Total War Rome II DLC Campaigns: The Buyer’s Guide

Matchsticks for my Eyes is pleased to present the latest guest post by Rachel “frogbeastegg” McFadden, author of Frogbeastegg’s Guides to Total War. Rome II has smartened up considerably since its release; the article below discusses its add-on campaigns.

I have seen a lot of people asking about the various DLC campaigns for Total War: Rome II lately. Here’s a brief run-down of them all, in order of release.

Caesar in Gaul

Caesar in Gaul is my current favourite out of the Rome II campaigns which I have played.

This is the smallest scale out of all of those available. The map is a very zoomed-in version of France with a bit of Germany, Italy and Britain on the edges. The map comprises of around 50 cities in total, so it’s more than capable of portraying the geography of the area. The victory requirements are low at only 28 cities for victory instead of the more usual 50. The smaller scale makes the map very intimate, and each new advance feels like a good step forward. The map is the most Shogun II-esque in terms of providing choke-point geography and interesting routes.

Caesar in Gaul is small in scale in terms of faction variety as well; it’s Romans versus Gauls with a smattering of Britons and Germans. If you do not enjoy fighting against lots of Gauls you will hate this because most of the factions on the map are, unsurprisingly, Gauls. Playable factions include Rome, Suebi, and two Gaulish factions. Not the Britons, disappointingly; I’d have liked to go fully Reverse-Caesar and this is the one area where I feel let down by this DLC.
Special mention needs to go to the season system; the version seen in the other campaigns is a watered-down version of Caesar in Gaul‘s. Winter? It hurts. Set foot outside of your cities when the bad weather arrives and you will take losses as you march. Spring, summer and autumn all have interesting, if less pronounced, effects. You need to be aware of the time of year and plan for it in a way which the Total War series has never previously asked of the player.

The research system is has a small yet nice modification: you can buy half of the techs for immediate bonuses. It adds a third choice into the spending decisions and in my opinion that makes the strategy portion fly in a way which the others do not. Do I want to build new units, new buildings, or get a useful tech? The economy is quite reasonable on hard mode too, not too restrictive and not overly generous. I recommend building lots of farms and farm boosters because trade is less of an option.

History buffs may appreciate the little quotes from Caesar’s Gallic Wars which appear throughout the campaign.

Note: there is no civil war in this campaign. It is disabled. Instead you will encounter something similar to Shogun II‘s realm divide once your imperium grows high enough. Either the Romans will send Caesar massive reinforcements, or the Gauls will band together to throw you out. For this reason a lot of players consider this to be one of the hardest campaigns.

This campaign also makes three new barbarian factions playable in the Grand Campaign, the Nervii, the Boii, and the Galatians.

Hannibal at the Gates

If Caesar in Gaul is a small campaign, this is a medium-sized one. The geographic area of the map is considerably larger, although there are only a few more cities on the map. The range of factions is larger, and there are more cultures represented. At 50 cities, the victory requirement is midway between Caesar in Gaul‘s and the average faction’s Grand Campaign goal.

Hannibal at the Gates does not have any particular stand-out features of its own so it mostly plays like a smaller version of the Grand Campaign. That makes it easier to know what to expect if you’ve played Rome II already. If you want a smaller, faster-to-finish version of that, then Hannibal is an excellent place to look.

Carthage and Rome both have access to extra legions above the normal cap; if I remember correctly, it’s 2 more each. This makes them more dangerous and helps set the stage for a show-down with a mighty foe.

Diplomacy is relatively pre-set. Rome and Carthage are locked into perma-war, and each have allies assigned at the start. The allies can and will desert their masters, and sometimes change sides if they are hurting badly enough. There can be no negotiation between the Big Two, however. No truces, no temporary trade, nothing; Carthage (or Rome) must be destroyed!

