This guy. This fucking guy.
“But my chins are the source of my power.”
Count Pedro Ansúrez of Valladolid. He’s a Count and loyal (aha. Ahaha. Ahahaha – foreshadowing Ed) vassal to my neighbour and brother, King Alfonso VI of Leon. He is also the reason I fell for Paradox’s dynasty-building grand strategy game Crusader Kings 2, for the sheer ballache his character has caused me is beyond compare.
His legacy is an enduring tale of his many descendants’ hilarious, completely over the top ambitions, and my sadistic plots to crush them. You have no idea how much I love Count Pedro and his wacky family. I should despise them, because they’ve caused me nothing but trouble since the day he turned on me, but every time one of them tries something shady with me yet again I get furious, then laugh my arse off and set about finding a way to stop it as excessively as possible.
When you start Crusader Kings 2, you will probably go “bwuah” and hide behind your chair until the scary info dump goes away. It’s daunting even if you’re somewhat familiar with Paradox’s other, superficially similar strategy games, so absolute newcomers might have to fight the instinct to dive through the nearest window and run screaming into the street.
I’m House Jiména, allied with Jiména in a war against Jiména. Clear?
But it’s nowhere near as overwhelming as it seems. Yes, there are loads of screens and hundreds of things going on. Research and economics and construction look very important and esoteric, and will be the first thing most seasoned strategy fans go to. However, while they do serve a purpose, you can pretty much ignore them for 99% of the game. You don’t need to manage many aspects of your realm. You don’t need to pay attention to what’s going on in every corner of your own land, much less understand it. Crusader Kings 2 is about individual people, not amorphous powers. And there are a shitload of people.
Yes, you will send armies out to fight. You’ll build a barracks or church or an occasional castle. You’ll push research gently towards improving your tax income or military prowess over the course of a century, but you won’t be adjusting sliders or balancing budgets or throwing counters around the map. Instead, you’ll be marrying off your relatives, doing favours for your courtiers, securing decent heirs, and always keeping an eye out for triple-plated scheming goddamn bastards like Count Pedro. It’s about what you, as a representative of one person, want to do.
Pedro, for example, wanted independence from King Alfonso, and revolted. His aim – for all wars must have a specific goal to measure their success against – was to kill King Alfonso’s armies until his independence was enshrined in a treaty. He was doing quite well too, until I stepped in and conquered him in the name of House Jiména and the Kingdom of Castille because hey, free county.
Most advisors soon get used to drawing these. Who’s Brian? EXACTLY.
Putting down Pedro’s forces had no drawbacks. Generally, attacking someone will bring a heap of trouble and bad press on your head even if you have a good reason, but when a lord revolts, all bets are off. The revolt was settled when Pedro reluctantly did a pinky swear to be my super best friend (or whatever). Of course, he still hated my guts.
At the time, I was “Be”ing King Sancho II of Castille, and this was my first real event of the game. It went well, and the combat system is simple, but effective. Superior numbers will usually win, but appointing the right leader to an army can tip the odds (or simply put a lord you dislike in harm’s way, because you’re the king and har har har), and a series of fights will knacker out and demoralise even an unstoppable-looking army. Wars don’t take much organising, but they’re not the answer to most problems either – land is more easily gained through marriage and murder than through militarism.
In any case, the upshot was that I had a lackey to watch carefully. Pedro, you see, was ambitious. And this is how I learned the significance of the traits and qualities held by everyone from the mightiest emperor to the lowliest courtier. They define who individuals are, and are consequently the real driving force of the game. Greed. Honesty. Celibacy. Ambition. Goddamn ambition.
Bernard and Isabel were sickeningly happy, a rare side effect of marriage.
Pedro’s ambition waned as time went on. Sancho II died. His popular son Bernard took the throne, and Pedro got on so well with Bernard he was even appointed spymaster; a sign of absolute trust, as he’s the person responsible for sniffing out plots against you. He was loyal, too, and immediately exposed a plot to kill Bernard’s beloved wife, Queen Isabel.
