Crisis of the Confederation Q&A, with Gregory Hayes

This entry is part 4 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC Interesting CharactersI am pleased to present an interview with Gregory “Galle” Hayes, project lead for Crisis of the Confederation – the “Crusader Kings II in space” mod I recently covered. Below, we discuss COTC‘s inspirations, the interplay between game mechanics and a space-feudal theme, where new players should begin, and more. Enjoy!


Development of the mod

Peter Sahui: Hello, and welcome to the site!

Crisis of the Confederation is one of the most interesting mods I’ve encountered, a homage to science fiction classics such as Dune and Foundation. What made you decide to translate those influences into a total conversion for Crusader Kings II?

Gregory Hayes: I happen to like applying game mechanics to new story concepts in general, and I’m a firm believer that everything is better in space, but COTC specifically actually had its origins in a game mechanic idea that I was never able to implement. Way back when I was working on A Game of Thrones, I was struck by the idea of using the Investiture mechanics to represent martial law versus civilian law. That created the need for a setting in which the spread of martial law made sense, which inspired the civil war backstory, which in turn led to me to think back to the great science-fiction cliche of the rebellious space colonies.

Another factor that probably influenced my decision was that I was replaying Emperor of the Fading Suns at the time. EotFS is a lot like CK1 – a broken mess of a game that is nevertheless fun because of how great its central ideas are. COTC isn’t really that much like EotFS in gameplay, but the desire for a good space feudalism game was definitely a big influence.

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The OTHER space grand strategy game: Crisis of the Confederation

This entry is part 3 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

COTC - Coup

Grand Admiral Wei Luo is about to betray everything for which he’s fought.

For the last fifteen years, the Admiral has headed Confederate Space Command – the crowning glory of a life devoted to the Terran Confederation. He stood by Earth when the frontier broke away. His son Tao would, he hoped, have followed in his steps. While they didn’t see eye to eye on politics, he knew Tao was brilliant – the finest admiral in the galaxy. One day, he thought, Tao could have led Earth to victory.

Tao’s death broke his father’s faith. Accident or “accident”? Whatever1. In public, the Admiral mourned, and commissioned a clone. In private, he decided that since his son would never have the chance to restore order to the galaxy… perhaps he could.

The plotters fell into place. The warships of the Confederate Space Command formed up in Sol. The stage was set for a coup. I clicked the “Send Ultimatum” button, and the Admiral transmitted his message to the government of Earth: hand over power to me, or else.

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  1. By the way, I checked the save game file. It really was an accident.

Musical Monday: The Byzantine Empire (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

Last Christmas, I spent some very pleasurable hours in the shoes of Alexios Komnenos, Emperor of Byzantium, trying to rebuild my battered empire. This week’s song, added as part of the “Songs of Byzantium” DLC for Crusader Kings II, formed part of that experience. Enjoy!

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My Games of 2014

This entry is part 5 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Welcome back to another Game of the Year list. This year, I’ve tweaked the format again — many of the games I played in 2014 were released in previous years. Sometimes, I played the old game “as is”; sometimes, I played a new port or an expanded version of the old game. So I’ve broken this post down into two parts. First, I review the accomplishments of 2014. And second, I take a look back at the notable games I played, whether or not they were originally released that year.

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The Lantern Bearer: revisiting Crusader Kings II

This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

CK2 Karen Game Over

I thought I’d cracked it.

Over and over again, I attempted one of the greatest challenges in Crusader Kings II – play a Zoroastrian and restore the Persian Empire. Over and over again, I fell prey to larger, stronger neighbours. Proud independence seemed impossible.

Now, it was time for one more approach. I pledged fealty to a weak king — and set myself up as the power behind the throne. It worked: I kept my dynasty, the House of Karen, alive for a hundred years. And one day, I overreached. Playthrough after playthrough had been cut short by the vast armies of the Abbasid Caliphate. Why not switch my allegiance to the Caliph, undermine his rule from within, and pick up the pieces after his fall?

