Crusader Kings II Review

Through a complex system of diplomacy and backstabbing, Crusader Kings II makes every power struggle an engrossing one.

While there are indeed plenty of holy wars to be waged in the medieval world of Crusader Kings II, it's the breadth and depth of peacetime political maneuvering that makes this strategy game such a delight. This is a game with an incredible number of options for scheming and diplomacy, whether it's crafting an arranged marriage to net you a powerful foreign ally or maintaining a balancing-act relationship with the pope when the two of you have very different views on church-taxation laws. The side effect to this complexity is a daunting learning curve, but if you stick with it, your prize is a deeply rewarding medieval strategy game with a focus on the human element of power that makes for a captivating journey through history.

There's no tangible goal to be found in Crusader Kings II. Your job is simply to take the patchwork of feudal states that comprise Europe and the Mediterranean during the Middle Ages and expand your power however you wish. After you choose a starting point somewhere between 1066 and 1337, you play as any head of state from the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire to the king of a tiny territory long since absorbed by a larger nation. Each has its advantages and disadvantages: picking a powerful empire grants you more military and financial resources, but it also saddles you with a collection of barons, dukes, and counts whose ambitions aren't always aligned with your own.

The way you deal with these subordinates is a critical part of your success because what makes Crusader Kings II special is its focus on the value of personal relationships. Every character in the game has an opinion of you displayed as a single number, ranging from 100 (glowing adoration) to -100 (bitter hatred). These opinions are an indicator of how easily you can rule over and interact with them, with dozens of factors at play. Have you been ruling steadily for 50 years? Your constituents will respect you mightily if so. Have you broken a peace treaty with an emir lately? Expect your standing to drop considerably in the Muslim territories of North Africa. Even personal maladies you were born with will carry a lifetime of social stigma if you happen to be one of those unfortunate souls afflicted with a clubfoot or a hunchback.

With no tangible win state, you'll need to come up with your own goals, like uniting the Iberian Peninsula under Spanish rule.

Nurturing these relationships is a delicate but highly rewarding process, thanks to how well Crusader Kings II reflects the slippery nature of feudal rule during the Middle Ages. Each territory you hold is like a semiautonomous state unto itself, with your vassals (bishops, counts, and the like) supplying you with tax income and troops only if their opinion of you is high enough. Everyone in your chain of command has their own agenda, which creates a constant back and forth between you and your underlings. If you keep your vassals' troops engaged in combat for too long, they'll grow resentful, but if you send your child to be educated with them, you'll earn a significant amount of goodwill. The game is stuffed to the brim with these methods for pleasing or angering people, and there's a believable logic to the way people react that makes carefully managing your reputation immensely satisfying.

Equally important to your cause is managing the state of your family. When your character shuffles off this mortal coil, you take control of the first heir in line to the throne. And because the game combines each successive ruler's "prestige" score into one final tally, it's in your best interest to keep your dynasty going strong until the game ends in 1453. This encourages a careful style of decision making where you have one eye on the present and one on the distant future. So if you're prepared to marry off your son to the princess of a powerful foreign king to gain a military ally, you need to be careful because that beautiful young royal may happen to be devoutly religious or homosexual, which would decrease her fertility rating and, thus, your son's chances for producing an heir of his own.

Crusader Kings II covers a lot of terrain, so it's a good thing you can easily color-code the map by all sorts of paramaters.

Although each character is shown as a static portrait on a menu screen filled with statistics and personality traits, you wind up feeling a genuine sense of attachment to your next of kin. It's an oddly proud moment when you've granted your son his own duchy and he then proceeds to declare his first holy war against your religious opponents. But if you neglect your family members, they'll grow every bit as resentful as a foreign adversary; they may revolt in civil war if they've got the troops for it or plot to kill you with poisoned veal if not. Thankfully, the AI governing these characters is smart and reliable, rarely ever frustrating you with illogical behavior (unless that person happens to bear the insane personality trait). The result is a lasting and profound sense of ownership over your family's dynasty as it passes from one heir to the next.

While you can sit tight and play the role of a pacifist, the best way to build your dynasty is to overtake other territories and expand the boundaries of your empire. This task generally requires a careful combination of diplomacy, intrigue, and all-out military conflict. Building a powerful army is important, but it's far from the only ingredient necessary for success. For one thing, you need a casus belli (reason for declaring war) before invading a territory. This can be accomplished by a number of means, from collecting enough neighboring territories to usurp a claim on their land to sending in your spymaster (one of the five highly specialized members of your council) to fabricate a historic territorial claim through bribery and threats. Scheming your way into a war is an absolute delight that practically demands you be stroking a white cat and cackling maniacally.

