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.
That was the furthest I ever made it in the Zoroastrian/Persian challenge. Sometimes, I’d survive fifty or a hundred years, only to succumb to invaders. On one subsequent run, I did very well for fifty years, only to fall foul of inheritance laws. More often than not, my efforts resembled medieval Groundhog Day: start, collapse in the first few years, start again.
And yet, this was the most fun I’ve had with CK2. I liked the new mechanics introduced since I’d last seriously played, such as tribes, raids, and factions. I liked the constant excitement that came from being in a dangerous neighbourhood — when I’d played relatively secure rulers, such as William the Conqueror or Matilda of Tuscany, there hadn’t always been enough to do. I liked the challenge itself: at one point, I gave up, tried the Norse, had a great time… and eventually went back to Persia, because the Norse were just too easy. Even continued failure didn’t discourage me: if I could just grab that province a little faster, if the Caliph would suffer a rebellion at just the right moment, if, if, if!
Most of all, I liked the stories.
I’ve previously remarked that most strategy games are rags-to-riches stories. And had I succeeded, this would have been one of the best: the underdogs who restored an ancient empire. When I eked out victories, I rejoiced. When I made concessions (renouncing independence, abandoning territory, converting to stave off a would-be conqueror), the story morphed into one about patience and cunning. I thought of a folk tale I read as a child, about a defeated king who forced himself to lick bitter gall every day and sleep on sticks every night. That king had the last laugh. So, I thought, would I. I even imagined how I’d chronicle my eventual success on this site.
That success never came. It seemed that at best, I could play out a story about valiant underdogs struggling to keep their faith, their traditions, and their empire’s memory alive. As the setbacks and restarts piled up, my thoughts turned to the novels of Rosemary Sutcliff, in which King Arthur and the last Romans struggle to defend Britain against Saxon invaders. Reading Sutcliff, we know that her characters cannot win, and despite all my efforts, neither did mine. Instead of the triumph I’d envisioned, my story ended up a tale of doomed resistance.
All the same, I don’t think my characters’ efforts were in vain. Consider this passage from Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers:
“I sometimes think that we stand at sunset,” Eugenus said after a pause. “It may be that the night will close over us in the end, but I believe that morning will come again. Morning always grows again out of the darkness, though maybe not for the people who saw the sun go down. We are the Lantern Bearers, my friend; for us to keep something burning, to carry what light we can forward into the darkness and the wind.”
Through courage and cunning, my characters carried their light forward, 150 years after it should have gone out. That’s a story worth celebrating. And I like to think future generations kept a little bit of their legend alive.
Fancy trying to become the Saoshyant? Here are the characters — and the approaches — I tried (as of the Charlemagne patch). Good luck!
- Rostam Bavandid, 769 — As vassals of the Abbasid Caliph, the Bavandids’ only hope is for the Caliphate to break up before their titles are revoked. Immediately start a faction for independence, and hope that you can sign up enough of the Caliph’s vassals to win the subsequent revolt. I only pulled this off once… and even then, I lacked the strength to capitalise on the resulting chaos.
- Wakhushakk the Sogdian, Chach, 769 — Spend the first few years building up prestige until you amass enough (500 points) to raise a tribal army. Once you can raise an army, start gobbling up the nearby tribes, and raid your sedentary neighbours for cash. Just watch out — you’ll become vulnerable every time a less prestigious ruler succeeds to the throne. That’s when the computer loves to pounce.
- Vandad Karen, Dihistan, 867 — The Karens face two main threats: the Saffarids to the southeast, and the Abbasids to the southwest. Fighting either head-on is suicide. Instead, take advantage of a short-lived opportunity that exists at the start of the game. Quickly march east and launch a Holy War against the Samanids, while the Saffarids are distracted with their own wars and the Abbasids are still some distance off. Then turn around and pledge allegiance to the newly-beaten Samanids, to keep yourself safe from Holy Wars. I could probably have survived decades or even centuries longer as a Samanid vassal, if I hadn’t grown impatient and switched my allegiance to the Abbasids instead.
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 various Zoroastrian characters playable.