Crusader Kings II: The Necessary Evils of Medieval Politics

Crusader Kings II

Transcending time and reality, video games as a medium provide an utterly unique glimpse of life in historical periods and other worlds, while calling upon our unique knowledge and experiences to invoke our alter egos. But sometimes in doing so, they manage to arouse, indulge, and even encouragesome of our darkest impulses.Suchis so inCrusader Kings II(CKII),a medieval grand strategy game wherein the player guides a family of nobility through the trials and tribulations of the Dark Ages. In doing so, one quickly learns the intense dangers of the world they inhabit: war, famine, disease, intrigue, rebellion, chaos and death are the rules rather than the exceptions. Survival hinges on one using every lever of power available to them, exploiting every weakness, and eschewing every moral boundary that would hold you back. In the chaotic world of the Dark Ages,CKII urges you towards whatever is necessary to cling onto the relative safety of the throne, and in doing so, highlights how ignoble nobility truly was.

Baby Steps in the Shadows

The core gameplay element ofCKIIconsists of you – the head of a medieval noble house – expanding the power and influence of your family across the world. ‘Why do I want to?’ you may ask. The answer is brutally simple: if you don’t, others will! There are literallyhundredsof other families in the world vying for the same thing, so it’s only a matter of time before the fragmented lands of the 8thcentury start to form large kingdoms; you’d do well to be one of them. Otherwise, you will wind up a vassal of one such kingdom; forced to abide by their laws and decrees under the threat of having your lands, freedom, and/or head taken from you.

Crusader Kings II
Work like this is what a player will typically use to begin forging their empire in Crusader Kings II.

With that goal in mind, the first goal one typically works towards in a new game is to subjugate their neighbor. One needs a claim on the land to do this. There do exist legally permissible ways of acquiring one: you could marry into the ruling family with the hopes of them having a child of your dynasty with a claim on the land, you could have the head of your faith sanction a claim upon them, and the like. But by far the easiest, quickest, and most common method of getting a claim is to send your chancellor – your realm’s head diplomat – to fabricate one via “bribing, cajoling, extorting, threatening, and forging documents…” 1. To do so is as easy as clicking a few buttons, and despite its fabricated nature, the claim is just as good as any other. The ease of this action makes it the go-to option for early expansion; to forgo this method would be a severe handicap upon the player. In making this illegal, clandestine option the most accessible and rapid, the game is implicitly encouraging players to utilize it over other methods which may take longer, have more prerequisites, and may not even work in the end due to unforeseen events. It is at this moment in time, when one realizes how easy it can be to grasp for greater power, that the game starts to encourage the amoral side of its players.

Speak Softly and Carry a Small Dagger

Whilst your realm begins to take shape, you will sooner or later be forced to contend with troublesome individuals who in some way threaten your rule. These can take the form of powerful vassals who are discontent with you, foreigners who hold a claim to your throne, invasive neighbors, marauding adventurers, and the like. In all cases, there exist several options for one to contain the situation at hand. But perhaps the most straightforward method is to simply arrange an “accident” for the troublemaker in the form of a Plot. An Assassination Plot involves several individuals working in tandem to kill off a common rival of theirs. Successfully assassinating a character without being caught can instantly end several problems; a rowdy vassal may be replaced with a more content one, a troublesome contender can be put down forever, a war can be ended in a single day.

Crusader Kings II
Notice the small knife icon to the top left of the textbox. This is the button to plot an end to another’s life…

The benefits are aplenty, and the game does not shy away from this fact; indeed, it againimplicitlyencourages said behavior by making these actions especially accessible. It is possible to target almost anyone with an Assassination Plotfor any reason you wish, whereas other options may have prerequisites to enact or may simply beunavailableif the threat is a distant one. The ‘Arrange Plot’ button is also shown right on the character screen, the first window you see when selecting someone, while other diplomatic options are hidden in menus several clicks away. To top it all off, a failure to kill the target doesn’t necessarily entail a complete loss; the plotters will simply try again. Even if you are outed as a conspirator, the consequencesvary wildly depending on the circumstances.You may very well lose your head or end up in a brig, but sometimes you’ll just get a firm finger-waggling, or an order to stop by your liege lord. You may even get away with it entirely, as those responsible for reprimanding you may be otherwise busy with their own affairs. If you happen to be the lord of your own independent realm, you oftentimes sufferno consequencesat all, since foreign threats may not be in a position to challenge you and domestic ones can’t really complain to authorities that work for you!

