What exactly is the job of a reviewer? I mean, on the one hand it is to score a game based on its objective merits – if a game is broken somehow, or really short, or doesn’t really deliver on its promises, this is something you’d expect to be told by any games reviewer worth his salt. But believe it or not, we’re not just gaming robots – we have our own preferences, our own interests and things that excite or bore us.
Take, for example, competitive cycling. It’s just a load of blokes in slightly disturbing lycra, going round, and round… and round. How anyone can find that entertaining is frankly beyond me. And cycling management? Good grief! As a form of entertainment, I’d put it somewhere between a yeast infection and being waterboarded. Which is not to say it would objectively be a bad game, of course. Enthusiasts may very well rate it right up there in the heady world of top-flight simulation software alongside games like Road Construction Simulator and Tow Truck Simulator.
What I’m getting at is that it’s horses for courses. Most sports (and road construction) leave me cold, but the cut-and-thrust of medieval politics fascinates me. Therefore, please accept that the mark I have given Crusader Kings II is MY mark.
Okay, so here’s why you’ll not like it. Firstly, there are no victory conditions. Is it even a game if you can’t win? You just pick a time between 1066 and 1337, and select a nobleman – anyone from the Count of Orkney up to the Holy Roman Emperor, and just sort of get on with it. Whatever ‘it’ might be. Which largely depends on you. Secondly, there is too much to take in. Just too much. Sure, if you want to play out the life of a lowly lordling in the back of beyond, focusing your time on bringing up your children well and trying to befriend the local bishop, you’ll probably manage, but once you’re playing as the King of England, for example, there will be so many dukes, counts, mayors, bishops, family members and courtiers for you to keep track of, not even including rival nations, that you will be swamped. There are no two ways about it. When your spymaster tells you that he has uncovered a plot by Richard De Abingdon to kill Bishop Odo of Kent, you’re left wondering who on earth these people are, and whether you should care. Lastly, troop movement is cumbersome and awkward, not to mention unintuitive. Learning to merge your armies in the very specific way the game demands in order for them to move as one takes time to work out; moving your ships to ports in order to load troops is unresponsive – sometimes you can’t click on the port because the ship icon is too close to it.
The map is relatively pretty, I guess, but that’s pretty much all you have to work with. Lots and lots of pop-up boxes, and one huge map of Europe and the Mediterranean. No pretty battles, that’s for certain – scraps are represented on the map screen by two soldiers, each labelled with a steadily-declining number of troops, which are infuriatingly difficult to select. When you finally DO click on them, the battle screen appears, which to all intents and purposes is just a list of SIX steadily-declining numbers of troops rather than two, each representing a location on the battlefield. Tactics change with the ebb and flow of battle, but you never really have much control.
That’s it. That’s why you won’t like this game. Unless you’re like me. And if you are like me, this is why you will absolutely fall in love with Crusader Kings II:
Any really great game will tell a story, and that story will be organic, different each and every time you play. There are few games where the stories emerge so completely and in such a fascinating way as they do in Crusader Kings II. True, it’s mostly delivered through reams of statistics, but once you learn to look through the numbers, you no longer really see them – like Count Chillaxe the Bloody would refuse to run it simply because the reuirement were beneath him.
Despite the informational overload that is a necessary evil, care and concentration are liberally rewarded for a thoughtful player. If you are willing to put the time in to learn the idiosyncrasies of the game’s sometimes arcane interface, the joy that can come out of Crusader Kings II is significant, and well worth the time and effort. But make no mistake, this has to be something you yourself are designed for. It’s not for everyone.