Most gamers have that one game that they always return to. After countless hours, they still play it tirelessly. Sometimes we’ll take breaks that could last from a few months to years, but somehow we always find our way back and pick the game up as though nothing has changed.
My game is Crusader Kings 2, a 4x grand strategy game developed by Paradox Studios in 2012. I’ve started playing it again, and it’s been bringing back all the thoughts and feelings that I have about this title. This article isn’t meant to be a full review of the game. It’s more of a personal retrospective into why I love it so much, and how I think it still stands up to more modern 4x games. Crusader Kings 2 is something special.
Over the last 5 years, Paradox has been putting out a constant stream of updates and content that turns this huge game into something truly awe-inspiring. Right off the bat, the most interesting thing about Crusader Kings 2 is that you don’t just pick your nationality or empire—you pick your individual ruler. You can absolutely choose to be a king or emperor, commanding vast armies and lording over huge amounts of land and vassals. However, you can also choose to a count or petty lord with only a single land holding, under the rule of a much larger king.
CK2 is about telling stories throughout history, from every side of history. You can play as almost anyone you’d like. If you want to take on the Crusades from the Muslim side, you can. If you want to experience what it’s like to be a Raja of India, you can. If you want to, you can do the more traditional strategy game thing, and play as an emperor trying to conquer and expand until the entire world is under your rule. But that’s not where Crusader Kings 2 shines.
The strategy in Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t come from managing your resources, and developing tech trees. Your army doesn’t have too many different things it can do. The strategy lies in the interpersonal relations between every character. Each character in the game—literally, every one of them—has their own motivations and goals that they are trying to accomplish. Your goal is to work with people, or manipulate them into working with you. You can gain favor or ire with every action you take. If you want to bolster a relationship, you need to give someone something they want, be it land, or money, or marrying off your children to create powerful dynasties.
The end goal of Crusader Kings 2 isn’t to control the most land in a time period—it’s to see how long your lineage can last. It’s a game of intrigue and grand plots to secure your position in the world while others try to plot against you. In time you grow to get a sense of personality from all the people around you; the game does an amazing job of giving life to the world you inhabit, all with very few dialogue choices.
On top of all of this you will be constantly given decisions to make. Some of these may be simple choices, while others might be prompts to greater story arcs. In addition to the ever-changing world you live in, random events will beset your ruler. These events could lead to mysterious figures showing up in your court to grant you a favor, or they could lead to misfortune and death. In CK2, death can occur at any moment. You can be thrown into wildly unpredictable situations and must react. At any time your heir could be forced upon the throne before they’re ready, and you must deal with the vassals and courtiers who distrust this new young ruler. War can easily devastate your land, killing your entire family and ending your game. A lot of players really hate this lack of control over their game, but I think it’s one of Crusader Kings 2’s most brilliant aspects.
Crusader Kings 2 is what I like to call a “See what happens” type of game. The stories you create are the real end goal. There is no win condition in this game, and a lot of 4x may not enjoy that. The things you’re working toward are what you want to do, not what the game asks of you. While other games ask you to manage your resources until you have enough to research and purchase different units, there aren’t different races or nations that you play as that have different abilities.
CK2 is about the stories that are weaved over the grand scope of history. It’s about making dear friends or bitter enemies and seeing where those relationships go. If you like the idea of a witch showing up to your court and slowly killing off your subjects, then Crusader Kings 2 is perfect game. I feel with a lot of newer 4x games there’s too big an emphasis on balance. CK2 isn’t balanced at all. There is no fairness to it. You just have to bear through the hits that life gives you, and hope you make it out on the other side.