Crusader Kings II

Crusader Kings, everyone’s favorite medieval dating, plague, and war simulator, is coming to the tabletop. This past weekend at PDXCon in Stockholm, as Paradox announced their suite of licensed board games, I had a chance to sit down with a few of the game’s designers from Free League publishing and play some rounds of Crusader Kings. It’s a narrative-focused strategic game that stays very close to the roots of the franchise as, in the publisher’s own words, a “medieval strategy soap opera.” Tomas Härenstram, leader of the game’s design team at Free League, used to work on the Crusader Kings team at Paradox and emphasized his love for the game. The design process for the game started last year with a wide range of designs and culminated this year in the current Kickstarter.

If you’re not familiar with reading previews of board games, know that mechanics can change significantly between a preview and a game’s publish date. Though Crusader Kings was in a very finished state small details were still up in the air, as were some major things like precisely how many victory points were awarded for various game goals.

Each player takes on the role of a dynasty ruling large swathes of the medieval world. Norman British, German, French, Italian, and Spanish dynasties were all in the game, though which appeared was based on player count and scenario chosen. To win, players conquer territory from each other, expand their family line, build their kingdom, and send family members on crusades. The most interesting mechanic in the game is definitely its resolution system—used for everything from military conquest to wooing spouses. It’s based on your family’s overall behavioral traits, something very familiar to players of the PC game. 

Every character that pops up in the game is given a random trait. Either positive or negative, these are things like Cruel, Pious, Kind, or Lustful. As rulers lead their lives or come into power, these traits are added to a bag, and when you need to resolve something traits are drawn from the bag. A positive trait is a success, negative a failure. Some traits are critical to a task and give you benefits if drawn—Cruel is a negative trait, but when drawn in war or crusading, it’s a success. This means that like in the video game, constructing your dynasty out of the most ideal members is key to success. A few too many imbeciles on the throne means you’re saddled with bad odds of success for the whole game, but marrying them to Clever and Strong spouses will balance the bad blood out. Of course, money solves lots of problems, and money could always be spent to get extra draws from the bag. 

Like the video game, much of Crusader Kings was about diplomacy, bartering, and alliances. Nearly anything in the game was up for trade, so you could easily do something like trade your court doctor to another ruler for a favorable marriage or pay a rival to assassinate your Imbecile child and prevent him from inheriting the throne. That said, there were key limits on diplomacy. You have to have a casus belli to declare war against other players, and once started a war is hard to stop. Marrying your children into other dynasties also gave you a pact with them, meaning you could support each other in wars against a third party.

Each generation of the game you draw a number of cards, each corresponding to an action type like Crusade, Tax, Build, Plot, or Levy. Those cards are then played, two at a time, in a series of rounds. Each action type lets you do a few things within a specific framework—Levy cards, for example, let you either raise new troops or direct existing troops in attacks. Cards also have an event on them, something like a plague in your lands or a child for your opponent’s dynasty. Picking your action for the turn is as much about your own strategy as trying to avoid bad events or not hand advantages to your opponents.

It s very much the kind of story engine that fans of Crusader Kings on PC will enjoy.

Much of the game is tied up in these events, and what strategies you have available is often up to events played by your opponent over which you have no control. Children, for example, come entirely from these cards. This is very much the way in which Crusader Kings is not a traditional area control wargame—those who want a symmetrically balance tactical experience might not enjoy the heavily narrative way that these events skew the game. 

That said, it’s very much the kind of story engine that fans of Crusader Kings on PC will enjoy. In just a handful of plays of the game I’d seen the kinds of stories that you play dozens of hours of the PC game for. I saw a king of England assassinated and married off three awful daughters to make room for a useful heir in my crowded house. Another player repeatedly sent off his Imbecile son to die in the crusades, only to see the son flourish and succeed time and time again. 

Overall, Crusader Kings felt like a game that was true to the PC legacy while shedding the more onerous simulation of a grand strategy experience for a sleeker form. Unlike similar tabletop games such as Fief or Warlords of Europe, it’s more about a strong narrative and less about chucking handfuls of dice. Crusader Kings is on Kickstarter now from Free League publishing. It’s due to ship to backers in late 2018 before a broader retail release in early 2019. 

