I’ve always loved Paradox Games, deeply and without condition. They’re another of those “rich tapestry of PC Gaming” things, they produce the sort of games that nobody else does. Admittedly a large part of this has been determinedly hollowing out their own niche, putting in supporting props, building a rail network to aid excavation, and eventually digging so deep that they awaken some kind of niche Balrog. Point is, it’s *their* Balrog, and its name is grand strategy. They took that overmap from Total War/Risk (delete depending on how old you are) and converted it into a whole genre. Europa Universalis, Hearts of Iron, Victoria, Crusader Kings, all different takes on that same basic impulse we all feel while looking at a globe: what if most of that was mine?
After being kicked out of what must be half a dozen cartographer’s offices and threatened with an exclusion order, I turned this desire onto Paradox games with some decent results. It’s not easy, nothing ever is, but I appreciated that if you piled advantage upon advantage, if you knew how the game worked, then you could achieve that goal of seeing a map in one or possibly two colours. Thing is, there’s already loads of games where you can do that, surely? Just pick up a civ or total war or any RTS if you want to conquer a map, yes? Well, my interrupting companion, what Paradox do is ally that map with some powerful historical trimmings. We’re not talking one or two leaders that probably lead those factions at some point (hey Civ), we’re talking the entire royal family of Pomerania from 1325 being there down to the disowned royal bastard son. Hearts of Iron has somewhere in the region of eleventy billion real generals with charming fuzzy black-and-white mugshots accompanying them. Europa Universalis tracks the boundary changes of the world over four hundred years, if you want them. Context and mechanics intertwine in some bizarre abstract Twister game to create this convincing easel for you to sketch your Medieval epic upon.
The best thing, though, is that while the games are inspired by history, the history doesn’t rule them, and this only happened relatively recently. Going back to the previous members of those franchises mentioned at the top (EU2, HoI2, Vicky 1 and CK1), you could never truly diverge from the real world. In EU2 you would get England’s actual kings for the same amount of time they reigned. You were stuck with George III for 60 fucking years! HoI2 follows the plot of World War 2 pretty slavishly (Anschluss, Danzig, oh god Russia is cold), and so on. Yes you could achieve ridiculous things but it never felt like the game was changing to reflect that, it was still trying to tell the same story. In the latest iterations, Paradox have moved to a more reactive world and though this approach has had its issues at times, it’s definitely how they have to go for a more compelling simulation.
So, I have to absolutely praise Crusader Kings 2 in terms of the rich world it creates. Because Crusader Kings isn’t just about Europe, it isn’t just about Medieval Europe, it’s about the dynasties of Medieval Europe (I dare you to try and sell that to Activision). The map, on the surface, will look something like this.
Big, chunky countries occupying large tracts of land, yes? Not quite, we’re talking the feudal system here. Each big empire will have a ruler (this might be you, it might not be), and they can’t effectively govern the whole thing. So they sub-let most of it to their trusted henchmen, who find that they also can’t govern their duchy entirely, so they sub-let to their own vassals, who now only have one province to guard, but even that is too much for them so they appoint a mayor for the main city and a baron for the main castle. It’s turtles all the way down. So something like the Holy Roman Empire is actually a tiered mishmash of hundreds of different leaders of varying ability and power, and all of their friends. The point of the game is to propel your dynasty, those who share your family name, to the top of as many trees as possible.
Sure, this can be done via war, but not without the proper groundwork, because what legitimacy do you have to claim Burgundy? You could get your steward to scrabble up a fake claim, though that’ll take a while, cost money, and lose you some honour. No, what you want to do is marry your third son to the eldest daughter of the Duke of Burgundy to give your bloodline an in. The Duke is old, and yes the land is due to go to his young son on his death, but what if he were to have an “accident”? Why then the land would default to your kingdom! Land and prestige acquired in one big windfall!
My second nod of recognition has to be for how Crusader Kings has constructed this economy of attributes. The resources you gather aren’t wood or iron, they’re prestige and piety and wealth. Money makes the world go round but the other two affect how you’re remembered in the next one, and at the end of the game all your rulers’ stats are tallied up to create some grand measure of your family tree. Your dynasty is this collection of individuals, with all of their contributions counting. Their qualities are determined partly by nurture and partly by nature, with some born a genius and others born an ignoramus. Their education will shape them, as will their actions in-game and in little decision boxes. I like how you’re worrying about how to maximise your scholarship, it’s a nice change of objective for a game.
