The thing that was most striking about Crusader Kings II was how much work it took to get things up and running. Paradox makes unashamedly complicated games and CK2 was no different. Just learning the ropes took hours, and even after dozens of hours with the game, we were still learning new things, and scratching our heads over the laws of succession that are so intrinsic to the experience.
On the face of it, Crusader Kings looks fairly similar to other games by Paradox, such as Europa Universalis and Hearts of Iron, however, scratching away the surface reveals a game that had enough personality to sustain it for years and years. Not only that, but CK was so popular that it helped Paradox to more firmly establish itself - this once niche indie publisher was starting to find its place in the industry and Crusader Kings was a huge part of that.
The vanilla version of the game was as deep as a well, with the map of Medieval Europe filled to the brim with various kings, dukes, and minor nobles. Everyone was playable, although taking the duke of a backwater region on the edge of the known world to prominence was naturally a much more challenging endeavour than ruling over the Holy Roman Empire or uniting the British Isles. The game starts in 1066, although that start date was pushed back a number of years through subsequent expansions that delved even further into the early middle-ages.
Built using the studio's in-house Clausewitz Engine, the game seems very similar to other titles from the same studio, and ostensibly you are doing the same thing: leading your chosen faction to glory or ruin. The difference with Crusader Kings II is that oftentimes the ruin is more glorious than the success, and the game's ability to churn out anecdotal moments is up there with the very best in the business.
Crusader Kings II is a giant sandbox filled with characters, all of them linked to each by opinion and, in many cases, blood. Everyone thinks something about everyone else, and there are always relationships to consider whenever you make a decision about who should surround you and who should marry who. Most of the time you won't care, and you'll pursue your own aims with ruthless abandon, however, everything is connected and that web of intrigue comes into play frequently and is what powers the experience, glueing it all together.
A good chunk of the time you'll be trying to work out how to make a claim on a rival kingdom, lining up the dominoes ready for the moment when your plan can whirl into life. One obvious goal is to expand your sphere of influence, however, the character-driven interactions mean that you quickly get extremely attached to the head of your family, and the strength of your dynastic line becomes something of an obsession. Crusader Kings II is undoubtedly a strategy game, but there's an element of roleplay that characterises the experience and that simply isn't as prevalent in competing series such as Civilization and Total War.
Indeed, the characters and your interactions with them are the secret sauce that has kept people coming back to the game since it was first released all the way back in 2012. Each character has traits that define their actions, and this is especially important when arranging marriages. These traits also have a huge impact on your overall fortunes, as it's much easier to expand and conquer if you're playing as a capable monarch with positive traits. Dominating the map with the same king's idiot second son because his brother died in suspicious circumstances - not so easy.
The strength of the game's personality has given it incredible longevity, and while the community often grumbled about the expansions and the way free and paid content was partitioned off, we're mostly just glad that Paradox carried on supporting the game for as long is it did. Not all of the expansions were great, with some of them having little in the way meaningful impact on the quality of the core experience, but for the most part, it was a pleasure to return to the game over the years and see how it was developing.
While the start date rolled back to the 8th century with the Charlemagne update, over time the game also expanded geographically, with new territories added to the mix. For players interested in learning more about history away from the confines of West Europe, the constant expansion of the game world has only added to the experience, and we always liked the fact that players have the option to continue their game from CK2 through into Europa Universalis IV, even if we never had the patience to play through a whole millennia of history ourselves.
With Crusader Kings III on the horizon, its predecessor is now being put out to pasture. Right now the bones of the game are available to download for free on Steam, and there's a pick and mix selection of expansions to choose from if you try it and like it. It's a tough nut to crack, with so many intricate rules to remember and a wealth of characters swimming around in its historical sandbox. However, for those who are able to peel back the layers of complexity and get at what Crusader Kings does so well, a truly unique and uniquely engaging experience awaits.