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Getting What’s Coming To You: The Humanity of Crusader Kings II

August 28th, 2012 by Troy Goodfellow · 2 Comments · Paradox

Shall I join with other nations in alliance?
If allies are weak, am I not best alone?
If allies are strong with power to protect me,
Might they not protect me out of all I own?
Is a danger to be trusting one another,
One will seldom want to do what other wishes;
But unless someday somebody trust somebody
There’ll be nothing left on earth excepting fishes!

—- “A Puzzlement” from The King and I

If you listen to the podcast, then you probably remember Rowan Kaiser from a couple of recent shows, including our episode on Crusader Kings II. It’s a game that he and I have talked a lot about over Twitter and I think we both agree that it is one of the more remarkable strategy titles in recent years. (Usual disclaimer that Paradox is a client of my firm apply.)

Rowan recently blogged about CK2 for Bit Creature, arguing that a) a well structured strategy game can say as much or more about the human condition than a narrative centered action game or arty platformer, and b) that CK2 is an exemplar of a meaningful (and maybe important?) strategy game. It’s a great post, because it captures how ‘human’ the game can get, even though it is really just a bunch of math.

This is where Crusader Kings II transcends its type: it models human behavior around power. First of all, it models historical behavior remarkably well—the scenario of the two ambitious brothers mirrors Richard III of England for one. Dynastic struggles of the medieval period make sense through the lens of the game. But Crusader Kings II’s game engine makes a broader claim about the nature of power and ambition.

All good empire building games are about power and ambition. Though they generally focus on how the player is going to achieve his/her goals, they require opponents with similar goals or other obstacles that impede forward progress to global domination or market supremacy or the presidency. Solo focused games like city builders and wargames generally don’t have ambition as a driver beyond self-motivation to accomplish greater achievements or unlock new maps, scenarios or powers.

Rowan is right that CK2 is a world of power and ambition, but it is also a world of laws and expectations. CK2 is about entitlement – both what a character legally knows they are owed, and what a character ‘morally’ feels they deserve.

This is why you can have one noble ready to revolt, but choose not to, and a beloved son stab his siblings in the back when daddy’s corpse is still warm. As much as ambition and the drive for power can make it hard to trust anyone in CK2, the mechanics demand it. The addition of court factions in the upcoming Legacy of Rome expansion to CK2 will even more push you to climb the slippery rope of power with other people.

Gamers tend to identify with something – anything – that is given human characteristics in a game. We don’t identify with falling blocks or musical notes on a screen, but we do ‘become’ Napoleon or Max Payne or China. In a game like CK2, that human tendency is accelerated by creating a family to care about. You invest time in making laws that will strengthen the future of your dynasty, and though you are technically just a family head at all times, after a few decades it is impossible to not think of your dynasty as synonymous with your nation.

This is where human perception starts to mess with your brain. Your family can be large and expansive, but when my new dynastic leader is the lawful and legitimate son of a beloved king, I won’t bow down and surrender to a stronger uncle – even though this would not end the game and which would be better in the long run for the nation. It’s not just a matter of the game’s ambition being made manifest in my reactions, it is a matter of pride, stubbornness and “that’s not the way I have things planned, so sit down and shut up, Uncle Dagomar.”

At the same time, as a monarch that sees trouble down the line, I have sometimes hidden, murdered, exiled or altered laws to prevent an idiot from succeeding. You could argue that this is enlightened empire management, and it sometimes is. It is also driven by the prideful demand that what I built not be undone by a Cathar half-wit. And none of the actions I can take to remove the problem are easy, sure-fire or cost free. Still, this is my duchy/kingdom/empire – why should I pass it on to someone I don’t want to?

Why your ‘allies’ want what you want is as important as the fact that they will help you. If you lead the French nobles in a civil war to claim the throne, you need to know which of you battlefield companions are doing because they think that THEY should be king. Failure to account to the expectations of your advisors, family member and allies can easily turn a successful campaign in a cascading series of failures and new weaknesses. Remember that a successful civil war reduces the authority of the new king – so even that plum prize you gain will be a little more sour than it would have been had you taken the safer, longer route of marriage and undetected murders. But then the claim could expire, or the new king might be tougher, or…well, what the hell. You would be a better king anyway.

You could argue that ambition is merely the burning desire to get what you feel is owed, but I think that ambition has a more grasping nature. In Civ terms, ambition is what makes you conquer smaller empires because they are there and entitlement is what makes you attack Montezuma because he settled a rich plot of land that you were counting on to keep your empire happy. (Also, Montezuma. Screw that guy.)

I will be blogging replies to a lot of strategy game I writing I have been reading over the last month – and maybe that will get me writing more in general.


2 Comments so far ↓

  • Ritalingamer

    The thing I love most about CK2 is how the player and character’s ambitions and motivations interact. You can see this play out in a lot of AAR’s/LetsPlays of the game.

    I most enjoy reading AARs or forum posts about the game where the character/current monarch are assigned motives of their own and even will take counterproductive actions (launch that plot a wee bit too early, say), versus waiting until their more capable and well-liked son can succeed to the throne.

    Meanwhile, when a player has their Pious, Humble Count bump off his wife because “too old wifemurder LOL” I groan (and wonder if I should contact some authorities). The conflict between what the player wants and what we think the character wants are one of my favorite unintended side effects of this brilliant game.

  • Gormongous

    This calls to mind the issue the issue I had when posting about this game in the TMA forums. After I’d written up my post, I did a style pass and discovered how often the first-person pronoun was used to refer in turn to me as the player, me as the dynasty, me as the kingdom, and me as the current ruler. They weren’t conflated, as I had a very clear awareness of my actions in each context, but it was interesting the mental compartmentalization that goes on in a game where you have several different types of presence in the world.