Like all families, though, they don’t get on, and this is what most people applaud Crusader Kings for – the way it makes these Medieval feuds evolve naturally. Every character has an ambition that they’re shooting for, from getting married to seeing their husband dead. Every character can band together on plots, subterfuge to get certain people out of the picture. Every character has an opinion of the others, based on the combination of around about a hundred different variables including the similarity of their personalities, their treatment of other people, their trustworthiness, how long they’ve been around…what this all adds up to is an incredibly complicated and dynamic system of relationships without you having to lift a finger to cause it. What this adds up to is a constantly evolving gameworld and a novel way of interacting with it, with everything contributing to your final score. This, surely, is the culmination of all Paradox’s work so far, a complex game where you only have to play one character at a time. Empire-straddling consequences for personal choices, different every time. And yet, well, I cannot get it.
This was not unexpected, at first. Starting a Paradox game has always been akin to running head-first at a wall of obscure rules and imprecise documentation until you break through into a glorious well-lit room of understanding. They take a while before you think you know what you’re doing, and even longer before you actually know what you’re doing. You have to start small, picking some pipsqueak of a country, figure out the basic rules and then theorise how they’d apply with a bigger nation. Give them a go, find out you were wrong, reflect and go again. This iterative improvement has always been a big draw for me, I fondly remember the dozen attempts to make Italy halfway competent in Hearts of Iron, getting a little closer every time. In Europa Universalis I bounced around the Holy Roman Empire, trying city state after city state until I figured out how to make them grow. The problem with Crusader Kings is that there aren’t enough of these little playgrounds to experiment in as I’d want to. Ireland is a notable exception, a patchwork of little independents that you can gradually seek to eclipse, but they’re way out of the main action. Spain isn’t bad, either, with Catholic and Islamic states playing five-a-side holy war, jumpers for goalposts, marvellous, but everything else is either a gigantic empire or right next to one.
“Well”, you’re probably saying, “you don’t have to play a king, can’t you just pick a low-ranking noble in one of those big empires, work your way to the top?” Two reasons: much like Simba, I just can’t wait to be king, I hate having to bend the knee to some jumped-up royal NPC just because he happens to be the Holy Roman Emperor. Declaring independence, though, would take many, many years to set up and that just doesn’t appeal. Secondly, I really struggle to visualise the path to glory. It’s more of a maze of thickets and bloodlines. At the end is me with a massive crown on my head but all I can see at the moment is a dozen useless princesses and a hundred failed plots. For whatever reason, achieving in this peaceable fashion is really hard work.
I don’t mind the sometimes obtuse mechanics, even the poorly explained technology tree, or the fact that fighting is purely a numbers game. Those are practical problems to be built around, simple yes/no questions to optimise my solutions to. But you know what does grind my biscuit? Those independent and dynamic characters that populate the world. For some reason, possibly because they are idiots, they just don’t see that their best chances of success are if they line behind the mighty Banner of Jim and sally forth to take on the world. Instead of that dutiful and fruitful obedience, they insist on doing their own thing, like moody teenagers.
Yes I’m talking to you, Duke of Skane, you have several thousand men under your command and you’re giving me about twelve of them to take on Sweden. Yeah, that’s really useful, maybe we’ll be able to take them down while they’re laughing at the size of my royal prerogative. Still, that fucker Skane is better than the Duke of Mecklenburg who, believe it or not, attacked me! I am his king! Listen, quarrelsome worms, all you need to do is exactly what I tell you and we’ll win! Stop holding back your forces, stop fighting your insignificant civil wars and INVADE RUSSIA! You want to be king, fine, I’ll make you King of whatever we conquer next. I suppose it’s an achievement that NPCs wind me up quite this much but I have never encountered such a group of self-interested, near-sighted, selfish individuals. Every time my fearless, incredible ruler dies, they line up to split the empire apart while they quarrel over the succession. Norway are laughing at us!
I realise that this is the point of the game, obviously. I realise that it’s realistic, and deep, and all of that. I know that it’s not meant to be a conquering simulator, it’s meant to be Medieval Jeremy Kyle. But I just don’t enjoy playing games this way, infighting and incest and all. What I want is a clean slate and a global order to unbalance, but that just isn’t the focus of the game. It’s strange, really, I can live with any number of setbacks, normally. I can cope with my entire army being enveloped on the eastern front, my oil supply disappearing, the nations of the world forming up into an all-star Jim-Groin-Kicking alliance. Those are real problems with practical solutions. I cannot cope with my second son leading a revolt because I’m a tyrant who tried to have his mother killed. Despite the huge options available, I cannot play for long before I’m ragequitting at that fucking Portuguese duke declaring independence like he owned the place.
It’s a good game, it’s a fascinating game, it’s an engaging game. And I hate it.
2 stars, 32 hours played.