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.
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