A lot of you who have read my various crazed howlings on various message boards know of my affinity for Europa Universalis II. It really is an incredibly elegant strategy game – which is a real accomplishment since the scope is, well, insane (manipulating the affairs of any nation on the planet from 1492 to 1814). Paradox Entertaiment, the developers, have made a few games with the same basic engine since then (Heart of Iron, set in World War 2 and Victoria, bridging the gap between EU2 and HoI – 1815 to 1920). Unfortunately, those followup efforts were pretty fatally crippled by a loss of a large part of what made EU2 great – the simple design that made the game actually playable – and replacing it with ever-increasing layers of useless complexity.

For example, in Hearts of Iron, to research a better tank, you have to research the chassis, the transmission, the armor, the turret style, the ammunition calibre, the communications systems, and then the prototype for the actual tank. By the time you have done this, the game has probably crashed. Victoria trumped this by crafting an economic system that literally broke underneath its own level of detail, where it was pretty much impossible to actually have a functioning national economy not crippled by obscene levels of debt without, say, selling every bit of technology you have to China.

So for the past few days, I’ve been playing Crusader Kings, the next game in the series. I am pleased to tell you that unlike the others, it doesn’t actually suck. In fact, I dare say it’s better than EU2.

I begin yet another quixotic attempt to reunite the squabbling tribes of Eire. Don’t ask me why, I’m sure you have hobbies too.

Crusader Kings focuses the scale from the entire globe to Europe, and begins after the battle of Hastings, with William on the throne of England and the Muslim caliphates owning most of the valuable bits of the continent. The game runs to 1492, after which you can export your game to EU2. (This function actually works pretty well; CK’s political system forces you to at least pretend to be a part of a historical empire of some sort, so your holdings transfer over with a minimum of fuss.) You cannot play a pagan lord or an Islamic sheik – it’s onward, Christian soldiers.

This allows the game to focus on one political/social system and do so elegantly – that of the feudal overlord. The heart of winning CK lies in manipulating your royal family and court. Depending on your lord’s statistics, you can maintain up to maybe 4 or 5 counties personally without seeing a breakdown in efficiency. Beyond that, you are strongly encouraged to sub-let your holdings – the more you hold beyond your capabilities, the less tax money you actually see from them, and you lose prestige if your sons are of age and don’t have any land to call their own.

The court of William of Normandy in 1066. Wish I had those stats. The cross icon means in addition to everything else, he also owns the Pope. I hate him. He’s about to invade me in a few years, too.

Vassalage is a bit more meaningful than in EU2. You don’t really control your vassals. You can tax them (and if you do they will probably revolt) and you can use their armies (and if you do they will probably revolt) or you can leave them alone (and if you do they will probably revolt). Vassals are rated for their loyalty, and your scions are a bit more loyal than the somewhat more capable court members you might be tempted to promote. Vassals also have personality traits. Reckless vassals may decide they’re bored and decide to start really, really stupid wars. This will shortly become your fault as everyone in the area will use this as an excuse to steal your, er, the vassal’s land. Note that this is actually a pretty accurate simulation of feudalism.

Warfare itself is modelled similarly to EU2, but in a bit more detail. There are combat phases based on the typical medieval battle (approach under archery fire, skirmishing, and random slaughter, er melee) and the troop types you have under your command play a large role in how these combats play out. If you’ve been favoring your peasantry, you’ll have more archers. Leaning towards the middle class burghers means you’ll have more pikemen, and stuffing them all in the nobility’s favor gives you more knights. Depending on how your technology is developing, you’ll probably be manipulating this in your favor. The skill of your lord and their court also play a large role. In practice, you will generally be throwing whatever you have at whatever fires break out and then wait for the dead to re-spawn (literally – as in your population growing new soldiers.)

In case this didn’t keep you busy enough, you will need to pay attention to your royal line. This is probably the most fun part of the game and definitely the most insane. Basically, you need to find a wife. No, really. Someone who’s young and fertile, and has good statistics, since they will carry over to your offspring. Along with your nose. The game has a fairly detailed genetic system, and the stylized portraits you see are generated from this genetics engine. Your children will have your nose. This is usually a bad thing. They’ll also have that really low stewardship score. You can direct their schooling, although they probably won’t pay attention and become a Misguided Warrior or an Amateurish Pettifogger or something similarly embarassing. William the Conquerer’s kids probably stole their lunch money, too. If your wife isn’t producing enough offspring, you should probably get a divorce. In the time period of this game, this was done via having her killed. If you get caught doing this, the Pope will start shaking you down for money, in the guise of demanding that you “confess your sins”. You may find it easier just to sleep around with the members of the court that catch your eye – they can’t inherit the throne, but at least they might get good stats. I’m not making ANY of this up, folks.

In the middle of your obsessing over who’s going to marry your kids, the Pope will probably call a crusade of some sort. This means you have to go beat on Muslims or other pagans. Hint: try the pagans first. The Muslims tend to be very well armed and probably have better tech than you do. If you don’t smite the heretics, you lose piety. Piety in this game is the ONLY thing that will reduce your “badboy” rating (in so far as it controls its rate of decay). This is similar to “badboy” ratings in EU2 (basically a factor that means if you start breaking the understandings among nations and running amuck conquering everything, the world will unite to stop you, similar to what happened to Napoleon.) The important exception is that with a high “badboy” rating, your vassals will start revolting and your empire will fall apart VERY quickly. However, as in EU2, you don’t generate “badboy” karma from smiting the heathens. Thus it’s actually in your favor to take up the Cross.

I’ve already gone on far too long, so I’ll skip the economy and tech tree and just concentrate on the bad parts that I’ve come across so far. There’s a few, though not nearly as many as I expected. Stability is still an issue, with the occasional crash to desktop. The naval game is abstracted to the point of absurdity – you pay a fee to move your troops over water, and they go. No blockades, which means that your enemies will be landing in your doorstep as well. Which means that Saladin is as likely to fight you in London as at Acre. The event system isn’t hand crafte
like in EU2 – although this is less of an issue since you are usually not playing as a nation-state per se, but as a lord of a feudal house. The events that DO occur are important even if random (your land becomes more fertile, your wife dies in childbirth, etc.).

Still. Go buy this game. It’s not out in the US yet, save through piracy. Don’t pirate it. Buy it from the developers instead (note: link down as of this writing, and since I don’t speak Swedish I have no idea why) and reward them for making a gem of a game and thus encouraging more. Plus Paradox has a history of supporting their games with patches in perpetuity – EU2 which has been out for 2 years is still patched regularly. Although you can’t even buy it with US currency, the order process is fairly painless and took about a week to ship. Crusader Kings is just a really, really elegant design. It recaptures what was great about EU2. Go buy it. Now.