Crusader Kings 2 Interview

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the game, Crusader Kings II is Grand Strategy game focusing on the High and Late Middle Ages, the second installment in the Crusader Kings series. While the orginal game of CK II was launched in early 2012, the developers have released several expansions and DLC’s (downloadable content) since then, the latest being ‘Rajas of India’. A new expansion, which was announced only a few days ago, will focus on the period of Charlemagne’, which fits in well with the theme of our upcoming issue V-2. As it happens, we recently came into contact with some of the guys behind the game, and, blatant as we are, immediately took the opportunity to ask lead designer Henrik Fahreus some questions about the game, which we gladly share with our readers. We at Medieval Warfare magazine would like to thank Troy Goodfellow and Henrik Fahreus for their time and patience humouring us.

How does historical research inform the general design of the game and what to include or exclude?

Well, the game is a sequel, so we were able to import a lot of history data from Crusader Kings I. The first game had a lot of potential, but never took off. Mostly, I think, due to poor marketing. Of course, there was also a lot of room for improvement in the game design. My main goal was to preserve and strengthen the focus on actual characters, with distinct personalities, opinions and hopes, and to de-emphasize “countries”. This is what separates CK I from our other games, e.g. Europa Universalis and Victoria. One thing they all have in common is a great degree of historical accuracy. This is simply because we, as history buffs ourselves, find that more immersive. It is far more satisfying to take some country or ruler to greatness if the game world looks and behaves like it actually did (to a reasonable degree). Thus, when we decide to cover a new period of history in a game, we read up on it and try to come up with game mechanics that model the driving political and societal forces at that time in history, while still being fun! It’s a pretty tall order and it’s hard to describe the creative process. In a conflict between “fun factor” and accuracy, fun always wins though, since we are, after all, making games and not simulations. For example, employing a strict feudal hierarchy to all realms in Crusader Kings II, from France to Sweden to Byzantium, is quite inaccurate, but it is a very useful abstraction to make the game challenging and keep micromanagement at a fairly constant and reasonable level. When it comes to the sheer weight of content in the form of tens of thousands of historical characters and their dynastic relationships, this is not something we would (or could) have added on our own, but something our players helped us with during beta testing. I.e. it is cool and appreciated by our core group of fans, but I doubt it affects sales figures to a significant degree.

The complexity and scale of the game implies that this game was targeting a very small audience, so what can you say about who is playing CK2?

Crusader Kings II is, at heart, a game about characters; their opinions, ambitions and interactions. With the quantity and quality (AI-wise) of characters, and the many ways that they may act and interact, we have created a fertile environment for drama. The emergent stories (usually dark and bloody!) are what draw players into the game, and the medieval setting makes for a great backdrop. Perhaps surprisingly, the other sides of the game (things like waging war, passing laws and researching technology) are of secondary importance to most players. The target audience includes everyone from history buffs through strategy gamers to fans of “The Sims”. The scale and depth might deter casual strategy gamers, but the core mechanics are really fairly simple. Admittedly, we did not succeed in making that apparent to new players. Even so, the game has been a real smash hit for us!

The scale of the game prohibits any emphasis on tactical aspects of warfare, and greatly oversimplifies the nature of casus belli in the era. Why make these choices?

The combat system, while it does not offer the player much influence over how battles turn out, is actually pretty complex under the hood. However, this complexity is, admittedly, largely unnecessary. Now, the reason we do not have tactical battles in any of our games is that our games are pausable realtime and not turn-based, and they must work as well in multi-player as they do in single-player mode. In a multi-player game with 32 people, it is simply not feasible to let everyone pause the game and give orders to each army in battle. What you can do is change the disposition of your armies and put them in defensible terrain, etc. Mongol and Turkic horse archer armies are much more powerful in the steppes, and the right leader in charge of a flank can make a huge difference, and allow much smaller armies to defeat larger ones. I have to say though, that am not content with the CK II combat system, and it’s definitely up for a complete revision if we do CK III. For example, levies usually consist of a mix of troop types, and cannot be divided or reorganized, meaning you cannot put all of your archers in one flank, etc. The casus belli system is like our feudal model of society; a useful abstraction. If everyone can always declare war on everyone, it is really hard to come up with other limiting factors to expansion that are both fun and can prevent a smart player from simply gobbling up the world in 50 years. I am not saying such a design is impossible to come up with (the coalition system in Europa Universalis 4 works well too, for example, but is less appropriate in the CK II era), but the casus belli system has served us well. After all, you are not forced to fabricate claims in order to take territory; it is also possible to marry into claims, press the claim of someone else (like your wife), asking the Pope for a claim, etc. You don’t even need claims to seize provinces of infidels or heretics either, and if you happen to be a pagan or Muslim, there are many other casus bellis you can use for aggressive expansion.

Is there any interest at all in working on a game that would combine the strategic/diplomatic aspects of most Paradox games with a more intricate battle model - sort of like the Total War games?

As you say, our publisher, Paradox Interactive, has a lot of experience with medieval action games, but at Paradox Development Studio, we don’t, really. However, we are currently at work making Runemaster (an RPG), which does feature tactical combat. It is possible we’ll make use of that experience in some our Grand Strategy titles; I certainly think our battles need more player input, perhaps even some satisfyingly gory visuals, but I don’t think we’ll ever try to make something like the Total War games.

How would you compare CK II to other games on the market? What are its unique selling points for curious gamers?

The “Medieval: Total War” games are great, especially if you are primarily interested in leading medieval armies to victory in action-filled battles. Crusader Kings II, on the other hand, is not really about the battles, but the lives and travails of the rulers, their families and their vassals, each of whom has their own agendas and will often plot and murder their way to power in an enormous game world. Warfare is just one way of securing more territory (albeit an important one); marry the right spouse, assassinate the right older brother and eventually you or your heirs can simply inherit new lands. Meanwhile, you will be treated to rebellious vassals who join factions against you, raiding vikings who burn your castles and abduct your daughters, suspected demonic children, ambitious bishops, excommunication, Mongol invasions, and much, much more…

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