I’m that rare gamer who actually sits down and reads through an entire instruction manual before playing the game, often before installation. I just like to have a good handle on things before I jump in. My pre-game reading of the Crusader Kings manual sent off all sorts of warning bells, mostly of the “I still have no idea what’s going on” variety. Still, I’m generally able to pick up on things, and I figured the tutorial would fill in the copious blanks left by the manual. So I installed and booted up.
Whoops. No tutorial.
Ah, well. Still having no idea what I was doing, I picked a province to rule, picked a starting time, and dove in. Since I had never played any of the Europa Universalis games, of which Crusader Kings is a prequel of sorts, I had no experience to help me through the initial hours. It was much like being taught to swim by being thrown headfirst into the deep end. And then being poked back by a long pole as you try to get near the ladder. It was overwhelming, tiring, and not all that much fun. After a while, I started to get the hang of things, and it got a lot better. Crusader Kings is a decent game, and I’m sure it would be much more enjoyable for fans of the series. Still, I think it might be a bit too much work for the casual newbie to tackle.
Crusader Kings is a real-time strategy game set in medieval Europe. It’s not a typical RTS, in that there are not hoards of units to send cavorting around the map.
Crusader Kings focuses more on the political aspects of the period. Since medieval life expectancy was quite a bit less than the 400+ year game time, players begin with control of a King, Duke, or Count and attempt to establish a dynasty that will last for several centuries, accruing all-important Prestige and Piety. In fact, that’s the only goal of the game—be the player with the highest rankings in these two scores. Prestige is gained by doing impressive things in the secular circles, Piety is gained by doing impressive things for the Church.
Much of the game is spent focusing on the nobility of the demesnes controlled. Each character has four primary stats, Diplomacy, Martial, Stewardship, and Intrigue. As a ruler, these stats reflect how well a particular province does in each of these areas. High Stewardship rankings will increase revenue, high Intrigue will help perpetrate or avoid assassination, and so on. Rulers can appoint members of their court to various offices, adding the appointee’s rating in particular area to the ruler’s. For instance, the Steward will add their Stewardship ability to that of their liege, the Chancellor will add their Diplomacy, etc. Balancing the court, and just wading through the character screen in general, takes up a great deal of the play time. In addition to the four primary stats, each character can gain random traits, such as Merciful, Lustful, Forgiving, or Vengeful. These are gained as random events happen, sometimes as a result of player choice, but often not. Characters can also acquire an impressive array of diseases to help round out their medieval experience.
Since it’s difficult to maintain a dynasty within a single generation, players must work to marry off their offspring to good political advantage, and hope for suitable progeny. When the current ruler passes on, rule of the demesne passes on through whatever laws of succession are currently in place. Usually this means the oldest male descendant gets the job, but there are many alternate choices if players want to shake things up a bit. After a few generations, sifting through the web of family trees becomes quite complicated, but also quite necessary to figure out the “who’s who” of Europe.
Each of the provinces acts like a city from a typical RTS—these are the places where building and troop generation take place. There is a fairly extensive technology and building tree, although it takes a bit of time to learn the effects of the various structures. Most of the buildings add bonuses to income, citizen loyalty, or Piety and Prestige. In addition to the buildings, rulers need to balance the power struggle between their subjects, the Peasants, the Burghers, the Clergy, or the Nobles. Changing power of a particular group results in a change in their loyalty, an increased (or decreased) tax base, and a change in the makeup of the army generated in the province. For instance, if Nobles are in power, Knights make up a larger percentage of an army, but if the Peasants are given more control, then a greater number of simple foot soldiers are generated.
Combat isn’t very exciting in Crusader Kings. When that neighbor starts getting uppity, or when the Pope calls for the heathens to be driven out (this is not a Politically Correct game), it’s time to start mobilizing those armies. Each province produces a stack of units, the exact makeup of which depends on the political balance in the province. These stacks are simply moved about the board to the offending provinces. When two armies meet, the outcome of battle is automatically calculated. If the attackers win, they begin laying siege to the province, and once the siege is won, they have control. If the attackers lose, they are dispersed and the province once again begins rebuilding their forces.
The game has a good, clean look about it, but it’s nothing exciting. Most of the game is spent looking at the 1000+ provinces spread about Europe and the Middle East, with an overlay of the character screen on occasion. The menus are fairly straightforward and easy to navigate, so there are no problems there. Game speed can be adjusted from mind-numbingly slow to frantic, so players can easily find a preferred pace. I found that when in control of a single province (County), quicker is much better, but it needs to be slowed down a bit when taking on an entire Kingdom of provinces. Additionally, the game can be paused at any time to issue orders and sort through the mounds of information that streams in as the years go by. The sound effects are rather bland, but the music is quite good. I actually applaud the decision to refrain from getting too fancy, as it would become a nightmare to navigate if too many bells and whistles were added.
There are three options for the single-player campaign, but they’re just different starting points in history. It would have been nice to have some different campaigns in place, perhaps with a few interesting goals (conquer a particular region, gain a set amount of Prestige or Piety, etc.) As it is, with gobs of different starting Kingdoms, Duchies, and Counties available, and with the random events along the way, there is plenty of replayability for those so inclined. And games can even be imported into Europa Universalis 2 to take the dynasty forward another few centuries.
Crusader Kings is a tough one to rate. Fans of the Europa Universalis series will most likely find something to enjoy, along with those who enjoy the micromanaging aspects of builder and political style strategy games. Be warned, however, that there is a lot of work to do before finally wringing enjoyment out of this title, especially if one is new to the series.
A very deep and complex political strategy/wargame that is unfriendly to gamers new to the Europa Universalis series. Thereâ€™s a good game in there, but itâ€™ll take a lot of work to begin enjoying it.