Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Crusader Kings II

I am not really a fan of Real-Time Strategy games. I have a nostalgic appreciation for the older "Warcraft" and "Starcraft" games, but the replayability of most games like that depends on your willingness to play multiplayer.

I like multiplayer, but I'm a bit of a prick, so I generally don't like to play games I'm not good at, and generally, I'm not good at RTS's. I'm not good at thinking on my feet and most RTS's demand built-in strategic and tactical knowledge and fast reflexes. I'm usually OK with single player since I can usually save the game and reassess strategies as I go along, but in multiplayer, I invariably get my ass handed to me. So RTS's have never been a genre that interested me.

Similarly, I've never really been fond of Simulation games. Sim games were some of the first PC games I ever played. But I always felt like games like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the Sims always tried to bother me with boring minutiae in order to control the things I cared about. I just wanted to create a world and see how the people react and interact, not constantly repair roads, sewers, and power lines. I wanted to build amusement parks, not worry about budgets and whether or not I had enough trash cans and hot dog stands to keep everyone happy. I wanted to have people interact and have relationships, not constantly force them to go to the bathroom or get to work on time every damn day. Then again, at least sim games have a pause button so you can take time to think.

Games like Civilization kind of straddled the line between RTS (though they were actually turn-based) and sim, but they still had those elements that bothered me. Too much micromanaging of resources and infrastructure and not enough personality and character. I never really got into games like that either.

I doubt I ever would have really tried out Paradox's "Crusader Kings II" if it hadn't been featured on "Extra Credits" and featured during one of Steam's Summer Sales. I suppose it also might have been influenced by my recent interest in "Game of Thrones". Not because I learned that "Crusader Kings II" had a GoT mod (I actually still haven't tried that out yet), but because GoT really got me more interested in the idea of dynasties and medieval politics. 

Regardless, I decided to give "Crusader Kings II" a try, and it has gripped me in a way no other RTS or sim game ever has.

To summarize the game, it's a RTS where you play as a dynastic ruler between the years of 1066 and 1453. There really is no true GOAL for the game other than to have your dynasty survive until the end. Basically, if you lose all your titles or if you die with no rightful heir in your dynasty to inherit those titles, you lose. You don't have to dominate the entire world and you don't have to accomplish arbitrary tasks assigned through a campaign.

Right off the bat, this game does a lot of things differently from other RTS's that have always bugged me. First of all, the single player campaigns of many RTS's always frustrated me because almost every chapter would reset back to square one. Everything I build in a chapter is discarded once I accomplish the goal and move on to the next chapter. This always bothered me. It shifted the focus away from building a sustainable home base or city and just towards accomplishing a specific task. CKII doesn't do that. There are no goals other than whatever you decide you want to do and you never reset. In fact, making your kingdom(s) stable is one of the hardest parts of the game. Second of all, the ability to start at just about any period of time between 1066 and 1453 with any dynastic ruler from that era (even the Muslims if you so choose) gives an enormous amount of freedom. Each ruler from any given time period offers a significantly different setup and play experience. If you're more interested in maintaining a complicated yet vast and powerful nation, start off with the Holy Roman Empire. If you want an established and secure dynasty with more starting cash to build your kingdom from the ground up, pick one of the rulers vying for the throne of England. Or perhaps you just find a particular nation interesting and want to roleplay as them. 

The options are staggering, and honestly, that's the first problem I had with the game. It is REALLY complicated. While you don't have to manage things like infrastructure, resources, or battle formations, you DO have to manage the sort of things a king would manage. You have to appoint your council members and assign them to vague tasks. You have to keep your vassals happy. You have to deal with those who plot against you and maintain diplomatic relations. You have to establish relationships with other people to keep subtle control on certain regions or form new alliances. Rather than have troops standing around all the time, you have to get your vassals to raise them when they're needed and keeping them around too long makes your vassals unhappy. You are constantly bombarded with messages and warnings and invitations and opportunities... it's really overwhelming at first.

I first made the mistake of playing the game without the tutorial. I like to learn on the fly and typically games start off slow to help you get used to the mechanics. I picked one of the suggested "Interesting Characters" and got rolling. Let me tell you, this game HAS no learning curve. It starts off just as hard as it will ever get. They don't hold your hand to get you started. You will get destroyed if you don't know what you're doing and this isn't the kind of game that helps you figure those things out as you move along.

The tutorial itself isn't bad, but some parts are more helpful than others. Some sections of the tutorial are literally, "Look at this menu. This is what it does. YOU'VE COMPLETED THE TUTORIAL ON ADVANCED DIPLOMACY!" Not all that helpful. Even so, it did help me understand the interface enough to fumble my way through the game.

