Who should I beat up? Who should I butter up? What should I research? What should I build? For the last quarter-century historical strategy games have been encouraging us to ask the same questions. They're great questions –the foundations of many fine games – but after a week or two in the company of Paradox's latest past prober, they do seem a trifle trite.
During my last Crusader Kings 2 session, the dilemmas I faced included... Should I blackmail an enemy noble I know to be gay? Should I reprimand my daughter for torturing rats? Should I entrust my son's education to a lovely schizophrenic Ethiopian lady? Should I lock-up my mum for plotting to kill my half-brother?
None of these situations were scripted. They all sprung spontaneously from an astoundingly rich and yeasty depiction of medieval Europe. Utilising the turn-spurning Clausewitz engine last seen in Sengoku, CK2 dares to model the feudal system in all its backstabbing, nepotistic glory.
The realm labels that festoon the map hide power hierarchies populated by hundreds of historically based and randomly generated characters. Every one of these characters is out to realise their own ambitions and further their own family interests. To join the soap opera you simply pick a Christian bigwig (playable pagans should arrive via an expansion pack) and a starting date anywhere between 1066 and 1337.
Which throne you occupy and where and when you start, makes a world of difference. A Byzantine emperor in 1070 can expect to find his dreams haunted by vassal politics and Holy Wars. A lowly English Earl in 1180, is likely to have social climbing, maybe even regicide, high on his 'To Do' list.
The most prestigious roles are probably best avoided at the start. Though the tooltips are plentiful and the tutorials do a decent enough job of broaching the basics, this is one of those games that only really clicks on your third or fourth playthrough. Until you get your head around unconventional subtleties such as plotting, matchmaking and title distribution, CK2 is merely an irresistible oddity. It takes a few evenings of experimentation, plus the odd factfinding forum trip, to nudge it firmly into 'This is the best strategy game I've played in yonks' territory.
Just as Richard I didn't glance at a globe every morning and think “I only need to capture another four French counties to win!” CK2 never cramps your creativity with crude victory conditions. Because games span centuries, and final scores are the sum of the prestige totals of successive rulers, you're too busy ensuring your realm doesn't disintegrate on your death, or your reputation in a rash war, to worry about ludological laurel wreaths.
A shame those wars don't have anywhere near the subtlety of the social shenanigans. Though there are more troop types than in Sengoku, battles still tend to boil down to 'biggest army triumphs'. Hardened wargamers will snort on realising that hired mercenraies appear instantly, and opposing forces can't occupy the same province – however large – without coming to blows. Cavalry chevauchées a la the Black Prince are nigh-on impossible.
Military-minded modders may well address issues like these as well as other minor flaws, like the willingness and ability of Saracen Jihadists to strike at the western extremities of Christendom. Even if they don't, I can see myself enjoying the company of CK2 and its incomparable cast of bed-hopping, sibling-slaughtering, rodentmutiliating characters, for months - maybe years – to come