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|The Hollow Crown: “Crusader Kings II”|
|Lifestyle - Gaming|
|Written by Grant Williams|
|Tuesday, 20 March 2012 14:17|
Over the past 12 years, the Swedish company Paradox Interactive has developed a stable of grand-strategy games for the PC that simulate with often baffling complexity the political, economic, and military maneuverings of entire nations over the course of centuries. Paradox’s titles, including 2004’s Crusader Kings, are fascinating and fun if you can understand what’s going on, but getting to that point is often a long process. Crusader Kings II – released in February – works hard and largely succeeds at being more accessible to novice players while retaining immense depth for those looking for it.
Crusader Kings II is a sandbox simulation of medieval feudal Europe. The player chooses a Christian European lord – anyone from a lowly count to the Holy Roman Emperor – and guides that lord and his (or occasionally her) descendants through the centuries, attempting to maintain their fief and perhaps accumulate more territory and greater titles.
As a sandbox game, Crusader Kings II is more similar to a board game such as Risk – albeit a thousand times more complex – than video games with linear progressions and plots. The hundreds of other characters, controlled by AI, follow the same rules as the player as they attempt to improve their power. This means that radically divergent alternative histories can and often do occur; the Spanish Moors might push the Europeans out of Spain entirely and even begin conquering France.
Strategy games are often fantasies of control, allowing players to comprehend and account for every detail. That level of mastery is never achieved in Paradox’s games, but that feels like part of the point in Crusader Kings II. When I first began playing, there were several major features – such as the technology system that allows your provinces to develop more effective weapons, buildings, and bureaucracy – about which I understood next to nothing. Rather than being in command, in Crusader Kings II you are much more likely to find yourself doing the best you can despite being overwhelmed and overmatched. Luckily, the game is largely forgiving of mistakes.
Crusader Kings II’s focus on people rather than abstract nations or factions is the major difference between it and Paradox’s other strategy games, most notably the Europa Universalis series. As a player, you do not take control of Scotland but Duncan, the king of Scotland, who could easily lose his title if things go poorly. Most threats come from within rather than without: You’re more likely to contend with a power-hungry general and his plotting wife, or a brother who feels cheated out of power, than the armies of a foreign lord, who is likely facing internal strife of his own.
Despite its emphasis on people, Crusader Kings II remains a game about conquest, and you will spend its entirety looking at the map, or at charts and graphs and windows for interacting with characters overlaid on the map. Every tool you have available, from technological advances to taxes to your relationship with the pope, is geared toward its use in expanding your territory through political machinations, assassinations, or violent conquest. You use people to acquire more territory (or at least maintain what you already control), and they are also your obstacles.
In shifting the focus to people rather than abstract entities, Crusader Kings II, intentionally or not, forces the player to confront the moral character of a conqueror. At some point in this game, you might marry off your 16-year-old daughter to a 40-year-old king in exchange for an advantageous political alliance. You might assassinate your father-in-law so your wife can inherit his titles before he sires a son as his heir. And because you will likely have misunderstood some important rule of the game, many of these actions will not even accomplish what you planned, and they often simply cause more problems.
It is this that makes Crusader Kings II fascinatingly unique. Most games about conquest reduce war to numbers and maps: how many soldiers each side has, and where they are. They elide the details because the reality of war is monstrous, and people who choose to send hundreds or thousands of people to their deaths to acquire more power are monsters.
Crusader Kings II, then, primarily involves playing an inept monster with power – a person who can see others only in terms of how they can help acquire more territory, but whose moves frequently fail spectacularly. We might associate such characters with a Coen brothers film such as Fargo, but the game seems to reach back much further for its inspiration.
Recall the story of King Duncan, who was murdered by a general named Macbeth hoping to seize control of Scotland. Or of the king of Denmark who was murdered by his brother Claudius to steal the throne; he in turn was assassinated by Prince Hamlet, and that conflict ended with Denmark invaded and occupied by the armies of the prince of Norway.
By returning the human element to strategy games, Paradox has created an engine for producing tragedy of Shakespearean magnitude.
Cruader Kings II is available for PC for $39.99.
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