I’ll add the usual disclaimer that Paradox is a client of Evolve PR, though no one can really call into question my serious love for many of the studio’s design ambitions. The Sword of Islam expansion is something that fans of the Crusader Kings franchise have been calling for ever since the first game in the series was released; people want to play the Muslim states and not just the Christian kingdoms.
It would be easy to get really soicio-political here and talk about the challenges of presenting an historic Islamic faith in a Western culture that is often sceptical, fearful or confused about Islam in the wake of the Iranian Revolution, 9/11, two extended wars in Middle East and Central Asia and the Arab Spring. Islam is a sprawling and diverse faith that, like many religions, was adapted to the cultures it converted but in game terms needs to be standardized to some extent.
But I’m not going to do the easy thing. I am going to focus on one design issue here, because Sword of Islam does some really funky things with family dynamics.
As is fitting an expansion that was long in conception, the Muslim states in CK2 play very differently from the Christian ones. They have a unique mechanic, Decadence, that can cripple your empire if you don’t think about how to deal with your relatives. They have no Pope, per se, to whom you or your enemies can turn to excommunicate a troublesome rival. There are religious rules that force interesting trade offs between imperial stability and wealth. This is an expansion as dramatic and essential as Heir to the Throne was for Europa Universalis 3.
It also takes a few shortcuts with history and culture of the sort that you also find on the Christian side of things. Not every feudal state was the same, for example, but the mechanics of French and German and English feudalism are fundamentally identical, shaped more by the succession law than by anything inherently French or German or English. Such is the way of history themed games; you can’t model everything perfectly historically without getting into feature creep and a new learning curve for each separate session.
Let’s start with the family relations, since here you can see how SoI upends the usual pattern. First, since polygamy was both culturally and religiously permitted, your ruler is encouraged to have up to four wives. In fact, if you have less than three wives, you suffer a prestige penalty every month. This means that you usually have room to marry any lover you take up from the court, canceling any of the weirdness you might get from going outside wedlock to sow your wild oats (marry your pregnant lover, no worries about bastards!) but also meaning you will almost certainly have ten or twelve children. If you have many princesses to give away, you can create new alliances with foreign leaders and their equally many children.
But if you have lots of sons…this is where things get tricky. See, male members of your dynasty don’t necessarily have the same feudal claims that you have in Christian Europe. You won’t lose prestige or generate animosity from any sons that don’t get land. The assumption is that primogeniture rules, there are no other types of succession to pacify them and there really isn’t much pressure from your kids and uncles and cousins to find them work. So they sit around and accumulate Decadence, a penalty that affects the morale of your troops in a pretty serious way, as well as cutting into other imperial business. If your Decadence level is too high, smaller armies of more tightly controlled enemies can destroy your forces. You can lower decadence through events and slow its growth by giving your male relatives emirates and counties.
Or you can just eliminate them.
This is one of the weird cultural crossovers in SoI. It was common in mid to late Ottoman and Persian culture for male relatives to be imprisoned or executed. Idle hands are the Devil’s playground and leaving indolent relatives with a claim on your titles means that there are challenges to your rule. Within certain limits, you can get a free pass with no tyrant penalty for locking up male relatives in a cell. This is somehow to be expected. But it does mean that you could incur the enmity of a brother that might have skills you need on the battlefield or who later escapes to a neighboring kingdom to press his advantage or, even worse, ends up becoming frail and inheriting your kingdom anyway. Not to mention an angry wife or stepmother that could start plotting against you because of what you do to her children.
So the system in the game encourages you to produce a ton of male heirs that will inevitably pose a problem. You can’t just keep locking up sons without considering all of the possibilities, but there is only so much land to go around. It’s an interesting tension that underlies the entire rest of the game. A lot of the expansion in the CK series was driven by the need for more titles to pass on to your dynasty – expansion was always about more than just prestige and wealth. In Sword of Islam, expansion to find new counties is life or death even as the usual dynamics of CK2 work to make things hard to hold together when the wrong heir takes the throne.
As I work through my Ghana/Mali game, completely limited in how far I can push because Mauretania/Marrakech is so damned powerful, I find myself checking the decadence level of my neighbors, carefully deciding which wife should be number 1 wife and looking at my children’s traits very carefully. Some of these kids will be useful, some of my wives want to kill every stepchild, and having a spymaster checking plots regularly is the best thing to do.
Crusader Kings 2 is not the game for people that have serious trust issues. Sword of Islam ramps up the paranoia as idle cousins can do damage even by doing nothing.
More reports from the field later as I try out something in Egypt.