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Rub Some Dirt on It

February 18th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 22 Comments · Design, Me, Paradox

Anyone that is not intimately familiar with failure is probably not anyone worth knowing. The failure need not be profound, but facing setbacks and the limitations of planning are part and parcel of the human experience. It’s not that tragedy is the measure of a man or that there are no atheists in foxholes, as much as it is that it never hurts to be reminded that no mortal is truly a master of the universe; those that think they are should be feared and not feted.

For the most part, games try to break us from this reality. No death is permanent, there is always a save state to return to and no unpleasantness really must be endured, unless you are in an online baseball league, in which case you suck it up because you’d be a heel to quit and leave your Bad News Bears to the next sucker in line.

Games that make failure palatable instead of simply frustrating, then, are special. Note that by failure, I don’t mean simply losing – losing is just the flipside of winning and in some games, losing is simply a matter of time (Tetris), lack of skill (for me, Rhythm Heaven) or the odds (roguelikes). In these games, mere endurance is the measure of success and even a cheap death by poison in Angband is tolerable either because it comes quickly or because it comes after having seen so much. There is little lost by starting over again immediately.

By failure, I mean the experience of seeing a plan undone, of coming upon an event or situation that forces you to face the fact that you may be losing, even though it’s not over yet. Having two or three major cities captured in Civilization. An economic death spiral in Imperialism or Caesar IV. Destruction of your entire main battle fleet in Victoria 2.

A great game lets you witness things come apart, and still go on because…well, the because is the thing. Why do some good strategy games push us to soldier on, while others push us to Load Game?

In the case of Crusader Kings II, the answer seems pretty clear.

(This isn’t a review, but given how new the game is, I must insert the disclaimer that Paradox Interactive is a business client, though CK2 is not. As a writer, CK2 is something that needs writing about.)

I’ve written before about turning points in games, and on the podcast we’ve talked about the problems of the snowball effect – in both instances, the conversation centers around a strategy game’s momentum. Most games, and strategy games are no different 90% of the time, have very clear victory conditions and you move towards them at an irregular rate. Sometimes there is stumbling block to overcome, but a good human player will eventually find a way to account for those and master the system. The game can still be challenging, but game sessions usually follow a similar dynamic where a moment comes and victory or defeat is assured. The narrative power of the game remains, but it is always a tale of triumph over the odds, or over the gods.

Crusader Kings 2, even more than its cousins in the Paradox Development Family, makes disappointment your constant companion. For the last week, my chat windows and social networks have been filled with friends and acquaintances telling me about what the king is doing tonight, and his usual activity is putting out fires or climbing out of an abyss or wondering how the hell he ended up in a matrilineal marriage. And (to my knowledge), except for one instance where a friend did not quite understand all the rules about Crusades, none reloaded to undo a problem even if it was brought about by confusion.

All suffered through, found solutions (or didn’t) and dealt with the aftermath. Certainly some of this was curiosity. The game is new, it has much to reveal and for a few people, this was their first Paradox grand strategy game.

Ironically, one of the reasons that CK2 makes failures and setbacks endurable is that, just like real life, there are so many ways the world can disappoint you. An insane spouse – too powerful to abandon – starts murdering courtiers, but this could be a relief after fighting a long civil war against recalcitrant barons. A homosexual king is a headache for your lands, but a heretic king is a disaster. In the real world, mental illness, civil unrest, bigoted families and religious uncertainty are all major stressess that we face, and in CK2 each is something that poses a new, but manageable, challenge to overcome or endure.

The flexibility of the goals is one of the big reasons that each of the many problems your fiefdom faces seems more human size. Yes, each of the Paradox games (and other grand strategy titles) has a core strength in letting you choose limited goals as you build your way forward. Unite France. Colonize West Africa. Dominate Central Europe. But often a major failure in a Victoria 2 or Europa Universalis 3 can undo or render irrelevant hours and hours of gameplay. Limited ambitions may not have limited costs if the world that surrounds you has a larger appetite. You can recover from disaster, but the context of the games – sustained forward momentum – can make the loss of half your country or a century of revolts or the utter destruction of an expensive fleet the sort of thing that makes you quit or reload.