The Promised Land of Gold

Crusader Kings II

The implicit endorsement of amoral behavior and thought inCKIIis so thorough, it even manages to rear its head in the game’s titular feature: Crusades, Jihads, and Great Holy Wars. These massive events trigger on a regular basis every few decades, pitting entire faiths against one another in what quickly become the largest conflicts of any given game. Only the head of a given faith – the Catholic Pope, the Caliph of Islam, theKohenGadolof Judaism,etc. – may declare these wars, calling upon all their faithful to fight in the name ofGod! Butoften times,this motive hits a set of familiar snags: these wars aretypicallyfought over hotly contested regions that – depending on your location – may be thousands of miles away, involve tens of thousands of soldiers, and can drag on for years without end.

With this in mind, ‘fight in the name of God!’ may not be a strong incentive for the player, who must still contend with threats much closer to home. In fact, there once was a time wherein it was more advantageousnotto embark on Crusades,as this made it easier to assail rivals who did decide to participate; now helpless with theirtroopsmonths away from home. This recently became apparent to the game’s developers – Paradox Interactive – who then decided to patch in a baser, yet much more powerful alternative motive: ‘fight for theriches’.

Crusader Kings II
The top left value under “War Chest” indicates the total gold accrued by the attacking side. It represents an immense fortune; one that could set a family up for generations.

As of the most recent version of the game, Crusades and their equivalents feature amassivecache of resources assembled some years before the war begins. If the Crusade is won, that cache is distributed to the victorson the basis ofparticipation in the war. If the Crusade is lost,allof it is wasted. Thus, the player is incentivized to fight for victory as hard as they can, not in the name of God, but for the chance at a treasure trove that could set their family above all others for several generations. You also face little retribution for hostile actions against religious enemies during Crusades; letting your soldiers rob merchants of their wares is usually considered atrocious, but it is forgiven when on a Crusade against that merchant’s faith. All these factors compound to make these ‘holy wars’ holy in name and name alone, as the real motives of such are typically far from holy and firmly rooted in personal gain.

The Demons Wear the Crowns

Withall this being said, letus take a moment to consider what history has said of kings:

The state of monarchy is thesupremestthing upon earth, for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself they are called gods… In the Scriptures, kings are called gods, and so their power, after a certain relation, compared to the Divine power. Kings are also compared to fathers of families; for a king is trulyparenspatriae [parent of the country], the politic father of his people. And lastly, kings are compared to the head of this microcosm of the body of man…

– James I of England 2
Crusader Kings II

I am born in a rank which recognizes no superior but God, to whom alone I am responsible for my actions; but they are so pure and honorable that I voluntarily and cheerfully render an account of them to the whole world.

Richard I of England 3

Such lofty language is indeed consistent with the theory of the divine right of kings, which declares that a king is chosen by God or may even be divine himself. As being such, he is validated at the highest level as being ‘pure’, ‘honorable’, and ‘the politic father of his people’. He is the beacon of light on Earth that all men should aspire to be. Never has this theory met a mangling more savage than the one given to it byCKII. This game utterly shatters the notion that a king – or any aristocrat for that matter – is inherently righteous, honorable, or good. To be a noble in this game means to forsake whatever notions of morality you have in a day-to-day battle for survival. Murder, bribery, blackmail, theft, warmongering, and more are what define a medieval ruler’s reign. The pretense to nobility is exactly that; a pretense and nothing more.CKIIillustrates this by taking its players and dropping them headfirst into the hellish quagmire of the Dark Ages and asks them to tame it the best way they see fit. But what it stays silent on is that thebestways are almost always thebadones, and in doing so, itdemonstrates tous what it really meant to sit upon a throne with a goldencrown rested on your brow. 4

