Crusader Kings II Review


You could describe Crusader Kings II as a medieval dynasty simulator, or a real-time pausable, grand strategy sandbox experience, but no matter how you try to boil it down, CK2 is just a beast of a game. There’s something here for everyone. Are you the warmongering “infidel” trying to burn your way to the heart of your rival’s power? Are you the devious spymaster, weaving webs of intrigue to further your family’s name in history? Or perhaps you’re the powerful King, approved by the Pope, driving your people to “honorable” victory.

Released in February of 2012 by Paradox Interactive, CK2 holds a special place in my heart. It is a bewilderingly complex and intriguing title that I still play often, over four years after my initial purchase. I’ve got 250+ hours of CK2 under my belt, but I still feel like a complete rookie, and fail twice as often as I succeed in the game. Thankfully, the failures offer just as much satisfaction and insight as the successes – so, slap on some of your favorite dark orchestral music, and allow me to explain.

In CK2, you take the role of the head of a dynasty during the Middle Ages. You can choose someone as high and powerful as the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, or as low and forgettable as the child of a powerless count, but in either case you are someone who oversees at least one holding. A “holding” can be a town, a castle, or the estates of the church and a region can have quite a few of each. Every single holding has a ruler associated with it, and as the player, you can choose to be one of these rulers. Take a minute to reflect on that and consider how staggeringly massive this game is – the aforementioned Byzantine Emperor could have hundreds of holdings, each with its own nobles to deal with – and the unique replayability this offers. There’s a lot to do, a ton of options, and sometimes the biggest challenge is not making the best choices, but simply trying to avoid getting buried by the sheer number of them.  


Crusader Kings II takes place between 1066 CE – 1337 CE or as early as 769 CE, if you’ve got the right DLC. It is a shockingly accurate portrayal, right down to historical figures being in the right places at the right times. So accurate, in fact, that if you’re curious about a particular figure, such as Richard “The Lionheart” who’s suddenly sniffing at your English doorstep, you can click the Wikipedia link by his name to learn more about him in history – though, beware of spoiler alerts!

Of course, for every true historical figure, there’s hundreds that are randomly generated. Since many of the figures are historically accurate, CK2 offers a fun way to study these monarchs and pretenders versus the traditional textbook method. You’ll never forget Alfonso after he invades your precious Castille, for example.


Get used to seeing this map!

The downside to having a game based in history is that the term eXplore doesn’t really apply in the standard way. Instead of finding new continents and discovering new worlds, CK2 has you tracking armies across familiar territory: Europe, the Americas, parts of Africa and Asia, and the Middle East. Although, if you’re anything like me and haven’t studied the minute details of medieval politics, most of these areas will feel fresh anyway.

Instead, the game forces players to forge in a new direction. Rather than discover new geography, you are tasked with eXploring royal families, complex relationships, and individual people – discovering what makes them who they are and manipulating them for your own desires. Each character in the game has a set of personality traits. They either give benefits to the six main skills, or debuff them. For example, a “Shy” character will have a hard time in Diplomacy, but other characters who are also “Shy” will have a positive opinion of that character.

This is also how religion plays into the game. Leaders of the same faith will naturally be predisposed to ally with each other, while those with different beliefs won’t. Further, religion dictates tax income from your clergy vassals, and your relationship with members of your religious group. Each belief system has traits, like the characters you’ll encounter, which determine your abilities as well as potential in-game goals. Fixing the Holy Roman Empire is a huge push for Catholic rulers. For Jewish Kings (added in the Sons of Abraham DLC)? Less so. Here’s another example of how religion helps change the way things play out: in a game that’s very much about marriage, being able to be a polygamist (as you can when you play an Islamic ruler with the Sword of Islam DLC) can be a huge advantage. Or a massive weakness, you know, depending on how things go.

All of this differentiates CK2 from all other titles in this genre. It’s a sandbox nobility opera, in the same vein as George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The amount of character choices is astounding. If there is someone somewhere within even a sniff of power, you can take on their role.

Once you’ve selected a character and their traits, you immediately jump into the game. The overhead map of the region serves as your main play interface, almost like a game of Risk. From here, you can see the movement of troops or switch to overlays to view terrain details, cultural regions, dynasties in power, and plain-jane political divides.