I’ve spoken a few times about my current habit of only starting EU3 risky wars in January so I am always close to an autosave. This is cheating, I guess, and would be seen as scum saving in the roguelike world. But the way the game is built makes late and prolonged recovery only occasionally fun. So I’ve gotten used to keeping my ingame wayback machine ready to go.

Crusader Kings 2 is not entirely about continual forward momentum. It never pretends that your course will be easy. Even a great king could have a son that disappoints, an old friend that betrays or a degenerative illness. Since the game is putatively the narrative of a dynasty more than the history of a country, you find that you are more willing to sacrifice a little land to a brother or cousin if it sets things up for a son or grandson to have a better lot in life. It is not just a matter of delayed gratification; it is a matter of accepting some pain because ultimately it might be worth it. Maybe. Sort of.

You soldier on because the line is strong, there are other generations and maybe the next one will have it a little easier. Your goal for one generation may simply be to let the land heal, for another it could be to take advantage of a military genius, and another may be expanding the defenses. The traits of your family patriarchs or matriarchs become the guideposts for your ambitions and their reigns the bookmarks for your game’s progress.

Crusader Kings has always been my favorite of the Paradox series because it is so human sized in spite of the historic and geographic scale. Even some of the grandest schemes boil down to the personal struggles between characters, and when great and amazing things happen from characters you do not control at all, it becomes easier to face the fact that the world is conspiring against all of us, so you can prepare for winter, but not stop it.

Here’s an example from my current Scottish game. Weak king dies at 30, leaving his young son in the care of the Duke of Lothian as regent and guardian. Duke has three daughters, no sons, and the most land in the kingdom. New young king marries the eldest daughter, ten years his senior so that their joined lines will finally make House Dunkeld the master of its own kingdom. Turns out, she becomes a strong and assertive Duchess of Lothian and a great power in her own right. She adds to her lands, invades Ireland on her own manufactured claim, pushes claims against weaker Scottish lords and in less than a decade had prepared a beautiful harvest of wealth for the royal couple’s son and heir.

Or she would have if she had not switched her inheritance laws to Gavelkind meaning that, when she died at 44 after a lingering illness, all of her lands and power were divided equally among three minor boys, who now with titles of their own were under the control of regents and far from their father’s just and moderating influence.

Great power and potential, all undone because a mother wanted to evenly divided her greatness and now her sons, weak and divided in a decentralized monarchy, must face the vengeance of those from whom she took those lands and titles they now hold. One of these hated boys will soon be king.

I have a save point where not all of this happened, at least not yet. The Queen/Duchess still lives, is still mistress of a third of the kingdom and is still kicking ass. With more time, maybe her sons would be stronger and better able to face the whirlwind that history has not readied them to reap.

But then it could also go so much worse. At least no one has been excommunicated.

No, this is a bump in the road. It’s only barely the 12th century, England is too divided to be a threat right now and there will be other sons and other wives and other civil wars. This king might not get through this crisis, and the next king might end up deposed altogether (seriously, no one likes my son). But even with a single duchy and a legal claim on the Throne of Scone, the line continues and there will be a second chance for House Dunkeld.

Things don’t always get better, and it’s not simply about the journey making things worthwhile. No, the ending is not the story, but endings and failures are important and should be recognized not as growth experiences but as wounds we cope with. Many great failures come on the heels of amazing successes, the deepest sadness comes from the realization that some deep joys are now lost forever.

But like The Sims, Crusader Kings is a great strategy role playing game because it reminds us that every day is a victory on its own because you still breathe. You may not liberate Jerusalem for the Pope, but isn’t your daughter coming along nicely? The Mongols are coming and will not stop if you put up a brave front, but you have inherited a claim on a small Irish county far from war and maybe you can defend civilization there.

The comforting Christian saying is that God never gives us a cross greater than that we can bear; we are born to adversity but also born to a community and a faith that make these weights easier. I am not sure that this is really the case; I have known too many good and beautiful people brought low by a harsh and uncaring world, and sometimes by a harsh and uncaring community.

