Crusader Kings II Review: Machiavellian Medieval Madness

If you dream of unfurling your own complex plan of Machiavellian machinations and you have an interest in medieval Europe then it is hard to imagine a more perfect release than Crusader Kings II. Before you let loose a fanfare on your Herald’s trumpet and don that suit of armour consider this – it is one of the least accessible games ever released. You might be a strategy master but this is the Everest of learning curves and as a complete newbie it could easily give you pause for thought.

Veterans of the original and similarly styled Paradox releases like Sengoku and Hearts of Iron will dive gleefully into the action. The rest of us can hunker down and plough through no fewer than 27 separate tutorial sections. That introduction should keep you going for the first half hour before you begin to scour forums to find out exactly how to boost your income or how long to wait for your Chancellor to fabricate a claim.

Let’s step back for a moment and take in an overview of what Crusader Kings II actually is. Imagine Total War without the actual RTS battle portion. Instead you focus on the big picture, the map view, and your basic aim is to keep your dynasty on your chosen European throne and to increase your prestige as far as you possibly can. The methods at your disposal are varied and complex. While there are some superficial similarities the potential for scheming goes way beyond Total War’s campaign map.

You’ll start by selecting a head of state. You can click on each one to see details and get a sneak peak at the difficulty rating before you choose. A small kingdom or empire might mean a small army and limited funds but it should also provide a sounder base to build on. A large empire will undoubtedly involve threats on multiple fronts and schemes galore among your nobles. The game starts in 1066 and you can play for four centuries if you choose (you can also elect to start later). The fact there is no specific aim and a multitude of different roles to try gives it superb replay value.

Crusader Kings II is ultimately about personalities. Every character in the game has an opinion of you. How you deal with your friends and your enemies will determine your success. The golden rule is to ensure that you have an heir at all times in case you should die. Sudden death from illness, sword or even poison was a definite feature of medieval times so you have to be vigilant. Securing an heir means arranging a marriage and trying to balance traits and likely fertility with the potential for increasing your influence in foreign courts.

There are plenty of determining factors in whether someone likes you, from a lowly courtier in Carlisle to the Pope in Rome. Every character has an opinion of you from a positive score of 100 all the way down to a negative -100. Your personality traits, your skills, your actions, your religion – everything is under scrutiny. Your approach will inevitably meet with approval from some and discontent from others. It is a balancing act to keep power firmly within your grasp. You’ll have to choose when to make concessions and when to stamp on dissent.

The attention to detail is great. You can appease Earls and Dukes within your kingdom by bestowing honorary titles, sending gifts or even asking them to educate one of your children. Your diplomatic options are diverse and so you can really plan to interlink your chosen subjects and place them in strong positions to back you. It is also easy to stir up fear and resentment. Imprison that wayward brother who has been greedily eyeing your throne or botch a plot to murder your infertile wife and people are going to shout “tyrant”.

You may assume that the game is all about conquest but conducting war is actually tricky. You don’t just raise an army and march over the border. To avoid incurring the wrath of the international world, the Pope and even your own subjects you need legitimate excuses to invade. You need a “casus belli” before you can challenge a foreign state, which is basically an excuse. The good news is that a fabricated excuse will do just as well as real one. You can send your Chancellor to fabricate a claim or ask your Spymaster to build a network. You can even try and marry into the ruling dynasty and then murder your way to the top.

There are various ways to start a war but things don’t get any easier once it’s underway. You’ll need to raise troops and organise your forces. It can take days just to manoeuvre them into position. You’ll also find that they don’t like long campaigns and it generally takes a long time to build up the necessary Warscore that will allow you to force the peace you want on your opponent. There isn’t much in the way of visual action and conducting war is more about co-ordinating your troops well and reacting to the sway of battle which is revealed via statistics and bars.

Strategy is the aim here and Crusader Kings II is impressively accurate from an historical perspective. The character names are real, many of the events are real and they’ve even linked in Wikipedia pages so you can read up on them. They’ve definitely captured the authentic spirit of the grubby, backstabbing, backward, graspy free-for-all that was medieval Europe. There is also real strategic depth and the opportunity to put wildly different tactics into practice.

The focus on that depth and the style of gameplay means that the game is pretty unimpressive graphically. For the most part you are navigating through endless menus and tapping around the multitude of options on your HUD. There is a nice 3D map you can zoom in and out of and some basic animation for the characters upon it, but this is largely text-based with 2D art. The orchestral score adds an element of grandeur to proceedings, but the sound is pretty minimal as well.

The real strength of Crusader Kings II is also its weakness. It is very complicated. The tutorials don’t come close to covering everything you need to know. There are all sorts of other options we haven’t even touched on including making laws, researching technology, setting ambitions and of course taking part in crusades. It is easy, at times, to feel like you are drowning amidst the incoming messages and floundering when you don’t know how to deal with a seemingly important event. If you play as a smaller nation you might feel conversely that not very much happens at all and it takes too long to fan the flames of war. There is also a multiplayer option for up to 32 people but losing the ability to manipulate time makes things even harder to manage.

One thing is for sure – this is not for casual strategy fans. If you feel like Total War is complicated enough then you don’t want to go anywhere near this game. If you crave more depth and you’re happy to devote a few hours just to get the hang of things then snap it up. Fans of the series have no reason to pause, just buy it.

 


About Simon Hill

I'm addicted to gaming and have been since I was a wee boy. Worked in the industry as a tester, designer and producer. I'm now a full time freelance writer and editor.