Like all Paradox Grand Strategy games, CK2 moves in real time (well not actual REAL time, months don’t take actual months). Players can pause the action at any time to think about their next move. They can also push the fast forward button and watch as the regions bleed into each other, transforming the map of Europe. There is definitely a strategy involved with choosing when to stop the action and when to just let it all pass quickly. It’s another one of those “feel” things that new players will struggle with at first, then wonder whatever was wrong once it becomes second nature.


Don’t be too intimidated. It will all make sense… One day.

Speaking of things you have to get a feel for, the game has a daunting number of menus and submenus that all vie for your attention. I’d be willing to bet that this is the moment where many first-time players get really intimidated. Take a deep breath and prepare for the greatest strength and weakness of CK2: information overload! From the menus you can see the members of your court, each of their own family trees, how many troops each character can raise, their individual ambitions and personality, and more. I’m not kidding. It’s not unheard of to have a notebook and a pen sitting beside you while you play, along with Wikipedia pages open in the background.

The goal of the game is yours to decide. There’s no win condition exactly, just an end-date where the game wraps up and scores your dynasty. You can continue to play so long as a member of your dynasty survives, so propagation is a central focus. Beyond that, some players might choose to unify Ireland, or convert all of England to Norse Pagan faith (with The Old Gods DLC), or make the Aztecs the unlikely kings of all Europe (with Sunset Invasion).

Character-based events are generated as time passes in the form of pop-ups with decision trees. They can include everything from advice from your council to opportunities to join wicked plots and each has a several options to allow the player agency. Not only that, but several of the pop-up events are cheeky easter eggs and references directly linked to your character’s traits. You can imagine the hijinks involved when your character has obtained the “Lunatic” trait. All of this really immerses you in the politics and relationships of the world.


Crusader Kings II provides several fascinating options for eXpansion, beyond your standard military conquest. Diplomacy and skullduggery are equally as valid a strategy as blowing down the house of your opponent, Big Bad Wolf-style. Rulers can recruit massive armies from their holdings and vassals, but there’s financial penalties for doing so, not to mention that your vassals’ regard for you will erode over time. In an era of feudal strife, military might is a significant boon. After all, as Al Capone once said, “You can get much farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone.”

As you eXpand, you’ll encounter different religious and cultural groups. You can imagine that this causes some tension, as racial and spiritual differences play out in a way that is all too similar to real life. Because of this, conquering these locations can be more challenging than it seems. At first, the local population will hate you for your philosophical views and ethnic background. Predictably, dissenters will rise in rebellion against you, which can cause chaos, especially if you’re already involved in wars with other foreign powers.


“No firearms were found on the grassy knoll.”

Each individual scenario is almost its own game. Trying to take over the world as the king of France is a very different experience than, say, trying to do it as a Raja from India (in the Rajas of India DLC). A game of grand conquest may, in some ways, end up being less enjoyable and challenging than one of just trying to survive as a prince of some tiny German duchy. In that way, players actually are getting a whole bunch of games in one – military conquest is just one way to go.

In the name of eXpansion, it’s best to have friends to watch your back. CK2 allows players to make alliances with other rulers through marriage or diplomacy. You can set up non-aggression pacts with other nations, as well as defense pacts, and valuable allies can be called into battle. Though, be warned, your allies will call for you in times of need, and if you refuse, you’ll lose favor with them. However, it’s nice to know that they’ll be hard pressed to outright declare war on you – instead opting for methods of subterfuge if they really loathe you.  

As your kingdom eXpands, so does your income. Each of your landed vassals pays you a tax, and in turn, you pay your liege (if you have one). In addition, you gain gold from any position you hold in your liege’s council, in the form of a salary. Of course, you also have to pay anyone hired in your council. It all trickles down.

There are two other currencies in the game, Prestige and Piety. Prestige measures your perceived “nobility,” and Piety measures your religious fervor. You can spend Piety on buying favors from your Pope, like divorces or excommunication for your enemies. Prestige is less commonly spent, and the accumulation adds up to an influence buff over time. Essentially, as your reputation increases, people are more inclined to listen to you. Both of these two “alternative” currencies add to your dynasty score.

With a game like Civilization V, there are different strategic options, but in the end it’s the same game whether you’re playing as Gandhi or Bismarck. That’s not the case at all with CK2. Players are greatly encouraged to “role play” the nations and people they choose. Trampling rivals under your heel is a strategic option for some, but in others it’s not just a poor option, but essentially impossible. This variety really helps the game feel unique each time you start. Roleplaying in CK2 provides a rich experience. You can allow yourself to be guided by the personality traits of your dynastic figurehead, for better or for worse. Playing as a lecherous adulterer, especially with the “Way of Life” DLC, is a barrel of laughs. Sleeping with every warm-blooded creature in your court causes havok and rarely turns out for the best, but can generate several gut-busting stories to recount to your confused real-life friends later.