Crusader Kings II

Crusader Kings 2 is to this day one of Paradox's most popular grand strategy games. Since launch in 2012 it has received 24 paid DLC packs with a variety of expansions, unit bundles and customisation features. If you buy all of them alongside the CK2 base game, it costs over $300 in total.

At PDXCon 2018, I suggest to incoming CEO Ebba Ljungerud and business development VP Shams Jorjani that the developer's long-term DLC model has scope to overwhelm new players.  

"We want to make really great games for the customer, and that's the outlook," explains Ljungerud. "We're not going to be able to do that if we can't charge something for the development of the games. That's the base of it. You can then discuss margins and this and that, but if we don't make money we're not going to make the game. That's where we're coming from. For us, it's not so strange that we actually charge people for content and better improvements of the game. 

"With Crusader Kings 2, you could say, yeah, it's a lot of money over the years—but it's also a game with a lot of hours and a lot of gameplay within it. So, I can't say that I think it's wrong for charging for the development of the games."

Jorjani interjects: "I argue: go out and find any other game that can offer you this many hours of gameplay at the base cost and never [require] any more DLC. If you're not a religious Paradox player and you've never encountered our games, and just buy vanilla, I think we're in the top one percent in the industry, in terms of value that we provide back. Green Man Gaming now puts in a value that tells you the amount of hours and money spent. There was a big discussion [on social media] about how terrible this is. But I love it!"On the other hand, we're pretty… not bad, but there's room for improvement in how we present our DLC. We have to deal with the issue of people being conditioned by other games and how the industry works. The conditioning is: if you don't get all the content, the thing is broken, you're missing out on something. Which is not true in our games."

Jorjani says Paradox must better present the surplus post-launch expansions its games offer, so as to avoid inundating players with DLC. Jorjani adds that it's easy to deride "fucking more DLC" in 280 characters, than it is to have sensible conversations about what you like and dislike—and that the premium business model is nevertheless shrinking. Conversely, free-to-play practices are growing.   

"If I'd gone to Henrik [Fåhraeus] and said in 2018 we're going to have $300-worth of DLC, he would've smacked me across the face," Jorjani adds. "So, today I can walk in and have $30,000-worth of content to sell in six years and people don't smack me. Because if we look at what's going on in the industry as a whole, the premium business model is shrinking. That part of the industry is shrinking. That doesn't mean you can't thrive and grow, but as a whole, our focus as a company is growing. What's growing is free-to-play. 

"Our games perhaps don't transfer over that well over to free-to-play. So, the interesting [question] is: what is the convergence point that we see in hybrid models, where there is a premium starting price point, but there are other ways to charge for content without upsetting everyone? That's the real challenge for us in the next five to ten years—and how we present that." 

Crusader Kings II

"God or the Sword?" asks Crusader Kings 2's latest DLC. Named Holy Fury, it's one of the medieval grand strategy 'em up's most sophisticated expansions—this time drawing inspiration from the Northern Crusaders of Catholic Europe against their Pagan neighbours. 

"In Holy Fury, Pagan rulers who reform their religion instead of converting will have a chance to design that new Reformed Paganism," explains Paradox—who unveiled Holy Fury on stage at PDXCON 2018 today. "A religion of peace or one of war? Will you be guided by the stars or bow to the whims of bloodthirsty gods? Who will lead this new church? Build a new creed on the ashes of the old ways."

Here's an announcement trailer:

And while it may not be immediately clear there, Holy Fury promises Pagan 'warrior lodges' that let players raid their way up the ranks, unlocking powerful allies as they go. It lets players leverage Legendary Bloodlines to their advantage; and allows Pias Catholics to become canonised, in turn passing their glory onto their descendants. Moreover, new succession laws alter how realms are unified. 

Crusader Kings 2: Holy Fury is due later this year, and asks for a $19.99 donation for its collection basket. Like all CK2 expansions, the DLC will land alongside a comprehensive free update available for all players. More information is expected in the coming weeks.  

Crusader Kings II

The greatest hybrid of strategy and roleplaying games ever developed for me, Crusader Kings 2 is a juggernaut of the last decade of PC gaming. It allows players to step into the shoes of a broad range of medieval characters across several continents while wooing, marrying, assassinating, and warring their way to kingships, empires, and—inevitably—grave misfortunes. After six years of iterative development, its panoply of expansions and content packs make it a treasure trove of medievalist miseries. 