Like declaring war, ensuring the strength of your army is something that's easier said than done. Building an army is an expensive proposition in Crusader Kings II, so you need a robust economy before you spend money on new training structures in your various holdings. Likewise, maintaining an active army that is called up to war adds a big cost to your monthly expenses, making it easy to dip into the red and burn through your gold reserves in a hurry. Fortunately, Crusader Kings II provides plenty of ways for clever players to overcome these obstacles, such as calling in allies you've forged through arranged marriages, hiring mercenary armies, and even using your chancellor (another council member) to covertly spread dissent in a rival's territories to reduce their available troops and tax income.

Oddly enough, the battles themselves tend to be the least exciting part of your military strategizing. Crusader Kings II doesn't display full-scale conflicts but, rather, simplifies them into the abstracted image of two soldiers fighting against the backdrop of a three-dimensional European map. There's plenty of strategy to these battles, as clicking your soldier reveals a veritable spreadsheet of information that ranges from the types of remaining troops to which flank is getting hammered the hardest. No, the problem is that physically maneuvering your troops across the map becomes an awkward and clunky experience when your army swells in size. Many of your necessary commands are obscured behind a series of tiny windows and even tinier buttons as you try to make the most minor of adjustments. You wind up spending half your time pixel hunting when you'd rather be eyeing the progress of your battle as it unfolds in real time. It's certainly not enough to discourage you from entering into battle, but it can make engaging in long, protracted conflicts something of a chore.

But those moments of awkwardness in maneuvering your troops are more of an exception than a rule, as the rest of Crusader Kings II sports a well-designed interface. For a game as heavily menu driven as this, you rarely have to drill down into successive menus to get the information you want. The menus are also organized with a logical flow, with tabs following distinct themes (military, diplomacy, laws) and character screens that tell a comprehensive story about someone's life without overwhelming you with information. The interface is also heavily customizable, with the ability to take every conceivable event in the game and assign an alert priority to it or change the map overlay to color-code kingdoms, religions, historical claims, and the like.

It's a good thing the interface works so well because Crusader Kings II is an incredibly ambitious game with a complexity that is hard to overstate. Unfortunately, the tutorials don't do a good enough job of making you feel comfortable with all of it. They're very much a case of quantity over quality: there are tons to choose from, but many are simply text blurbs that quickly explain a concept without giving you the chance to try it for yourself. And the interactive tutorials the game does have often feature buggy scripting, which breaks the sequence of text windows if you accidentally perform the wrong command in the game. These tutorials wind up providing a little bit of helpful guidance, but once you start playing, you realize it was like being given a firm handshake before being thrown into the deep end of an Olympic-sized swimming pool.

Holy war. Holy war never changes.

But don't let that discourage you from giving it a go because even in spite of its learning curve, Crusader Kings II is absolutely worth the time investment. In fact, you can make learning its nuances a group effort by way of the game's 32-player online multiplayer mode. Here, you can get together with a bunch of friends (or strangers, using the solid matchmaking tools) and take control of various rulers or vassals while you all play simultaneously on the same map. Playing the game against real people adds a lot of excitement, whether coordinating with human allies in a combined war effort or rubbing their noses in a failed assassination attempt.

It's that scale and potential for one entertaining story after another that make Crusader Kings II so engrossing. There are so many little interactions for you to experience and so much potential for a payoff when your planning and scheming finally come to fruition. It can certainly be daunting, so it's unfortunate that Crusader Kings II doesn't do a better job of teaching you all the ins and outs of ruling a feudal state. But if you allow that fact to scare you off, you'd be doing yourself a grave disservice. Crusader Kings II makes it an absolute delight to rewrite history one small step at a time.

The Good
A complex and deeply rewarding system of international diplomacy
Building personal relationships is an engrossing endeavor
Open-ended structure lets you pursue your own goals
Well-designed and easily navigable menus.
The Bad
Maneuvering large armies can get awkward
Lackluster tutorials.
8
Great
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Discussion

111 comments
Lausanna
Lausanna

Holy eff the learning curve of this game is intense. I have no idea what I'm doing! But it looks like once I figure it out, it's going to be addictive as hell.

Imperiusmax
Imperiusmax

Sounds interesting. I might just pick this up.

Wensea10
Wensea10

Thanks for the review; the gameplay looks so excellent here.

