One of my favorite games of last year was Crusader Kings II. I hadn’t stuck with the strategy genre and grown alongside it as it developed into the hyper-complex entities that many of these kind of games have become. Those that have stuck with the genre and made it the center of their gaming diet are the same people who crave detail and complexity. The sad consequence of this is how many are put off from even trying them, seeing instead the seemingly insurmountable wall that the learning curve of these games represents. Fellow Moving Pixels contributors shudder whenever I bring Crusader Kings II up and suggest to them that they should give it a go.
For quite a while, I myself liked the idea of strategy games—for instance, I remember the epic LAN battles of Warcraft 2 and Age of Empires that I used to engage in with friends—but when I decided to dip my toe back in the genre a few years back (Sins of a Solar Empire), I found myself rebuffed by the tutorial. I gazed into the gaping maw of the difficulty curve, and it gazed into me. Things aren’t as dramatic in 2013. There are quite a few middle ground strategy titles, games between the simplistic iOS games like Triple Town and the high end stuff like pretty much all of Paradox’s output. Coming from the indie side of the industry to fill a hole present for almost a decade in the genre are games like FTL and Frozen Synapse. But the types of things that I heard about Crusader Kings II last year weren’t the usual topics of discussion that surround a strategy game, and the unusual responses to the game convinced me to take the plunge.
Crusader Kings II isn’t about winning—much as nearly every Dungeons & Dragons player’s handbook says the game isn’t about winning. In every gamer’s heart, though, they know that’s not true. They know that playing games are about being the best and standing tall at the end of every adventure, and too then, so is Crusader Kings II about making the world yours. Unlike D&D (which will humor such thinking), Crusader Kings II puts its foot down concerning such thoughts in the “tutorial.” Really it’s a bunch of text boxes explaining what all the parts of the UI are and it takes about an hour and half to read through and you will still have no idea how to play. Anyone who really wants to learn to play should either watch a YouTube Let’s Play, have friends to communicate about it with on Twitter who play, or else just prepare for aggravation. I chose the first option. Even after getting a general idea on how the game flows and how to execute a number of actions, the game will not bend to your gamer will. You are but one man (or occasionally woman), and the world could not care less about your petty ambition to conquer the known world. Especially when you uncle over yonder hill is looking for a way to stab you in the back and take what is “rightfully” his.
Crusader Kings II is missing a lot of things that we think inherent to games—goals, narrative, personal agency, feedback—but it still provides the tools in order to get at such things. The game hasn’t time to tell you what’s about to go wrong or what you should do about it, it’s too busy simulating the rest of the continent, and every minor decision and action of every single person at every level of power. The game will let you get yourself into trouble, and by the same grace, let you try and dig yourself out of it. Other than the interface, the only thing restraining what you do are other people and the potential disaster any action will instigate. The biggest roadblock to your ambitions is your own fear of what other people in the world will think and do—not an unjustified fear either.
“The king has gone mad with power. Rebel!” But I only chopped his head off because he assassinated my only son. “How dare you thwart my dream. I will overthrow you brother!” I didn’t make you Court Chaplin because of your theological expertise. After all, your knowledge of the Bible is next to that of a chipmunk’s. “They’re calling you ‘Malcolm the Fat.’” But I unified the bloody country! “England declared war on us!” Which son or daughter did I accidentally insult this time? “Uh, no sire. Your second cousin’s wife’s nephew inherited Northumberland.” 0_0 And a personal favorite: “Basque is invading.” Why?!? “Well, they’re allied with southern Ireland, so…” I get it, I get it.
There’s a definite learning curve to figuring out what action of your own catalyzed later actions by the AI. There is a logic to Crusader Kings II that becomes clear after a while as well as a certain familiarity that arises based on seeing the same family names over and over. Thus, a pattern to the world and the behavior of your fellow nobles emerges. But, like in real life, sometimes the son of your best friend turns out to be a dick.
Crusader Kings II may technically be classified as a strategy game, but really it is a storytelling engine. Here is your cast of characters, here is where you see what they think of you, here is a map, now figure out what you’d like to do and good luck. A narrative is woven from father to son of a dynasty. The generations pass, but the name of your line remains. You play at intrigue and at politics to gain a little more power and a little more recognition. You will forge a kingdom and so what if you have to step on a few toes or heads to get your way? And you die old (but accomplished) only for your son to take over and spend nearly his entire reign putting down revolts and rebellions initiated by every single person you pissed off during your lifetime. Oh, and thanks for leaving a war with Norway on the table while you were at it, Dad.
Every time I try to describe Crusader Kings II to someone I end up narrating a small novella of some King’s shrewd dealings to expand his holdings through marriage or another’s plans falling apart thanks to the gardener not holding his liquor. The game moves only time along. Your actions determine the plot, and your mind constructs the narrative. You rewrite history, but only a small corner of it, as the computer simulates and writes the rest. This is what attracted me to Crusader Kings II in the first place. It wasn’t the talk of tactics or the maneuvers that you can now pull off thanks to a different set of battle mechanics. It wasn’t the focus on the grand arc of history to get your civilization into space. The game reveals the faces of the people involved in this history. You will burn the face of the man who stabbed you in the back into your memory. You can look pityingly down at your brother who has no special skills in anything, yet wants to be as asset. And you will marry a woman not for love, but what she can bring to the table, only for your appreciation of her to develop later.
Some, as a short hand, have described Crusader Kings II as Game of Thrones: The Game. But even that is too limiting a description. You can reenact many of the situations from Game of Thrones in Crusader Kings II but to think that is all that can happen is itself too limiting. There is an even wider variety of stories possible within the framework of the game. Like in D&D, it’s only limited by the rules and your imagination. Circumstances won’t always go in your favor, but what would be the fun if you knew the outcome for certain? And remember, losing actually can be fun. That’s one ending to a story, after all.