In most strategy games, it’s usually research or diplomatic decisions that cause problems for you way down the line. In CK2, it’s the things you do to individuals. Marry a courtier off to the wrong lord and fifty years later her grandson could inherit a title, and use it to raise an army to claim on some lands his grandmother’s brother once held. Annoy your vassals enough and they might team up and take you down, or assassinate your only heir. This is a world of living people, and people hold grudges.
“Want to join the war?” “Nah, I’m good here.” “Yeah, me too.”
In Pedro’s case, everything started to unravel when King Bernard died in a battle (which he was forced to take part in due to my idiot neighbours’ habit of starting wars with the Moors that they can’t afford. See, long term, I want my neighbours’ thrones so that I can push the Moors out of Spain. My neighbours are instead declaring FUCK YEAH HOLY WAR every time they remember swords exist, which turns a spat over someone’s carnation bed into a rallying cry for every bloody muslim in Africa to drop an army on Spain. So I have to go to war to defend my stupid neighbours, because if they go down, I’m next. Gaaahrh. This game). He left a son, Ichabod, too young to rule, who everyone hated.
One of Ichabod’s first decisions was to appoint his mother Isabel as spymaster. To keep him pleasant, Pedro was appointed Chancellor instead. Isabel immediately discovered that Pedro was attempting to assassinate his own wife after she’d put on too much weight.
You may be starting to see why I love him so.
She then learned that Pedro was plotting to reduce my authority (with my uncle Brian, no doubt – and yes, I did name a Castillian prince “Brian”. I thought he’d die, to be honest), so Ichabod sent for his arrest. He rebelled, the stupid old stupid cretin, while thousands of Moorish troops were still rampaging around the countryside and only leaving us alone because our combined armies made us too costly to invade. Of course, his rebellion meant a quarter of my army was pointlessly fighting the other three quarters, and once they were dead, the Moors immediately came crashing in, led by my southerly neighbour, Emir Wanko Bastard al-Tosspot.
Note to self: Must start remembering actual names of people I war against.
Fortunately he seemed content to obliterate my army and leave before my friends could (for once) come to help. But that left me with no army that could besiege Pedro’s holdings. A stalemate ensued. I offered the Count peace, at the cost of some humble pie for both of us, further weakening the realm. He returned to my vassalage, and I set my spymaster on his only ally, and told him that his county title had been revoked, but that he could keep most of it as long as he dropped the “o”. Pedro declined. Another war, then!
So, I raised another army and splatted him. He died from an infected wound, and his largely useless son Gonzalo carried on what I will charitably call the “fight”.
Well done, Pedro. You had a prestigious, influential position, and even saved my dear mother’s life (and possibly the whole dynasty). So you were promoted further, outlasted even me, and would have died a happy and famous man.
But no. You had to screw it all up. And now you’re a landless, untitled, dead nobody outlived by the fat wife you tried to assassinate. Oh, but don’t worry about her. I’m marrying her off to a 23 year old stud, then installing him in your old estate. Eat it, Pedro. No jodas con Jiména.
Me in the middle of 500 idiots fighting 10,000 Muslims. Is it Tuesday already?
Finally – FINALLY, Ichabod came of age. Christ, was that only 14 years? I married him off to a wonderful Georgian princess whose skill at espionage outshines the greatest bastards in Europe, and made her my new spymaster. She immediately uncovered a plot against me by my uncle Brian, who rebelled when I attempted to arrest him. War ensued. The little shit called in the Kingdom of Navarre (East of me), but I still saw him off. Battering down the last of his holdings would have been inevitable, but the bloody Moors showed up again with an army the size of a small sun. This. Game!
And this wife! Darling Endzela. She prefixes her many warnings of plots against me with adorable jokes like “May wisdom ever elude you”. And she’s always putting things in my drink, or pretending to sneak up on me with a knife. She is wonderful. I think I’m in love.
A month later she was pregnant. You just know the sex is amazing.
