Saturday, August 30, 2014

Crusader Kings II Tutorial Part 1: Overview and Characters

Crusader Kings II is one of my all-time favorite games, and I've played a lot of games. It can be rather intimidating, since it's very different from your standard strategy game, so I thought I'd write a little tutorial to help new players get started.

Overall Concept

Crusader Kings II is a medieval simulation game, designed to recreate the experience of being a ruler in the Middle Ages. What makes it special is its character focus. You're not playing as a country like you are in Civilization, you're playing as a dynasty, a succession of people and their children who you will lead to glory. You can be anyone who holds some land, from count to emperor, anywhere from Iceland to India, at any time during the Middle Ages. When your character dies, you will continue playing as their heir, with whatever land they inherit, and so on. Just like a real medieval ruler, you can wear as many fancy titles as you have a rightful claim to: you can be James I of England and James VI of Scotland at the same time, if you can inherit or conquer your way to the throne of both kingdoms. Really, you'll spend most of the game worrying about your family, your rivals, your vassals, and your neighbors' opinion of you.

People are everything in this game; it doesn't matter that on paper you have a mighty army if none of the nobles like you enough to contribute their best troops, or your son is a complete imbecile and your wife is past childbearing age, or if your brother is hiring assassins, bribing your courtiers, and stockpiling mercenaries to take your place. Your personal skills and traits will make a huge difference in your realm, and the same thing applies to everyone else in the known world too. There's a reason the most popular mod for the game is a Game of Thrones simulator; the game lends itself very well to simulating conflicts between great houses.

Throughout this tutorial, I'll be putting directions for you to follow along in red text.

Starting the Game

Let's start as someone mid-level, just to get a feel for things. I'll be starting in the Norman Conquest bookmark in 1066 as Duke Morcar of York. So start up the game, click Single Player, then click on "William the Conqueror" in "Bookmarked dates" on the left, then click on King William the Conqueror under "Interesting Characters", then click on Duke Morcar of York on the right pane under "Vassals". Ignore the difficulty ranking, it's rather inaccurate. Click Play, wait for the game to boot up, and then click on your character portrait on the top left to bring up yourself in the character browser. (Keyboard shortcut: F2)

The game should look something like this:
Initial Screen with Character Browser
Don't be intimidated! This is not as crazy as it looks. Almost everything is explained in tooltips. The most important button on the screen is that little left arrow next to the Close button, which is the back button. If you find yourself in some weird screen, trying to figure out how much the Pope likes France or something, just keep pressing Back until you get back to familiar ground.

The second most important thing to remember about the interface, besides the back button, is that everything has an informative tooltip and virtually everything is a button. Click on anything to go to a screen about it, and hover over anything to see more details about it.

The Character Browser

Let's start just by looking at the top left quadrant of the character browser. This is where you'll be spending a lot of your time in the game.

  • At the top is our name - Duke Morcar of York - and our age, 20.
  • The large portrait in the center is you, Duke Morcar of York. On the top right is a star, indicating that this is you, the player. The portrait has a silver border with a blue wreath, indicating that we are a duke-tier character - we are pretty high up the feudal totem pole, but not as impressive as a king or emperor.
  • To the left is the coat of arms of the Duchy of York, which is our primary title. There's a shield with the flag of York on it, and our crown on top - a moderately impressive one. We should be proud!
  • To the right is a missing portrait of our wife (we're not married yet), and a little wedding ring icon that lets us find a wife.
  • To the bottom left is a portrait of our heir (the person who will inherit the Duchy of York when we die), and to the top right is a portrait of our liege (the person who we owe allegiance to) and our opinion of each other. (We really hate King William the Conqueror - that -100 is the worst possible opinion - but he is only mildly displeased with us.)
  • Note that next to our liege there is also a coat of arms for his primary title, the Kingdom of England. His crown is better than ours, obviously, since he is our liege lord.
  • On the left side there are two small buttons, the Ambitions button and the Diplomacy button. That Diplomacy button would be very important if we were looking at someone else, but you can't do much diplomacy with yourself, so we'll skip that for now.
  • Below the portraits is a two-line display of Titles and Claims. This is a more expanded list of everything we own, and everything we can rightfully claim as our own. You'll notice the duchy of York is the first one listed, since it's our primary title, but we also have a second duchy (the Duchy of Northumberland) and two smaller crowns (the Counties of Westmoreland and York).
So other people will call us Duke Morcar of York for short, but when we walk into our virtual throne room, they will announce us as His Highness Morcar Aelfgarsson of Hwicce, Duke of York and Northumberland, Count of Westmoreland and York. Now that's what I like to hear!

You seem pretty important, huh? OK, let's cut you down to size. Click on your liege, King William. Look at the top left quadrant of the character browser for him. Note that the very top left still shows you, Duke Morcar - this is the button that takes you back to yourself, regardless of who you're looking at.

The Character Browser, Take 2

Character Browser for King William

  • The name bar at the top now shows King William the Conqueror of England, age 39. "The Conqueror" is in quotes, indicating that he earned an honorific. You'll see other people with honorifics ranging from "the Great" or "the Pious" to "the Unready" or "the Ill-Ruler".
  • King William has a wife to the right of him, helpfully labeled "Wife". Queen Mathilde has no border, indicating she doesn't own any land, and a wedding-rings icon indicating she is in a regular marriage and her children will become part of her husband's dynasty. Female rulers are rare in the Middle Ages, but they are possible.
  • King William's portrait has a gold border, indicating that he is a king-tier ruler, and he has no portrait to the top right, indicating that he is independent - he owes no allegiance to any emperor.
  • King William's heir is just a boy. Twelve-year-old Prince Robert of England (which I found out from the tooltip) has a silver border, indicating that he is a count-tier ruler (one level below you, 2 levels below the king). Young Robert already has some land to his own name, but "Prince Robert of England" is a much more impressive title than "Count Robert of Maine".
  • Notice that to the left of William's heir, the Ambitions button has changed to a Plot button, allowing you to hatch a plot against this character. Plotting to kill your own king strikes me as exceedingly unwise, unless you are very sure you won't be discovered and left to rot in jail for the rest of your life. So let's not press that button right now.
  • William has just a few more titles than you do. He owns an awful lot of land, in addition to being King of England (the big crown) and Duke of Normandy (the medium-sized crown next to it). He even has a few baronies to his name (the tiny crowns all the way to the right), which are holdings so minor they don't appear on the world map.
  • Below his wife, William has a number, -4. This is his opinion of you, Duke Morcar. He's not happy with us, so let's hover over the number to see why. Apparently our ambitious natures conflict, and we're a foreigner - King William is Norman, while we're Anglo-Saxon. On the plus side, we can bond over both being brave, and our "State Diplomacy" stat score gives us a little opinion boost. 
  • Finally, next to the opinion, there's a button allowing you to mark the king as a character of Special Interest, which means you'll get popups and notifications about things that happen to him. This is handy when you're trying to keep track of people outside your own family - say, the scheming count who's always plotting against you, or the king of Scotland next door, or his beautiful daughter who you want to marry off to one of your children.
Phew! Let's take a break for now, shall we? Don't despair; this is the tough part, wrapping your head around having to actually care about people instead of pushing the blue and green pieces around.

Next up: Titles and the Feudal System

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