This is where the game shines. Crusader Kings II includes eXploitation of both natural and human resources. With the myriad of different personality traits, you’ll be scrambling to get to know your courtiers and your enemies as well as friends, in order to use their strengths to support you and their weaknesses against them.

There is a lot going on here, so let’s take each strategic option in succession.

family tree

“It’s all in the family…”

Family Business

One of the true pleasures of the game is grooming your dynasty into a powerhouse, personality-wise, and breeding in great traits to make your dynasty stronger than your opponents’. Selecting the best targets for procreation and then utilizing the education system to its fullest lets you generate a powerhouse of a heir. By educating your children under the watchful eye of yourself or your courtiers (or specialist tutors in the Conclave DLC), you can target specific skill sets that your realm needs, such as a highly trained steward or chancellor. And when the character you’re playing dies? CK2 employs an addicting game mechanicyou “become” that next character you just set up in line for succession. It’s like some messed up mechanic out of a sports game: You don’t just create your superstar, you get to build the hotshot rookie that replaces him, as well. So long as you have someone of your dynasty alive, you’ll continue chugging along.

This leads me to a fascinating point. Paradox included some of the nastier options when it comes to genetics. Hilariously, you can inbreed yourself into terrible traits by marrying relatives. Attributes like Weakness, Imbecile, and Slow all start appearing after a while of intermarrying with sisters and mothers, and waylays any impulse to “keep it in the family.” Honestly, when’s the last time you played a game that let you do that? Of course, there’s a lot to be gained by interbreeding if your family is poised to hemorrhage holdings and titles once you die.

For example, your sister might have a strong claim on some of your estates through the complex succession laws. Anyone she marries might take advantage of that fact and suddenly your nephew is that usurper’s ticket to ride. Now your so-called brother-in-law can press the claim of his baby on your holdings, and once he’s rid of you, he can install his child as “rightful heir.” The best solution might be to either kill your sister, or marry her yourself. Leaving her to languish in your court unmarried, or sending her to a nunnery doesn’t even guarantee that she’ll stay childless. Ah, decisions decisions…

Regardless, this kind of conniving should give you a real feel for the breadth of options in CK2. Plotting the proper way to propagate your plans is a key part of the entire experience and it really feels like there’s no limit to the number of ways you can fulfill your goals.


“But my lord, why must I commit my forces?… SILENCE!!!”

Here come the Vassals

Balancing vassal favor is the bread-and-butter of the gameplay. You must keep ambitious vassals in line while you consolidate power, which is incredibly tricky but equally rewarding. A common strategy is to divide your kingdom into rivaling duchies that have equal strength. So long as the rival dukes hate each other more than they hate you, you’ll be able to float above the petty tantrums and maintain hold of your kingdom. Some players might try to marry with their dukes and counts to strengthen ties between them, but this is a risky endeavor, as I’ve discussed above.

One of the things that affects your ability to govern vassals is the demesne laws (or realm laws with the addition of Conclave DLC). These essentially represent the policies that dictate the behavior of your vassals, and the reach of your power within your own kingdom. Through these laws, you can shift the obligations of your vassals to their liege, whether it be through their hard-earned gold or their troops. If you’re feeling particularly tyrannical, you can forbid war between your vassals, or give yourself the power to revoke titles as you please. Succession laws enable the player to change the line of inheritance, and represent perhaps the most powerful ability at your disposal. Have a genius daughter with all the right stuff and want her in line for your titles? Shifting towards agnatic-cognatic succession laws will allow her to inherit, so long as no other males are eligible. Of course, you’ll need to “eliminate” any offending sons that may stand in her way, but with the agnatic-cognatic law, at least she’ll even be considered. Enacting changes in these succession laws is a slow process, since only one law can be changed per lifetime of a playable character.

more vassals

“These are NOT the vassals you’ve been looking for.”

So, why bother having vassals at all if they’re such a pain? Well, for one, your stewardship, government type and technology limits how many holdings you can have under your direct control. You can control more castles and territories over your limit, but at the expense of the opinions of your court.