There seems to be an element of luck to the difficulty of this campaign. Depending on what the AI does you will either have a hard fight on your hands, or the main enemy will fail to grow in pace with the player. I suspect that this campaign’s AI is more vulnerable than usual to patch changes. I had an enjoyable, challenging game as Carthage facing an aggressive Rome and an increasingly fraught Spanish situation. I couldn’t get my hands on enough money or manpower to meet my ideal needs until the final third of the game. Conversely, my Rome campaign, also played on hard difficulty, was a complete cakewalk from start to end. I had money overflowing my coffers from turn 1 and that fuelled everything else, although I admit that this might be due to my choosing to disband my starting mercenaries and thus double my income right off the bat. The two Spanish factions reportedly have a tougher time, and Syracuse is considered the most difficult faction of the selection.

This campaign makes two Spanish factions and Syracuse playable in the Grand Campaign.

Imperator Augustus

Imperator Augustus is the FreeLC (as CA call it) campaign which came with the Emperor Edition. If you own Rome II, you own this. It’s basically the Grand Campaign with fewer but larger factions at the start, a few tweaks to city placement on the campaign map, slightly different technology, a different diplomacy set-up, and inevitable war between the assorted Roman factions. Fine, fun, very large in scale and breadth. Huge and time consuming. I have not finished a campaign in it yet, although I have one in progress as Pompey’s Rome.

Wrath of Sparta

This is the newest DLC and I have not had the time to play much of it yet. It’s an interesting twist on the formula … more deliberate, I suppose you could say. Things like recruiting take longer than usual, and as a result each decision carries more weight than normal.

Like Caesar in Gaul, the map is very zoomed-in and geographically intimate. Seasonal gameplay is implemented once again, as is the ‘end-game challenge’, this time in the form of a Persian invasion. Capturing the major factions’ capitals will impose a large diplomacy penalty on the player, so expansion needs to follow a different pattern to the usual “I’ll expand outwards and keep my borders secure, killing one opponent at a time.”

Proviso: you must like hoplite v hoplite warfare. If you find that too slow and static, you will hate this campaign unless you auto-calc all of the battles. Unit types are at their most limited in Wrath of Sparta; hoplites, light cavalry, assorted skirmishers, and that’s pretty much your lot unless you hire mercenaries from the northern areas of the map. The DLC’s store page info boasts of 50 new units; be aware that most of those are minor tweaks on existing units.

Warlock 2: Mage Versus World

This entry is part 2 of 3 in the series Warlock



My first scout killed some cockroaches and some wolves, then was mauled by a giant bear.

My second scout found some demonic trees and was turned into fertilizer before he could retreat.

My third scout killed some wolves and some weak spiders, reached level 3, and was immediately eaten by the giant killer spider lurking behind the weak spiders.

My fourth scout was diverted to help clean up a rogue infestation near my second city. After that he headed out into the fog and had dinner with some angry zombies. He was the main course.

My fifth scout killed the bear that killed my first scout, and discovered ogres. This was not a fortuitous discovery.

My sixth scout survived until the end of the game despite some hairy moments involving fire elementals, imps, vampire lords, sand golems…

My seventh scout found a trio of polar bearmen.


As the sequel to 2012’s Warlock: Master of the Arcane, Warlock 2 builds on that foundation and manages to make its predecessor all but obsolete. Warlock 2 offers most of 1‘s content, along with a bevy of new features, systems, modes, options and content. Unfortunately it also inherited the first game’s biggest flaw: weak AI opponents. As such, the game’s world is your main opponent, and what a hostile, merciless opponent it can be! The list above is a fairly standard record of the first 20 turns of my Warlock 2 games.


When I reviewed Warlock 1 at release I found it to be enjoyable, and a little unusual. It looked like Civilisation V, a similarity which only ran skin-deep. Far from being a 4X empire builder, it was a tactical wargame powered by copious magic, a hostile world, and unhinged comedy. Warlock 2 is no different, and in the crowded turn-based fantasy strategy game market of 2014 that’s all the more important. Warlock 2 is not directly comparable to Age of Wonders III, Endless Legend, Elemental, Eador, or any of the other releases which we’ve seen in the last year.


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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.