Though people enjoy CK2 for many different reasons, there are common threads of enjoyment found across its broad spectrum of players. People like to shepherd their family of nobles, grow attached to the best of them, and tell the tales of how they met their end. People like to develop their little corner of Europe, build up an army, and ensure the prosperity of their realm. And people love to hate the other families of nobility that surround them—whether it's the kings of the rival kingdom or the other baron just across the river. It's the random surprises, the unforeseen events, and the secret plotting that make CK2 such a thrill ride of a game. An inconvenient death to plague can set your plans back generations—but that’s part of the fun.

There’s a board game that scratches all the same itches. It was made in the late '80s as Fief, and restored recently by Academy Games and Asyncron as Fief: France 1429. It’s a wargame with strategic economic elements and extensive diplomatic negotiation, but what makes it special is its deep reliance on individual characters to accomplish anything in the game.

Fief plants players into some of the great, last gasps of internecine strife in the burgeoning state of France. As the Hundred Years’ War forges the very concept of nationhood in western Europe, you take on the role of a family line of French nobles trying to consolidate power and dominate their country. Conquer baronies and ducal titles for your family, build support in the church by appointing your relatives to bishoprics, and perhaps even claim titles like King or Pope!

Fief is a highly diplomatic game where players are in near-constant communication with those neighboring them. The movement of armies is crucial, with troops mustered on the borders a constant threat to peace and economic security. You’re either reassuring or threatening in turns, telling others you’re securing your interests by amassing forces at one moment and threatening to invade the other. 

Targets of opportunity constantly present themselves, forcing mercenary allegiance over strict friendships—sure, you’ve been peaceful with your neighbor the whole game, but why not take advantage of a far-off war to burn down some mills and cripple their economy? Like in Crusader Kings, true alliances can only be bought via marriages yoking two dynasties together, but also increasing their requirements for victory. Plus, a bad plague, death in combat, or assassination can mean the end of an alliance with a heartbeat if one spouse dies.

Which can, and will, happen. Armies can only move if nobles lead them, which means that you’ll have to risk those carefully accumulated titles and offices in defense of your realm or in pursuit of a larger one. Lords can die in combat or be captured, forcing you to re-evaluate carefully chosen plans. The game is mostly driven by a deck of event cards, surprising you with events like heavy weather forcing armies to a standstill, good harvests increasing tax incomes, or the aforementioned outbreaks of plague. It’s the kind of random chance that makes Crusader Kings 2 so enjoyable, and it’s just as good in Fief.

Fief isn’t perfect. It’s very much a 1980s wargame, imperfectly balanced and reliant on simulationist rules rooted in historical fact. A diplomacy-heavy game means you really balance it yourself. You have to know that if one player gets a series of good tax seasons then other players will have to gang up on the now-wealthy juggernaut. It’s also strongest with a larger player group—the game’s minimum is three players, but it really shines with five or six.

Much like CK2, I’m also going to recommend some of Fief: France 1429’s expansions. Politics adds a layer of personality to your characters, giving them positive and negative traits, as well as hangers-on and courtiers. Tactics adds several more kinds of troops that increase the game’s strategic depth to levels more on par with other tabletop wargames, like Archers, Bombards, and hireable Mercenaries. 

Exciting to me, of course, is that a new edition of the board game from Asyncron looks to be in the offing for later this year, with an altered map encompassing all of France rather than a limited region. It’ll likely make its way to America, so those with limited board game budgets might want to wait for that release before jumping onto the Fief wagon. Others might want to snap both up, if only so they can have more than one map to play on.

Crusader Kings II

Crusader Kings 2 is a medieval grand strategy game that has players vying to establish and expand their kingdoms across multiple generations during a time of great political and military strife. Those who like it, like it a lot, but it's not the most accessible thing ever, which has likely kept quite a number of more casual strategy fans away from it. But for the next 48 hours it's free on Steam, and if you grab it during the giveaway it's yours to keep forever. 