The more holdings you have over your demesne limit, the more cheesed off your court gets. Not only that, but your income for each holding is reduced. So, in short, if you want to make money and friends, you have to play within your limit. Besides, giving a beloved courtier one of your castles is a great way to ensure his or her loyalty. Just make sure you’re not giving it to Urist McSchemes-a-lot, or you’ll be paying for that mistake later when he gets greedy. A great vassal will pay you back with troops and income. A bad one? He just brings payback.  

All children born of your dynasty will have claims to your titles in one way or another. Add to that the complexities of the various succession laws, and you’ve got an internal power struggle that will keep you monitoring your crankiest vassals and playing them off one another with favors and punishments. Ambitious vassals represent a serious threat to the stability of your empire; they are reliable in their unreliability. They will demand holdings, council positions, more power, and still knife you in the back when they get their chance. It’s just like real life!

Here’s where I find a significant spike in difficulty in the game’s mechanics: You really need to have a sustained high level of attention to detail. It is only through repeated playthroughs that you can learn how the AI will take advantage of your ignorance. Didn’t know that your son might become enraged at you since you didn’t give him that pretty little castle he asked for? Well, now that he’s marching to your doorstep with an army to claim it for himself, you do. CK2 teaches through experience. There are some helpful pop-ups that’ll remind you about losing titles upon succession and you can always pause the game to review all that information, but there’s so much raw data being shoved at you all at once, you’re bound to forget about that bastard child of your third brother. Oversights are incredibly common, since players need to be totally immersed to keep track of each threat to their power.

That’s not to say that you aren’t given a huge bag of tricks to keep the wolves from the door. In CK2, many of your actions will be done through the machinations of your council. With these hand-picked courtiers, you can fabricate claims on the holdings of others, assemble raiding parties, or soothe the ruffled feathers of disgruntled allies.

The Grand Council

Each council member has various actions they can take, depending on their role in the council. The Spymaster, for example, can scheme and search for plots, steal technology, or start nasty rumors. A skilled Spymaster might inform you of your cousin’s desire to start a rebellion and put your head on a silver platter. On the other hand, a Spymaster that hates your guts might neglect to mention that he also wants to see your head on a spike, and you might end up as your own lawn ornament.

In short, interviewing candidates for council positions is not just a simple matter of merit, but also of opinion and position. Sure, your duke might be fantastic at intrigue, but if he’s got ambitions for your position, you might not want to put him in charge of your cloak-and-dagger division. It might seem obvious, but you’d be surprised how many times I have been murdered in my bed by my own scheming Spymaster.


Tech… Tree???

Economical Technological Magic?

Speaking of technology, CK2 emulates technological progression in three main categories: Military, Cultural, and Economic. As time ticks by, you can collect points and upgrade these specific aspects of your kingdom. A ruler’s Learning ability is the main modifier for how much technology they gain over time. Military advances are relatively predictable. Upon advancement, you can increase the damage, number, and morale of specific units, as well as unlock a special type of unit called the retinue. There’s some limited graphical indications that your units have changed for the better, but you won’t really feel the effects of these advances until you face a technologically superior force. Think The Last Samurai, but without guns or Tom Cruise.

Economic and Cultural advances unlock buildings, allowing you to upgrade your holdings. Since your holdings are your main source of income, you’ll be sweating over these technologies and their glacial progress. Any of you that have played as a Republic will no doubt have had nightmares about the Trade Practices law in particular, since it limits your ability to build more trade posts to expand your economic empire. Cultural advances control the opinions of your various vassals, as well as the flexibility of your kingdom to accept differences of opinion. For example, you might want to invite a genius tactician to help with a war effort, but he’s a pagan. Everyone in your court will loathe him, unless you bump up your Tolerance law, which will slightly negate the debuff of opinion. But then, your more religious adherents will decide they hate you, instead. You can see how the snake slowly snacks upon its own tail with your every decision in CK2!


Of all the game’s systems, combat irks me the most. It’s a simplified number crunch. Instead of animating the combat, the different types of units just crash against one another like a game of Risk. Sure, there’s some elements of strategy in how you compose your army, but once a battle starts, you’re forced to watch it play out over several in-game days, or years as your raised army chases some yellow-bellied rebel leader. It’s realistic, in the sense that you feel the same helpless rage a ruler of the 1200s might feel hearing her entire army has been routed and slaughtered like field mice. Similarly upsetting, as well.