Even then, I was STILL getting pummeled. I probably played for about 12 hours before I really had a decent grasp on what I was doing. Even now I feel like I'm just barely getting the hang of it. 

But that's the interesting thing about the game. Even though it was incredibly complex and essentially impossible to write a walkthrough for, it never lost my interest. Yes, I was still micromanaging, but the things I micromanaged were interesting. They weren't roads or trash cans or bladders, they were PEOPLE. And a lot of those people actually existed in real life. As frustrated as I was, I was determined to figure this game out because it felt like it mattered to me personally.

Once I understood the flow of the game and the major pitfalls, I started over with a different character since I had made too many bad decisions to really redeem the first character I tried out.

When I started playing as Henry IV, Holy Roman Emperor, he was very young and basically just started his rule. He was newlywed, had a ton of land, but almost no money, and no dynastic heir. It may seem easy to play as one of the biggest land owners in the time period, but it's difficult to effectively rule a large empire because there are so many different people with often clashing wants and needs. And there I stood with hardly any money and no heir. Immediately I went to his Wikipedia page (which the game provides links to) to figure out whether or not he would give birth to a son. Having confirmed that he did in fact have a number of children, but his successor, Henry V, forced him to abdicate and the Salian dynasty ended with his death in 1125.

In other words, if I allowed events to progress in a historically accurate manner, I would get a game over rather quickly.

This would not stand.

I decided I would rewrite history. First of all, while Henry IV and his first wife, Bertha, did not get along well, I decided to make their marriage a happy one. Much to my surprise, this move paid off big time by giving me an heir ahead of schedule. My Henry IV's first son, Otto (named after his grandfather) was born long before the rebel Conrad. This child never existed in history. I haven't yet reached 1086 when Henry V is supposed to be born, but given how things have progressed, if he is born, I doubt he'll be able to assume power, and even if he does, I'll know what to expect from him.

Second, I changed the inheritance laws to insure that my vassals couldn't force my titles out of my dynasty. You don't vote for king! In order to do that, all of my vassals needed to be happy with me and couldn't be fighting with one another. Since there are a LOT of vassals in the Holy Roman Empire and Henry IV doesn't start off with a lot of money, this is easier said than done.

Even so, now I have a loving wife, happy vassals, and a secure legacy (so far at least).

I love that I was able to use real-life history as a starting point and used it as a guide to know how to deviate in order to ensure success. 

Now I'm mostly focused on rebuilding finances and assuming as many titles as possible before Henry IV croaks. Then when Otto (or whoever) assumes in his place will likely try to adjust the inheritance laws so that all titles go to the eldest son of the dynasty instead of being split up. The generation after that, I may try and set it up so that a woman can inherit, which ought to make a few enemies.

This is what is remarkable about this game. Each play experience is whatever you want it to be. It's personal. Additionally, I've learned things I didn't know about medieval history simply because it helped me make better game decisions.

The historical accuracy is amazing, but it still lets you mess around with it. It's like stepping into a time machine and creating an alternate history from a single point of deviation.

This is my kind of RTS. The focus is planted squarely on what, to me, have always been the most interesting parts of these sorts of games: Characters and the personalized experience.

It's honestly a lot more like "The Sims" than any RTS I've ever played, but unlike "The Sims" where the monotonous routine gets in the way of the personal relationships, the relationships are basically the only part of the game. And I think that works a lot better.

If I were to sum up the game, I'd call it "The Sims" meets "Game of Thrones". If that sounds like something you could have fun with, I highly recommend picking it up.


  1. I watched YouTube "Lets Play" videos and read wikis for at least a week before I got my first serious game going. The learning curve is ludicrous, but the game is rewarding. Starting off as one of the Spanish kingdoms (I chose the Castilian Dynasty) is tough because unless you establish a firm Casus Belli against neighboring Muslim states, your only option for expansion is a holy war that drags the entire Iberian peninsula into bloody conflict for 20 odd years. It's fun starting off small and forming a vast nation, though. I'm looking forward to a game where I start as a Count, and try to backstab my way up to Duke or even King.

    1. The prospect of working my way up from humble beginnings DOES sound fun, but my understanding of the laws of succession is way too simple to do that effectively. That's mainly why I picked HRE after struggling with my first attempt. Until I have a better understanding of how to manipulate my way into power, I'm comfortable managing a bloated empire that's already way too big. I like to learn how to defend what I have before I learn how to get more.