But Crusader Kings 2 is almost persuasive in its case that as bad as things are, this too will pass. If you keep your wits about you and your friends close by, then maybe you can make it through Mongols, Moors, Black Death, Waldensian heresies, grabby Emperors, syphilitic heirs, sterile wives and the Irish.

And if you can’t, then at least you have a damned fine story to tell.


22 Comments so far ↓

  • TheEggplant

    Dang. That sounds like the game of diplomacy I’ve wanted Civ to be from the beginning. It reminds me of Wing Commander on a larger scale. So much went into the chronicle of losing that if someone really cared about playing the game it wouldn’t disappoint regardless of performance.

  • Troy Goodfellow

    CK2 is a special game (all the Pdox grand strategy games are) but it requires some buy in. Take it slow, and feel free to ask for advice. It’s really something.

  • Rob C

    I came back to the beginning of my post to write that my comment ended up being more about Paradox games then your article, and I apologize for that. In a roundabout way it is related to struggle and feelings of failure.

    It’s funny the amount of love CK 2 gets. I tried for 3 days to get into it and just can’t. I have an odd relationship with Paradox titles. They are the games I am most excited to play after reading the manuals, but when it comes down to playing them I don’t find them very much fun (EU III was an exception. I found that to be a decent game). My failure to like them feels like just that – a failure. Because there are so many people very passionate about Paradox games, I feel like I must be doing something wrong or I’m not bright enough to ‘get it’ (While I’m not a genius by any stretch, I’m also not dumb. I was always well regarded in my software development positions, which at least requires a modicum of intelligence).

    During moments of clarity, which don’t come often as I was bouncing back between CK 2 and Vicky 2 (playing, visiting the forums, watching videos, reading the manual, reading AARs) I try and form an objective opinion about these games.

    1) Sometimes I think players equate convoluted systems to deep strategy games. For example, in Vicky 2, clergy improve literacy which raises consciousness, but clergy also reduce consciousness for POPs. Well, that makes it difficult to decide what the net effect will be. My guess is that fans of the game would argue that in real life things are not so cut and dry. I agree, but in a game we are depending on the model created by the designers to make sense. We need to understand what their model includes because we base our decisions on that understanding.

    Out of the Park Baseball is a good example of this. My example is making the assumption that the player’s true ratings are displayed (scouting is off). According to Player X’s ratings he should be a .300 hitter. There have always been threads over the years about benching player X because he is batting .200 over half a season, or calling in a pinch hitter for him in a critical situation. Well, if the OOTP model includes streakiness (which I am pretty sure it doesn’t), you may bench him. If it doesn’t you play him because his ratings are good. I think as a player we need to know this so our decisions are based on the reality of the model.

    2) I think Paradox games are appreciated more by players who are touchy-feely type of players (I don’t mean this in a derogatory way at all). By this I mean players who enjoy experimenting to see what will happen, because in many cases you can’t just figure out what an actions effects will be by reading the manual and using the info in the UI.

    3) Related to #2. I also think that players who enjoy games such as Vicky 2 and CK 2 do so because they enjoy the stories they create. They don’t choose to implement health care reforms because it gives them a population growth boost, but because they are playing a benevolent leader. This is of course a generalization, but it seems like an accurate characterization in many cases.

    I feel pressured (by myself) to keep trying, because I may just finally get it. The game I’m playing with myself is the game of trying to enjoy a P’dox grand strategy title. I’m afraid it is a game I can’t win, but can’t give up either.

  • Shahab

    Great article. I often times feel myself conflicted about quick saves and quick loads, I feel like I am circumventing the developer’s design decisions and perhaps robbing myself of the import of my actions by taking away most or all negative consequences. I think it is something most games have not properly addressed.
    Anyway, when are you going to post your first technology in games article, I am looking forward to it?

  • Shahab

    Is there no way to edit comments? I ask because my last sentence on my comment looks like I am not sure if I am looking forward to your coming articles when in fact I only meant to question when said articles were coming out. Its been a long week, let me tell you.

  • Paul (@princejvstin)

    Interesting article, Troy.

    I’ve fallen in and out of like and love with paradox games, usually revolving around their overall quality. I’ve never gotten around to the Crusader Kings series. I somehow dismissed them in my mind as “earlier-set EU games”.

