All Hail King Bioshock: A Review of Crusader Kings 2

Crusader Kings 2 might be the most addicting game I’ve ever played. It is, in fact, far more enjoyable than it has any right to be, and I believe it might actually be bewitched.

I came across the game thanks to a sudden urge to play something strategic and a timely Steam sale that allowed me to purchase it for very little money. The news that there would be a Game of Thrones mod — which I haven’t been able to get to work — was simply icing on the cake.

On paper, the game should be pretty terrible. It’s heavily text-based (although what’s graphically represented does look nice), it’s repetitive, it’s pretty predictable, and it’s dense as all hell with a mostly-useless tutorial section. Combat virtually always boils down to who has more guys — although to be fair I think that’s pretty true to medieval combat, really — and you’ll find yourself doing the same things again and again. So why is it so awesome?

Essentially, the game puts you in charge of a feudal dynasty starting in 1066, and ending in 1445 (if you make it that far). You can choose from amongst a bewilderingly wide array of European lords from dukes and counts to kings. After an ill-fated first attempt at the game in which my Norwegian dynasty was eliminated just 15 years into my reign as king, I did a bunch of reading online and tried again as a Boleslaw the Bold, the King of Poland.

Although all the names and places are historical, things get ahistorical in a hurry, as you’re in charge of everything from your own marriage to your childrens’ education, the administration of your lands and holdings, and (if you’re a king) the administration of your kingdom. In practice, there are two things you really need to worry about:

  • Keeping your vassals happy
  • Making sure you have an heir

The former is crucial in part because you get more soldiers and more taxes out of happy vassals, but also because if they hate you enough, they’ll probably revolt. This is especially true immediately following a succession, and if your son is a true asshole, you can expect half the kingdom to raise its banners against you as soon as he’s assumed the throne (in the game, you play as whoever the current ruling member of your dynasty is until someone dies heirless).

In my 300+ years of ruling Poland (with kings I named Boleslaw and Bioshock with increasingly large numbers after them), I put down scores of rebellions, and even saw myself reduced to dukedom for several generations after a particularly inept Boleslaw was crushed by his rebelling cousin, who then assumed the throne. I managed to regain it after years of plotting, but that didn’t stop the occasional rebellions. At the same time, I was actively engaged in forging titles that would allow me to acquire new counties and expand my kingdom, while fighting off the Holy Roman Empire’s encroachment on my lands to the North and West.

The game expects you to be relatively familiar with feudal law, and it’s not particularly forgiving if you aren’t. After a long struggle to change succession law in Poland to ensure my continued reign after another disastrous King Boleslaw failed to have any sons, I found myself playing as a Queen. I had an heir already, and after my first husband died, I agreed to marry the king of Denmark on a whim, unaware that this would end my dynasty in the game, which now considered me Danish, even though my daughter did go on to rule Poland. The game did not warn me of this. I would have been more upset if it wasn’t already the late 1420s — I was rapidly approaching the game’s built-in endpoint anyway.

But once you get a handle on feudal laws — and the idea that this game is not going to hold your hand — there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had in Crusader Kings 2 for anyone with enough imagination to fill in the blanks and see the simulations for what they really are: fascinating stories that require your active participation. While combat, on its surface, may be a dull affair, it’s exciting and significant when it’s your ruler facing off against an evil cousin or a treacherous duke. At least it was for me, as I had been unconsciously inventing backstories and nursing grudges as I played. Thus the game is somehow empirically boring and yet entirely engrossing (if you’re the right sort of player).

This is probably intentional on developer Paradox’s part; there are no campaigns or victory conditions here, either. You simply take charge of a European royal family — an expansion lets you play as African and Middle Eastern Muslims, too — and live their lives. Conquer the world, be conquered by it, or just tread water; the game doesn’t care. The only semblance of any sort of competitive aspect is that the game doles out points and then compares your performance to the real historical families when your game ends. In my Polish dynasty, I didn’t perform quite as well as the real Piasts, but I did outdo Denmark’s ruling family, and I was rather proud of myself for having had two kings — Bioshock III and Bioshock V — who each ruled for more than fifty years of relative piece.

(Well, peace except for the Crusades, which I opted to ignore. That got Bioshock III excommunicated from the Catholic Church by the Pope, but luckily the in-game Pope was just as fond of money as the historical popes were, and I bought my way back into the fold with indulgences. I would have just stayed outside the church, but half of my vassals were bishops, and my excommunication was the impetus for a couple revolts I didn’t want to deal with.)

As is probably clear from the schizophrenic nature of this review — and the fact that I talked very little about actual gameplay mechanics — this is one of those games that makes you want to tell stories. I feel good about my time as the ruling family of Poland, and I think the next time I have free time to kill, I’ll fire up CK2 again and see what I can do as the ruler of Scotland. I’m not sure I’m ready to try playing as just a count or a duke yet — being a King is hard enough even on Easy mode — but I’m definitely ready to take another stab at at stabbing my way across Europe, one marriage-bound alliance and intrigue-laced plot at a time.

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