Crusader Kings is a game of people, not places. It takes a markedly different tack to the usual Paradox approach of putting command of every facet of a mighty empire at your fingertips; instead you have direct control over one man (or woman, but in the agnatic dynasties of medieval Europe it’s overwhelmingly likely to be a man), and while that man may be able to influence a mighty empire through dint of being the person currently wearing the emperor’s purple, the empire itself will be a mishmash of different territories and fiefdoms occupied by feuding nobles who have minds of their own and who constantly have to be kept in line. Personal relationships are brought front and centre while empire management is heavily abstracted; much of the day-to-day running of your kingdom will be in the hands of these autonomous vassals, with your character only having direct control over the small collection of counties which make up his personal demesne. You rely on your vassals for political support, for supplying manpower in the event of a war, and for not plotting to bring your reign to a premature end.
This shift from absolute ruler to manipulative puppetmaster might be what sets Crusader Kings apart from its Paradox siblings, but it’s also something which has provoked some vehement disagreement on whether or not that shift is, overall, a definitive improvement on the Paradox formula.
In one corner, we have Hentzau.
Hentzau has dabbled in Paradox games before, but does not claim to have a comprehensive understanding of what makes them tick. While he enjoyed the time he spent with Hearts of Iron 2 the armies of the Wehrmacht ran into a brick wall just past the Volga and he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker four years ahead of schedule. He played Europa Universalis 3 for seventeen hours and ended his four-hundred year reign over Brandenburg no wiser than when he started. He ran screaming from the likes of Victoria and… well, Victoria 2. Crusader Kings will be his fourth attempt to make the Paradox grand strategy style stick. He likes long walks in the countryside, cats, and world domination.
In the other corner is Jim.
Jim has spent the best part of four years playing Paradox games, being a bit obsessed with trying to conquer the world. He spent EU3 sending forth the mighty armies of France, Malacca, Florence, Vijayangar, whoever’s free really. He spent eons wrestling with the underdogs of World War 2 in the Hearts of Iron series, trying to make Italy not be awful just once in their life and almost succeeding. He spent in the region of a hundred hours figuring out how the economic model of Victoria 2 actually works, being none the wiser but now having thirty seven cement factories to show for it. The original Crusader Kings was a bit of a closed book to Jim, he could never really scratch through the surface but he has enough trust in Paradox that the sequel is worth a punt. His power animal is the capybara.
Hentzau: I’m going to nail my colours to the mast from the outset here by saying that the reason I never got on that well with EU 3 — and the reason I never even attempted Victoria despite it being pretty much my ideal game — was the sheer quantity of stuff you had to do to run an efficient empire. Technology, troop recruitment, internal laws and politics, national ideas, colonisation, keeping track of the various cassus belli and fighting wars; the list just goes on and on, swamping the player in detail that not even the various beginner’s guides scattered around the internet can make any sense of. To me, EU 3 is genuinely overwhelming in its scope, and that’s why I spent four hundred in-game years making the tiny state of Brandenburg into the slightly bigger state of Brandenburg. I just didn’t understand how things worked well enough to do anything more than that.
Crusader Kings changes all that, though. The scope is still there, as is much of the detail, but handing over most of your kingdom to your AI vassals makes it far kinder to a Paradox dilettante like myself since it reduces the apparent workload I have to deal with to a manageable level. I don’t have to build buildings in every vassal duchy and county in my kingdom; my vassal dukes have their own income and will spend it on upgrading the infrastructure of their holdings without any input from me, freeing me up to concentrate on the few territories that constitute my demesne and the not-insignificant business of domestic and international politics and the dynastic succession. I like that I have less to do here, and I like that it makes me far more reliant on the goodwill of these autonomous AI characters. If Crusader Kings concealed the mechanics behind my relationship with my vassals I suspect I’d hate it, but the game is admirably up front about exactly why the Duke of Norfolk hates my guts with a detailed breakdown of every single factor affecting his opinion of me. It’s not random and there are things I can do to placate angry vassals, and that’s key; it may be a largely autonomous system but it is one that can be managed and manipulated. I’m playing the role of a Machiavelli rather than a Caesar, and I love it.
Jim: I think from the start, I don’t want to be saying that CK2 is a bad game. It’s not, it’s an excellent exploration of the themes that it is based on. I’m not going to say that it should be different, plenty of people love it the way it is. However, for me, it just doesn’t have that same magnetic, hypnotic pull that other Paradox games have exerted on me and the main reason for that is this lack of control.