Continue reading “Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods, As Told in Classified Ads”

X-COM: That which kills us makes us very dead

With the new XCOM game around the corner, it’s time to reflect on the fallen. The First and Second Alien Wars had horrific death tolls. Tens, hundreds, thousands of little pixel-dudes rotated on the spot to face the player, screamed, and fell down to never rise again. Always those brave men and women turned to face the player. We looked them in the tiny pixel-eye as they expired. It was the least we owed them. Heroes, every one.


What were the main causes of death in these brutal, bloody conflicts? Read on…


The First Alien War is UFO: Enemy Unknown, aka X-COM: UFO Defence for the non-Europeans. The Second War is known by the codename Terror from the Deep. The Third Alien War, dubbed Apocalypse, will not feature here as I sat that one out.

Continue reading “X-COM: That which kills us makes us very dead”

A story worth telling: Game of Thrones the RPG

What can you do when you desperately want to talk about a game, yet cannot do so without spoiling most of what made it such a memorable experience? I have been attempting to find an answer to that question for weeks now. Game of Thrones the RPG is that rare thing: a game with a story which would genuinely be lessened if, when starting, you knew what lay ahead. There are moments of genuine surprise, moments of emotion, moments where the pieces snap together and where I was left in admiration of the storytelling. As much as I would love to link to a youtube video of my favourite speech in the game, I cannot. As much as I’d love to discuss the interplay during a certain rainy scene, I cannot. As much as I am dying to discuss the way a specific relationship is developed, I cannot!


There came a point where, with a good deal of surprise, I realised that I wished I had not read the books by George R R Martin because they were spoiling the game’s plot. Honestly. Hand on heart. When the game laid out certain facts, my mind feverishly examined them, twisted them about to fit them into the ever-expanding plot — and then I realised I knew the rough direction certain aspects must take because of what is — and is not — present in the books. If I hadn’t possessed that book-based knowledge, then particular aspects of the plot would have been all the more effective — but I cannot elaborate without risking indirect spoilers.


ZOMG! That’s the scene where — argh! I can’t say! If you see the cutscene that image is part of, that’s the scene which I wish I could post a video of. I can’t believe it’s used as a marketing image! I bet the developers chortle every time they see an unsuspecting site post it.


For reader reference, I am not a big fan of the Ice & Fire series. I have read all of the main series, along with two of the Dunk & Egg novellas. I started reading back when book 3 was released in paperback. Whilst I really enjoyed the first three books, I found Feast for the Crows and Dance with Dragons to be deeply disappointing. The novellas were OK, the first being superior to the second in my opinion. Series 1 of the HBO adaptation was generally excellent, but I haven’t yet seen series 2. Thus, I would say you do not need to be a fan in order to enjoy the game. You only need to have the right gaming tastes. Make no mistake: however much I liked it, I do not recommend Game of Thrones the RPG to any but a specific sub-set of gamers. More on that later. First I shall attempt to pick my way through the minefield and explain why I enjoyed the story so much.


To begin with, the game alternates between two protagonists, Mors and Alester. You play chapter 1 as Mors, chapter 2 as Alester, and so on, back and forth, until eventually they meet. At the outset the two stories feel completely disassociated. Mors is up at the Wall doing his duty as a brother of the Night’s Watch; Alester is down south taking up the reins in his family home. Alester’s story begins months prior to Mors’; you’re playing the recent past. Gradually, a tentative link appears between the two strands. It’s at this point the game begins to get interesting. Yes, the game suffers from a slow beginning. I found Mors’ story reasonable from the first, if nothing special or particularly engaging. Alester had some interesting moments, but it took several of his chapters before his half of the tale began to engage me.


When that tentative link appears, Mors’ story started to take a rapid uphill climb. His relationship with a certain character began to develop from typical videogame material to something better, something portrayed with a certain touch of sensitivity — this lent it a humanity frequently lacking from similar relationships in other games. It’s at this point Mors’ voice actor began to improve, as though he’d realised there was more to this script than the typical fantasy game guff. I began to look forward to scenes featuring the two characters, and equally to desire answers to questions which were beginning to form.


