Crusader Kings II: The Kotaku Re-Review

When I first reviewed Crusader Kings II in 2012, I called it "one of the most challenging, entertaining and rewarding strategy games [I've] ever played." Five years later, it turns out that was only the beginning of my long journey with the game.

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive. The "grand" part of that label is well-deserved; like its labelmates Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, CKII is a game whose complexity is matched only by the number of buttons and menus it's packing to accommodate it.

This story has been updated since it was originally published in 2016.

Starting in the 8th century, players are asked to look across the medieval world and select a single ruler, from the mightiest Emperor to the lowliest local official. You're then in charge of that person's affairs (and by extension those of their lands) until the day they die.

And when they do, provided you've managed to secure a successor, you start playing as them, and so on and so on until you run out of heirs or the 15th century draws to a close.

At face value, CKII is a traditional strategy game. It's asking you to do what every other strategy game does: play cerebral whack-a-mole, balancing a number of variables and threats in whatever way seems most prudent to you, the ruler. There's an economy, and fighting, and diplomacy, and everything else you'd expect.

Only what you expect and what you get with this game are two very different things. CKII doesn't ask you to worry about how much timber you've got in a warehouse, or how many catapults you've built. This isn't a game where you have to care about juggling complex trade routes, or build individual infantrymen.

It's a game about people.

See, you don't play CKII as some distant, God-like observer. You're in the boots of one of the guys (or gals!) living through the game, and so the options available to you at any moment are limited to the very human ones a ruler could directly order.

You can get married. You can have kids. You can hire and fire your family and friends. You can arrest your family and friends. You can chop their heads off in the dungeon after you do it, if you like.

You can disown a dwarf son, adopt a mysterious bastard, arrange a Papal vote, host a feast, go hunting or even just invite someone over for dinner.

This stuff isn't window dressing, either, it matters. The core of this game is a vast network of interpersonal relationships, the game constantly calculating how everyone is feeling about everyone else. How you get along with someone, influence a decision or have something done to you is almost entirely dependent on what other characters think about you, which in turn is determined by how you were raised and what your personality is like.

So decisions and challenges in CKII aren't "I need more wood so I'll chop more wood", they're more like "I need to declare war but my council is against this so how can I persuade them without resorting to murder and oh fuck it I'll just murder someone".

This extends all the way through to national diplomacy. For example, there's no abstract value weighing how much England likes France. That's reliant on the personal opinions of each King/Queen, and is influenced by everything from where they were born to who's on their council to who they're married to.

They may be best friends in 1150, but a few dead Kings later and they will be at each other's throats. So CKII isn't an economic or military strategy game (though those elements do feature), it's essentially a political simulator. And a very good one at that.

What this dependence on character does is turn each game into a gripping story. Strategy games have long leaned on narrative to dress up their box-ticking, from Civilisation's personalities making AI seem human to Total War's historical plots, but they have got nothing on Crusader Kings II.

Everything that happens to you in CKII feels like a personal affront or triumph because that's exactly how the game works. Whether you're torturing a foe, fending off a challenge on your title or having an affair, every click of your mouse is telling a human story with complex human beings.

Denmark didn't invade, their arsehole King did. You didn't secure power by harvesting minerals, you killed a few people and bribed a few others. Every day that passes, you're writing your own bloody, historical version of Game of Thrones, only with the Crusades replacing dragons.

All of which is terrific stuff, but then, I said a lot of this before when I reviewed the game the first time. What's happened since is nothing short of remarkable.


Five years of constant updates, expansions and patches have turned a game that was already vast into something almost unmanageable, a world so full of possibilities that even so many hundreds of hours into my life with the game I feel like I've barely explored the fringes.

Here's just some of the stuff that has been added to CKII since launch:

  • Whole new areas of the map. What once included Europe and a little bit of its fringes now includes vast swathes of Africa, India, the Middle East and Tibet.

  • This doesn't just add geographical scale to the game but also personality. Because CKII is built upon relationships and politics, playing as a character from an Islamic Sheikdom or an Indian Empire is like encountering an entirely different game, as while they share the same basic framework as the vanilla European experience everything else is almost a new and different challenge.

  • New religions have also transformed the game. The addition of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and old Norse Gods (just to name a few) only made the game's relationships more complicated, and in CKII, the more complicated the relationship, the more fun you have picking at people's weaknesses.

