Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Crusader Kings II: first impressions

Crusader Kings II is a computer game that was released two years ago, so it's not new, but I heard of it only recently, and ventured to buy it yesterday, as I have a temporary lull in work.

The game is a historical simulation running from 1066 to 1453 AD, in which you play the successive leaders of a royal (or at least aristocratic) dynasty, attempting to maintain and extend your dynasty and gain prestige points. Whenever the character you're playing dies or gets deposed, you continue playing as the successor, as long as the successor is a member of the same family. If you're succeeded by someone from outside the family, oops, game over.

For many years I've been playing Sid Meier's Civilization, a game loosely based on human history, but which isn't a genuine simulation and has little to do with reality. Crusader Kings II is very different: it makes a genuine attempt to model the situation in Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa at the time, gives you all the real characters that were in play, and represents with some degree of accuracy the ways in which they interacted with each other.

At first sight the complexity of the game is intimidating, but playing it turns out to be feasible without excessive learning, although doubtless there's much I have yet to find out about it. There is a downloadable PDF manual that gives you the basics, plus a tutorial, and if you have particular questions you can Google them and get answers from the Web (some people have two years' experience by now). The game seems to have been popular, and the company (Paradox) continues to release expansions and patches for it.

I started my first game as Murchad, King of Munster in Ireland, having read that Murchad is a good choice for a beginner as he doesn't have any major problems to cope with. Murchad rules over a mere two Irish counties; with a bit of a struggle and by hiring foreign mercenaries I managed to conquer a third county, but any further military conquest would be difficult, as Munster is short of both money and soldiers, and in order to go to war you need some reasonable excuse. You can't just attack because you feel like it.

In any case warfare is merely one part of the game. Probably the more important part is juggling with your family relationships, making advantageous marriages, and coping with treachery. You and your heirs are all in danger of being murdered or deposed by some disgruntled relation. In my first game, the ruler of the county I conquered reluctantly agreed to become my vassal, but then started a faction to put my half-brother on the throne. The faction gained over 50% support and I decided to accept defeat rather than fight and probably lose a civil war over it. I could then continue the game, taking on the character of my half-brother. However, at that point the game automatically updated itself with the latest patch and refused to open my saved files from the previous version, so I was obliged to start a second game.

I started again as Murchad. In 1066 he's aged 39 and already has an 18-year-old son called Brian, but no wife. Oddly, the game doesn't reveal who Brian's mother was or what happened to her, although it does maintain family trees which could show that information. Presumably the real woman has gone unrecorded in history; Murchad himself is pretty obscure as historical figures go.

Of course I promptly married someone else, and found a wife for Brian as well: having plenty of children is useful to maintain your dynasty. However, it can also be dangerous, and six years later the ungrateful Brian poisoned me, so I had to continue playing as Brian; being a kinslayer, he was pretty unpopular with everyone. I was hoping that someone would get rid of him somehow, but no, he survived into fairly old age. In an effort to make him even more unpopular, I allowed him to convert from a Catholic to a Lollard, but what happened then was that the Pope excommunicated him, and later Munster was invaded by the Scots in overwhelming force.

King Duncan II of Scotland installed Artur (a much younger and inoffensive son of Murchad) as Duke of Munster, now a vassal of Scotland, and I could continue playing as Artur, but I paused the game then, at 1108 AD.

I see that Brian the Obnoxious survived the Scottish invasion and is listed as a mere courtier, aged 60, in the court of Duke Artur. He and Artur (who remained a respectable Catholic throughout) naturally have strongly negative opinions of each other.

So far, I find this a slow-moving game. Even with the speed cranked up high for most of the time, it took me hours to get through 42 years of play, and of course children take a realistic time to grow up, so managing your family is an activity for patient people. I suppose the King of Munster naturally doesn't have a lot to do, which is why he's suitable for beginners picking up the mechanics of the game. Doubtless it will be more exciting (though even more difficult) to play the ruler of some larger domain.

I should explain that CKII is a pausable accelerated-real-time game, so it runs continuously at a speed you can select, but you can also pause it at any time and take an unlimited number of decisions while time is stopped.

The idea of regenerating as your successor, almost in the manner of Dr Who, feels a bit weird and takes some getting used to. Brian poisons me, so I find myself playing as the nasty little ratbag.

Looking over the rest of the map in 1108 AD, it's a fascinating sight if you like alternative history. Duncan II of Scotland (son of Malcolm III) has managed to conquer the whole of Scotland, plus the Isle of Man, three counties in northern Ireland, and my three counties in the south of Ireland. England is united under an Anglo-Saxon King Osulf, so the Norman invasion evidently failed. In fact, Normandy is merely a duchy under the Queen of Brittany.

Christian Spain remains fragmented but has already begun to take land back from the Muslims. Much though not all of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, and the Tyrol are united under the Holy Roman Empire; Venice is an independent republic. Topically, the Crimea is cut in half: northern Crimea and southern Ukraine belong to the Khanate of Pechenegs, and southern Crimea to the Byzantine Empire. Northern Egypt, eastern Libya, Palestine, and chunks of land further east are under the Fatimid Sultanate. The Kingdom of Rus is relatively limited in size and divided into two separate chunks by the Kingdom of Ruthenia in the middle. Sweden is eaten into on all sides; Denmark occupies southern Sweden and a bit of northern Germany.

In case you're wondering, yes, the game does include crusades, but I haven't been involved in one yet, and haven't found out how they work.

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