Ever since the first Civilization game, the base unit of historical strategy games has been the nation-state. Despite how natural and common they seem to us now, countries in Europe are no more than accidents of history. Prior to the 17th and 18th centuries, you didn’t have countries so much as you had kingdoms that, over several hundred years, formalised their rule in a particular location. But if you went back to the 10th and 11th centuries, these kingdoms were only just starting to form out of the primordial ooze of the dark ages.
Therefore England in 1066, wasn’t England as we know it today. It was an assortment of ethnic-religious communities of Christians, Druids, Celts and Vikings. This patchwork of peoples were ruled over by a feudal system – an incredibly complex web of vassalage, duties, relationships, and conflicts. Feudal systems were medieval pyramid schemes, peasants at the bottom, and the king at the top, and if one king couldn’t rule, another one would do just as well.
This dynamic lead to the extreme situation that existed in England in late 1066. The country was ruled by its traditional Saxon king, Harold Godwinson. Unfortunately Harold was invaded almost simultaneously by two other feudal lords, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and William of Normandy. While Harold was able to defeat Hardrada, he lost to William at the battle of Hastings. William, a Frenchman, ascended the throne of England, and there was an intermingling of the Norman feudal lords into the existing Saxon system, giving rise to a new Norman/Anglo-Saxon realm.
Reading through the history of the period the question that immediately springs to mind is, "How do you create a game which models this period of time?" Obviously traditional gameplay concepts that use the country as the base unit simply don’t work. They are unable to look at the internal webs of feudal systems and ethnic communities that merged and separated during the period. Fortunately you don’t have to think of an answer, because in 2004 Paradox Interactive sat down and thought about exactly this problem. The solution they came up with was Crusader Kings. While Crusader Kings was good, in February 2012 Paradox came up with an even better solution, called Crusader Kings II.
More The War of the Roses (starring Michael Douglas) than the Wars of the Roses (starring Richard the Third), the heart and soul of Crusader Kings II are the characters. You don’t rule a country; you play as a character who holds a title in a feudal system. When that character dies, you continue playing as the heir. There are the counts, who own small parcels of land and pay tribute to the dukes, who in turn pay tribute to the king. As the holder of your title, you have a small court of advisors, courtiers and your family. Every character in Crusader Kings II, from the lowliest courtier to the kings and emperors, have their own set of personality traits (ambitious, slothful, pious, etc.) which determine how they interact with the characters around them - and by ‘interact’ I mean "plot your downfall".
Your children will plot against each other succeed your title, your sister-in-law will plot against you to make your younger brother your heir. Thanks to the user interface it’s very simple to see why people like or hate you. The diligent ones will not like you because you are slothful. The lustful characters will not like you because you are chaste. Boris of Hereford, who you made duke, will love you, but when you die and you take up the reins as the heir, Boris will take his new found power and lead a revolt.
I won’t go too much into the retelling of the various coups, wars, palace revolts and family breakdowns I’ve had. They are all unique every time you play and have their impact because of the attachment you form with your family. This attachment is where Crusader Kings II comes into its own. Other strategy games, like Civilization, have personalities injected into them in an attempt to forge that kind of connection. It certainly has people you can hate, like Montezuma, but Montezuma is always the "other"; he isn’t your only son that you had late in life, who you raised and nurtured to take over your throne, only for him to turn out to be a slothful, syphilitic heretic who shatters your kingdom. As the saying goes, each family is unhappy in its own way and one of the pleasures of the game is finding out just how dysfunctional your family is.
Since its release Paradox have been releasing regular DLC and patches. Sword of Islam lets you play as a Muslim leader and Legacy of Rome expand the Byzantine empire. The latest DLC for Crusader Kings II, Sunset Invasion, actually has a ‘what if’ scenario of an Aztec Invasion of Western Europe. (So Montezuma turns up in CK2 after all!) As with all Paradox games, there are many, many mods, including a Westeros "Game of Thrones" mod.
There are some niggling issues. Combat is too simple, and troops are raised from your vassals for specific wars, so true to the period you don’t have a standing army. However, whenever there is a battle, more soldiers means victory. This seems to belie the quite complicated algorithm that underlies combat so it would be good to see that re-worked. More plots and ambitions for characters would also be welcome.
In the end, new kingdoms are born, thrive and die with little regard to history - Spain can remain Moorish. The Holy Roman Empire (that was neither Holy, Roman, nor an Empire) can disintegrate - but so long as you can keep your dysfunctional brood in power through the centuries, then you can reshape the map of Europe how you want.
And wait for Europa Universalis IV coming out next year!
- Sam Spackman
Screen Play readers can submit articles and game reviews for consideration in Your Turn and Your Review using the email address SPYourTurn@gmail.com. The best blog post published on Screen Play between 1 December 2012 and 31 January 2013, as judged by James Dominguez, will win a PS Vita handheld console from Sony Computer Entertainment. This is a wi-fi unit, and has a recommended retail price of $349. The next prize winner will be announced on Thursday 31 January. Only Australian residents are eligible and the judge's decision is final.