At the end of the game, when points are tallied and the final positions made, I want one of two things to happen. Either I can bask in the glory of a job well done, or I can look back and think “This is what I could have done better”. To an extent Crusader Kings does have this; certainly you can learn how to better nudge and nurdle your vassals into doing your bidding, but the lack of control means you might have been perfectly capable of doing the necessary things. The men were there, the funding was in place, but Duke Robert just wouldn’t let you have them, and plunges you into a protracted civil war instead. I want to concoct plans and execute them, I don’t want some imaginary two-bit son of a goatherd stopping that.
What’s worse is the sheer quantity of characters that you have to keep at least a vaguely interested eye on. Bishops and bastards, knights and nobles, mayors and monarchs. They’re all there, hefting their spanners above your great works with a meaningful expression. “Be an awful shame if someone were to…drop this”, they mutter, not quite under their breath. It’s an overwhelming number of personalities to know.
Hentzau: I think your problem here is that you’re trying to play it like you would EU 3, Jim. Crusader Kings will overwhelm you if you try to do everything, yes, but the level of automation here means you only really need a light hand on the tiller. The Holy Roman Empire may be a hundred-state juggernaut but if it’s all the way over there it’s unlikely to ever impede on my game as an incipient Ireland. I did fine just keeping an eye on the monarchs of neighbouring Scotland and England, as well as the most powerful dukes within my own realm. Everything else ran on autopilot pretty effectively, letting me get on with trying to get a claim by blood on the British mainland somewhere so that I could continue expanding.
Jim: I think that’s the nub of my problem too, though. It’s impossible to track everything, so I ended up treating people with the bare minimum of interaction, the disposable flunkies. I don’t get that personal, visceral relationship with enemy leaders that I got in other Paradox titles because no individual leader has that much heft, and there’s half a dozen around exactly like them. For a game about dynasties, it feels a lot like I’m just dealing with individuals, there’s not that same terror of the Habsburg juggernaut that motivated me in EU 3.
And because so much of your realm is automated, so many processes happen without your input, this means that you are unlocking but a fraction of the potential of your realm. I’ve always been about squeezing every screed of possibility from my realm, having every farmer and spice merchant marching for the glory of the greater Jim.
Hentzau: It’s true that if you’re a builder or a tech-hoarder at all then Crusader Kings definitely isn’t the game for you. Empire management is abstracted to the point of near-superficiality, with about eight or nine building types that roughly translate into “more troops” and one per holding that gives you more money. You upgrade these buildings as much as your technology and funds allow, and that’s about as far as it goes. You simply cannot optimise the empire for the greater good; the best I managed was prioritising one of my counties in Wales for investment so that I could build a mighty citadel there garrisoned by several thousand men, just in case the mainland colonies ever got uppity.
I’m not saying this is a bad thing, mind. Again, part of what I found so overwhelming about EU 3 were the law sliders and the national ideas and the fact I didn’t really understand what I should be building in a given province. In Crusader Kings it perhaps goes too far the other way, but — like the automated vassals — this linear approach to empire management simply gave me more time to concentrate on the dynastic squabbling.
Jim: Abstraction is a wonderful thing, of course, and it does need to happen somewhere along the continuum between reality and the game. CK2 does a good job with some aspects – I liked the way they partitioned the laws so you could favour your cities with tax breaks or change your succession with sufficient support, and I like the way plots surface, gradually pick up support and then succeed or fail. That’s a good and obvious way to show how the support of your burghers is needed to push the country forwards.
My main concern here (and I think at this point I will accept that I haven’t played enough to understand all the mechanics at play) is that the point of an abstraction is to change something overwhelming into an interesting tactical challenge. EU3 boiled combat down to horses, mans cannons and generals, but because you could pick how many of each you had, and they all added obviously different benefits and disadvantages, you could still enjoy a delicious slice of tactical pie. CK2, I am acquiring a vast stack of men and I am ramming it into another vast stack of men.
