Crusader Kings utilizes the Europa Universalis game engine, but presents the medieval fiefdoms of Europe from 1066 to 1419. The Crusader Kings map includes the Urals on the eastern edge, as well as parts of Persia and the coast of North Africa. In a twist, games of Crusader Kings focus on wealth and honor more than territorial acquisition, with players trying to hoard as much Prestige and Piety as possible. Contending with bishops, feudal lords, and the magnates of other provinces is much of the challenge. Saved games can also be converted into Europa Universalis games for additional gameplay.
Gameplay takes place in real-time, though players can choose to pause the game at any time, allowing for careful strategy. Feudal society is represented with laws, nobles, burghers, priests, peasants, and religious superstitions. Combat features exotic units like Mongolian light cavalry and English long bowmen. As their dynasty gains power and prestige, players receive special awards from the Pope, and can choose to join a religious order like the Knight's Templars, The Knights of St John, The Teutonic Order, the Order of Calatrava, and the Order of Santiago.
Starting with Europa Universalis, the developers at Paradox Entertainment have been twisting thick clots of numbers and formulas into crowded busy maps of the world. They make the kinds of games that you can't discuss without the caveat that they're not for the casually inclined. But those of us willing to patiently sort through these tangled webs have found a set of uniquely gratifying historical strategy games, some more successful than others (Hearts of Iron was a terribly a clunky representation of World War II and Two Thrones was an ill-conceived attempt at streamlining). The latest is Crusader Kings, which approaches the subject of historical strategy from a refreshing new angle.
The subject this time is Medieval Europe, after the Battle of Hastings and up until the Renaissance. Armies, provinces, and taxes, staples of strategy gaming, are all key players. But center stage is occupied by people. True to its name, Crusader Kings is about the politicians of the time, from kings to courtiers to sycophants. Each character occupies a place in a tree of interwoven relationships, married to so-and-so, offspring of someone else, liege or vassal, to yet another character. You can click through the relationships as if you were navigating a web browser. Open a character's relationships, click on his children, move back to your starting point, open another character, check his kingdom, click on their cousins, and eventually you can get lost in a fascinating latticework of who's who, complete with names that get harder to pronounce the farther you get from England.
Each character has four basic attributes (martial, diplomacy, intrigue, and stewardship skills), but there are dozens of potential traits. Traits can be picked up through education, illness, training, or special events. For instance, a character's first trait could be based on his education. Say he goes through army training and picks up the trait "Brilliant Tactician," improving his martial skill and making him the best choice for your realm's marshal. Later, he's confronted by a wench and you choose the option to allow him to be seduced. So he acquires the trait "Lustful," which improves his intrigue and makes him better suited as a spymaster (not to mention more likely to have children). But after repeated assassination attempts, he might develop the trait of "Stressed," which lowers his attributes and leaves him vulnerable to more severe negative traits like "Pneumonia" or "Schizophrenia." In the end, you've traced the life of a man with a promising youth who served his king dutifully and died old and crazy.
This emphasis on ongoing character arcs gives Crusader Kings a much more human feel than any of Paradox's other games, which often felt dry and lacked personality. But the emergent nature of relationships, the development of characters, and the ongoing march of birth and death add a unique gameplay element to Crusader Kings. This is hardcore strategy cross-bred with role-playing. It's The Sims getting Medieval in a bold new way to present human drama against a historical backdrop. It's not quite Richard III, but it's as close as computer games have gotten.
For better and worse, the rest of Crusader Kings is typical Paradox. Your ultimate goal is to build up your prestige rating and keep the Church satisfied with your piety rating, which usually involves swatting around non-Christians on behalf of an NPC Pope. There's an in-depth tech tree for advancing your realm and a hearty system for improving provinces (which includes the emergence of negative "improvements," like smugglers and highwaymen). Maintaining your treasury and the loyalty of your followers will require paying attention to a system of laws, tax rates, and preferential treatment for certain classes.
However, one of the problems is a lack of meaningful interaction with the rest of the world. There are titles to be claimed and marriages to be managed, but there's nothing resembling the rich diplomatic interaction afforded in the Europa Unversalis games. Furthermore, since your goal of having more prestige than any other realm is so broad and since the cause/effect relationships are buried so deep in the game, there's a sense of aimlessness.
It's hard enough to puzzle out why you should or shouldn't accept a marriage proposal from some guy on the other side of Europe. But even then the question, "What am I supposed to do now?" doesn't necessarily go away once you've learned to play the game. Crusader Kings would have benefited greatly from Europa Universalis' system of mini-goals to help steer the gameplay. But without that guidance, and with no real sense of the wider world, you're essentially left to play house with your courtiers.
The Crusades, the Black Death, and Mongol invasions are all hard-coded into the game. These add a touch of historical flavor, but ultimately come across as "gamey" and forced. It doesn't help that a lot of the gameplay involves romping around the world with implausibly large armies. The military aspect recalls the tactic in Heroes of Might & Magic: assemble a "killer stack" and then just roll over everything in your way.
Add to this the standard litany of problems that accompany all of Paradox's releases: inadequate documentation, a sad assortment of bugs and instability, and a weak A.I. The problems with documentation can be addressed by poring over the official forums. Some of the bugs have been fixed in the two patches since the game's release, but there's still enough of a tendency to crash to desktop that you won't want to play without saving frequently. As for the weak A.I., it remains to be seen whether Paradox can address that. Some of its earlier games have come a long way. Here's to hoping that eventually Crusader Kings lives up to the promise of its premise.
People who downloaded Crusader Kings have also downloaded:
Europa Universalis 2, Cossacks II: Napoleonic Wars, Cossacks II: Battle for Europe, Europa Universalis: Crown of the North, Cossacks Anthology, D-Day, Europa Universalis, Close Combat 5: Invasion Normandy
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