Gagomkd
Gagomkd

At first when I started to play this game I had no idea what was I doing and what I should have been doing.All was chaos before me.With some tutorials and logic I found out what's the "trick".Things were going pretty good despite the endless demands of my vassals.The most hated and annoying thing are the f..k.ng rebels...It's ok to have rebellion now and then,but I got rebellion in the same province constantly.I have one of the largest armies in the game, I raised every able soldier and got some mercenaries (15k total) and I sent them there.2.5k rebels were spamming every time i obliterated 2.5k rebels.My 15k army in a matter of months came to a number less than 5k...I like the game but some things are just plain annoying and not realistic.

The_Corinthian
The_Corinthian

This game is nothing but a total mess.  Most Paradox games are.  Why is it that you are forced into difficulty levels from the country you choose?  This has been a total weak spot of Paradox games forever.  Combat is a complete joke, the entire mess is just a study in futility.  How anyone can find anything fun in this garbage is beyond me.

xmonpar
xmonpar

this medieval version of hearth of iron...great game from paradox

8akkura
8akkura

Giving this game an 8.0 rating is an absolute disgrace. Gamespot should be ashamed of themselves.

This is a 9.0+ any day of the week.

DavidBelarian
DavidBelarian

From what i have read here and across the net from reviewers and players Paradox have really hit the jackpot with this one. Definitely on my shopping list.

-Hiki-
-Hiki-

Yes many paradox games are buggy in the beginning, but this one is not. It has been extensively been beta-tested since november. The game is excellent and with the famous expansions Paradox is know for it can only become better. And if it's too easy or too diffcult there are extensive mods available on the forums. The next expansion will be focused on the eastern nations. No doubt some enhancements to the Byzantine Empire as well.

sbdb
sbdb

I wouldn't buy anything from paradox, their games are always way too buggy.

jhonel83
jhonel83

@silver_viper219, if you played previous titles from Paradox and enjoyed it, even a little bit, then you will be thrilled with this. Buy it, it's worth it. I have *tried* a few EU games, but usually I got bored pretty quickly, but this game... I swear... I'm actually using the main music theme when I play other medieval online games . Check it out, it's so good it drips epicness: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mU9cNPj394w

Ometh
Ometh

@dutchgamer83 /facepalm

silver_viper219
silver_viper219

@-Hiki- chill mate! i didnt saw that anywhere even in the paradox forums ppl r asking why u cant play them, if they be in an expansion its just gr8! btw there is no shame in asking, the shame is in not knowing an not asking! thanks for the info btw.

silver_viper219
silver_viper219

@jhonel83 i totally agree with u mate. though i have not get the game yet but i played some big titles of paradox like EU3, Vic2, HoI3 and... they r mostly the same in basics, but each newer title digs u a little more deep in menu and stuffs. i personally think that would be gr8 if they release an expansion or something adding the other side of war (Muslims) and maybe even jews to the game with thier own different UI and units and titles etc. like most of games with multiply playable cultures. @dany__86 mostly the paradox games r like that. u leave battles to numbers and statics and a much more than needed chance but most of big picture strategy and planing is urs to do.

dany__86
dany__86

so we cant play the battles like Medieval Total War? we just manage the grand strategy like Hearts of Iron (Paradox)?

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

@Ometh Sure you are welcome. But hey gonna denny it? You made a huge fuzz out of this game that you didn't like it and flamed down everyone who disagreed. Really never seen anyone being so dumb and still thought he rolled like a king.

Ometh
Ometh

@dutchgamer83 A dictator? lol...holy mad. Just throwing this out there, but a dictating gamer falls under the category of all gamers. Guess I'm welcome on GS. I've never seen anyone get so personal over a comment. This is probably the best post I've ever followed and I thank you for making my experience on here interesting. Kudos.

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

@tanerb why aren't you gonna buy a game with a teen rating? Do you pass on great games cause of a teen rating?

jhonel83
jhonel83

@silver_viper219, you are right. I wanted to try some of the N African powers as well. But maybe we are expecting too much content from a game that already offers alot. They would have to remake the marriage system, the governaments, the land titles, and more. I'm more concerned about the lack of hystorical accuracy in the starting period of the game. To prevent you from playing some of the minor nations in the game, they just incorporated them into bigger "chunks". Like all the Vallachs under Bulgaria or the tatars, Transylvania under Hungaria and the Baltic states under byzantine power for instance. Alot of care has been put into the british isles, but the SE Europe is a mess.

tanerb
tanerb

Teen rating =no buy for me , sorry :(

-Hiki-
-Hiki-

OMG for the last time the muslim nations WILL BE PLAYABLE in an expansion. Read before you ask stupid questions, please.

