly complex, and the tutorials explain perhaps a third of the stuff you’ll really want to know. After a week of play we still have burning questions about major game systems that just aren’t covered in the tooltips or manual, so we’ve been spending some serious time on the official Paradox forums. Help is abundant there, but we’ve still got a ways to go before we’ll be weaving intricate webs of deception that’d make Machiavelli proud.

But the potential is totally there, so long as you can stick with it and conquer the sometimes-overwhelming interface. There are little buttons everywhere, and while the interface is pretty useable once you get used to it, it’s never as easy to find specific characters or visualize their relationships as it probably should be. This in particular makes the game feel impenetrable at first. The text and icons are pretty small, too. The game runs happily at 1080p but we actually reduced it to 1366x768 just so we could read the text and see the icons without squinting.

Another place the game disappoints slightly is in its Eurocentrism. While this is understandable given its already-immense scope (seriously, why have we never noticed that Europe’s so vast?), it’s still unfortunate that you can’t play as Muslims, pagans, or really much of anyone who doesn’t worship the Christian god. Modders were all over this for 2004’s original Crusader Kings, so we’re sure DLC or mods will address it soon enough.

Crusader Kings II can be a heck of a lot of fun. For us it was a slow burn; the more we understood, the more fun we had. Once you start getting past the learning curve you’ll find yourself more and more absorbed by all the complex little dramas that swirl around your nobles; you’ll know you’re getting there once you start feeling the urge to fill in other people on your crazy, possibly immoral medieval exploits. 

More Info

Available Platforms: PC
Genre: Strategy

12 comments

  • reyah - September 30, 2014 1:49 p.m.

    Hello, I just got this game cheap from here: www.thegamekeys.com . They have a very good delivery time and I am fully satisfied! Do check it out!
  • ChaosEternal - February 28, 2012 3:31 p.m.

    Sounds pretty awesome to me. I shall try to remember to get this. ^.^
  • TheCakeIsaPie - February 28, 2012 3:13 p.m.

    ...the Christian *God. Fixed that for you.
  • LordofNothing - February 28, 2012 6:02 a.m.

    Is this like Europe Univ. where they is some form of military action or is it strictly running the interior affairs of a state?
  • kyle94 - February 29, 2012 9:04 a.m.

    Yes, there is military action. Though, it's a bit different than the other games also made by Paradox. You can either recruit mercenaries, or you can raise the levies in your provinces and the provinces of your vassals. You can't keep a standing army, as mercenaries take money every month or so, and your vassals don't like you holding onto their levies for too long.
  • Nephilim - February 28, 2012 1:33 a.m.

    Of course it's going to be Christian centric. If it wasn't then it wouldn't be an F'ing Medieval-Europe Game!! T_T.
  • Nephilim - February 28, 2012 1:35 a.m.

    What I mean is that it wouldn't be realistic.
  • coujoir - February 28, 2012 4:33 a.m.

    Seeing as Turkey, Persia, Russia, Greece and the Balkans show up on the map above, I see no reason why they couldn't add in different religions. The Balkans was Muslim in the Middle Ages, while Greece and Russia had the Orthodox churches. Extra religious options would definitely flesh out the game, as it did the the Civilization series.
  • kyle94 - February 29, 2012 9:05 a.m.

    There are other religions in the game, just for whatever reason, you can't play as them. (Though, you can play as a member of the Orthodox Church.)
  • kyle94 - February 27, 2012 6:21 p.m.

    Paradox games have always been rather Christian and European centered, (though, not always) so that's no surprise.
  • potpan0 - June 1, 2012 3:16 p.m.

    You can't really blame them. In the past, you didn't really have any major civilizations in the Americas, in Africa, or in Oceania. The only two to choose from would be Europe and Asia, and seeing that Europe had more choice, and variety, it's better to choose there.
  • RedHarlow - February 27, 2012 5:08 p.m.

    The learning curve for this game is almost overwhelming, but once you get the basics down it's quite fun (if you enjoy these kinds of games) an expansion to plays as the Muslim states or the Pagan peoples in the Northern Crusades.

Showing 1-12 of 12 comments

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