Seventy years later, after my umpteenth rebellion, the Caliph stripped my dynasty of its last lands. I had forestalled fate, not changed it.

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“Wilderness” (Crusader Kings II), composed by Andreas Waldetoft

After giving up on my dream of restoring the Persian empire in Crusader Kings II – believe me, I tried every strategy, half a dozen characters, and many, many times – I decided to try a Norse ruler instead. And wow, the Norse music (contained in the “Hymns to the Old Gods” DLC) is pretty good. The example below is lovely and mellow – enjoy! EDIT: It’s also mellower than the image would suggest – I only just noticed the dangling bodies. Yikes!


Crusader Kings II: Snowballing on the Steppes

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Crusader Kings II

After many attempts to restore the Persian empire in Crusader Kings 2, I have learned two things.

First, playing a Zoroastrian is hard. The first three times, I tried playing Persian Zoroastrian lords: Vandad Karen, an independent lord in 867 (twice), and Shorzan Bavandid, a vassal of the Abbasid Caliphate in 769. I didn’t last long: Vandad is surrounded by hostile neighbours, and Shorzan and his heirs live at the mercy of the Caliph. The fourth time, I chose Wakhushakk1, a tribal chief who rules over a single province in 769 – and this time, after many saves and reloads, I was able to carve out (albeit not keep) a kingdom along the Silk Road. In the process, I made my second discovery: the game has a pretty cool model of tribal societies, as distinct from feudal proto-states.

The key difference2 is that in my experience, feudal armies are predictably sized and only grow gradually. Bigger and more developed realms can raise more troops, but newly conquered territories don’t contribute troops for some time, and developing holdings takes time and money. In contrast, tribes use the leader’s prestige as their main currency. Given a sufficiently prestigious leader, tribal armies can spring up overnight: if a tribe is at war, the player can cash in 500 prestige points in exchange for a 2,500-strong army. On the steppes, that is a big deal. For context, Wakhushakk’s starting levy is only about 350 men!3 The army will disappear in peacetime – but you can keep it around indefinitely by starting a new war before the old war is over.

The trick is getting that 500 prestige. There are several ways to accumulate prestige. One is passage of time: I spent the early years of my tribal game with the speed turned up to maximum, waiting for my prestige to hit the magic 500 mark. A faster way is to win wars. Hit 500 prestige, raise one army, win a few wars and earn another 500 prestige, raise a second army and add it to the first… it’s possible for a tribe to erupt out of nowhere and take its neighbours by storm.

But while tribes are powerful, they’re also brittle. Tribes are the antithesis of “rubber banding”: just as success feeds on success, defeat – and the consequent loss of prestige – can leave the tribe vulnerable. At best, defeat still meant twiddling thumbs while I waited for my prestige to recharge. A second vulnerability is the tribe’s reliance on a prestigious leader. Whenever one of my chiefs died, passing leadership onto an unproven son, my neighbours would pounce. In the end, after spending 50 years in “conquest” mode, I decided that boom-and-bust tribal mechanics had outlived their usefulness. It was time for my people to put down roots and switch to feudalism.

From a mechanical perspective, tribes in CK2 can be a little frustrating – and also exhilarating. From a thematic perspective, I love their representation as warrior societies reliant on charismatic leaders. It seems a very elegant way of representing real-world tribal conquerors  who burst onto their neighbours like a bolt from the blue, while tribal limitations give players a reason to eventually settle down. Give the tribes a try!

Crusader Kings 2 base game and some DLC supplied by Paradox. I purchased the more recent DLC, including The Old Gods and Charlemagne, which made the abovenamed characters playable.

  1. In-game, Wakhushakk comes from the “Sogdian” dynasty. The Sogdians were a people dwelling along the Silk Road, so presumably he’s meant to represent independent Sogdian rulers.
  2. There are several more differences – see this dev diary for more detail
  3. I suspect Wakhushakk is one of the weaker tribal rulers – there’s a Norse chief in 769 AD who starts with a much more impressive 2,000+ men. Still, even in this case, 2,500 tribal warriors would double his army.

Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods, As Told in Classified Ads

This entry is part 5 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden



Not a Review


For sale: 1 longboat fleet. 1 careful owner. 5,670 miles on the clock. Used for raiding around the Russ. No damage, good insurance record. Has provided years of joy and much treasure, sale by necessity only. Owner converted to Christianity so raiding no longer possible. All reasonable offers considered.




Hello good friend. I am King of Mercia, most Excellent Eadward the Bearded, and you help I am nedding. My Kingdom which is of Mercia being conquered by Vikings unJustly and against wishes of my own loving good people who like me their King in bad coup of conquests. I have large treasury (10,000,000 gold bits of pure gold) which i need to Trangsfer out of country without border taxes or being stealed by naughty People. You help me now and I make you Rich by giving you generous share of my large treaserary (10,000,000 coin in g0ld) being worth 10%. You ‘ll be a Rich man. All you need to do to Help me is send by fastest carrier pigeon your treasury key and guard passwords so that i can send by direct transfer directly the whole of my own treasury (10,000,000 peices of gold) under the label of a Random event choose Gift event choice 2. Then it arriving safely in your country and I giving you generous 10% of total to keep as to make you a Rich man who has lots of monies.


Replie immediately as this time limited offer due to Vikings killing everyone and robbing all my country. Remember: send treasury key and guard pastwords by fastest carrier pigeon now for lots of gain! Send carrying pigeons to:


Yes, this great opportuinity for to Kind and great man who help Mighty king down on his luck with big treasury (10,000,000 golds!) due to Vikings.




Rebel with a clue seeks army for rebellion. No experience necessary; however, dedication to the cause is a must as aimless rebelling is no longer permitted. All applicants will be considered. Apprenticeships available for ages 18-24.



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The Best Games of 2012

This entry is part 3 of 6 in the series Game of the Year Awards

Happy Ne1st Place Award Ribbonw Year, everyone!


2013 has dawned, and it’s time to review the best of last year’s games (that I played). This year I’ve opted to break from the traditional “best RPG”, “best strategy”, etc format normally used in Game of the Year rankings. For one, it papers over the vast differences that exist within any genre: Dark Souls is not Skyrim is not Mass Effect. For another, there are sometimes multiple standout games within the same genre. So instead, I’ve opted to recognise games for their special achievements. Here are 2012’s exemplars:


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On the importance of swooshing cameras (or, personal meanderings how minor details add up to significant effect)

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

Europa Universalis II was my first Paradox game. Since then I’ve played every strategy title Paradox has produced, excepting the Hearts of Iron series. Whilst I have great respect for their scope and ambition, and do not care to think about how many hours of my life they have consumed, I have often found them rather soulless. Not quite the proverbial Excel spreadsheet – but not all that far off. They lacked atmosphere and felt like they had little to do with the era they portrayed outside of a handful of specific game mechanics and some window dressing. After a lengthy process of gradual improvement, I find that Crusader Kings II demonstrates that Paradox has put the final nail in that soulless feeling’s coffin.


How have the developers managed this? With a swooshing camera, trivial artwork, nicely timed music, and a few other entirely frivolous details which, taken together, add up most pleasingly.


When Crusader Kings II launches, it greets the player with a stained-glass version of the Paradox company logo. This is not unusual: the other games all feature a customised version of the logo. The intro music begins to play immediately, a gentle piece with soft chanting over the top of a small selection of instruments. If you do not own the game, you can listen to the title music here. The logo swaps to a slideshow of unique illustrations. After 52 seconds, the point where the game will transition to main menu on most computers, the music begins to pick up both in pace and in complexity. At 1:03, bam! The music temporarily kicks up another level as the player surveys their options, then goes softer to permit undistracted thought. At 2:06, around the time I’m seriously pondering the merits of a particular dynasty, the music kicks up to full fever and my head fills with visions of epic conquest. Whether the harmony of game timing and music pace is intentional or a happy accident, the sequence does possess a few advantages over Paradox’s prior games. The two immediately prior handily demonstrate two different approaches, neither of which I feel works as well. Sengoku observes total silence through the loading screens; music makes its first appearance when the player arrives at the main menu. A House Divided, the expansion pack for Victoria II, has an animated intro sequence prior to the loading screens. Whilst this works nicely on the player’s first game, on all subsequent ones it is skipped. This results in a burst of disassociated music before the video vanishes and the majestic loading screen music begins. Compared to Crusader Kings II’s smooth sequence, the result feels uneven and disrupted.