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

@Ometh O well not as much of a fail as getting so many thumbs down with only 2 lines. Beside i was hoping that if i would explain a few things you might understood it, but i guess not. @rez_1kabir In basics it is a diplomatic verison of Medieval total war. But it goes very deep. To be accurate its a simulator of how it was to be a lord of all sorts (from count to emperor). You will deal with all kind of things, from county wise decisions and wars to marrying off your children with political motivations and plotting against your liege or neighbor with other lords. You don't control the fights like in the total war games but as they said in a interview they wanted to give you the other experience of a war.

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

silver_viper219
silver_viper219

whats with the only christian nations playable? is it true? i heard someone reasoning it with "its called Crusader Kings dude!" i was thinking then so we must only play "Victoria II" (also from Paradox) as Great Britain depending on that kinda reasons!!!

Martin_Hansen
Martin_Hansen

I did the Tutorials and the Demo, but I seriously didn't want to buy it before I read the Review. And with a score of 8.0 I almost didn't read the Review. Glad I did.

rez_1kabir
rez_1kabir

Is it me or does it seem like the game is a diplomatic version of Medieval Total War?

Evtutchenk0
Evtutchenk0

for the people that say that this games plays like EU3, i have to say that you're wrong, i EU3 you play as the country, in CK2 you play as the king/duke/count, you're a character, it has some similarities but those are more focused on the menus and control of the armies, but in general the game plays a lot differently. This game plays almost identically to Sengoku, it's like Sengoku was a beta version of CK2, the only difference (that i have noticed, didn't play too much of it) was that you could declare war without claims, in CK is a bit harder to declare war. and i wanted to comment about my current playthrough of CK2, i started as the count of Ulster on the northern part of ireland, now i'm the King of Ireland, Scotland England and Navarra, have lands all the way to normandy, it feels so rewarding when i think back when i started playing this game :')

Ometh
Ometh

@dutchgamer83 Im glad you had to write a short essay to get your point across. Another fail.

Open_Sights
Open_Sights

It looks like it's very similar to EU 3 when it comes to open world. Too bad, because I really like EU 2 scripted events. Since it's an historical game, I think it pays for some things to behave like they did in real history. The inheritance of the Habsburgs for example. In EU 2 it could happen or you could try to wage war. Much better that way. I think Paradox is missing the point trying to make theirs games more palatable to people that are not into history at all. People that won't be buying their games in the first place.

delirium8765
delirium8765

@Ometh ''If you're going to play something so turn based...'' Have you actually played the game? I don't think so because you would have known that Crusader Kings 2 (just like most paradox games) is not turn based....

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

@Ometh bwhahahaha o sorry i just stopped laughing. You call me fail? Sorry mate, here are a few things so you look less silly on GS right now: 1. You hate Crusader Kings 2, sure that can happen you don't have to like all genres and games. But hey the game gets a score it deserves based on its genre and how it plays. That you don't like it fine, you can disagree, but that doesn't change the fact that others like it (yeah shocking other people having different taste as you omg it should be forbidden!) 2. You called me a clown and a goon before you post was edited. Well sorry but the joke is on you for comparing 2 scores from complete different genres. Now you claim you do know the difference, well i guess you learned that in the mean time cause when you posted it, you didn't know that yet. Those are facts my mature friend. 3. Just because you don't like these kind of game doesn't mean anyone else can't. You find it going back in time so we all should play boardgames? Shall we say all FPS gamers should go back to the sandbox with toy guns, all RTS gamers back playing with tin soldiers and all RPG fans should go back to the tabletop game D&D? That is what you are saying, those are your words, sure you will call me bad names again and rage blabla. But everyone sees what you write mate, only you don't. So here is my advice: IF YOU DON'T LIKE A CERTAIN TYPE OF GAME JUST DON'T READ THE REVIEW AND MOVE ON WITH YOUR LIFE.

Bozanimal
Bozanimal

[quote="Ultramarinus"]Only 8.0?! Gamespot no longer gives any 8.5+ to games without 50 million$ marketing budget it seems.[/quote] Apparently you missed Anno 2070, Trine 2, Super Meat Boy, Alien Hominid, Bastion, Limbo, Braid- should I go on? If anything Gamespot a good Indie game. Gamespot - in general - is very tough on games with low average review scores relative to other sites. A 7.0 or better is almost always worth playing. An 8.0 is high praise, indeed.

Diarma10
Diarma10

This looks a good game, I'll wait for the inevitable patches/expansions though. I'll probably buy it next year.