Then, Things Happen(TM). Well golly! Yes, I’d seen some of that coming but execution certainly kept my attention riveted — and immediately, freshly hungry for answers, we are snatched away to Alester’s next chapter. It’s a lengthy chapter and slowly, slowly a few pieces of the jigsaw are doled out, fitted together. Right around the point where I felt the chapter was over-long, More Things Happened(TM). And did not stop happening. For the rest of the game. Twists, turns, revelations, shocks, neat snatches of dialogue, and always that hunger to find out what happens next — the story hit its stride and did not falter. Suddenly, those slow opening chapters made a lot more sense when viewed as part of an overall story. They established the cast of characters and the world they inhabit: the type of detailed set-up material so common in books and rare in games. Mors and Alester, in particular, had more to them than typical game characters. Added dimensions and familiarity upped the impact of those aforementioned Things Happening(TM). Events I would have watched dispassionately in another game — have watched dispassionately in other games! — hit me in the gut this time around. Things which feel cheesy or silly in other game plots worked smoothly in this one because the time had been taken to set them up, embroider them into the fabric of the universe. Character motivations made sense as human motivations rather than plot devices. Mors and Alester developed shades of grey, revealing themselves as gloriously human characters. Predictable events often had unpredictable spins to them, happening at the ‘wrong’ time, or with added aspects which were not expected. At the end, the very end, after one final roller-coaster of emotion, I found myself in the happy position of not being able to say which of two conflicting viewpoints was the right one. Honour or duty? A vital, thematic question. The very last scene of the game was one resulting from my choices; it reflected the decisions I had made and left me with a mixture of sorrow, hope, pride, and worry. I believed I had done the right thing by my favourite character, yet I wondered if perhaps the cost would, in the end, prove too high.


My name is Mors. I am distilled awesome.


The game has five different endings. There’s a major choice at the clearly flagged point of no return. This determines which ‘side’ of the ending you will play out. After that, you make another choice on which direction you want the ending to take. The fifth ending is for dying during a certain battle. I reloaded to watch the others — I needed to know! The first ending I saw, the one I regard as my ‘true’ ending, was the most fitting for the path I had taken through the story and I’m glad I arrived at that one naturally.


Yes, “path through the game” and “choices”. Whilst the characters are pre-written and are confined by the limitations of the plot, there’s a reasonable bit of wriggle-room for the player to shape their own versions of Mors and Alester. My Mors was an honourable, upstanding, occasionally downright scary fellow. He could have been a blood-thirsty psychopath, or an unbending, harsh veteran. My Alester tried to strike a balance between the demands of family, honour, religion and crown. In another playthrough he could have been a religious zealot, an oppressor of his people, or a wannabe-liberator. When Mors and Alester unite, the player retains control over both. Conversations will frequently have the option of a response from each character. This ensures there are few personality swerves, and that neither character is relegated to subordinate place. Mors and Alester are equals throughout. The story is theirs: it belongs to both and is told by both. Sub-events can be influenced as well, and the choices you make will often come back in later chapters. To give a spoiler-free example, if you save a certain person in one chapter you can meet him again later and could talk him into assisting you.


Interestingly, Mors and Alester are both older men. Mors is completely grey, Alester heading that way. One could pithily sum this up with “Mature characters for a mature story”. Life imparts experience, and both characters are richer for having decades of life behind them. They reference, and draw upon, this experience throughout the game.


Alester. Is he wearing the hood because he’s a Red Priest, or because he’s sensitive about his greying temples?


So why wouldn’t I recommend the game to all RPG gamers? It’s very simple: the gameplay and the production values. This is a game which relies very heavily on its plot, and so gamers who prize gameplay above all else will struggle to see much attraction.


In terms of production values, Game of Thrones the RPG is clearly not a triple-A title with a many-millions budget; it is unfair to demand it match a Bioware or Bethesda game in that department. The game cannot compete on those grounds and there is no point in trying to claim otherwise.