Hentzau: Likely to be the one point here where Jim and I entirely agree. There’s something going on in CK2’s combat, there’s different troop types and a battle screen that goes through different phases where archers fire and horses charge and so on, but none of it seems to have any effect on the actual outcome of the battle. In every single battle I have fought in my games — and I invaded England, so I fought a lot — the man with the largest army won. And he didn’t just win; having just a couple of thousand more men than your opponent can result in their annihilation while you yourself take only light losses. This is disappointingly shallow since unless you take advantage of adverse political conditions affecting your opponent (like his entire army being off on crusade or something) you’ll be able to see far in advance who will win any potential war: the guy with the most men. While this makes alliances and mercenaries far more valuable than they might be otherwise, with the few thousand extra men they contribute to the fight having an impact far greater than their numbers would imply, turning combat into a pure numbers game is unequivocally a bad thing.
Jim: I’m sure that there is some weird, cheesy way you can overturn insurmountable odds but they really don’t make it obvious how the makeup of your forces is affecting things. Are archers good? Do I need more heavy infantry to counter his cavalry? Who knows. I think that shallowness does factor through into other aspects of the game, and I’m particularly thinking about the buildings you mentioned. There’s lots of different things you can build and you can upgrade them through many levels, but they’re all different flavours of the same thing. Add more men to your vast stacks of men, or increase your funds, and I have no idea how to compare the pros and cons. It just feels like unnecessary busywork.
Hentzau: Yeah, this goes back to the “more troops” thing I mentioned. There’s a building that gives 100 archers for the same investment as a building that gives 45 cavalry. Are cavalry better than archers? I don’t know, but they don’t seem to be, and so I always build the archer building first. Again, playing the numbers game. It’s rather unsatisfying.
Reducing combat to pure numbers does have one unexpected consequence, though, and that’s to make the levies raised by your vassals in aid of your wars absolutely crucial to success. Since the size of your personal demesne is so small in comparison to the land you have to parcel out to the vassals in order to keep everyone happy, it’s often the case that calling on your vassals to aid you in a war will yield 3-4 times the number of men than if you only used levies from your own territories. The number of men the vassals send is almost entirely dependent on how much they like you. A good relationship with a duke will lead to him contributing half — or even a majority of — his total army to your cause. If the duke hates you, though, he’ll contribute nothing unless forced to by law. And my, my, do dukes hate being forced to by law.
Jim: You mentioned before about how this game unlocked your inner Machievelli. I’m interested to hear what you thought about the ways you could interact with your vassals and courtiers, because again for me it felt that odd abstracted combination of unnecessary busywork and random hope. Arranging the education of every child got a bit wearing by the tenth Princess Jim.
Hentzau: It does get to the point where you have no idea who this kid is and you pass him off to some random courtier just so that you can get the twenty point relationship boost this inevitably grants. Mostly, though, I really enjoyed the interactions with my dukes and extended family. Mainly because my extended family all hated me, and I eventually had them all killed. There was one guy, my ruler’s twin brother, who stood to inherit the kingdom of England because it had a purely agnatic succession law (only males can inherit) as opposed to Ireland’s agnatic-cognatic (male children are first in line, then female children). My heir was a six year old princess, locking me out of the English throne unless I somehow managed to produce a male heir who could legally inherit. My solution to this problem was simple: I systematically killed every single son my brother had, and then assassinated his wife after I discovered her plotting against me, and this riled my brother up enough to rebel so that I could throw him in a dungeon and have him executed without incurring too much tyranny. It didn’t solve the question of succession, but it did remove a potential threat to my power very cheaply.
I found the court operated fairly well with only minimal input from myself. The only times I actually did anything were like the occasion above: when there was a visible threat to my power base that needed removing. This meant my interactions were almost all of the negative how-can-I-fuck-this-guy-over-without-provoking-rebellion kind, and trying to untangle those particular types of knotty puzzle is a lot of fun for me. The duchy of Norfolk is going to pass to the queen of Scotland? Revoke it, smack down the duke when he objects. There are second and third sons who are going to be potential pretenders to the throne once I shuffle off this mortal coil? Send them to join the clergy; that’ll remove them from the line of succession. The trickier problems come when there’s a particularly powerful vassal you discover plotting against you and chucking him in jail isn’t something you can just do without risking the entire north of England rebelling against you, and this is where the assassins come into play. And if they’re too risky? Well, it’s always fun to see that a duke who has been a particular thorn in my side has died as a maimed cripple at the age of 28. Sometimes you just have to wait things out.