Crusader Kings II has another trick up its sleeve for the opening: my titular swooshy camera. The main menu is a 3D map of Christendom plus neighbouring non-Christian lands. Click on ‘single player’ and swoosh! The camera swings in, seamlessly transitioning the map from background to the centrepiece on which you choose your dynasty. Choose your dynasty and start the game, and swoosh! Once again, a seamless transition as the map zooms in on your starting location, the interface swaps to the in-game set, and the game is ready to play. As Nintendo 64 owners used to tell their Playstation ‘rivals’ during the fifth-generation console wars, smooth transitions and no loading times matter. In this instance they preserve the atmosphere the game creates, and allow for one very neat visual effect. The swoosh itself, despite being a tiny bit of programming, makes the game feel more luxurious than previous Paradox titles. It feels like a Big Boy Studio effect.


The swooshy camera also reveals an overt secret. When the camera begins its first swoop, you can see the boundaries of the 3D world. Rather than cutting off in an ugly crop, there is a raised, patterned wooden border. The world exists as a sculpture inside a tray. Who would possess such a map? How about the fabled Emperor Qin, whose tomb is said to possess a map of China with rivers made out of mercury. Plush! Crusader Kings II is not the first game to present its map as precisely that. Victoria II mimicked a school atlas when the player zoomed out far enough, and CA’s original Shogun: Total War plays out on a parchment map with carved wooden counters, to name but two. That said, the effect is unusual, and presented in a manner which feels distinct to this one game.



What about the sound effects? Where most games feature bland clicking sounds when you hit this or that interface button, Crusader Kings II features various harp chords. Move around quickly enough and you create your own little tune. This only applies to the ‘choose your dynasty’ screen, so it does not have the chance to wear out its welcome.


That’s the swooshy camerawork and the well-timed music. What about the rest?


As a casual glance at any screenshot will reveal, the game’s interface is a concoction of stained-glass, occasional gilding, muted colours, and niello. In-game, you will notice a multitude of little details, like sections of scrollwork carving. The stained-glass buttons are made up of numerous little panes, not crude chunks of colour. Messages are presented on scraps of tattered parchment. There’s a large variety of custom paintings used across the interface, from the reclining lady in the pregnancy announcement to the soldiers on the battle screen. This is an image-rich game. I cannot think of any other Paradox game with as many supporting artworks. In this aspect Crusader Kings II is once again the culmination of a slow process; each Paradox game has added a little more care to the UI artwork, passing from the functional ugliness of the early games, through the passable but bland games like Victoria, to the almost-but-not-quite of Sengoku‘s tasteful wooden panelling.


Having given a nod to the most obvious, I’d like to move to the minor detail I myself find most important: armies. In prior games, armies tended to look very similar, to the point where I occasionally found it difficult to tell who owned what! Crusader Kings II gives each province’s army its own unique coat of arms, and an army levied from that province will wear the coat of arms on its surcoat. Additionally, different cultures have different army models. Instantly, the world feels far more alive, the game more detailed. Now that sounds confusing in the opposite direction. How do you tell which army belongs to whom? Answer: it’s easy to recognise the coats of arms, yours and your foes’, because you see them all the time whilst playing the game. Heraldry works – that’s why it was used for so many centuries. If that’s not enough, the owning faction’s icon appears below the army model, and it’s that vital bit bigger and clearer than similar identifiers in games like Sengoku, whilst not so disassociated as the big flags in games like Europa Universalis III.