  • Rob C

    Paul, with your Prince Jvstin handle you seem all set for Crusader Kings. :-)

  • Rob C

    On a related note with saving and loading games…
    With scenario-based games I take it one step further. I don’t usually like replaying a scenario because I almost feel like it is cheating. A WWII commander didn’t get the chance to capture the bridge again because he advanced too quickly the first time and lost half his infantry to some machine gun nests, why should I? Once you have played the scenario once, you usually know the placement of the defenders. Things don’t usually chance much on a different playthrough.

    It is a difficult balancing act though, because I want to be challenged, which means sometimes there will be failure. I prefer when games let you continue after poor performance on a scenario, but score you on your performance. This lets you know you should have done better, but you don’t have to slog through a second (or third time). This poses trouble in games where there is a persistant campaign where troops are carried forward. Instead of preventing the player from continuing, the game can let the user replenish his troops, but at a cost to their score. This way better players can get recognized for their achievement, while letting lesser players experience the entire campaign.

  • simao

    Ache. Excellent.

    Great post Troy. I found from CK1 that I understood (but only conceptually) of sacrificing yourself for your family, and for a future in which your children might have a better life; something that I guess parents, migrants and (soldiers?) are intimately familiar with (as opposed to a guy in a 9-5).

    And that sense of, by sticking together, you might just get through it. We’re here to listen and help.

  • Procyon Lotor

    Great post. You’ve hit on what makes CK2 an unusual and very entertaining game. In my game, I started as a count in Ireland. Two generations later I have dynasty members holding duchies in England and Spain, a count in Scotland, and otherwise scattered about the continent. If some disaster befalls my main branch in its attempt to gain the Irish throne, it will simply mean that the story takes an unexpected (and probably wildly entertaining) twist as I jump to one of the cadet branches.

    FWIW, I am like Rob C, in that I never quite get into Paradox games despite feeling like they are right up my alley. (It’s similary to the time that I was finally able to date a girl who was “on paper” exactly what I was always looking for. On actually dating her, I couldn’t stand her, and ended up marrying her polar opposite. Should I start playing Modern Warfare 3?) But CK2 seems to be the exception to that rule. It has a great interface, and is just a really really fun game. It passes the “one more turn” test with flying colors, as I can never seem to stop playing it once I start.

  • Michael A.

    Excellent post, though I’d argue that once one understands the mechanics of the game, it loses some of the “personal” magic. I still really enjoy the game, and it’s definitely one of the best Paradox releases I’ve played, but I’m never going to be really fond of the “things happening to you” mechanic of these games. In theory, the plot system should shift the situation to the point where the player has some agency, but in practice it doesn’t, due to the lack of options (90% of the time, the only ambition available to my characters is killing their spouse).

    Rob C’s comments also strike a chord with me.

    1) I agree, to a certain extent – in that games that require impenetrable mechanics in order to be entertaining, are usually not that good games to begin with (or at least they lose all their charm once you learn the ways in which the system can be exploited). A really good game design can bare all its internals and still remain really fascinating to play.

    The only exception to this rule I’ve ever experienced is King of Dragon Pass (which continues to fascinate); but then again – its core mechanics are also pretty strong – and it covers for the rest by laying on the theme heavily.

    2) I think of them as being more sandbox games – best exemplified by how they pretty much all (except HOI?) lack any actual goals to the gameplay.

    3) Paradox games started the AAR wave, IMO. Other strategy games had (very) active modding communities back then, but I don’t recollect anyone else doing AARs for strategy games until the Paradox community took off with EU1.

  • Bruce

    “A WWII commander didn’t get the chance to capture the bridge again because he advanced too quickly the first time and lost half his infantry to some machine gun nests, why should I?”

    Because they’re dead, and he also might be dead. His goal was not to enjoy himself playing a game for the challenge of it.

    Kevin Zucker had a good line in an interview in The General, which said something along the lines of “no wargame should be discussed as ‘realistic’ unless it is played with the firm understanding that the loser will be shot.”

  • Bruce

    Rob, you should write an article based on point 2 and 3 of your first post.

  • Michael A.

