It’s good to be the King. Getting there, though, is only half of the trouble; staying on top is what takes real determination. Crusader Kings 2 lets you claw your way to the peak of the royal hill, and see if you have the patience and the cunning to balance at the summit.
Like it’s predecessor, Crusader Kings 2 isn’t particularly flashy. The gameplay takes place almost exclusively on a map, though events transpire in real time, and you’ll be in for a lot of reading and clicking through dialogue boxes as you build your empire. You’ll wage wars without visiting immense battlefields filled with masses of 3D combatants. Sacking cities and besting enemy armies, despite what the name might suggest, aren’t really the main focus of Crusader Kings – although they certainly are options, and may prove to be more significant this time around, since you’ll have to contend with the Holy Crusades, not to mention Genghis Khan and his Mongol hordes. In a way, it’s kind of like the Sim Life of medieval conquest games; victory isn’t won so much as it is grown, pruned, and coaxed, carefully and over time. Your allegiance isn’t to a country or an ideal – it’s to your dynasty, and seeing your royal house prosper and gain holdings throughout the continent is what marks the difference between a successful ruler and an impotent vassal.
In this game, it’s all about who you know, who’s on your side, who you can wed – and who’s going to take over when the current ruler is dust in the wind. Crusader Kings 2 features a complex hierarchy of nobility, from kings of the realm to down to baronies controlling small swaths of land. Through marriage, alliance, and conflict, a man sitting on the puniest fiefdom can aspire to one day call all of Europe his own private playground – provided enough people like and/or fear him to let him have his way. As a start, pleasing the Church is a nice way to generate income, as every province has a bishop who’ll lend support with a percentage of his tithes to a ruler he holds in good esteem.
The threats to whatever power you’ve managed to accumulate are manifold and never-ending, even more so in the sequel than the original Crusader Kings. CK2 gives you more control over how your offspring are raised, and as anyone who’s cracked open a European History textbook (be honest, some of you got through high school without even taking it out of your bag) knows, the rot from one bad branch can bring down the whole tree in a singe generation. Besides navigating the multitude of religious and political persuasions your vassals and neighboring lords might be partial to, you’ll have to rely on your spymaster to uncover plots from within and without, hatched by those who plot to usurp or downright depose your rule, even as they bare disloyal grins (while taking your hard-earned tax revenue) . Dealing with troublemakers is one of the game’s most delicate aspects; be too lenient, and your enemies will only be emboldened, but mete out punishment too harshly, and you could find yourself on the wrong end of a civil war.
Unlike the previous Crusader Kings, CK2 does feature buildings, which serve to enhance the prosperity of your lands; you’ll be able to construct forts, cities, and religious centers, provided you have a trustworthy leader to manage them. Controlling people, not territory, is of the utmost importance. RTS enthusiasts and fans of the almighty Zerg rush might find the pace and intricate detail of Crusader Kings a bit of an adjustment, but for any amateur Machiavellis who still cackle over all the tears and infighting they caused in Homeroom before the pep rally – step up, sire, your throne awaits.