  • RPG elements that, at a basic level, let you craft your character, choosing a type of class, a skills focus and even customising their appearance. You can then influence the creation of your bloodline by educating them in certain ways and stepping in at key points of their development.

  • You can restore the Roman Empire, stop the Mongol Hordes, create an empire that spas from Ireland to China and, oh yeah, also face down a fictional invasion of Western Europe by a rampaging Aztec Horde.

Like I said, it's now a game of mind-boggling scope. Some expansions have passed me by, while the updates present in others, like a more intricate Papacy and trade rules, are things I'd rather not pick at.

But what an extraordinary game this is that I have that luxury. To be able to pass up entire new systems and ways of playing, and still drown in the possibilities available to me.

A Mercian Werewolf In London

Late last year, having not played for a few months, I fired it up and after a few hours found out that my King was secretly a werewolf, who would sneak out at night and eat cows.

Which ... OK, cool, not only did someone involved with a deeply complex and historical strategy game think that up, but they went and put it in the game. Awesome.

And just this month, again having spent quite some time away from the game, I've revisited to find that the Chinese are now present in Crusader Kings II. You can't play as China, and they only feature on a small part of the map (China itself isn't there, since adding that much geography would break the game), but they're still available to make deals with, go to war against and invite to your court.

That's an astounding thing to come back to. Here's a game already overflowing with races, peoples and faiths, so many that few players will ever truly come to terms with them. And half a decade later, where you'd forgive Paradox for either giving up or phoning it in, have only gone and added the world's largest and most advanced empire for the time, and everything that could entail for your own holdings.

Simply adding more and more stuff sounds like a cheap way to improve the game, but the thing about CKII is that everything that's been added has been woven into the game's systems. Because it's a game that's about the stories you create, and not necessarily the score you rack up, there's no need to worry about new content being for a certain type of user, or for the player to have somehow "completed" CKII before they can enjoy it.

Few pieces of new content jut out, or are clearly bolted-on; rather they merge with everything to simply create a game that's bigger, bolder and better than what was already there at launch.


Sadly, as amazing as everything I've said above was and has become, I'm still a bit sad that the vanilla game's main failing is still very much in effect, if not worse: it's too damn much.

A game with a lot of options and commands, by necessity, needs a lot of menus and buttons. And I'm not a UI designer, so I'm not going to tell Paradox how they can a better job.

But I know that, somehow, a better job needs to be done. Even as a seasoned strategy game player it took me a long time to get my head around how this game works, a fact helped by the fact I was into the history and had the motivation — namely, this is my job — to learn.

Buttons atop buttons within menus beneath menus. For others, learning how to play this game and tame its massive interface can be too much to ask. This isn't helped by the fact that the game's tutorials are sorely lacking, leaving prospective players to alt-tab into YouTube every time they want to learn even the basics.

It's been a shame breaking such a fantastic game down like this for years, selling it to friends and colleagues on the strength of its political and human heart, only to find most of them giving up because its learning curve is just too steep.

CKII's AI is also still a bit wonky. Its people act and react to you with terrific skill, but more traditional strategy game AI manoeuvres, like moving armies and ships around, remain frustratingly busted.

The most common and obvious example of this is the way the remnants of AI armies will constantly run away from you once you defeat them; you'll spend more time chasing them across the map than you will fighting them, which is distracting as it keeps you from more important matters.


If I'm going to shower praise on the game's official expansions, I can't re-review CKII without also mentioning the impact mods have had on the experience. Users have created everything from new maps to new art assets to new tech trees, some of it to enhance the game's historical authenticity, others because...well, because they're PC mods.

The Seven Kingdoms, and then some.

One mod stands out above all others though, and that's the Game of Thrones conversion (download it here), which turns the game into a terrifyingly complete simulation of the show/books, letting you indulge in the the same kind of political shenanigans and moral abandonment you first enjoyed in Europe, only now in the even-more appropriate setting of Westeros.

The Struggle To Cram Game Of Thrones Inside A Video Game

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I cannot understate how good this thing is. If it had been a standalone Game Of Thrones tie-in it would have made millions.


Five years ago I said Crusader Kings II was a very good video game. So good, in fact, that it was a contender for 2012's Game of the Year. It didn't win, but unlike most of its competition that year, it hasn't faded from public consciousness or been replaced by a prettier sequel.

Instead, it's quietly but consistently expanded and improved itself, gestating with a kind of confidence in its core systems and hardcore appeal that in this fleeting and skittish industry is downright admirable.