Works Cited

  1. Crusader Kings II, 3.3.0(XDS W), PC, 2012 (original release), Paradox Interactive
  2. Prothero, G.W. “James I.” Then Again, 2005,
  3. Duncan, Jonathan. “The Dukes of Normandy, from the Times of Rolls to the Expulsion of King John.” The Dukes of Normandy, from the Times of Rolls to the Expulsion of King John, edited by Joseph Rickerby, pp. 290–291.
  4. SPECIAL MENTIONS: I would like to personally thank Professor Edward Wesp of Western New England University for helping me in the initial formulation of this piece and his tutelage in gaming narrative, and my friend Laurie Messer for her help in editing and proofreading.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Damn, damn, damn! I’m only half way through my back catalogue of unplayed/finish steam games and then you go and throw this in my lap.

    • majorlariviere

      Sorry about it! Maybe I should’ve added on that this game conditions you into thinking that the evil you’re doing is also sickly fun xD

  2. Why I enjoy strategy gaming – the success of having genuinely achieved something, and the story that is created by attempting to do so (regardless of whether or not it all goes to hell).

  3. It’s a bit special this. The first time I’ve dared dip my toes in the murky waters of ‘Grand Strategy’ and it turned out the waters were warm and bubbly, kind of like a soothing Jacuzzi filled with complex historical characters trying to kill me and steal my stuff.

    This metaphor isn’t working at all. I like the game a lot.

  4. I still remember my first game on CK2… I didn’t know what to do so I decided to play as the Doge of Venice because I’m a Venetian so the Most Serene Republic is kinda part of my cultural heritage (I first played with the merchant republic government form, I feel so proud). I remember I was amazed by the different colours of my vassals’ troops and by all of the titles a single ruler could hold, expecially when I conquered croatia and became also doge of the Croatian Republic. I even conquered Tunis in an holy war, but when a patrician that didn’t belong to my house was elected I just decided to declare independence (I was doge of Croatia and Tunis, and my liege only owned the county of Venice so I owned pretty much all of the territory of the country). Needless to say, I was destroyed first by the muslims and then by the Venetians in search for revenge and my game ended really badly lol. By the way at some point the son of one of my rulers married for some reason an abissinian girl he had found while leading a commercial expedition, so a good number of the doges of the republics of Venice and Croatia-Tunis had been black african guys. After some marriages with the ruling houses of Europe France managed to see her first Afro-French king xD

    • majorlariviere

      I scarcely remember my first game as an Irish duke (original, I know). Specifically, I remember how I decided to go on a Crusade for Anatolia thinking “Eh, I’m bored”. Maybe ten minutes later, a window appears saying ‘Congratulations on becoming king of Anatolia!!!’…wut? xD

  5. Lorettt

    I had no idea what this was before reading but now I want it. Badly.

    • Me too. I just bought it on Steam before I’d even finished reading the article. Sounds right up my street.

    • majorlariviere

      I recommend waiting until a Steam sale to grab it and all it’s major DLCs, as it can be rather expensive otherwise.

    • Same. I thought this was some sort of Civ ripoff and had dismissed it since I don’t really like those sorts of games, and now I’m actually annoyed that I’m going out after work so I won’t be able to play it.

    • It’s such a weird and interesting game. On the one hand it’s a grand strategy game with countless options and means to maneuver, a simulation of medieval politics and all that, and on the other hand some people only know it as that game where you can make a horse your vassal and accuse a newborn of plotting an assassination to remove them as a heir to your throne. The intersection of “historical simulation” and “game” leads for some really amusing and surreal moments.

