Strategy games have always been my weakness, the games that I fall into for hours, from sunset to sunup, until I stagger away like a drunk from an all-night bender. The first one I remember falling in love with is Deadlock, which is a sci-fi battle for planetary dominance with similarities to both Masters of Orion and Alpha Centauri, which was a spin-off of maybe the most successful strategy franchise, Civilization. All of those games have sucked away whole days, even weeks, of my life. I may have even written fan-fiction based on Deadlock, before I even knew what fan-fiction was. I may have been inspired to model future Earths in my science fiction after the results of games of Civ III, in which the mighty Zulu battlefleet threatened to overwhelm the Aztec-French Alliance. It’s dramatic stuff.
I may be in love with Alpha Centauri.
Crusader Kings II, the second-most-recent installment in Paradox Interactive’s sweeping and immersive history-based strategy games, is full of drama. You control Medieval lord, and strive to guide that lord and his or her heirs through the next several centuries of European civilization. Intrigue against other nobles, arrange profitable marriages, make war on your neighbors, and try not to annoy the Pope. It all comes down to a series of choices, and the choices you make can change history. Will you create the Empire of Russia? Will you conquer Iberia for Islam? Will your king or queen convert to the Cathar heresy and try to replace Catholicism as the One True Faith?
The game world is dynamic and ever changing. In my last game, the Merchant Republic of Gotland took advantage of the chaos caused by the Mongol invasion of Scandinavia to conquer most of Norway, Denmark, and Finland. As the Golden Horde collapsed and its former subjects returned to their original faiths, the population shift caused the Zikri sect of Islam to replace the Sunnis as the dominant non-Shia Muslim faith. Due to a confusing series of crusades, the Iberian peninsula became a patchwork of Castilians, Scots, Irish, Italians, and Aztecs, while the Kingdom of Sicily colonized North Africa. When you begin a game, a whole new European history begins to unfold, and the fun of it is deciding where to reach in and change the flow for yourself. Exert what influence you have to cause the Pope to declare a crusade against that heathen whose territory you want, lend aid to struggling provinces rebelling against oppressive rulers, or conspire with others to overthrow your own feudal overlord. Again, it’s all about choices.
What a mess.
Similarly to the Total War series, Crusader Kings adds an RPG element to the strategy mix. Each character, from highborn king to lowborn peasant rebel, has certain traits, such as Brave, Deceitful, Drunkard, or Craven, and may gain others during play. You will be presented with a series of decisions and random events. Will you abuse your power to sleep with your courtier’s wife, or will you allow your arranged marriage to deepen into true love? Will you convert to the heresy that is sweeping your lands, or will you make a pilgrimage to the holy sites of your faith? Each choice changes your character, and can affect the game in far-reaching ways. Neighboring kingdoms may become friendlier, your own courtiers may begin intriguing against you, rebels may rise up against your unjust and heretical rule. Think carefully before making a decision that could create more enemies than you can handle.
The depth of play is tremendous, and this makes the learning curve a little steep, even for veteran strategy gamers. It’s not Dwarf Fortress (in which Losing is Fun!™), but skills learned in Civilization or StarCraft don’t necessarily apply here. You don’t have much control over the units you build or the technology you develop, because this is feudal times, bruh, and learning is for Jesuits and Parisians. You do have control over your armies, and to a lesser extent, the generals who lead them. And your family and your court allow you to create alliances and engage in intrigue and murder plots. You can spend your tax and trade income on mercenaries, castles, city development. There are many different ways to play the game, even within one campaign. It’s possible to play one ruler as a war-leading badass, another as a contemplative and pious builder, another as a backstabbing and ruthless powermonger. Wage war to restore your courtiers to the titles they have lost, or throw them all in prison for being disloyal jerks. It’s up to you. And the gameplay changes further depending on whether you are a count or a king, a Catholic or a Muslim, a Pagan Norseman or an Ashkenazi Jew.
Sometimes becoming King causes Death by Close Relative
I started my last game as the sovereign Grand Prince of Novgorod, took part in the civil wars of the early Kingdom of Russia, spent a generation or two as a minor vassal of the Golden Horde, gained my independence through an unexpected trick of succession and wound up ruling for the next 50+ years as a woman who became Queen Feodora the Great of Wallachia and Ruthenia, uniting most of the former Russian territories under her rule before the invasion of the Timurids ruined everyone’s day and her grandson had to become a vassal king under the rule of the Greek Byzantine Emperor just to stay alive. Several times I thought I would lose the game, only to re-emerge stronger than ever. You don’t lose unless you lose control of all your lands and titles, and there isn’t a set win condition, like conquering a certain amount of territory or eliminating all your enemies. There is a score, an end date, and your own ambition. It’s a giant sandbox, and because you can play as just about any landed noble in all of Europe, the Middle East, or Northern Africa, across almost six hundred years of history, the replay value is enormous.
The game has a bunch of expansions and downloadable content. Legacy of Rome, Sword of Islam, Sons of Abraham, and The Old Gods add tons of options to the various religions and cultures of the game, with the last one extending the start date to 867 AD, the Age of Vikings. The Republic adds additional options for the various trade republics of the medieval period, and is probably essential if you want to play as Venice or Genoa and show those snooty Kings and Emperors what a boatload of money can get you on the road to Constantinople. Sunset Invasion is a fantasy expansion that triggers an Aztec invasion of Western Europe, which in my game resulted in the conquest of Ireland, Great Britain, and most of France, the rampage only ending when the second Emperor, a half-Irish imbecile who would rule for 60 years, converted to Catholicism, and then later, Catharism, spreading my favorite heresy over most of England and France. You can also purchase DLC to expand the range of character portraits for a little more visual variety.
Result: Aztec Cathars with French dynastic names and violent fits
Crusader Kings II might be my favorite Paradox Interactive game, due to the depth of character and gameplay. I love being able to play the Duke of Parma or the King of Croatia and blaze a path of glory across Europe. I enjoyed being Queen Feodora the Great and smashing every rebellious vassal who would not be ruled by a woman. I enjoyed seeing history play out in new and unexpected ways with each new King, Emperor, or Pope. I just thoroughly enjoy this game.