Game of Thrones the RPG is not a pretty game. I’d say that it’s not as ugly as some critics have made out; it’s about on a par with Dragon Age: Origins’ console versions. If Dragon Age has occasionally better texture work, Game of Thrones has better character models with nary a spindly-twig-arm in sight. Locations are easy to recognise by sight, and character models have a good range of variety. Whilst there’s plenty of unrealistic fantasy armour, there’s also a higher than typical amount of armour based on real historical designs. Generally, I felt that the common foot soldiers had the best ‘outfits’. The game’s major set-back in presentation occurs in larger areas, King’s Landing in particular. The game engine (and doubtless budget) cannot host large, complex areas filled with plenty of active NPCs. Thus, the two bustling urban areas felt decidedly boxy and emptier than they aught. There’s also a strange obsession with closing off the easiest route from A to B in King’s Landing, meaning that the player is forced to take the long route around outside of specific set-pieces which temporarily open up the doors. Castle Black fares better due to being a quieter and more straightforward location; however, the sense of scale is missing from the wall. It’s the old graphics versus gameplay versus experience debate – some people are better able to overlook shortcomings like this, others find they unacceptably damage the atmosphere of the game. That’s a decision best made by the individual gamer.


The game fares similarly in the audio department. The TV series’ theme music is used for the title screen. Other than that, the music is original, and unfortunately quite forgettable. The sound effect selection does the job, although without a huge range of variety. I did find that the howl of wind added a lot of atmosphere to the chapters taking place at the Wall, and contributed more to the feeling of chill than the snow and ice effects. The voice acting is a very mixed affair. Mors improves as the game progresses, starting as a gruff, growly half-hearted sort, and ending the game as a gruff, growly fellow who produced lines with such emotion I was mesmerised through a certain scene. Alester, by contrast, is voiced with consistency throughout, though sadly he never reaches the same highs even if he does avoid the initial lows. The two main characters have a lot of dialogue between them, and fortunately, even at their worst, I never found them to be less than tolerable. All of the characters who appear in the HBO series are voiced by their respective actors, including Lord Mormont, Varys and Cersei. The remainder of the cast range from acceptable to “Is something wrong with her nose?”


Some gamers associate mid-budget games with bugs and technical failings, sometimes with good reason. Game of Thrones the RPG has few such issues, at least in its Xbox 360 incarnation. The frame rate was stable and fluid, and I only encountered two bugs in my entire 30+ hour playthrough. Both were in the final chapter, and both necessitated reversion to an earlier save as they made progress impossible. In one instance I could not initiate conversation with a critical NPC, in the other I could not walk through a doorway due to an invisible wall. That’s actually fewer bugs per hour than I’ve encountered in some recent triple-A RPG titles :cough Mass Effect 3, Skyrim :cough: but it was still immensely aggravating, and cast a cloud over the game’s final hour. The standard RPG maxim should be followed: save early, save often, and save in multiple slots!


This is the concept art for the room where — er, various things happen. Yes. Various things. Some of which are more variously spoileriffic than others.


Gameplay is roughly a 40/40/20 split between conversation/plot, exploration/travel, and combat. Yes, combat is very much in the minority! Battles are less frequent than is the genre norm, and the stakes are much higher. Active player participation is required — there is no mashing X to win in this game. Difficulty is adjustable at any time, yet, as in Witcher 2, easy mode is more comparable to most games’ normal mode. You must use your characters’ skills wisely, both to set enemies up for extra damage and to prevent them from using their own skills. Using a skill costs stamina; a character can temporarily go into guard mode to catch their breath and restore most of their stamina gauge. There is a cooldown on this, however, so it cannot be spammed. Characters can apply poisons and wildfire to their weapons for extra effects, and can drink potions for bonuses. During tough battles, both will be essential. Each level gained feels precious, each upgrade to your equipment significant, because an extra 10 points of damage have a tangible effect in combat. Personally, I preferred this approach. Combat quality over combat quantity. Orders are issued in real-time and combat cannot be paused. Instead, you pull up a skill wheel and the game goes into slow motion. Queue up your commands, swap between characters and targets as necessary, then close the skill window. The game will resume normal speed and the actions play out. While there’s an element of pressure, I never felt overly harassed by the inability to pause, and I confess to being something of a pause-baby in any RPG which will let me. Conversation, exploration and travel all function as you’d expect, following genre conventions like dialogue choices and fast travel.