Armies in Sengoku. Two warring clans ... but which one is mine?


Armies in CK2. Look-it the purdy surcoats!


The characters speak for themselves. Instead of being filled with rather bland countries differentiated only by their flag, Crusader Kings II has a world filled with varied faces, traits and statistics. This is the evolution of a design which began in Crusader Kings I, then grew in Europa Universalis: Rome and Sengoku. Whilst the range of character stats and actions is a little larger, it is once again the seemingly unnecessary frippery which helps Crusader Kings II take that leap ahead. Due to a wider range of character portraits, improved visual detail on those portraits, and a better visual aging process, the game feels that bit more convincing. That in turn supports the character-based gameplay, with all its inter-personal relationships and event choices. In a satisfying loop, that gameplay bolsters the portraits by making the faces feel like more than a randomised bit of art.


A swooshy camera, lots of minor graphical frippery, a few frivolous details – all unnecessary fanciness with little relation to gameplay… all vital to making Crusader Kings II feel alive.


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.

How to lose Crusader Kings II: a very short guide

This entry is part 3 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden


Being a small collection of ways to lose:


Not Enough Relatives


1. Lack of male heirs. No sons, no other applicable males, and no time to rush through that female inheritance law.


2. Failure to read the fine print. Matrilinear. Important word. If your heir is female, it’s the single most important word in the English language after “tea”. It means that her offspring will inherit her dynasty name, i.e. you can play as them. Marry your little princess off in a standard marriage – in which she joins her husband’s family – and it’s the end of your line, no matter how many bratlings she produces.


3. Mass death. So you’ve done your duty and provided for the succession. Then the plague/Mongols/assassins/tournament come to town, and before you know it, people are dropping dead left, right and centre due to freak bad luck.


Too Many Relatives


4. Ill-considered gavelkind. You succeed, overwhelmingly. Title after title falls into your sweaty little hands. Heirs pose no problem: you’ve got sons and to spare. Then, your character dies. Suddenly your realm fractures – and you discover that under gavelkind law, the eldest heir only receives a single “copy” of the highest level title. All “duplicates” at that level will be handed out to the younger heirs. Where before you were the King of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland, you are now the King of England, with neighbourly Kings of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Back to square 1; say hello to fraternal in-fighting, and freshly predatory neighbours.


5. Uncles. Your new character is a 2-year-old with the ‘drooling moron’ trait. He’s rated at 0 in every stat. Even his twin sister hates him. Thanks to dear Daddy’s martial exploits, the treasury is empty, the armies are dead, and family authority shaky. Along comes dear uncle with his shiny blood claim, and it all goes like the proverbial fairytale. In no time at all moron-boy is reduced to count of a single African province which provides no income and no levies thanks to being recently conquered. Did I mention kindly Uncle has a different dynasty name to his darling nephew? Control will not pass to him should Tiny Tim have a tragic accident…



Own Petard, Hoist By


6. Wives. So your wife hates you, you’ve got no children, and she’s just gained the ambition to become your spymaster? She’s got a good intrigue score, and fulfilling her ambition will make her happy. What’s the worst that could happen? This could be the turning point of your relationship, the start of many years’ happy contentment and, more importantly, the source of a child or three. Two months later you notice your wine tastes funny…


7. Wives II: The Revenge. After 20 years of marriage you still haven’t got a child. A beautiful young courtier looks at you in a certain way, and something pops up. No, not that, thank you! An event offering you the chance of an affair. The tooltip says you have a chance at producing a bastard child! You click “Woohoo!” as quickly as your mouse will allow, brain already alight with plans for legitimising your bastard and using it as an heir. Score – one baby on the way! Then you die. Belatedly you recall that your wife has a high intrigue rating and a jealous disposition. Since it’s a mite difficult to rule a kingdom whilst in the womb, game over.