To get it, just click the "Install Game" button, which will register CK2 to your account and begin the install. (The download is about 1 GB, but you can opt to abort the install if you don't want to dive into it right away.) While you're there, you might also take note of the plethora of DLC that's available, all of which is currently on sale for half price except for Jade Dragon, the most recent of the bunch, which brings China to the fight and is 33 percent off. 

Crusader Kings 2 is excellent—we gave it an 87/100 review in 2012 (it's been around that long)—and has also demonstrated remarkable staying power: We shared a rundown of the best CK2 expansions just a couple of weeks ago. And if that (and the fact that it's free) doesn't convince you, consider this:

The Crusader Kings 2 giveaway will end at 10 am PT/1 pm ET on April 7.

PC Gamer
Game of Thrones mod

Have you tried the Game of Thrones mod for Crusader Kings 2? You should; it's very good inspiring whole tales of intrigue, treachery and incompetence. The mod has this week updated to v0.8, further bolstering an already perfectly playable total conversion with a full Night's Watch overhaul and White Walker rework.

Here are the basic features added in v0.8. You can find a full changelist over at the mod's forum, but be warned: they may contain nuts spoilers.

Many White Walkers improvements/fixes
Night's watch revamp
Titular kingdoms for Essos
Essos flavour
Dynamic Golden Company invasions
A new 'Prison Break' event series
Reduced Jon Snow's learning attribute to nothing

Okay, fine, I made that last one up.

Download CK2: Game of Thrones here.
PC Gamer

Paradox has announced that Crusader Kings 2 their soap opera grand strategy of medieval war, politics and intrigue has sold over a million copies. It's always nice to see a PC exclusive hit the landmark, and in this case it's particularly notable. CK2 isn't an exciting military simulation, procedural multiplayer sandbox or tense psychological playground. It's a complex game about a map, a big list of people, and a working knowledge of the feudal system.

Perhaps more surprising is the other statistic released by Paradox: the game has an average playtime of just over 99 hours. That, when you consider all the people who still have it buried away in their pile of shame, amounts to a lot of people who must have played considerably more.

It must help that Crusader Kings 2 is still being updated both with wide-ranging patches and new DLC packs. Up next is the game's seventh expansion, Charlemagne. It introduces a new, earlier start date and a story series centred around Charlemagne and The Holy Roman Empire.

If you want to see what makes the game so good, you should check out Rich's diary, detailing his exploits in CK2's Game of Thrones mod.
PC Gamer
CKII: After the End mod

Crusader Kings II is the perfect game for creating alternate history, and full conversion mods (like those for Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones) are great for creating alternate fictional history. Are you ready for some alternate future history? After the End is a mod for CKII set in North America in the year 2666, after an unspecified cataclysmic event has shattered the planet and humankind is desperately trying to pick up the pieces, regain control, and understand its own murky past.

Behold New England, Crusader Kings-ified!

After the End is still very early on in its development, but there's already lot to be excited about. While the western two-thirds of the map have yet to be populated, the east coast of North America, as far north as Canada and as far south as Cuba, is playable. The "Event", whatever it was, clearly wiped out most of the population and destroyed a great deal of human knowledge and written history. The world is essentially back in medieval times, and while some ideas, borders, cultures, traditions, and religions survive, they're distorted and half-remembered through the dark lens of the cataclysm.

Even after the apocalypse, Disney owns a lot.

Take Florida, for example. Much of it is dominated by Tribe of the Mouse, which makes a lot of sense: people wandering around in the post-apocalypse of Orlando with little knowledge of history couldn't be blamed for thinking Mickey was some sort of mighty king (he did have a huge castle) or religious figure to be worshiped.

Just don't hire the Chicago Cubs. They'll never win.

In the game I played, I had to hire mercenaries at one point, and found, fittingly, that they were named after sports teams and other ancient organizations. It makes sense peering back through time with only fragments of evidence, future generations might assume that the Philadelphia Eagles or the Buckeyes of Ohio were mighty warriors, revered and celebrated for their combat prowess and who clashed in massive, now-decaying stadiums. Poking around some of the characters in the game can yield a few fun surprises as well.

Thom and Martha of Wayne. Thomas and Martha Wayne. Hm. Sounds familiar.