The game does feature the occasional stealth section. Mors is a skinchanger and can take command of his dog. Mors being Mors, the dog is called Dog and looks about as grizzled as his master. These sections are short and quite widely interspersed throughout the game. Dog will not give Solid Snake any competition-based fears as his stealth is markedly simpler than that of the serpent. You control Dog from a first-person viewpoint. You walk up behind guards and pounce on them, tearing their throat out with the aid of a simple button-bashing minigame. Done, you abandon the corpse and skulk off to locate the next hapless fellow. If the guards spot you then they will attempt to kick Dog. Should they land a blow, Mors is jolted out of Dog’s mind. It’s a mild penalty; you can immediately dive right back in and run back to the guard who foiled you to try again.


Mors and Alester anxiously await the verdict on their adventure.


I’m hesitant to call this a review. I don’t want to write a review, although that’s what it has ended up being. I want to discuss the rain scene, and the ending, and the relationships, and all those other spoilerific aspects. I want to talk about why this story would make a decent book — note decent, not great literature or throw-away pulp reading. I want to compare it to the other games and talk about why the story worked for me where others fell flat. It is a repeat of my Divinity II dilemma. You see, I loved the original ending of Divinity II. I can’t tell anyone why without ruining the ending and thus robbing my audience of the necessary experience to fully enjoy it. Some things require a build-up, context, and immersion in order to work.


If you are interested in strong characters and plotting in video games, then you probably aught to play this game. It manages to get so many things right in those areas! Wait for a sale if you feel more comfortable with lower expenditure and hence, lower risk. Play until you reach the scene in the rain around the halfway mark. If you aren’t caught by that point, then I doubt you ever will be. Just remember: it’s a slow starter.


The basis of my … gibbering:


Time spent with the game: Somewhere around 35 hours. The storyline was completed, as were all side quests and achievements. I also saw three different endings.


The review is based on the Xbox 360 version of the game. It was purchased by myself.


The images used in this piece all come from the official website at

Waaaaaaaaaaaaar! Warlock: Master of the Arcane – The Verdict

This entry is part 1 of 3 in the series Warlock

Warlock: Master of the Arcane is very upfront about what type of game it is. The first word tells you everything you need to know. Warlock – person who uses magic; this part is readily apparent. Add a hyphen, and a second meaning emerges. War-lock – a game where you are, essentially, locked into perpetual war until a lone victor stands atop a pile of skulls.


Warlock bears a much-remarked upon resemblance to Civilization V, and is described by its own marketing as a 4X game. The Xs comprise: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate. These factors combine to create a certain expectation in the player, and I do not think that serves Warlock particularly well. Compared to more traditional 4X games, such as the Civilization series or Master of Orion, Warlock has a narrower, deeper focus. If you enter the game with the wrong expectations, it is easy to be disappointed by what it does not offer. Let’s get those factors out of the way right at the beginning, so we can focus on what Warlock does offer. There are not many peacetime options, and peace acts as a chance to prepare for the next bout of fighting. Diplomacy is very poor indeed. Whilst it is possible to form alliances, and a few other diplomatic staples, the AI is generally reluctant to play along. City management is quite lightweight. Terrain has no influence on city production outside of special resource hexes, and impassable hexes like mountains. Terrain is very important when it comes to unit movement and combat calculations, however. Constructing as many cities as possible is the best strategy; there is no equivalent to other game’s happiness or corruption to hold back the sprawl, and no advantage gained from remaining small.


If the player is doing particularly well in a war, the AI may sue for peace and sweeten the offer with tribute.