8. Being too liberal. Your son and heir is now a grown man. Capable of making his own decisions. Right? You give him some titles and off he goes, leaving your court to establish his own and begin building his prestige. Wait – you did marry him off before you let him go, right? You didn’t?! Now he’s free to choose his own wife. Next thing you know, you’re pasting a fixed smile on your face, shaking the hand of your chaste, octogenarian daughter-in-law and wondering how much it will cost to get her removed. Then you notice your son’s spymaster is way better than yours, and you’ve no chance of killing her. Oh well, at that age nature will soon take its course, right? Amazingly, this elderly lady out-lives both her husband and her father-in-law.


9. Marriage. You marry your daughter to the son of a powerful neighbour. It’s all good, right? You’ve got a powerful ally, and the next generation on that throne will have your blood – oh crap! Your blood! Thanks to your current laws, that means a claim on your titles, and their army is like ten times bigger than yours! Kill the happy couple? It’s the only hope! Assassin fail, assassin fail, assassin fail, bankruptcy, discovery, pissed off marriage-ally, train headed down tunnel right at your face.


10. Getting too clever for your own good. Family tree grown a bit messy? Too many people got blood links and claims to your shiny stuff? The future could get scary. Why not tidy things up a little with the aid of your good friend, Mr Assassin? Yay! Now the tree is all nice and neat, like a pretty little bonsai. Then your heir discovers he prefers other men, your daughter-in-law takes to religion in a hardcore way, and your sole grandkid dies of the plague. Whoops!



Live By The Sword…


11. Pope-assisted suicide. So you’re the lord of a tiny realm with an income of three goats and a sheep per year? Life’s sweet – in another 70 years you will be able to afford that rickety wooden palisade castle upgrade which you’ve been eyeing for the last 2 generations! Then along comes Il Papa with his talk of glory, religious duty, and sweet, sweet loot, and off you rush on Crusade, eyes a-gleam at the thought of funding a new chicken coop with liberated gold. Only to realise that one province target has a whole alliance network, meaning half of the Muslim universe is now coming to visit you at home. Peace? They don’t want peace – they want your chickens, your palisade fund, and your sole title! Meanwhile, the rest of Christendom wisely decided to sit this one out.


12. Ambitious AI lords. When your liege, King Suicide McDeath III, declares war on a more powerful kingdom for the twentieth time that decade, you’d better find a get-out clause in that vassalage-contract, or you’re going down in a flame of bankruptcy, rebels, stress, battle wounds, and angry mercenaries.


13. HRE. That’s Holy Roman Empire for those of you who don’t have the game. You are a minor lord. You’re outside the HRE. The HRE think that by rights you should be part of it. They declare war. Approximately 100,000,000,000 soldiers are now headed your way, supported by the wealth of half Europe. Your army of 11 people and a pig stand no chance! Swiftly, you send a grovelling peace offer. Denied! They want your title, without you attached. And since you can’t give away your last title, that means…


14. Pagans. Hi, I’m the King of Poland. My realm is compact, and pretty, and peaceful, and rich, and it’s got some nice armies too. Life is happy! Oh look, one of my neighbours is a one-province pagan dude with no allies. He will be easy to crush. Based on the number of soldiers I get from my provinces, he should have around 250 soldiers. War time! Let’s loot – er, convert the savages. Argh! Where did they all come from, the thousands of angry pagans, with the anger and the pointy weapons, and did I mention that there’s thousands of them!? Gah! My armies are all dead without so much as denting the hordes! Now all my other pagan neighbours are declaring war on me too! God? I need some help spreading Your word (and not dying) here. God? Are You there? God? God!?


Being a small collection of ways to win:


1. Survive over 300 years and reach the end date. You’ll get shown your score, and probably be told you did worse than various historical dynasties.


2. Lose.


3. I mean it: lose.


4. Losing is far more fun than building a huge kingdom and holding it until 1453. Thus, winning is losing by another name. Losing, now that’s a whole pile of win!


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.

Crusader Kings II: Feudalism: domain thing?