  6. Without doubt Paradox’s best game to date, really superb.

    Currently King of Ireland, joining in a huge war alongside England, Wales and Norway against an imploding Scotland that went Cathar and decided to declare war on everyone. 😀

    Something about CK2 that bored me at first was being hassled to educate children, but I’ve realised it’s actually quite a good way to improve relations with vassals. Just sort your list by rank and opinion and, if their stats don’t suck, use them. If it’s a relative you don’t care about, even better, pick anyone whose opinion of you could be better. (and result in better levies)

    • shooore

      It’s also a good way to groom your children (or your courtiers’ children) into useful pawns. If the mother and father have one stat notably higher than the others, send the kid off to someone with a high value of that particular stat. Chances are, when the child comes of age, they’ll get the “uber” trait for that stat (brilliant strategist, grey eminence, midas touched, and so on) and consequently be ideal council members and/or decent heirs.

      Right now, as the Doux (Byzantine Duke) of Sicily, Calabria and Capua (grandson of the formerly lowly, isoloated, old, unmarried and childless Count Sergios Spartanos of Napoli), I have a brood of children, each specially tailored for a spot on my conucil. It may not be the biggest territory, but among my byzantine peers, probably the smoothest by a wide margin.

  7. Magnolia

    The game UI is clunky and so is game play. It takes too much work to get anything done and often nothing productive can be done. It’s a very slow game most of the time and when events do happen, they are often uncontrollable.

  8. Lilliam

    My best game was conquering 90% of the map on iron man mode. Starting as a single count in France.

  9. This is one of THE BEST strategy games of all time. It has intrigue, diplomacy, economics, war, alliances, difficulty, length of gameplay, stories, relationships, etc, etc, etc.

  10. Complex strategy games do intrigue me, but is it balanced at its core? People praise Endless Space for being complex and not “holding your hand”, but that game just isn’t fair. The AI will colonize a galaxy before you can research how to colonize anything. So just how “fair” is this strategy game?

    • It is balanced to a degree, once you learn the mechanics it kind of becomes imbalanced in the player’s favor. The AI is bound by the same rules that you are, the only imbalance is probably the Mongols and Aztecs (which were added as a check for western empires. The game is constantly undergoing balance changes. The only thing is, if you do intend on buying CK 2, the game feels incomplete without most of the big DLC, which drastically change the game.

    • majorlariviere

      Depends on what one would call fairness. Like I said, it’s a dangerous world you live in, and it’s entirely possible that you’ll fall victim to something that you see as being “unfair”. The AI doesn’t cheat, if that’s what you mean. You can buff it before a campaign starts, but they have the same rules that you do. Much of the difficulty honestly comes from trying to comprehend the sheer complexity of everything. It’s a game with a very steep learning curve (more of a learning cliff face, honestly xD), but it is also an immensely enjoyable one. 🙂

  11. I gave up after about 25 hours. My mistake was not role playing my character. I’m about 35 hours in giving it another shot going strong unifying Ireland, murdering and conquering those disgusting Germanic peagns while trying to kill my way to make my hier king of Scotland.

    • majorlariviere

      That’s the spirit! 😀

      Role-playing is what makes this game come alive. If you just play it, you’re basically playing a game of Microsoft Excel. You need to live it. 😉

  12. Any game that allows you to have William the Conqueror become a High Priest of Satan and making Satanism the official state religion of England, leading to a series of very bloody holy wars with the rest of Europe while pious vassals try to murder you at every turn but your dark powers are simply too much for them to handle and you’re slowly but steadily inducting more and more kings into your cult in order to make Satanism the dominant religion in all of Europe and… where was I going with this?

    Oh yeah, buy CK2, it’s fucking great.

  13. mccinton

    Everyone says this game is good but I can’t say the same.

  14. This game is deep. I went through the onscreen menus and was amazed at the level of detail, so much so that I felt I had no clue how to play.