What does Warlock do well? Creative, flexible, occasionally deranged warfare. It’s a game where open-minded players will thrive. Magic allows the game to offer additional solutions to age-old strategic questions such as, “How can I break through this choke point?” To answer that question with Warlock‘s toolset, you can:


1) Use strong units to assault the choke point head on, grinding your way through in a battle of attrition.

2) Use ranged units and magic attacks to weaken the defending units before sending in your heavies.

3) Use a ship to bombard the enemy from the sea, if terrain permits.

4) Use a teleport spell to send individual units behind enemy lines.

5) Summon units like imps or ghost wolves behind enemy lines

6) Use a spell such as “water walking” or “levitation” to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

7) Use a unit which can naturally fly to flank and/or bypass the choke point.

8) Use debuff spells like “weakness” to reduce the defenders to pitiful shadows of their former selves.

9) If the enemy unit is using a particular damage type, cast defensive spells of the appropriate type to make your unit partially immune to the enemy’s attacks.

10) Use magic to resurrect dead units and send them right back in for another go.

11) Dragons. Nobody likes being burped on by a dragon.


That’s quite a range of options! Sometimes the detail is as important as the outline. Yes, you can send in a unit of flying swordsmen. You can also send in a unit of knights riding flying donkeys, or water-walking tophat-wearing werewolves! Hence the aforementioned “occasionally deranged”. Warlock does not always take itself seriously.


Some of the special resources are more … special than others.


While there are only three playable races, they are well individualised. In addition to having unique graphics, buildings, and units, each race is tailored to utilise – and produce – one of the three main resources more heavily than the others. The undead are geared towards mana, humans gold, and monsters food. In the early game, playing towards these strengths is important. By the mid-game, a diligent player will have captured at least one city of each race. At this point specialisation pays dividends; the racial production bonuses and unit recruitment apply no matter who owns the city. Thus, an undead city owned by humans will still produce more mana, still consume mana instead of food to support its populace, and still have the potential to recruit various types of skeleton warriors. There will, however, be a 20% penalty on resource production if the owner is not of the same race.


Unit variety is not as limited as the small number of playable races might imply. In addition to the three playable races, the game features numerous minor races. Enterprising warlocks can recruit units from races including elves, dwarves, dragons, and minotaurs. These units are not casual re-skins of the major races’ units; they have their own building requirements, strengths and weaknesses. As you might expect, you can also summon magical creatures to serve in your army, from ghostly wolves to greater elementals. The hostile “wild” unit spawns feature a diverse array of units. In total, the game offers a very generous range of units. Units acquire experience during combat and over time, and will level up at set amounts. Each time they level up, they can choose one of three perks. The game features a wide range of unit upgrades, such as masterwork armour or enchanted weaponry. There is no limit to how many of these upgrades a unit can possess. Once available, upgrades can be purchased for any eligible unit. Lower tier units can also be upgraded into more advanced forms once the necessary buildings have been constructed. This means three things: units never become obsolete, units become highly personalised, and veteran units become powerhouses.


Spell research is quite simple. You begin the game with a set amount of research coming in. To increase it you must build certain city improvements on special resource tiles, e.g. an excavation on some ancient ruins. Research does not increase with city quantity, nor with population growth, gold income, or any of the other genre staples. The game will present 5 spells, each chosen randomly. Select one, research it, and you will be offered another 5. The spells which you passed over last time will remain, and the one you researched will be replaced by a new random selection. This randomness can, on rare occasions, be rather frustrating. Gaps will be left in your repertoire until you have played long enough to perform a lot of research. If you lack a favourite attack or buffing spell, you can usually improvise with another. This is a welcome prompt to player creativity. However, if you lack a more specialised spell, such as the one which allows you to banish curses like the “mana drain” spell, you may need to soldier on under the penalty until the research screen finally offers the correct option.


On higher difficulties, the AI is not shy about building a large army.


