Crusader Kings II (CK2) is a real-time grand strategy game with RPG elements. A case in point for the inability of genre-keywords to tell you anything about a game. CK2 is effectively a feudalism simulator. You play, not as a particular character, but as a dynasty. You cultivate your character, usually starting as a count with a small domain, and work your way up to the conquest of Europe. Maybe. That’s not the only way you could play it.
The game itself has a vast array of historically based characters loaded into its database. These include the counts of each county but also their courtiers, families, the Pope, their religious affiliation, etc. etc. It is massive and has a very steep learning curve. After years of trying to play the thing, I finally managed to have a game get going that I felt like I was playing, rather than the game playing me. My experience so far should make a good first attempt at the sort of analysis I want to try and make of video game experiences. See my last post for some of the theory behind this analysis.
I start well as a petty King in the south of Eire, but quickly a vassal takes a key county in revolt against me, becoming my liege, usurping my crown. My military strength is more than halved. My plans are set back years. I bide my time. I start to scheme against the usurper. I get married. Have four male sons. This is a strong start to my dynasty in a culture where only the male children can inherit titles. Meanwhile, a witch visits my court and shows me some strange rites that can lead to immortality. I work with her and take her as a concubine. If I can be immortal, I won’t need my children. My power grows.
Having forged an alliance with a powerful lord now taking control of half of Ireland (my housemate), I launch a war to retake my titles from the usurper. At the last moment, before the usurper’s army folds against the might of the army lead by my marshall and my ally, the witch comes to me in my chambers. She has one last rite to perform. The one that I have been waiting for. She will make me immortal, finally. But, it goes wrong. I die. The witch flies. Play transfers to my first lord’s first son, a four-year-old. The war collapses. The usurper keeps the titles. My dynasty is set back generations. I must bide my time.
Power truly resides now with the Bishop of my diocese, who has claimed the regency, thanks to my father’s neglect in appointing one. I, now a boy of 4 years old, try to machinate, but to no avail. If I can convince powerful and gifted men to join my council, the Bishop dismisses them all, consolidating power for himself. And yet, I grow in talent as a schemer. What my father failed to achieve using raw military power, I might accomplish through cunning. I ensure my brothers train in martial lore, however, so that they can support me in the wars to come.
I develop an ambition to become a member of my liege’s council when I come of age. Things look good, as this usurper grows to respect this child-king, son of a former enemy. But, I fall ill. What at first appears to be the bubonic plague is revealed to be cancer. The Bishop is aware of some treatments that can help. I let him take the risk on these new ideas. I recover, but I am weakened. My influence grows only as my body fails. I grow to admire the actions of my brothers and councillors by proxy. I resign myself to a secluded rule.
I finally turn sixteen. I gain the full power and authority granted by my titles. The usurper immediately sends an emissary to invite me to the council. The fool. He has taken the bait. I will now be able to wreak havoc on his plans from within. The trap is finally set! I am ready to rule! And then I die. Power transfers to my eldest brother, only nine years old. The Bishop takes control of the council again. The dynasty must build again.
CK2 forces you to confront temporality in a very unique way. You don’t play as a character but as a dynasty. You are the dynastic will, fighting the will of fate and other dynastic wills. As such, you can become very easily alienated from your current head of the house. In my case, this happened in the first generation, when he got himself killed and in the second it was his youth and finally illness. With the third generation, I’m doing okay. When he rose to power he got rid of the Bishop and took back his titles, only to be forced into vassalisation by my housemate’s character, the ally from the first war. The game isn’t finished yet, though. Who knows what will happen now.
Compare this alienated relationship to the series Sid Meier’s Civilization (Civ). In these games, you play as a legendary ruler who is, for all intents and purposes, immortal. Your avatar for the game is Queen Victoria or Caeser, except without death. Gameplay is largely about building and supporting your civilisation, competing with other civilisations to gain land, money, build world wonders, and gain political, religious, military and cultural dominance. There is no death in this game, only setbacks to your growth as a power.
As such, Civ is less of a strategy game than it is a race. Not a race between cars to get to the finish line, but a race between gods to get the finish line of enlightenment. Time behaves no differently in Civ than it does in Super Mario Kart, it’s just more boring. The classic moment where this is clear is the world wonders mechanic. You are only three turns away from completing Stonehenge, and then someone else beats you to it, and all that time and production is lost. It didn’t matter what you had planned, you have absolutely nothing to show for it because they got you first. This is no different than Koopa zooming past you with a booster pickup, half a second from when you are about to cross the finish line.
In CK2, there is no race. It is a brawl. It is a long drawn out struggle, not to get the highest score, but to reduce the power of your enemies to get through to the next match. CK2 is like playing Street Fighter II if it were written in Microsoft Excel. Like Street Fighter, failure of your aspirations to win the tournament is not your failure. It is the failure of your character. If only you’d been playing as Balrog instead of Guile, then you could have blocked that last move. If only my count didn’t have the ‘lunatic’ trait, my chancellor would be a human, and not a horse called Glitterhoof.
Comparison with Other Media
Playing as a dynasty rather than a single character immediately brings Doctor Who to mind: the entity that dies, is reborn, but with a slightly different character. But, the best comparison is thinking of the original Clash of the Titans, but from the point of view of the gods. Hera is consistently let down by the pawns in her game of chess against Zeus. When one fails, she moves onto the next one. In CK2, likewise, I have to play through what idiot I get lumped with, and may even have to try and get my count killed so that a better-skilled heir can take over.
The joy of CK2 is linked to what Heidegger calls thrownness and projection. The idea is that when I make a choice or perform any act, I just get roped up into another situation out of my control. Life is something we can never fully take mastery of. We do not choose what possibilities we get thrown into. All we can do is choose how to react to the possibilities that are given to us. I can project myself into the future, make plans and do my best to realise them, but nothing is stopping me falling flat on my face. Further, each choice I make is irrevocable and is the death of alternatives. This can be avoided in most games like CK2 by “save scumming”, but this misses a core lesson of the game: even if you were a near-immortal spirit of your dynasty, you still might not win.