As everyone and their pot plant will be aware, Crusader Kings II is a medieval-themed strategy game. What comes as a surprise to many people is that it’s a medieval-themed game, not a knights-and-kingdoms themed game. Let me explain.
Your average medieval strategy game is akin to a theme park view of history. You select one of the major kingdoms and, using knights and other period-themed units, seek to kill everyone who is not you. Change the paintwork and the same template is used for Three Kingdoms China, Victorian Europe, Ancient Rome – anywhere. Alternatively, you’re placed in command of a settlement and need to build up breweries and bowyers whilst killing the naughty macemen attempting to knock your settlement down. Meanwhile, Crusader Kings II isn’t afraid to deploy words like “agnatic primogeniture”.
The gameplay structure responsible for much of CKII‘s difference in medieval tone is its incorporation of the feudal system. Or, as the old historian’s joke goes, the feuding system. Whilst much recent debate has occurred on how the feudal system worked, the game uses the classic template favoured by generations of earlier scholars. It’s one many children will have encountered in their text books and which is simple to grasp. Society forms a big pyramid. Emperors sit at the top, then kings, then dukes, then counts, then barons, then the teeming masses of ignoble birth. The church hierarchy mirrors the secular, with the Pope at the top as an honorary king. All land is owned, usually by the person at the top of the title chain. Parcels of land were granted to followers, partly to ensure their loyalty and partly to cope with the administrative difficulties involved in ruling during the period. Anyone holding land from another person is termed a “vassal”. Land ownership is not transferred to the vassal. It’s easiest for the modern mind to view it as rented, with the rent paid by provision of troops, personal loyalty, and political support. A vassal will expect to pass his lands on to his heir, however, and society views this as a reasonable and just expectation. Go against it at your peril, tyrant! Stripping a vassal of his titles will cause large amounts of ill-feeling across the realm, no matter what the vassal has done to upset you. Far safer to imprison them, wait for them to die of neglect, and hope that their heir is more reasonably disposed towards you. A vassal with a large amount of land may create vassals of his own, using people one step below him on the pyramid.
For the sake of simplicity CKII pairs each parcel of land with a set title: if you have the title then you have the land, if you have a claim on the title then you have a claim on the land and can attempt to win it to your control, and if you lack both then that parcel of land is out of your reach unless it belongs to a non-Christian ruler. Religious warfare does not require legal rationalization; the right of the sword is sufficient justification. The correct name for these parcels of land varies depending on the culture of the people living there, so many players use the old standby name of the strategy genre: provinces. One province gets you a count title, or its regional equivalent. Two or more provinces can join together to create a duchy or equivalent. Multiple duchies form a kingdom, or one of the two possible empires. On the province level, the game takes a lean to the detailed side, and introduces sub-holdings inside each province. A province will start with a city, religious foundation, or castle as its controlling sub-holding. After that, there are up to 6 slots for further settlements of these types inside the province. Each of these sub-holdings can also be handed out to a vassal, giving the holder a minor title like mayor. In the event of conflict, capturing the controlling castle will give an invader partial control over a province. Full control is only gained when every single sub-holding has been taken.
The pictures above and below show a quick example. The entire island forms the Kingdom of Ireland. Each of the green patches with a label is a duchy. Provinces are the smaller divisions visible within each duchy. The second screenshot shows the province view for Thomond, part of the Duchy of Munster. The castle at the top next to the person’s portrait is the controlling castle. Below, two boxes are filled in with settlements and one shows only an empty field, ready for the owner to construct a new sub-holding of his choice. The empty grey space below will gradually open up so that further sub-holdings can be constructed.
Each feudal lord, be he count or king, has what is known as a “demesne” (pronounced “demain”, natch), which counts the total amount of land he can personally control. A player returning from the original Crusader Kings might expect demesne to be measured in provinces. It is not. Instead it is measured in sub-holdings. If the game says you can hold 7 items in your demesne, it does not mean 7 provinces, it means 7 castles or cities. The size of your demesne is influenced by your laws and by your character’s stats. With the right set of circumstances you can hold a lot more land than usual, with all the benefits that brings. Benefits? Land held in demesne will contribute the full amount of troops when you summon your levies. You also gain tax income, which varies considerably depending on your technology level, buildings, and laws. Cumulatively, this demesne limit introduces two new feudal factors. Firstly, it’s possible for a character who holds a lot of titles to have his personal demesne scattered across a wide area. This is as advantageous or detrimental as you make it. Wise demesne selection will let you keep your armies in key locations, and give you control of the richest provinces. Poor selection can leave your forces scattered and your coffers struggling. Sometimes it is better to centralise your holdings. The second factor is that it ensures the creation of sub-vassals, and this keeps the feudal system flourishing throughout the game. It is not possible for a player to blot out half of the game in order to play as a complete control freak.
