Crusader Kings II: wilful obscurantism as a design ethos

Another ancient article recovered from the corpse of Edge Online. It would have been sad for the Khazars to disappear again…

There’s a scene in Groundhog Day where Phil Connors endlessly attempts to save the life of a homeless old duffer. In my games of Crusader Kings II, Isaac of the Khazars has a similarly deterministic fate. No matter what I do, this middle-aged prince marries, fails to produce offspring, fails to expand his holdings, gets stressed, and dies without issue a few years later, ending the game. And yet I keep trying.

Isaac is unique in history. He is, after all, the head of the only Jewish state in Europe, the Khazars, a nation of Turkic nomads who randomly converted en masse to Judaism in the 8th century. Nobody, outside of dustclad historians and readers of the eponymous Dictionary, has ever heard of the Khazars. So, trying out Crusader Kings II’s new expansion ‘The Sons of Abraham’, which lets players have deeper interaction with the Abrahamic religions over the 300 years of the game, it was a surprise to find Europe roughly divided between Islam and Christianity – and to find this solitary, tiny Jewish state existing for roughly three centuries North of the Crimea.

That reflects the love of the obscure that’s core to Paradox’s internal development studio (called, oddly enough, Paradox Development Studio.) “That’s what makes our games unique” says Henrik Fåhraeus, project lead on Crusader Kings II. “The attention to detail and the possibility of playing an actual country from history in a world which looks like it really did. If you’re playing Rome, for example, you’ll have to deal with the enemies and troubles that Rome really faced, and see if you can do better.”

It’s that level of detail that allows Paradox to deal with an area – religion – that many other studios would shy away from. For example, Fåhraeus happily admits that they investigated other Jewish states, but there was too little historical detail. “There was a tiny Jewish state in Ethiopia, and perhaps the Radhanites could have been worked in as a kind of merchant republic. But neither of those really panned out, unfortunately.”

Paradox’s Clausewitz engine-based games are the hardest strategy games I’ve played – mainly because of the excess of information at your fingertips, similar to the old Eve Online starting experience. The first two times I’ve tried playing these games – Europa Universalis III and the original Crusader Kings – I bounced off the game completely, and I’m not exactly a 4X newbie, which is the level Fåhraeus is targeting. He admits that they’re challenging at first.

“Our games are complex, to be sure, but we do not want to compromise that complexity, but rather to make them less complicated, which is another thing entirely… If and when we ever do CKIII, it will feature a lot more hand-holding, to be sure. We will probably want to highlight a few good starting nations, and work in some kind of handicap and special hint screens as you go along, in the way of an optional in-game tutorial.”

So why are they so hard to get into? Fåhraeus thinks it’s all to do with scale and accuracy. “Part of it comes with playing a country in a world which is vast and full of other countries of varying size. There is no time to learn and expand slowly without facing enemies. Our games are asymmetrical, a large part of the difficulty comes from starting as a smaller, poorer nation. This comes with the territory. We are trying to simulate a period of real history.”

Terrifyingly, there are thousands of historical characters to play as, across the hundreds of years of the game’s path. “The best places to start and learn are usually the midsized powers on the edges,” says Fåhraeus. “I recommend people should start as a country like Scotland in 1066 perhaps, and focus on the basics; producing heirs, stopping plots and keeping your vassals happy. From there, go on to the military side and perhaps take some counties in Ireland.”

And it’s the historically-accurate interactions between characters that Crusader Kings II throws up that plumb the depths of the bizarre and horrific. “We like pushing the boundaries, but there are places we will _not_ go, for sure,” says Fåhraeus. “Castrating and blinding your brother or marrying your own sister is far enough.”

Despite the complexity of their games, Paradox isn’t averse to exploring new platforms, and the team is following the console launches this week with interest.  “Console gamers are also growing up, so to speak, and tablets are of course the new big thing. The main challenge to overcome is the GUI and control scheme. We are looking into options, but mostly at the conceptual level. How alike to our PC games should the tablet versions be, how do we move away from the reliance on tooltips and so on.”

Though Fåhraeus mentions he’d like to expand on the storytelling and RPG aspects of Crusaders Kings III, that game’s probably still a long way off. In the meantime, the studio is focused on further developing the current game. “I have planned out a couple of more expansions, and some of them will be pretty surprising, I think… It’s an interesting place to live. I get to make exactly the kind of games I want to play myself!”

Crusader Kings II: The Sons of Abraham is out now.

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About GriddleOctopus

There are few harder things in life than introducing yourself, especially in print where mellifluous nuance can turn to indulgent wankery. So. I am definitely a 'writer'. You could also call me an 'artist'. I could probably put the words 'designer' and 'consultant' here too, but they feel crass.