Religions and cultures, naturally, have held on or sprung up, many based on whatever traditions survived the Event. You'll still find pockets of Catholicism and Protestantism, some Lovecraft-style Occultists and Pagans, a huge swath of Evangelicals in the south, naturally, and there are some heretical groups as well. There are Americanist groups, who worship the founding fathers, and a cult called the Consumerists, who treat materialism as a religion (The Almighty Dollar is their actual deity) and are convinced the world fell apart because people didn't worship money enough. We certainly don't seem to be in any danger of that at the present.

History is written by the spenders.

Just because the game takes place in North America doesn't mean there isn't an entire world out there, slowly rebuilding, expanding, and threatening to impose itself on your game. The British will get themselves together and do what they used to do best: invade and take over as much of the world as possible, so you can expect the return of the Redcoats at some point. There are also plans to add other invading hordes in the future, possibly from the remnants of Russia, China, or South America.

The Brits are a little confused, but they're back to their roots.

In terms of technology, it's just as you'd expect: there's a lot of remnants of the old world (our world) left lying around, though it's not fully understood. Future plans for the mod include adding exploration activities into old army bases, subway systems, and other forgotten tech-troves as the rising civilizations attempt to reverse engineer the secrets it once knew and use them to their advantage.

Get rid of New Yorker traders? Shoulda done it long ago.

It's especially great to see a CK II mod set in North America, and it's been fun to play on my home turf (I grew up in New York). In my game I fought desperate wars over Hudson Valley, Albany, Woodstock, and one especially bloody and extended battle in Poughkeepsie. I even fabricated a claim on Long Island, where I was actually born, and marched my troops in to conquer it. In keeping with the theme of remaining reverent to the past without entirely understanding it, I named my three children Pepsi, iPhone, and DotA, figuring there would surely be some puzzling artifacts demonstrating that these things were treasured in the long-ago.

Shoulda named her Mountain Dew. She'd have been more X-TREME

I look forward to watching this mod develop: it's packed full of interesting ideas. The modders drew some inspiration from post-apocalyptic science fiction novel The Canticle for Leibowitz (which was also an influence on the Fallout games), and they've begun to paint an interesting portrait of a shattered world trying to forge ahead while struggling to understand its own past.

Installation: The mod isn't on Steam Workshop yet, though I'm told it will be soon. In the meantime you can grab it from this Mediafire link. Once you've got it, unzip the contents to My Documents/Paradox Interactive/Crusader Kings II/mod. Then, in the game launcher, just tick the box for the mod.
PC Gamer

Last night, Paradox took to a Gamescom stage to talk about their existing and future titles. During the conference, they announced Europa Universalis 4's third expansion, and Crusader Kings 2's, I dunno, sixty-ninth expansion? Something like that, anyway. EU4: Art of War will focus on the 30 Years War, and improve naval combat and army control. CK2: Charlemagne will introduce a new 769AD start date, and chart the rise of Charlemagne and The Holy Roman Empire.

Here's the trailer for Charlemagne:

And the seventh expansion's feature list:

New Earlier bookmark, 769, almost 100 more years of Crusader Kings II
Special story event series for Charlemagne
Annual Chronicle in the style of the Saxon chronicle
Custom Kingdoms and Empires, create a new title from a lower-tier title, can customize flag and name
Dozens of new cultures
Brand new system for climate and seasonal transitions
Regency overhaul

And now for Art of War:

Features? Yup:

30 years War: Unique mechanics and events for the religious conflict that ravaged Europe.
Napoleonic Era: Fight for or against the revolution and create entirely new custom client countries on the map from your conquests.
Fighting on land or at sea: You can now sortie from sieges, transfer occupation to allies and give objectives to your subjects and allies. Entire Fleets can now be upgraded with one click, you can now mothball fleets to avoid paying maintenance, and your fleets can be set to automatically transport armies.
Marches: Turn your vessals into bulwarks against your enemies, getting less tax but strengthening their defences.
Improved Diplomacy: Sell Surplus Ships, Fight for your subjects CB, Declare War in Support of Rebel factions in other countries and new peace options.
Gameplay Enhancements: Build entire armies in one click and abandon cores that you no longer wish to support.
Free Features for the accompanying patch: Completely new rebel mechanic, local autonomy on province level, new cardinal system for Catholics, new reformation mechanics and a new look map.