    I prefer the variant on that characterization of a realistic wargame given by one Bruce Geryk a long time ago: Players should absolutely dread having to play and the loser should be unceremoniously killed [afterward], preferably after being humiliated by the victor. Killing the loser’s family would be optional.

    Classic series of articles.

    It’s all in the role-playing, though, and the Paradox games come the closest to that roleplaying element of most current wargames.

  • CMiller

    The saving versus continuing after a major loss in games is a tricky one for me. In general I like to try to play through setbacks, but I don’t probably do it as much as I think. That said there is one certain way for me to resort to reloading, cheap defeats. When I lose due to something I had no way of avoiding.

    It’s not as common for me to see in strategy games (though when I have 5 assassins all fail on something with an 80% chance of success I’ll probably reload) but very common for me to see in RPG’s. The best example is when you have a party member you are going to lose, often permanently. They die, or leave, taking much of your best gear with them. I will always reload to before that moment, and take everything that I can back before continuing.

    In strategy there is rarely any moment where you have a single loss you cannot recover from. My king and his entire army gets wiped out? Well the heir takes over, and I consolidate my forces until I can rebuild. I will usually not reload. The only time I tend to reload is when unclear mechanics cause me to lose something due to being poorly explained (have some priests traveling with your invasion force in TW, if the stack gets lost so do all agents. I reloaded as soon as I found that out, and always move agents off of armies before battle now). If the loss is fair, and won’t cause the game to be impossible now I’ll usually let it slide.

    Besides losing a battle is unimportant if you win the war, and in fact makes the victory more sweet for the difficulty.

  • Rob C


    “His goal was not to enjoy himself playing a game for the challenge of it.” I agree with you (how could I not agree with this point!), but for me the level of enjoyment goes down on that second chance. Now I know about that machine gun nest and assuming I have the right unit types to deal with it the machine gun becomes much less of a challenge. The first time the scenario was a freshly cooked meal, the second time it became leftovers. Not necessarily bad, but the crust isn’t quite as flaky after a visit to the microwave.

    This midset has to be heavily influenced by your motivatons for playing. Here comes another generalization – I think many hardcore wargamers enjoy experiencing the history and trying different strategies to see how it effects the outcome. I’m not in that camp. I’m just playing to be challenged. There is nothing wrong with either approach, but it does affect how good the same content looks during the second visit.

    I am thinking about writing something based on my recent experience with some Paradox games (Victoria 2 and Crusader Kings 2), but I’m not sure of what approach I would take. I’m not sure I understand the games enough to give them fair treatment, but then again that is part of the problem. Why don’t I have a better understanding of the rules after spending time with Vicky 2? – Watch it, don’t say it is because I’m an idiot!! :-)

  • Rob C

    Michael, thanks for sharing “Players should absolutely dread having to play and the loser should be unceremoniously killed [afterward], preferably after being humiliated by the victor. Killing the loser’s family would be optional.” That is a great one.

    Bruce, thanks for writing it.

  • Andrew Doull

    “though when I have 5 assassins all fail on something with an 80% chance of success I’ll probably reload”

    I suspect you’d be more forgiving if all five failed for different reasons other than mere capriciousness of the RNG.

  • MFToast

    I feel loading an earlier save due to a massive failure could be called “cheating”, but it’s really just the player trying to get better at the game. At any rate, I don’t think the AI cares either way. Of course, asking a human opponent for Take Backs in a board game is a pretty sad ordeal, but the AI has all the time in the world, essentially to make you as effective as possible at beating it.

  • CMiller

    Andrew nail—->head

  • Peter S (Mind Elemental)

    Thanks for sharing the poignant perspective, Troy.

    I’m not entirely sure you can draw a distinction between CK2 and the other Paradox games here — to me, EU3 also does a good job of being about more than the usual narrative of continuous progress. I like to say that my favourite EU3 moments are the screw-ups, either mine or the AI’s: the ruined empires, the steady declines, the vicious wars of the Reformation, all the limitations straight out of a history book that we rarely see in games. However, I do agree with the general sentiment.

  • Andrew Doull

    CMiller: I stole your example to use in the latest Roguelike Radio episode (http://roguelikeradio.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/episode-25-permadeath.html) – hope you don’t mind.