I’m well aware that I have invited a scorpion into my nest, but I need someone like her to get me through the next few years. She really is the meanest schemer in christendom, and my only hope. Once she’s popped out an heir or two, I’ll either buy her loyalty or send her off on a spying mission in oh, I don’t know, Jerusalem.
She paid off not only by tipping me off about Brian’s rebellion, though; she also allowed me to put into place the last piece of a puzzle set up by my father Bernard, nigh on 20 years ago.
Thanks to some clever negotiation and some marginally less clever defenestration, my mother Isabel is next in line to the throne of Aragon (East of me), which my idiot grandfather King Sancho the Unready of Aragon has selfishly refused to die on. To add insult to injury, he’s only gone and joined Brian’s rebellion against me. So, Wifey and I, with some help from a few disgrunteld courtiers (there’s no shortage of those in either of our lands right now, as my neighbour to the West lost another idiotic war and ceded her whole kingdom to Emir Al-Tosspot, resulting in a flood of noble refugees. I have about 50 of the useless tits milling around whinging about me, so I’ve sent most of them off to marry some losers in Russia, Egypt, Iceland, etc. Anything to get them out of my hair really), offed the miserable old bastard.
And now my mum’s the queen of Aragon, uncle Brian’s alone, and I’m next in line to inherit what’s left of Christian Spain. Like so:
This is about as advanced as my understanding of the world gets.
Then, before the Moors could steal my siege on uncle Brian’s land, I murdered dear departed Pedro Pennyroyal’s son Gonzalo before he could get any ideas, and offered Brian a peace settlement.
Of course, Pedro’s grandson will inherit the county, and he is ambitious as his forefathers. But he doesn’t know that I have evidence that he’s plotting against a mayor somewhere, enough to lock him up, too. That’s three in a row. Say thanks to your granddad for me, boys!
Oh, and I’ll be killing uncle Brian, too. Obviously.
Gonzalo, shortly before an impromptu game of Bludgeon.
Pedro still has about a dozen living descendants with varying levels of hatred for me. And I’ve just been told that Gonzalo’s widow, Ermesinda De Simancas, has taken a fancy to me. I didn’t even realise who she was at first, and figured I, an upstanding young king with a gorgeous and terrifying wife, would leave well alone – the game is much more fun if you play in character a little. Plus, y’know, evil wife running an assassin ring.
But she’s Pedro’s son’s widow, man. How can I not do this?
It sure is, Timmy. It sure is.
I could go on, I really could. There’s so much more, and yet it’ll be far more fun for you to start your own game and see. In four generations I’ve gained less land than I would in about five minutes of most other strategy games, but I don’t care. So much has happened, and it’s nearly all down to petty squabbles and bickering and plotting and glorious, glorious revenge. In any other game, you’d just execute a rebel and that’d be the end of it, but here I am still fighting some arsehole’s family thirty years after his death.
And I’m bloody loving it. I’m actively looking for any excuse to mess with Pedro’s family, the scheming upstarts, while they’re probably telling their kids my whole family are oppressive, murdering hypocrites, which we totally are! I haven’t even told you about the time I had my infant nephew killed, or how when Bernard was thirteen he pushed a guy off a roof, or why I went to war against my own mother, or the time I gave birth to mentally stunted, inbred twin dwarves, or, or, or… THIS. GAME.
Meanwhile, Cornwall has outlived England. I am too scared to look at France.
So what are the downsides? Well, it’s worth mentioning again that it starts rather poorly, especially if you’ve not played any other Paradox grand strategies. The UI in general is in need of some tightening up, with a bit too much confusing clicking back and forth between some screen. There’s information that’s harder to pull together than it ought to be, and the game’s also leaves you in the dark about some rules of inheritance and how plots work. But it’s never a big deal, and the movement around the menus and the general machinations of plotting and planning soon become very familiar.
Ultimately, I simply can’t express quite how much I enjoy playing Crusader Kings 2 without sitting down next to you in a pub and gushing about it for forty-five minutes, so it’ll be a lot easier for everyone if you just get on with buying it yourselves.
For Endzela. My dear, my saviour, terror of my every waking moment.