Thursday, June 27, 2013

Crusader Kings II!

Paradox: great at making strategy games,
not great at making box art.
Guys, I think I might have a problem. After failing to get its hooks into me several times, Paradox Interactive's grand empire building/role playing/history simulating sandbox of insane proportions, Crusader Kings II, has pulled me into its gaping maw and swallowed me whole, and I'm too busy trying to keep my burgeoning young empire together to care.

Crusader Kings II is a hard game to love. It's obtuse and cluttered with menus that give you too much information and too little context. Hours of carefully-planned gameplay can be shattered in a heartbeat by a formerly loyal subject's sudden revolt, or a declaration of war handed down by a bigger, meaner kingdom.  The tutorial is a bad joke, and despite a surprisingly complex military simulation running under the hood, combat almost always boils down to who brought the most dudes.

I bought the game on a series of passionate recommendations and after reading a really cool Let's Play/chronicle on PC Gamer.  After around ten hours of bashing my head against it over the course of a weekend, I gave up.  Over the next few months, I reinstalled it a few more times, hoping to crack through the chitinous outer shell and into the meaty goodness within, but to no avail.  I'd pretty much written it off as one of those supposedly great games that I was just never going to be able to appreciate.

And then the latest DLC expansion for the game, The Old Gods, came out.  TOG adds a ton of new features, including an earlier start date and a revamped technology system.  Most importantly, it adds vikings, and all sorts of mechanics to let you be the bearded, mead-swilling pillager you always wanted to be.

Almost immediately after installing the DLC, I began to truly fall in love with the game.  Vikings in CK2 serve as a much, much better introduction into the game's systems than the base game's shoddy tutorial could ever hope to be.  For example, vikings can largely ignore the often confusing and obtuse casus belli (Latin for "cause to go fight those dudes," if I've retained anything from high school) system, which requires most other cultures to have a legitimate (or "legitimate") reason to invade a neighbor and take over their land.  They can also send their armies out a-viking, pouring out of their longships, pillaging everything they can find in a non-Norse territory, and then getting the hell back to sea before that 5,000 man strong English army stops by to find out what all the fuss is about.

When your current ruler dies, his heir can have a
runestone raised in his honor.  (He could also raise
one himself, but then everyone would think he's an
In essence, by loosening the game's usual restrictions on what you can do, the game lets you experiment and poke at the simulation's myriad systems at your own pace.  The quick influx of gold that raiding can bring you speeds up the usually painfully slow process of building up your holdings.  You'll learn how to broker titles and daughters for favors and alliances, how a band of mercenaries can completely turn the tide of a war, and--most importantly--how to flagrantly abuse the AI's pathfinding to your own advantage.  And if your kingdom suddenly collapses around you, with all your vassals suddenly rising in rebellion or joining up with an enemy kingdom?  Eh, whatever.  You're a viking.  Load up the longboats and go pillage the Mediterranean.  Maybe if you save up enough for a couple of good mercenary companies, you can try the whole "conquer Scandinavia" thing again in a few years.

After messing around with the vikings for awhile, I finally felt like I had a good enough grasp on things to start a "real" game.  And thus, for the last several days, my evenings (and, let's be honest, most of my nights) have been spent slowly building an empire along the eastern coast of Africa, starting in humble Nubia and, as of now, encompassing Ethiopia, the eastern half of the Sahara, and the sickeningly rich provinces of the Nile Delta.  Two hundred in-game years have passed, and my dynasty has seen brave warriors and craven politicians and everything in-between.  My current ruler came into his throne at the age of 4, in the midst of the civil war that had broken out in response to his father's incompetent and very short (less than two years, actually) reign.  Ten years of brutal warfare followed, as the young king and those loyal to him called in every favor they could and slowly ground the enemy away. When they offered peace, he refused; instead, the child emperor pressed on, crushing the rebels utterly, seizing their lands and titles and executing many of them.  Now, at the age of 27, he's preparing to declare a jihad against the great Shia kingdom stretching across Africa's central coast, though his Sunni fervor is really just a thin pretense for snagging a whole heap o' land all at once.

Ruling an empire would be so much easier if there
weren't any people in it.
Even though, as a more traditional Muslim ruler, I'm forced to abide by many of the rules and restrictions that vikings can ignore, I'm having a ton of fun.  I can see how the systems are supposed to work, now, and how to use them to my advantage.  The things I learned from screwing around as a Norse pillager have given me insights into how the game is "supposed" to be played, and now I can't get enough.

So.  Long story short?  If living out the trials and tribulations of a medieval dynasty, complete with all the sorts of heroes and villains and things-in-between that populated real history, sounds fun to you, then you should absolutely check CK2 out.  If figuring out the nuances of an extremely complex strategy game is your idea of a good time, check it out.  If creating a hunchbacked, dwarf viking lord and turning him into the ruler of all Scandinavia sounds like the sort of thing you could get behind, check it the hell out.  But!  Don't buy the game alone.  All of the big DLC packs add something interesting, but I honestly consider The Old Gods to be an essential purchase for a new player.  Try the tutorial, by all means, but you won't learn half as much there as you will by trying to pillage the coast of Spain.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an empire to expand and a peasant rebellion to crush, and my brother's rumored to be gathering swords to his banner to try to usurp my throne.

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