Crusader Kings II cruel to be gavelkind

, | Game reviews

I’m a bit ambivalent on Crusader Kings II. Not because I don’t love it. I do. What’s more, I deeply admire what Paradox has done here. Paradox is the most ambitious and important developer of strategy games since Sid Meier.

But there’s something mildly sadistic about Crusader Kings II’s complexity and reach. Maybe even passively aggressively sadistic. I’m not saying it’s not accessible, because it is, to an extent. You can jump in and shuffle characters around to get an intricate Sims Medieval experience. Pause the game, climb around the latticework of relationships, and you’ll find a richly detailed dramatis personae. Now unpause the game and watch your own Shakespearean history unfold. There is no game quite like Crusader Kings II (the more primitive but equally ambitious Crusader Kings 1 excepted).

Getting medieval, after the jump

My problem with Crusader Kings II is that it’s an alien world with which the developers are intimately familiar and you are not. Playing the game well — in other words, digging deeper than the Sims Medieval level and really experiencing the full extent of the design, which means playing as multiple characters across hundreds of years — is something that doesn’t come easily. I say that as someone who loves the game, deeply admires it, and is even interested in the subject matter. I am the target audience and I am willing to do the work. This game should have been made for me. So why can’t I wrap my head around it?

Other Paradox games like Europa Universalis or Hearts of Iron are eventually familiar to most strategy gamers, because they use a vocabulary everyone understands. The nouns, or playing pieces, in those games are armies, provinces, technology trees, merchants, alliances, nations, government types, etc. The verbs are invasions, attacks, upgrades, colonizations, conversions, blockades, air strikes, etc. Everyone who’s played Civilization knows these things. Paradox’s games are certainly more complicated than Civilization, but the basic vocabulary is the same, even in a game as subversive as Victoria.

But the vocabulary in Crusader Kings II comes from a complicated dead language. The pieces here are the trappings of feudal society, which is as alien to the average gamer as the Kilrathi or Psilons. The basic vocabulary is marriage, inheritance, levies, and claims, which sounds pretty straightforward until you’re trying to untangle them beyond moment-to-moment reactions and use them to play the game. What’s the difference between a demesne and a realm? A family and a dynasty? A title and a claim? A county and a holding? A courtier and a vassal? A marriage and a betrothal? Crusader Kings II all too often assumes you know these things, as well as the ramifications lurking behind them. And you should know these things if you want to play effectively. But even then, Crusader Kings II will often surprise, confuse, or outright confound you. This is a game about delegating authority, about the limits of power, about the art of medieval middle management, and it’s more than happy to let the chips fall where they may when you invariably manage blind. Until the word “gavelkind” rolls off your tongue as easily as modern words like “alimony”, “daycare”, or “two mommies”, the art of Crusader Kings II will sometimes seem random, dissonant, and maybe a little cruel. There’s something almost masochistic about enduring Crusader Kings II’s byzantine learning curves.

Is this a fair criticism, though? Is it my fault for not understanding the particulars of this historical period? Or is it Paradox’s fault for assuming I can eventually figure them out? Should we share blame? Should I give Crusader Kings II a glowing review because I wish I could play it more effectively? Or should I review it based on the intersection of my deep admiration and frequent confusion? Or should I keep watching Let’s Play videos and reading forum posts until something clicks?

Whatever the case, I wish Paradox understood better what a challenge Crusader Kings presents for them and us. They’ve gotten considerably better with documentation and interfaces over the years, but that’s not enough in this case. Crusader Kings II ships with a broken and borderline useless tutorial. The manual tells you how to do things without bothering to explain why you might want to do them, which is a huge step backwards from the latest manuals for their other games. And although this is one of Paradox’s best interfaces yet, it’s easily overwhelmed by the labyrinth of relationships and titles. Where was I? What was I looking for? It’s sometimes like wandering into a room and forgetting why you came in here. Then your character dies and the game is over because your titles didn’t pass over to your heir like you thought they would.

Paradox’s games are like surfing a wave of data. At first, it can be overwhelming as the numbers wash over and past you, leaving you sputtering and dazed. But as you gradually get your feet under you, you’ll hurtle forward for a while. Eventually, you’re riding that wave of numbers for centuries at a time and it’s thrilling. Yes, thrilling. I play shooters and RTSs and I’m using the world thrilling to describe Paradox’s often spreadsheety games. I’ll do it again. Thrilling! That’s still the case in Crusader Kings II, but the waves have a completely different shape, as if you were trying to surf with all new laws of gravity, buoyancy, and fluid dynamics. And while I’m willing to get back on the board and keep trying, I wish I didn’t wipe out so much.

Because if there’s one thing more frustrating than a cruelly inscrutable game, it’s a cruelly inscrutable brilliant game that I really want to play.

3 stars