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Posted on Oct 31, 2011 in Electronic Games

Crusader Kings II – PC Game Preview

By Jim Cobb

Crusader Kings II. PC Game Preview. Publisher: Paradox Interactive. Developer: Paradox Interactive.

Paradox’s Crusader Kings, released in 2004, was something of a surprise hit. Who knew that so many people would enjoy the tangled dynastic dynamics of Europe in the High and Late Middle Ages? The game had everything: the intricate web of feudalism, family strife, rebellious vassals, warlike neighbors, unruly peasants, and pushy popes. The AI was OK but the graphics and interface were a bit crude. Paradox seeks to upgrade both while adding new elements with a remake.


Graphical Sparks

Paradox finally found a good 3D engine for its series of historically pausable RTS games. Zoomed out, the snow-capped Alps crosses Europe like a chain of brilliants. Zoomed in, rivers stream through verdant fields. Marshes and rough land slow armies’ movement while period-style cities are defensible. Terrain isn’t the only improvement. Armies are shown as animated knights swinging broadswords, while working trebuchets hammer at smoking, besieged cities. Even the maps are striking. Eight maps show terrain, the legion of duchies, counties, provinces and kingdoms, diplomatic relations, feudal relations, religion and culture in colors that leave no doubt about their meaning. The crazy-quilt of High Medieval Europe in all its intricacy is spread before players’ eyes.

Even more prosaic features like portraits and function buttons provide spice to the game screen. The portraits are much more life-like than the ones in the predecessor and offer quick access to information and play choices through right-click menus. Family trees reflect the best of genealogical formats while coats of arms are great examples of heraldry. Pictures and characters of players’ lords, councils, vassals, and family are shown very well. Video settings can be changed to make information and graphics fit any resolution.

Unmasking the Many Faces of Feudalism

Far from the simple, brutish time portrayed in popular media, the period from 1066 to 1456 rivals our own in complexity. Laws of succession, allegiance, diplomacy, and religion bound rulers more than modern constitutions bind politicians. Rulers were limited in their dealings with vassals and other states. Succession laws could only be changed by the most stable and powerful rulers. Crusader Kings II seems to handle all of these elements.

The game has four starting points: 1066, William I’s consolidation of England, the Third Crusade, and the Hundred Years’ War. Each of these scenarios can be played until the fifteenth century. Players can start by choosing an “interesting” character from the campaign or by picking a particular kingdom, duchy or county. Victory is decided by having the highest score at the end of the game with factors such as piety, wealth, prestige and size of territory adding to the final tally. Conquest, although useful, seems to be the least of the methods of winning. Rulers will have vassals and may well be vassals themselves in turn. Respect and obedience is owed to each while each can be called upon for taxes and military aid. The interface for these actions is through menus offering “carrots” like gifts, lands and titles or “sticks” such as assassination or imprisonment. Relations with fellow rulers follow the same mechanics but with different restrictions. Declarations of war must meet several requirements before the troops march, although Muslims, Christians, and pagans can beat each other up most any time. The pope and the church must be appeased to gain piety but religious matters can be used to increase a ruler’s power. Provinces can be improved with right-click menus to increase taxes [“Improvement” by increasing taxes might be in the eye of the beholder – Ed.], raise troops or keep the peasants happy. Improvements can be aided by encouraging military, economic and cultural advances.

The military element of the game has been refined to a high degree. Rulers can raise levies from vassals or lands they control outright, hire mercenaries if they have enough money or use warrior monks if the ruler is pious enough. Armies are divided into three groups, left right, and center. Each group is commanded by a vassal so the vassals’ tactical skills are important. Each battle is divided into three stages: skirmish, where missile weapons are paramount; melee, where the sword slingers do their thing; and the pursuit. Battles are bloody so even victors run the risk of losing to a weak counter-attack. Armies lay siege to cities and can hope for treason to bring an end to operations before sickness, a relief force, or a lucky sally saves the city.

Fascinating as these elements are, the real headaches, as always, begin at home. Each character has ten abilities and five traits, all combining to show the degree of competency of the character and his or her relationship to other characters. Players’ primary goal is to keep their dynasty alive until the end of the game. Succession is not a simple matter of having a healthy son. Too many sons can lead to revolts by pretenders. Some succession laws require the partition of lands between siblings. Daughters may inherit control sometimes but other laws may complicate succession through the maternal line later in the game. Biological and legal issues are not players’ only domestic concerns. Parents, siblings, spouse, and children probably don’t like the ruler and may collude with disgruntled vassals, jealous lieges, an unfriendly power, or unhappy peasants to revolt. Uneasy hangs the head that bears the crown.

A good set of men on the ruler’s council can help ease the burden. The five members help with diplomacy, military issues, trade, infrastructure, and religion. Priorities can be set with simple buttons while more specific tasks can be ordered via a menu. Sacking a councilor can cause turmoil but may be a good move in the long run.

The world keeps revolving while players battle to keep their house in order. Messages announcing wars, plagues, deaths, births, and marriages pop up frequently. Some messages require action by players while others are irrelevant. Players can prioritize these pop-ups.

Crusader Kings II tackles the double problem of portraying a complicated subject and following a popular predecessor. Betas can be misleading but, if Paradox continues on the track it appears to be following, it appears the successor will be worthy of the crown.

About the Author

Jim Cobb has been playing board wargames since 1961 and computer wargames since 1982. He has been writing incessantly since 1993 to keep his mind off the drivel he deals with as a bureaucrat. He has published in Wargamers Monthly, Computer Gaming World, Computer Games Magazine, Computer Games Online, CombatSim, Armchair General, Wargamer, Subsim, Strategyzone Online, Ganesquad and Gaming Chronicle.


  1. Will it have multi-player?

    • Yes

  2. you say

    “The game has four starting points: 1066, William I’s consolidation of England, the Third Crusade, and the Hundred Years’ War.”

    but they are only interesting time periods Paradox have pointed out, the devs have said you can start the game at any time you want between 1066 to 1337

  3. good review, can´t wait for the game much longer 😉

    • Bear in mind, the article was a preview. Paradox has time to foul it up.

  4. Looks good. I was about 3 years behind Crusader Kings and picked up the full package about 1 year ago. I played it a decent amount of time. I like the intrigue. There were a few things I disliked, so maybe this 2nd version will correct them somewhat.

    Count me in on this one.