    • majorlariviere

      I would recommend popping on over to YouTube and look up a channel called Arumba. He has a few playthroughs there that help demonstrate how one should play. 😉

      • Wow, that sounds fun. I have to do research to learn how to play a computer game… (Insert sarcasm here). That’s just bad game design IMHO.

  15. Corbett

    I would love to play this game because it sounds incredibly interesting and I’m a big fan of medievil politics, but I’m not that good or experienced in strategy game and I fear it may be too much for me. Any advice?

    • majorlariviere

      Go over to YouTube and look up a channel called Arumba. He has a few playthroughs of it that you should watch; he does a much better job of explaining the game than the tutorial does. 😉

  16. I got this last weekend and have seen time disappear to the beast.

  17. I bought the game after reading this post. The mod scene is fantastic, and the replayability with other people on the server is wild as well. Definitely a good Saturday night game to play.

  18. I bought this game and loved it the moment I understood only the most basic things about it. This game is way better than some of the other strategy games in originality.

  19. Christen

    I remember looking at this game and being like “What? I’m not playing this, I’ll stick to Medieval 2 Total War.” But HOLY SHIT this game is so much more complex than what I thought it was. This game is amazing and one of the best games I’ve ever played easily.

  20. There are an awful lot of missing spaces in this article, makes it annoying to read, although the game sounds interesting. Reminds a bit of Defender of the Crown on steroids, if anyone is old enough to remember this classic.

    • I know! I’m sorry about that. I think it’s a foible with the website’s page editor that does it, since I know I didn’t leave those in there.

  21. This has got to be the greatest articles I’ve read on Crusader Kings 2.

  22. I recommend playing EU4, its a lot more fun than CK2. But in reality is up to certain players which they find more fun… usually the one they started with.

    • majorlariviere

      I’ve played and enjoyed both! But CKII offers a more personal experience than EU4. I’ve always held that CKII is a game about people wherein EU4 is a game about nations.

  23. I do see your point with a big motive to do bad things in CKII, and do affirm the general point to an extent. I do, however, think that you are downplaying the dangers of failure in an evil enterprise (plots for example), because backlash I do think occurs more than you let on. Th here is also plenty to do administratively (a key component to building an empire in CKII, especially if you are building), and can pay off dividends, especially as a Merchant Republic/Commonwealth. Also, pretty much anyone of any religious faith in-game can start a holy war against a neighbor of an opposite faith (or excommunicate/decadent in the case of Catholic and Muslim faiths respectively), and that is an easy, straightforward way of winning land when well-prepared and careful. It would have been nice to hear you address this function. You are correct however that the more conventional ways of land-grabbing can take much longer. The piece was enjoyable. Nice job.

  24. I bought this game last week and I already have 3 days spent on it. Amazing game and amazing article you wrote on it.

  25. Well, I’ve always enjoyed Crusader Kings but I’d have to dispute your characterisation of the theory of divine rights as a medieval phenomenon. Feudalism was essentially a highly de-centralised system of implicit contracts and while kingship was considered to be a divine office, the holder was not considered divine. In fact, the following Biblical passage is very illustrative of the scepticism we would do well to emulate with regards to our own leaders

    He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still, others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle [2] and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day.”

    George Sabine’s “The Folk and Its Law” in his A History of Political Theory discusses this in great detail

  26. I think what Crusader Kings does quite well and can in many ways make sense of a lot of the strange and amoral options given to a player in CKII is good old power politics. The traditional lowest common denominator of any kind of hierarchy. “Religious” wars existing as strictly a means to galvanize people to a cause and obtain wealth, killing a person because it’s the easiest way to maintain your hold on power, and so on. Hell, as said right at the beginning of the article: in Crusader Kings you take power because if you don’t, someone else will, and they’ll probably eventually take it from you.


  28. Joseph Cernik

    An interesting essay. I wonder if it created increased interest in the actual Medieval Ages?

  29. i love how needlessly complicated this weird little game is and i’m so glad we’re talking about it

  30. Sunni Ago

    great summation. Made me interested in the game.

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