KingBobCat
KingBobCat

Very simply put: This is a very good game, IF you like these kind of strategy games. Decent strategy games are few and far between compared to the good old days and this game is from one of the better existing developers. Their best effort to date, IMHO. If you don't care for deeper historically-based strategy games, nothing is going to make you appreciate this one. I'll also say that few games are 100% of what we hope they'd be. But any game that makes me think about what I'm going to do next, even when I walk away from it, is a winner in my book. BTW, I don't agree with everything you've said @Ometh, but I find the picture of Pamela and Bert freaking hilarious.

pedroribeiro123
pedroribeiro123

This game is not turn based you can make the game time go faster or slower or at times you can pause it ....but it is not a turn based game. And this game is a fail for people that don´t like strategy games otherwise people love this kind of games. Myself iam enjoying this game kinda hard since my country was not around at the start of the timeline of this game i start as a Count i think ...

Ometh
Ometh

@dutchgamer83 I'm well aware that it's a different genre you goon. All I'm saying is that this isn't an 8 in strategy games. At all, lol. Sure, KoA was a bad comparison. You got me. But if I wanted to play something so plain, I would hop in my time machine and go back to the early 90's. If you're going to play something so turn based, peel yourself from your stinky computer chair and go play risk.

Ometh
Ometh

[This message was deleted at the request of the original poster]

dutchgamer83
dutchgamer83

@Ometh You do that, can't do much damage to your brains it seems. You are comparing a high strategy game with a action RPG. 2 completely different genres. If you would know a bit of how things go you would know this is a 8 within the strategy genre. Its not better or worse then a action RPG cause its a completely different game.

floydshayvious
floydshayvious

Having a good time so far but I wish they would fix the buggy ass tutorials.

JimmyCos
JimmyCos

 @Gagomkd You shouldn't maintain an standing army. Also try to increase your cavalry.

Tokugawa77
Tokugawa77

 @The_Corinthian

 Umm "forced into the difficluty level of the country you choose"? what does this even mean- if you can't handle a challenge play as a different country...

8akkura
8akkura

 @The_Corinthian It has to be more difficult to conquer Europe as some random count of Western Iceland than as the Holy Roman Emperor to preserve the scale and realism of the game. The combat is simplistic by design, it's not the focus of the game. No other game has the dynastic maneuvering of thousands of nobles across Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa detailed like this or working as smoothly. That gameplay is completely unique. Compare it to the dynasty trees in Total War games and tell me what's a complete joke.

tjoko
tjoko

 @sbdb  But Paradox has the great record of being extremely dedicated in patching their games for a long time. I bought EU3 before and it was amazing how long after the release date they kept making patches to fix, add and rebalance things.

spidermanmon
spidermanmon

Teen rated game WHOOO HOOO! iam going to buy this game for sure.:)

8akkura
8akkura

@Stevenuccj @8akkura  

If a reviewer can be wrong, so can a regular gamer. Just look through these comments, there are some people who just don't understand the game. So that kind of person would play the game, get annoyed, and give it a low rating. Lower than the game deserves.

8akkura
8akkura

@Stevenuccj Well, this game does have wider appeal than any other grand strategy game that has gone before it. 

So I do think it deserves to go a bit higher, even if many a console gamer wouldn't give it the light of day. Just like I wouldn't care about more than a few 9.0+ console games.

Courtawulf
Courtawulf

@8akkura @Stevenuccj I agree. But based on GS's definitions of scores an 8.0 is correct. They say an 8.0 means that fans of the genre will without a doubt like (which I agree) while fans of games in general may not be persuaded to get out of their comfort zone just to play this. Essentially, this is not a game for everyone. Also, GS is a review site for gaming in general, which means that they include console gamers (who would likely not find any enjoyment out of this at all). PC gamer gave this game an 87, which I think is closer to where it belongs.

Crusader Kings II More Info

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  • First Released
    • Macintosh
    • PC
    • Unix/Linux
    In Crusader Kings II, you will get to control one of the great Christian dynasties of the West, attempt to conquer all of Europe, and liberate the Holy Land.
    8.2
    Average User RatingOut of 452 User Ratings
    Please Sign In to rate Crusader Kings II
    Developed by:
    Paradox Development Studio, Paradox Interactive
    Published by:
    Paradox Interactive, CyberFront, Paradox Development Studio
    Genres:
    Real-Time, Strategy
    Content is generally suitable for ages 13 and up. May contain violence, suggestive themes, crude humor, minimal blood, simulated gambling and/or infrequent use of strong language.
    Teen
    All Platforms
    Alcohol Reference, Mild Language, Mild Violence, Sexual Themes