At this point, you're probably all, "so when will this stuff be released?" The answer, uninformatively, is "the near future".
PC Gamer

Excited for The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, but can't bear to wait until next February to get some fresh Witcher action? The Witcher Kings mod for Crusader Kings 2 might tide you over in the meantime. This full conversion mod (still being developed) transforms medieval Europe into the Witcher's world. Go to war with Nilfgaard (or rule them), employ sorcerers and witchers in your court, and send your children to magic academies in hopes of developing their arcane talents. Or, like I did, become moderately obsessed with the idea of becoming besties with Geralt himself.
The mod is set around the time of the events that take place in Witcher 2, which we all know are... um... okay, to be perfectly honest, I have not played any of the Witcher series. So, I'm probably not the best person to say how accurate, or faithful to the fiction, this mod is. As far as I can tell, though, it's been made by real fans of both the games and the book series, and to my uninformed eyes, they seem to know their business. They've even gone so far as to note, in every single character's traits, whether they're a legit canon character from the Witcher fiction or just a game-generated NPC.

Right off the bat, there's some lovely new portrait work, with some of The Witcher's non-human races, like dwarves, elves, and dryads being skillfully represented. Even Geralt looks pretty accurate, right down to the vertical scar across the eye that 86% of video game heroes have etched into their faces at the Badass Academy graduation ceremony.

Don't I know you from somewhere?
Naturally, my first order of business in the mod is to find Geralt and make sure we become bestest buddies. As fate would have it, I've chosen to play as King Foltest of Temeria, and there, just chilling in my court, is Geralt himself. Well, that was easy! Geralt has a decent opinion of me, but not a great one, so I send him a gift of some gold, award him an honorary title, and just as insurance, have my court magician the mod gives you one as a council member cast a charm spell on him.

Even not knowing this world, how can I not get excited about a map like this? I love CK2 mods.
In the mod, there are sorcerers, witches, and druids, and each has magical abilities available to you if they're on your roster. Sorcerers can heal you, charm others (as I did to Geralt), and aid you with stat boosts during battles and sieges. Witches can heal but also curse, which I didn't witness in game but I assume applies penalties to some of your stats. Druids can heal, but in ways a bit more spiritual than physical: their spells lift the burden of stressed and depressed traits. Using spells drains the health of the spell-caster and prevents them from casting further spells for several months.

Ain't much to look at, but the tuition is way cheaper than Hogwarts.
Magic isn't just for adults! Every child born has a chance to posses some magical traits, and these chances are improved by magic already running in the family (so marry a magic-user, if possible). To help bring these talents out, you can send your kid to a magic academy for tutoring, though they'll have to remain there, essentially disinherited, until they fully graduate: no running off half-baked like Luke Skywalker. These magic towers, by the way, dot the map as special counties. They don't serve as a tax base but come with some custom building options, and must be run by a sorcerer.

Nilfgaard! My ancient enemy I've just become aware of!

As far as my own game goes, being besties with Geralt is problematic. He's nice enough to go fight some hellhounds that are running rampant around my country (though he gripes that he "got hurt" doing so), but shortly after leaves my court to go work in Maribor, a sizable city to the south of Wyzima. I invite him back, and he accepts, but is shortly off again, this time to Dorndal. Again, I invite him back, but he soon splits to Loc Muinne.

It eventually dawns on me that, oh, right, he's somewhat of an adventurer, crisscrossing the world for various reasons, which is presumably why his games are so beloved. Who would be interested in him if he just bummed around one county his whole life? Eventually I just have three children and name them Geralt, Geralt Jr., and Geralt Again in hopes they turn out as cool as the real dude.

Do you think he'll be flattered? Or creeped out?

As with just about every full conversion mod I've played for Crusader Kings 2, this one is enjoyable, stable, and well put together. Again, I'm not the best to judge if they've done a good job bringing all the lore and flavor of The Witcher faithfully into CK2, so I'd love to hear thoughts from any tried and true Witcher fans who have played the mod.

Installation: Download it here. Extract it to your CK2 mod directory (even if you have a Steam copy, it'll be in My Documents > Paradox Interactive > Crusader Kings 2 > mod). Start up CK2, and check the box that says Witcher Kings.

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