The Europa Universalis games and their various spinoffs are one of the biggest markers of my misspent youth. Grand strategy games that are superficially similar to Civilization, Europa Universalis and its sister games are defined by real-time gameplay, an absurd amount of historical detail, and mechanics that are geared less around micromanaging individual units and more about directing the course of an entire nation.
I bought Europa Universalis II back in 2003 and got hooked after a couple of months of trying to figure out the game’s obtuse interface and navigating its numerous bugs. Afterwards, I snapped up the game’s spinoffs: the World War II-focused Hearts of Iron, the 19th-century based Victoria, and the Middle Ages-based Crusader Kings. It was the latter title that held my interest most of all. Unlike the other games, where you ruled over a nation, Crusader Kings had you playing as a dynasty: your goal was to ensure the continuation of your royal bloodline through arranged marriages, assassinations and occasionally going to war against those damn dirty heathens.
With the entry of the Europa Universalis series into the 3D realm, Crusader Kings has its own sequel, and dear God is it addictive. Crusader Kings II is easily one of the best strategy games out there today, a title with so much nuance and depth that I could play it for the rest of my life and not even come close to exploring all its intricacies. If you’re a fan of medieval history and/or strategy games, you owe it to yourself to pick it up.
This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Medieval Sim
The first thing you need to know about Crusader Kings II is that if you try to play it like Civilization or any other grand strategy game, you will lose and lose hard. The game comes with a shit ton of tutorials, none of which you should ignore, but even still, you need to play and lose a few times before you get a grip on things. Fortunately, once you’ve learned to appreciate the feel of the game, you won’t want to put it down.
As I mentioned above, Crusader Kings II puts you in the role of a medieval royal dynasty, with the goal of expanding your power and influence. This is an important distinction, because you will lose if your lands end up being inherited by someone not of your dynasty, which can happen when you factor in the web of marriages and betrothals that the game throws at you. You can secure your dynasty’s place in history by marrying off your ruler and heirs, conquering new territories, or forging strategic marriages that result in your dynasty inheriting new lands.
It’s this blend of Civilization-style strategy and Sims–esque management that sets Crusader Kings II apart from other, similar games. Educating your ruler’s children and finding suitable spouses for them adds an entirely unique flavor of strategy to the game. You need to balance your need to accumulate allies (marrying off dynasty members is the only way to ally with other kingdoms) with the specific traits each character has. The last thing you want is to marry your firstborn son off to some dolt with a harelip, or shackle your daughter to an epileptic homosexual who enjoys impaling people on spikes (yes, all of this stuff is in the game).
Also aiding Crusader Kings II’s replayability is the naturalistic ways it requires you to play. For example, you can’t just declare war on people willy-nilly: you have to have a casus belli first. The cat-and-mouse game of fabricating claims on neighboring lands, researching tech so you can improve your armies, and dealing with religious heresies and Viking/Muslim raids keeps Crusader Kings II from getting boring. Additionally, the sheer breadth of time it covers—purchasing all the DLCs will let you play a game from the year 769 up to 1453, the fall of Constantinople—means you can be playing the same game for weeks without getting bored.
Getting Medieval On Your Ass
The only real problem that Crusader Kings II poses is the difficulty curve. While it’s not as opaque as its predecessor, expect to spend some time fiddling with the interface before you figure out what everything does. Additionally, the DLCs actually make the game more difficult by introducing time periods in which Christian kingdoms—who have the easiest-to-learn gameplay mechanics—are much more difficult. For example, the Charlemagne DLC moves the start date back to 769, when half of Europe was pagan, England was constantly getting raided by the Vikings, and the Muslims had just barely been pushed back into Spain.
If you’re a newcomer to the game, I highly recommend disregarding the earlier DLC start dates and beginning in 1066, as the game map is more sedate then. If you do insist on starting all the way back in 769, you’re best off playing a chiefdom in Ireland, which is colloquially known as “Newbie Island” for its relative ease and isolation. Attempting to play a non-Catholic nation or a large empire for your first game will probably cause your head to explode.
Overall, if you love strategy games, you’re doing yourself a huge disservice by not buying Crusader Kings II. While the game and its DLC is still fairly expensive, the game goes on sale on Steam all the time, and new DLCs are being released on a regular basis (the most recent one, Horse Lords, was released two weeks ago). If you’re starting to think of Civilization as being a kid’s game, you need to pick up Crusader Kings II.