It's time to get back to big games, and “Crusader Kings 2” (CK2) is a really big game. The playing field is all of Europe, lots of Russia, most of the Middle East, Northern Africa and the Holy Land. The time period spans 1066-1466 – William the Conqueror through to Columbus. CK2 is an important cog in Paradox's grand strategy – to be able to play a game that stretches from the birth of Western Civilization through to the present day.
Well, maybe that's their strategy. They already have Roman times (Europa Universalis: Rome), the Middle Ages (Crusader Kings), the Age of Exploration (Europa Universalis), the Industrial Revolution/WW1 (Victoria), and WW2 (Hearts of Iron). They need to step up with a Dark Ages game and a Dawn of Time one.
An important unifying thread through all these games is the Clausewitz Engine in its various incarnations. It's the sort of engine that you'll either love or hate, and for the same reasons. It is immensely detailed, with the entire world divided up into really small areas – EU3 has around 1,700 land and sea provinces – and extensive statistics are maintained on each area and its inhabitants.
The thing that differentiates each game is what socioeconomic facets of the world get special attention. In “Hearts of Iron” it's the military, with each soldier and his equipment faithfully modeled and tracked, while “Victoria” is all about organizing your economy. CK2 (like CK1) is all about your family.
Yes, your family. Unlike pretty much every other game out there, the player's focus is a particular person – the ruler of whatever area you chose when starting the game. You can be the King of France, the Holy Roman Emperor, or the Emperor of Byzantium if you want to be powerful. You can also be Duke of Kent or Count of Zadar, if you want to try to build your tiny “kingdom” into a world power. You will want to get married, certainly. If you don't, and you character dies without an heir, your game may end, or you may end up ruling some crummy little province because you're now playing as your second cousin the failure.
It can get weird at times. In one game I started as the King of Denmark. Denmark is a rather uneventful place after that Hamlet boy is put down, so I cruised along. One of the more important things a monarch does is arrange marriages for his children and other relatives, so I concentrated on those. At first I concentrated on getting buddy-buddy with the English, who looked to be an up-and-coming power now that William was in charge. Sadly, France rolled in and just destroyed the English and it all came to naught. Luckily, a century or so later the English made a comeback and took back large portions of the island. Then, the English king died and my character was heir to the throne of England plus a good chunk of France. Denmark stood astride Western Europe like a colossus!
Then the treacherous Burgundians revolted and I could not take the relations hit with my nobles to raise a big enough army to stomp on them so I had to give them their independence. Not long after that my eldest son decided he wasn't going to follow such a loser and started a civil war. He won and I had to retire to my lands in England while he ran Denmark. I am his heir, so I suppose if I had him assassinated I could be King of Denmark again. Perhaps I could get him excommunicated and seize his lands.
That is a reasonable summary of how the game goes. You can play this as a war game if you like, and the war engine is decent with lots of detail for those who like that side of things. There isn't much to be said for trading or technological progress, as befits the era. The real novelty of this game is that most of the action lies in the dynastic-political-religious sphere. While we moderns might think of family, politics and religion as fairly separate arenas for action that was not so in the Middle Ages. You will spend a lot of time hatching plots to allow yourself and your family to rise to ever-more-powerful heights. Your tools are well-place marriages, the assassin's dagger, the dungeon, excommunication, political isolation and bribery. War is expensive and, as often as not, exhausts both sides to the point that a third-party steps in and takes all the marbles.
All these plots and feints require a sophisticated interface to manage. The interface in CK2 is better than the one in CK1, but this is damning with faint praise. The game itself is already less buggy than CK1, but see my previous comment. At this point the game looks good, both graphically and in terms of gameplay. Some further polish, a couple of interface improvements and general tightening up and Paradox will have a welcome addition to the family