This entry is part 2 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

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.

Guest post: One hour with Crusader Kings II, by Rachel McFadden

This entry is part 1 of 5 in the series Crusader Kings II game diary, by Rachel McFadden

History is good. Games are good. Vivid, memorable characters are good. Could a historical game packed with vivid, memorable characters, Paradox’s Crusader Kings II, be best of all? In the following guest post, the first of a series, Rachel McFadden (aka frogbeastegg) sets out to answer this.


Note: the following comments are based on a review copy supplied by the game’s developer, Paradox Interactive.



My first hour with a new PC game follows a time-honoured pattern. I read the manual whilst the game installs. In the days of 20GB installs and pamphlet manuals, I usually need to add a chapter of my current book to fill the downtime. Next, I dutifully check for patches. When the game’s finally ready to launch, I do so and watch any opening cinematics. After that, I fiddle with the options screens. If there’s a tutorial, I’ll go there next, whether it looks useful or not. Only after all of this rigmarole do I settle down with a cup of tea to start playing the game proper.


Boring! Traditional. Traditionally boring?


In Crusader Kings II, I spent my first hour running around the game set-up screen whilst my inner history geek squealed with joy.


It all began innocently enough. I scouted around the map a little, looking at the various kings and independent rulers in the ‘William the Conqueror 1066’ scenario. After locating most of the famous names from the period and chuckling at their portraits, I started to look at their vassals. Sure enough, I spotted the obvious names. There’s this king’s brother, here’s that duke’s nephew, there’s that famous daughter, and oh my gosh that’s pseudo-saint Waltheof of Huntingdon prior to his little mishap with a headsman’s axe! Selecting the vassals meant I could see their courts, and another round of name-spotting swept across Europe. Then I did the same thing with the other bookmarks.


Having exhausted the scenarios, I looked speculatively at a certain control which is in most Paradox games, one I’ve seldom found useful as it mainly makes minor changes to national borders. I cautiously clicked on a button. I grinned. Ladies and gentlemen, CKII features a fully functional time machine!



The scenarios act as bookmarks that store specific dates. Using the time machine you can choose your own starting date, right down to the very day. It turns out that CKII has historical data for the entire time range, not just the specified starting points. As you play with the dates the world shifts and changes – characters age or grow younger before your eyes, titles rise and fall, and all sorts of extra historical personages appear onto the scene. Start in 1066 with William the Conqueror and move forward, there’s William II, forward, Henry I, forward, Stephen I, forward, Henry II – the line will continue in historically correct form up to the latest date the game supports, January 1st 1337. It’s not only the English royal line that does this. Every single title on the map will do the same, from the mightiest of Sultans to the most minor of counts. Their vassals and courts will likewise update.


Needless to say, I spent another half hour with this new toy.


With the discovery of the time machine, I pushed the game to what I expected to be its limit. I went in search of my favourite historical personage. First I located King John of England, then worked through his vassals until I found a certain Countess Isabelle, an heiress with huge tracts of land. Selecting her I scanned through her court and … yes, there he was, the husband who derived most of his landed status through her. William Marshal, aka The Greatest Knight. An old man with a bevy of historically accurate children, still wearing his armour with pride.


At this point my inner medievalist had a meltdown. William Marshal is in the game and playable! If ever there was an occasion where the internetism “ZOMG!!” applies, surely this is it.


When you start a campaign, there’s more detail available on the historical characters. You can see the traits they have been assigned by developers and grumble that so-and-so wasn’t that, or nod approvingly because it’s plainly apparent that what’s-his-face was a this. And then I noticed the range of ancestors. Yes, this means you can go on a paper chase to locate personages of the non-landholder variety, including a vast array of female characters.


Might I humbly suggest Paradox start working on a Pokemon-esque sub-game centred around locating historical people in CKII? I’d buy that as £1.59 DLC, especially if I can train my Anna Comnena to breathe fire and shoot ice beams from her fingertips, or make Frederick Barbarossa hurl lightning.


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.