Through a complex system of diplomacy and backstabbing, Crusader Kings II makes every power struggle an engrossing one.
While there are indeed plenty of holy wars to be waged in the medieval world of Crusader Kings II, it’s the breadth and depth of peacetime political maneuvering that makes this strategy game such a delight. This is a game with an incredible number of options for scheming and diplomacy, whether it’s crafting an arranged marriage to net you a powerful foreign ally or maintaining a balancing-act relationship with the pope when the two of you have very different views on church-taxation laws. The side effect to this complexity is a daunting learning curve, but if you stick with it, your prize is a deeply rewarding medieval strategy game with a focus on the human element of power that makes for a captivating journey through history.
There’s no tangible goal to be found in Crusader Kings II. Your job is simply to take the patchwork of feudal states that comprise Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and expand your power however you wish. After you choose a starting point somewhere between 1066 and 1337, you play as any head of state from the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire to the king of a tiny territory long since absorbed by a larger nation. Each has its advantages and disadvantages: picking a powerful empire grants you more military and financial resources, but it also saddles you with a collection of barons, dukes, and counts whose ambitions aren’t always aligned with your own.
The way you deal with these subordinates is a critical part of your success because what makes Crusader Kings II special is its focus on the value of personal relationships. Every character in the game has an opinion of you displayed as a single number, ranging from 100 (glowing adoration) to -100 (bitter hatred). These opinions are an indicator of how easily you can rule over and interact with them, with dozens of factors at play. Have you been ruling steadily for 50 years? Your constituents will respect you mightily if so. Have you broken a peace treaty with an emir lately? Expect your standing to drop considerably in the Muslim territories of North Africa. Even personal maladies you were born with will carry a lifetime of social stigma if you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls afflicted with a clubfoot or a hunchback.
With no tangible win state, you’ll need to come up with your own goals, like uniting the Iberian Peninsula under Spanish rule.
Nurturing these relationships is a delicate but highly rewarding process, thanks to how well Crusader Kings II reflects the slippery nature of feudal rule during the Middle Ages. Each territory you hold is like a semi autonomous state unto itself, with your vassals (bishops, counts, and the like) supplying you with tax income and troops only if their opinion of you is high enough. Everyone in your chain of command has their own agenda, which creates a constant back and forth between you and your underlings. If you keep your vassals’ troops engaged in combat for too long, they’ll grow resentful, but if you send your child to be educated with them, you’ll earn a significant amount of goodwill. The game is stuffed to the brim with these methods for pleasing or angering people, and there’s a believable logic to the way people react that makes carefully managing your reputation immensely satisfying.
Equally important to your cause is managing the state of your family. When your character shuffles off this mortal coil, you take control of the first heir in line to the throne. And because the game combines each successive ruler’s “prestige” score into one final tally, it’s in your best interest to keep your dynasty going strong until the game ends in 1453. This encourages a careful style of decision making where you have one eye on the present and one on the distant future. So if you’re prepared to marry off your son to the princess of a powerful foreign king to gain a military ally, you need to be careful because that beautiful young royal may happen to be devoutly religious or homosexual, which would decrease her fertility rating and, thus, your son’s chances for producing an heir of his own.
Crusader Kings II covers a lot of terrain, so it’s a good thing you can easily color-code the map by all sorts of parameters.
Although each character is shown as a static portrait on a menu screen filled with statistics and personality traits, you wind up feeling a genuine sense of attachment to your next of kin. It’s an oddly proud moment when you’ve granted your son his own duchy and he then proceeds to declare his first holy war against your religious opponents. But if you neglect your family members, they’ll grow every bit as resentful as a foreign adversary; they may revolt in civil war if they’ve got the troops for it or plot to kill you with poisoned veal if not. Thankfully, the AI governing these characters is smart and reliable, rarely ever frustrating you with illogical behavior (unless that person happens to bear the insane personality trait). The result is a lasting and profound sense of ownership over your family’s dynasty as it passes from one heir to the next.
While you can sit tight and play the role of a pacifist, the best way to build your dynasty is to overtake other territories and expand the boundaries of your empire. This task generally requires a careful combination of diplomacy, intrigue, and all-out military conflict. Building a powerful army is important, but it’s far from the only ingredient necessary for success. For one thing, you need a casus belli (reason for declaring war) before invading a territory. This can be accomplished by a number of means, from collecting enough neighboring territories to usurp a claim on their land to sending in your spymaster (one of the five highly specialized members of your council) to fabricate a historic territorial claim through bribery and threats. Scheming your way into a war is an absolute delight that practically demands you be stroking a white cat and cackling maniacally.