I can't think of many 2012 games that would only crack our list of The Best PC Games in 2017, five years after they were first released, but if anything is testament to Crusader Kings II's strength and consistent brilliance, it's that.


Comments

    130 hours and counting. One of my favourite games ever.

    Got about 80 hours in. Great game. So easy to just get hooked and lose time playing.

    I enjoy it, agree with the interface foibles though, had to watch a 10 video series just on how to play. I've avoided buying any of the DLC though, it just feels so exploitative.

    I have heard that a PC gamers' library is incomplete without CKII. Given the way you talk about it here, I'm not at all surprised why. I do own it! One day, I will play it. It does sound like a massive commitment.

    Really dug the game of thones mod for this, but the complexity of the menus really killed me. Such a great game, but very inaccessible.

    600+ hours for me. I think infamy fades too slowly and haven't played much since they introduced it, but it's still a fantastic game.

    It's also one of the few games whose DLC is usually worth the asking price.

    838 hours this game has been amazing to play since first mastering vanilla.
    It's sad to see the expansions getting bad reviews nowadays I have not bothered with the last two yet until they go on sale.

    While the game has gotten more complex and difficult I still have loads of achievements that I think are very hard to get especially now with all the coalitions... I can barely take a duchy every 50 years cause it turns into a world war of every race\religion.

    I could never get past the learning period on CK2. It's just too different to the other paradox game imo. I have 780 hours in EU4, 90 hours in HOI4, and probably around 200 hours in Victoria 2.

    This is a game I know I 'should' enjoy but bugger me if I can get started on it. The sheer amount of buttons, menus and complexity on the screen just throws me off. I suppose youtube will be a go-to but it'd be nice if the game actually went through and explained it all properly.

      I think once you learn the basics you just pick up the other stuff as you play. One of the ways I helped my friends get into it was getting them to start a game in Ireland in 1066.

      You wont get stomped right off the bat and you are surrounded by other tiny counties to learn about diplomacy and battle on a small scale before trying to deal with it on a large scale.

    Interesting that this should appear right when I'm agonising over whether to buy this or not (because it's on sale right now). Unfortunately, every time I've become interested in giving CKII a go I search for it on Steam and am immediately confronted by the "Collection" result with a $300+ price tag and quickly change my mind.

    I can get the base game for $10 right now which is reasonable enough, but having such a price on the "complete" game is really putting me off.

      There are a few key DLC's you can grab that give you 90% of the game. Most of them are for cosmetics or songs to add. Also about half of the gameplay ones aren't really worth getting unless you specifically want to play as those people.

      The sword of islam for example would be garbage if you never wanted to play as any of those religions, the same for the old gods.

        You make some good points - seems like the sane way to approach it anyway. I'm wondering though - when there is DLC which adds factions or religions for example, if I don't buy said DLC can I still see it in game (available to the AI only) or do I need to buy it to be able to see it at all?

          You can see it and interact with it you just cant play it. You can for example conquer India without owning the India DLC you just cant play as a Hindu/Buddhist/Jain religion.

          Also if you for some reason send your son off to be educated in India and he becomes Buddhist, when you die and become your son you get a game over screen because you aren't allowed to play that religion without owning it. (This is very hard to do by accident, just thought I would let you know)

          If you intended to play multiplayer at all only the host needs to own the DLC for the others to be able to play it.

            Thanks! That sounds fairly reasonable then. I won't be missing much unless there's a specific something I actually want to play with, in which case I'll just buy that DLC.

              The Dynasty Starter pack on steam has some of the best DLC. The CK2 reddit also has a list of other DLC that is worth getting.

    I wish I knew how to play this game.

    I legitimately think it is my jam. But for the life of me I do not understand the systems and at least three years ago, any tutorials I found did not take in account any changes to the game and I couldn't understand how to play it.

      Stick with it, it might take numerous campaign attempts to finally get a hold of what you're wanting to do. Some funny shit can definitely happen in this game.

    745 hours here. Though that doesn't include time spent modding.

    My advice is just start small and don't bother trying to paint the map until you get the hang of things. Just run a Dukedom within a big Kingdom, and concentrate on learning the basics of running a dynasty. Read up on the period.

    To some degree the game has overlap with The Sims, where you have indirect control over what happens to your characters. I've always thought it as "what if you mashed up Medieval Total War (with auto-resolution of the battles always on) and The Sims?" It's a great dynasty simulator but only a decent military one.

    Just a brilliant game.

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