Warlock‘s AI is best described as competent. Unless it finds itself hemmed in by other factions, poor terrain, or very strong wild monsters, it can be relied upon to expand. It’s smart enough to pack its cities in densely but not to the point where it over-crowds, thus ensuring maximum usage of space and making defence easier. On the default difficulty the AI does not seem to recruit large armies; however, it is happy to do so on higher difficulties. It recruits a mixed force, using melee, ranged and magical units. Happily, it uses the units correctly! Warlock will not hide its melee units behind its mages, and will attempt to skirmish its ranged units back to safety whilst shooting. The AI is definitely better on the defensive. It is capable of complex movements such as surrounding an isolated unit, swapping damaged units for fresh ones, and using multiple attacks on a single target. It will gleefully use magic against you, with the area of effect fireball spell being a particular favourite. The AI will always use cities and defensive towers to attack when an enemy unit is within their range. Sadly, the AI fares less well when it goes on the offensive. It fails to send sufficient units to get the job done, trickling in two or three units at a time for the player to kill. It will only send more units when the first wave is dead. It attacks the same locations repeatedly, predictably, futilely. The main problem lies with the AI’s unit selection: it insists on using basic and mid-tier units to the exclusion of all else. It will apply some upgrades and magical buffs to its units, but will not take it as far as the player. This means that in a unit-to-unit comparison the AI is badly out-classed from the mid-game onwards. It doesn’t matter how many units it fields in home defence if the player’s units are killing them in a maximum of three hits, with one or two hits being very much the norm.


The game’s stiffer challenge lies in exploring the alternate dimensions. Accessed via set portals, these separate maps are packed with Warlock‘s strongest units. Tempting rewards lure the player in. Certain resources do not exist in the normal world, and can only be found inside these alternate dimensions. Other resources are exceptionally rare in the normal world yet abundant in the alternates. Should a beachhead be established, cities can be built, and this provides a measure of back-up should matters go pear-shaped in the normal world.


The game setup screen is confusing at first glance, but the elaborate design manages to keep most of the options on a single screen and eliminates drop-down menus.


The interface is clean and easy to get on with. Most important information is available at a glance, and breakdowns of global resource income are accessed via tooltips. Combat predictions are accurate and detailed, although the occasional critical hit sees a unit doing more damage than predicted. Hotkeys are present, if sparse. I do feel that the developers missed an opportunity when it comes to scoring. There isn’t any! It would be nice to gauge the relative strength of each warlock. A Civilization IV-style post-game breakdown would also be appreciated. In a game which places such importance on individual units, it’s a little strange that there’s no way to track how many kills you have made, how many units you have lost, how many kills each unit has, and so on. The lack of a proper in-game encyclopaedia is keenly felt. Right-clicking a unit or spell will bring up a little encyclopaedia entry, complete with stats and lightly comical descriptive blurb. But if you do not have the item available to right-click you have no way to access the entry.


Right-clicking on a unit will bring up a detailed information box. Tooltips provide further breakdowns of stats, including resistances, active spell buffs, and unit upgrades.


Warlock does not feature a campaign, and currently lacks multiplayer. It does have a fully-featured random game generator. There’s a variety of map sizes and types, and you can control the number of AIs and extra dimensions. If you do not wish to use a pre-set warlock, you can create your own using a small yet significant selection of perks. Sadly, it is not possible to tinker with advanced settings, such as wild monster spawn frequency, starting resources, or available victory conditions. The map generator does throw out the occasional nasty starting position. Some players may enjoy this as a challenge; others will want to re-roll. Replay value is moderate to high.


Warlock: Master of the Arcane is a game which set out to meet specific goals, and it has succeeded in that. Within its narrow focus, it offers a generous toolkit and gives the player room to experiment. It is not a game for everyone. Peaceniks need not apply! Other strategy gamers should at least download the demo and search for the fabled cheese caves.


We hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and our other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.






The basis of my review


Length of time spent with the game: 4 completed games, approx 38 hours of play (including time spent with the demo).


What I have played: Normal and challenging difficulties; small, normal and large map sizes; continents and super-continent map types.


What I have not played: Impossible difficulty, and those rated below normal; two remaining map types; the largest map size.


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 publisher, Paradox Interactive.

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.