Monday, 28 April 2014

Crusader Kings II: How long it takes

I've just finished playing Crusader Kings II to completion for the first time, from 1066 to 1453 AD. It took me three weeks, during which my workload was relatively light, so I was able to spend plenty of hours on the game. This is a very long game.

Starting as the Duke of Barcelona, I worked my way up to Emperor of Hispania, playing as 16 different characters from the same Catalan dynasty, one after another: two dukes, ten kings, and four emperors. By the end, I ruled (a bit precariously) over the whole of modern Spain and Portugal, plus part of Morocco and the Balearic and Canary Islands. It was a lot of work, but much of it was absorbing and interesting, although some of the detailed work I could have done without.

Bear in mind that the game includes the whole of Europe plus northern Africa and a large chunk of Asia, all of which is playable area. Ruling the whole map is a fantasy, although I hear that some players have managed to rule quite a lot of it.

Arranging marriages is an interesting task, there are various factors to be considered, and the results are important. Educating children is a more mechanical chore; I can see why this is done manually, but I think it was a wrong decision: I don't think it adds enough to the game to justify the time spent on it. If I were designing this game, children would just inherit their parents' characteristics with some random variation, and that would be that.

I also find plots more trouble than they're worth, and some of the random events are tedious and could be better designed.

Warfare works quite well. It's not designed with the usual obsession with realism, which may offend some people; but from a game-player's point of view it's quite simple and straightforward to operate, and it's vaguely realistic in broad terms, compared with something like Sid Meier's Civilization. This is more of a royal role-playing game than a wargame.

It is frustrating, having played other wargames, to have to find an acceptable reason for war before you can attack someone; especially as this tends to be quite difficult and time-consuming. However, you can attack people of another religion whenever you like: free pass! This does of course mean that they can attack you, too.

At the end of this long and laborious game (2nd of January 1453) there was no fanfare or orgy of celebration: just a simple window announcing my score, with a list of the characters I'd played and a list of dynasties in real history and their scores as imagined by the game designers. I scored 80,893 points, narrowly ahead of the Rurikid dynasty at 80,000, but coming in behind the von Hapsburgs (90,000) and the Capets (100,000). The Plantagenets, I noticed, were assigned a score of 40,000.

I should note a couple of things, especially for people who are familiar with the game:

  • If I make a bad mistake after investing many hours of work in the game, I don't scrap the game and start again from 1066: I go back to a saved game from before the mistake, and restart from there. Strictly speaking this is cheating, and it invalidates my final score, but I'm afraid I don't care. I play this game for my own amusement, not in competition with others, and it doesn't amuse me to have all my work wasted by a single mistake. If I make a lesser mistake that I can live with, I live with it.
  • Up to now I've been playing with the original game plus all the free patches. I haven't paid for any optional extras. In future, I think I'll pay for the Legacy of Rome DLC, because it provides the additional feature of retinues (standing armies), which are referenced in the patched game but unimplemented unless you buy the DLC. The game works well enough without them, but I feel I'd like to try them. I don't feel a need of the other DLCs so far, which mostly enable you to play as dynasties outside the European mainstream: most recently, the Rajas of India DLC enables you to play as an Indian ruler.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Crusader Kings II: The importance of being allied

Having had less work to do than usual for the last two weeks, I've accumulated more experience of the Crusader Kings II game, and I'm gradually learning more about it.

From the standard starting point of 1066 AD, I've played repeatedly as Murchad of Ireland and repeatedly as Harold of England, and I'm currently playing for the first time as Ramon-Berenguer of Catalonia: an obvious choice for me as I live in Catalonia, but I held off for a while because Ramon-Berenguer has a rather awkward strategic position: squeezed into a few provinces of north-east Catalonia, with south-west Catalonia and southern Spain occupied by the Arabs.

This is not an impossible situation, because what you have to do in this game is to get alliances. In Europe in the 11th century, the major power was the Holy Roman Empire, which (despite the name) consisted of just about all the German-speaking peoples put together. If you play as anyone else, you're a relatively minor power, and you have to watch your step. Anyone with allies can overwhelm you; conversely, with enough assistance from allies you can overwhelm anyone else.

I soon learned that rulers with no allies are easy prey. I learned later that I become easy prey myself if I inadvertently run out of allies. There are two good things about an ally:

  • It won't attack you, as far as I know.
  • It may come to your aid if requested. However, it can refuse if it likes your opponent better than it likes you, or if it's too far away, or if it has more important business elsewhere.

You get allies through arranged marriages. You can do this only if you and your intended ally have unmarried relations of opposite sex who are at least 16 years old, and if the intended ally is willing. The unmarried relations have no say in the matter, unless they have lands of their own, in which case they pass out of your control. (Of course, you can also get an alliance by marrying yourself.)

But arranging marriages is a rather tricky decision because you also want to arrange good marriages that will produce useful children. If you arrange marriages to idiots, you may get some useful alliances in the short term, but you'll raise a generation of idiots in the process, because the traits and abilities of a character are influenced by their genes.

When you pick a character to play at the start of the game, the game gives you an indication of the difficulty of playing as that character: usually a number in the range 40 to 60, with a comment such as "Hard" or "Relatively easy". When I tried picking the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, I found that the number is zero and the comment is "Pointless", which I take to mean that I'd be wasting my time because there's no challenge in winning with that character.

I find the game interesting, even absorbing, and it really has a flavour of playing your way through history. However, it has some drawbacks from my point of view:

  • This is a very long, life-eating game: a single game can take up your life for days. To be sure, you can save the game and continue later, but I'd prefer a game that I could start and finish in one session.
  • Wars are fast and active, apart from sieges. Peace is static and rather slow, although things continue to happen in a rather slow and static way. You have to spend most of your time at peace because soldiers die in war (sadly) and it takes time to replace them. Furthermore, peace allows you to build up your economy, and you can't make war at all without some suitable excuse, which usually takes time to arrange; unless your neighbour is of a different religion, which is in itself a suitable excuse!
  • There are a number of random events, which are realistic enough but can be painful. In one game, I had a fairly mediocre character with a talented son, and I was looking forward to playing as the son. However, a random event intervened: the son got injured while training troops (not even in battle), and then died young, leaving me with a baby grandson as my heir. It's very useful to have plenty of legitimate children, but that's partly a matter of luck; unless of course you're unmarried, in which case you should be looking for a spouse.