Jim: I’m glad to hear that I wasn’t the only one using my offspring like a set of football stickers to curry favour with my dukes. You know what I think my main problem with this side of the game is, though? I’m far too passive. If something absolutely needs dealing with, because the Duke of Ulster has declared independence or because there’s a handy tooltip saying I should marry off my third son, then I’ll do it and I’ll try to micro it, picking the best spouse with the greatest bonus. But then there’s vast tracts of time when nothing really needs dealing with and I find myself at a loose end. There’s enough periods of chaos that I do treasure the times of calm, and just sit there like a giant walrus, waiting for the next crisis to react to.
I don’t think I get that same rush of planning because I’m completely unsure of what I should be planning towards, or how to comb through reams of family trees and pick out the right strand that I could benefit from. I find myself doing the boring stuff over and over, making sure the young prince is a courteous young man, giving people stuff when they ask for it, and waiting for interesting stuff to happen. Which it never does. And so I expand, slowly and safely, with all the thrill and vigor of an international knitting championship.
Hentzau: One thing the game could a better job of is notifying you about potential opportunities to expand. It tells you when you have a legitimate claim on a province occupied by somebody else that you can press in a war, but what it doesn’t do is inform you that the infant king of England has been excommunicated by the Pope, putting the whole of England up for grabs for any ruler with the men and the necessary pull with the papacy to get a papal dispensation to invade. The invasion of England was absolutely the most nail-biting phase of my time with Crusader Kings so far, and it’s had repercussions for my game that have lasted for over a century, but it never would have happened if I hadn’t idly wondered why there was a larger-than-normal rebellion going on over there this decade.
Jim: I suppose that’s something true of all Paradox games, though, they do a very good job of shrouding their mechanics and triggers behind layers of ledgers and windows, and the great joy of something like Hearts of Iron 2 was picking it apart, figuring out the right chain of events that would enable me to invade the United States successfully before they overwhelmed me. I have to accept that at 15 hours, I don’t have enough experience to pass a final judgement. In that respect, it’s the same as every other Paradox game.
That said, I actually have something against when it’s set in terms of providing an interesting narrative. You have a map restricted to Europe plus a bit, and so the big players dominate that world excessively. Byzantium, the Holy Roman Empire and France are just three huge blobs, sprawling over Europe like a lazy cat on a warm patio. I’m not saying they should invent some new set of nations but to me, that sort of superpower-driven map is a lot less interesting than a more cutthroat, smaller-scale one.
Hentzau: Again, though, there’s plenty of scope for the small-scale stuff at the edges of the map, away from those uber-states. The British Isles, Norway, Spain, Hungary, all of these offer opportunities to play small-to-mid-size countries that won’t be gobbled up by the Franco-German juggernaut. In a game that lets you play any Catholic/Orthodox noble in existence, it seems a bit churlish to complain that there isn’t enough variety in the gameplay. Sure, France and the Holy Roman Empire seem to be rather static entities up until the 1300s or so (Byzantium is a little more unstable) and it’d be nice to be able to play as one of the many Muslim dynasties dotting the map without having to shell out for the impending DLC, but in comparison to any other game that isn’t a Paradox grand strategy title Crusader Kings is a veritable cornucopia of choice.
Jim: Churlish is my middle name. Yeah I can see that, but when I look at the map I just don’t see that same wealth of possibilities that I do looking over the EU 3 map. There’s no tucked-away backwaters thousands of miles from the action, everybody’s interlinked and intermarried from the off and I always feel like I need to start with a completely clean slate. Outside of the odd segmented provinces of Ireland, that slate doesn’t seem to exist. Thing is, I know that despite me saying all this, despite all those individual aspects that rub me up the wrong way, those features that seem improperly implemented or overly repetitive, I’m going to end up falling for the game. You know the real problem here? Nobody but Paradox tries to do this. They’ve got a stranglehold on my world-conquering heart.
Jim: I’ll make a prediction now that in a year’s time, I’ll have just about figured out how to cheese the combat and be preparing for the first proper Finland world conquest.
Hentzau: The DLC is supposed to improve the combat! I think part of the problem here is that Paradox games generally aren’t seen to be feature complete until the third expansion or so. They release functional but dull and Paradox improves them iteratively over several years until they’ve (mostly) fulfilled their potential.. With Crusader Kings it works as a complete, fun package from the outset, albeit one that could still do with significant improvement. If Paradox subjects it to the same iterative development process it could evolve into something very special indeed, but we won’t know for sure until a year or two from now.