Simple enough, right? You want to be on the top of the pyramid, and better than your peers. You want to hold the juiciest sub-holdings in your demesne, and to pass the whole conglomerate on to your chosen heir in the hopes he may add to it, in turn passing an enriched realm on to his own heir. That is, in a nutshell, the game.
It’s the systems arising from this that make the game so gripping. Without the feudal system, the game wouldn’t need characters, dynasties, inheritance, or laws. Without claims, intrigue would be much less important, and war would lose its main limiting factor. Without vassals, it wouldn’t need inter-character relationships, and intrigue’s remaining usage would be removed. In short, without the feudal system this would be another game about pushing shiny knights around a map for world conquest. Not terribly medieval.
Some of these topics deserve articles of their own, instead of being stapled onto the end of this one. Character relationships, dynasties, warfare, intrigue – these and more will be covered in the future. For the time being I shall limit myself to two areas which tie in most strongly with the legalities of feudalism: levies, and laws.
Levies are fairly straightforward. Each sub-holding has a pool of men which can be summoned to arms. That pool is determined by a variety of factors, but mainly by the type of sub-holding and its upgrade level. A castle will emphasise heavy troops like knights, whereas a city will produce more militia-grade soldiers, such as bowmen. Each sub-holding can be upgraded with various buildings, increasing the number of soldiers available for the levy. As previously mentioned, when a sub-holding is in the demesne of a character, they can summon the entire levy. If your character personally holds a castle which has 500 men available, you will be able to use all 500 of then. If the sub-holding is held by a vassal, then the overlord only has access to a percentage of the total levy. The percentage is decided by the laws which are applicable to the province where the holding is located, and on the vassal’s feeling towards his overlord. The more a vassal likes his lord, the more troops he is willing to provide. A kingdom might have massive military potential, yet still be hamstrung by an extremely unpopular king using weak crown laws. If such a kingdom ended up at war, the king would need to hire mercenaries or hope his vassals took up arms of their own accord. The classic feudal requirements historically used in most of Europe called for the vassal to do 40 days of military service each year. Anything after that was not required, and performed either out of personal loyalty or in return for pay. The game reflects this, with vassals slowly becoming unhappy if you keep their levies called up for too long. As many historical kings discovered, sometimes 40 days is not even enough time to get the soldiers to the battlefield! If you needed another reason to keep your vassals happy, this is it. Deeply unhappy vassals may well judge abuse of their levies to be the final straw.
Laws split into two main categories: inheritance and realm. Inheritance laws are best saved for another article. Realm laws govern how many troops you can summon from each vassal, the taxes vassals must pay, and how strong crown authority is. The first two are self-explanatory. The third is … interesting. At low crown authority, a king is helpless to prevent his vassals squabbling amongst themselves, even to the point of them taking up arms against each other. The best he can do is support one side or the other. At higher levels of crown authority, private warfare is banned and vassals can only choose to fight outside entities. At the lowest level of crown authority, it is completely impossible to revoke a vassal’s title even if you are willing to be seen as a tyrant. The third drawback to low crown authority is perhaps the most tolerable; you are not permitted to choose the generals in command of your raised armies. In the current build of the game, generals have very little influence over combat results, so it’s not the end of the world when the Earl of Sidethorn insists on placing his cousin Cowardly Noskill in command of his contribution to your feudal levy. I expect future builds will increase the importance of good generals, and this will then become a harsher penalty. At the highest levels of crown authority, vassals can barely sneeze without permission! Naturally they hate this – each increased level of crown authority causes a relationship hit with a character’s vassals.
If after reading this you are thinking that the game sounds complicated, well, it is and it isn’t. Provided you can remember the simple feudal pyramid, and accept that you should be thinking in terms of medieval lords working to improve their family’s circumstances in a world filled with AI-controlled characters seeking to do precisely the same, you shouldn’t have much trouble. If you are under someone’s thumb, work to get free by climbing the pyramid so that you stand at the same rank as your overlord. If you have others under your thumb, work to keep them there and to add to your vassal collection. As you play and see the Crusader Kings II feudal system in action, you will start to pick up the more advanced aspects. Until then it’s possible – and enjoyable – to play the game almost like an RPG, picking options and making decisions according to what you think sounds coolest.
Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) has been gaming since she discovered the original Prince of Persia on the IBM 286sx PC. Whilst strategy and RPGs are her preferred genres, she is a multiplatform gamer who will play almost anything provided it isn’t sport, car racing, or multiplayer only. Under the frogbeastegg name Rachel has written guides for many of the Total War series, various AARs for strategy games, and a few pieces of fiction. When not engaged in reminding various virtual populaces that she is in fact the Supreme Ruler of the Universe and the One True Hero, Rachel can typically be found with her nose in a book.
Note: the above comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Paradox Interactive.