In Crusader Kings II, I found that the only important elements of combat were timing, unit types, and sheer numbers. By electing members of your court to serve as generals, you can turn the tide, or perhaps even “accidentally” lose an unwanted heir in battle. Two birds, one stone, so to speak. But the player has very little agency after a battle has started, and I wish that there was more I could do to turn around a bad situation. The only recourse offered is to hire amoral mercenaries for exorbitant amounts of gold. The Conclave DLC made changes to combat A.I., modifying damage calculations and adding “shattered retreat,” but I still feel that being outnumbered is a hopeless and inescapable situation.


Pricey mercenary companies makes it hard to be a cool cat.

Wars in CK2 revolve around a “warscore” represented by a percentage. Once the player achieves 100% warscore, they can contact their opponent and enforce their demands, whether it be to take control of one of the enemy’s provinces, or prevent them from taking one of the player’s. To increase your warscore, you’ve got a couple options. You can eXterminate your opponent’s army, which will award you a whopping 75% – though this method isn’t without its tribulations. Depending on how long it takes to hunt down your rival’s army, you may end up dealing with fresh new troops as your opponent raises reinforcements, like a game of Whack-A-Mole. Alternatively, you can besiege your opponent’s holdings. The warscore gained for successful sieges and occupations correlates to how many total holdings of your opponents you hold, so good luck fighting gargantuan empires like the Holy Roman Empire. If you’ve started a Casus Belli for a specific holding, occupying this territory will give you a “ticking warscore,” which will gradually increase your warscore as long as you hold it. If you manage to take your rival prisoner, you effectively cut the head off the snake, and the warscore immediately jumps to 100%.

Before we move on, it’s worth noting that CK2 restricts players from declaring war willy-nilly. You have to have a reason to go to war. As mentioned before, players need a Casus Belli, which literally translates as “case for war”. In the rough-and-tumble feudal world, rulers followed strict codes of conduct, and unlike a game of Civ V, you can’t just stomp over and take territories as you please. Legitimate Casus Belli include pressing the title claims of nobles in your court, or demanding the unification of de jure duchies, if you hold 50% of the duchy yourself.

Of course, anyone with a different religion is fair game, and the rules of Casus Belli are thrown out the window. It’s not called “Crusader Kings” by accident, and holy wars are simple to start. Regions of differing religions are an affront to the sanctity of your faith, and that serves as reason enough to hack away at the heathens. Taking these territories is riddled with headaches, since the population doesn’t share your faith, and rebellions are a common occurrence. Players who gobble up vast areas into their kingdoms will be dismayed to discover that rebellions are a constant source of strife. You can convert the population using your Clergy, but it takes years, and you’re restricted to converting one region at a time.


“Can’t we all just get along?”

Yes, CK2 is about the relationships between rulers, but war is also an important aspect of diplomacy and in a game that is at least somewhat about world domination, it’s frustrating for combat to feel like such an afterthought. I’m not saying I need the in-depth battles of Total War, but there ought to be some way that makes combat an enjoyable aspect of the game rather than an unfortunate one. There were many times where, even though I knew that war was the best way for me to do well in the game, I avoided it simply because it was more burden than benefit.


I’ve said it before, but it bears explicit mention: Crusader Kings II is an incredible way to learn about this period of the past. It gives insight into how history is shaped by the personalities involved. In textbooks, you read about a civil war during this time and might remember the dates and names of those involved, but in CK2 you learn HOW and WHY it might have happened. Maybe the King’s brother had been scorned on multiple occasions, and after the third time being denied a position, fomented a rebellion. Or perhaps after begetting only daughters, the kingdom crumbles into disarray as the princess takes the throne, since no courtier, not even her husband, likes a female ruler. Sure, you’re rewriting history the moment you begin a new game, but the mechanisms that create these historical events are rooted in the personal struggles of these powerful people.


Deus Vult!

And the opportunities to learn are only growing. By now you’ve probably noticed that there is a ton of DLC for this game. As of this eXamination, there are currently 42 DLC items available on the Steam Page. Depending on your perspective, this either represents a tremendous dedication on the part of the developers or an egregious attack on consumers’ wallets. I feel somewhere in between. While some of these DLCs are portrait packs that add flair to the visual elements of the game and song packs to give players more music to campaign to, there are also some major DLCs that have drastically changed the way CK2 is played.

The DLCs I feel are most significant are (deep breath):

  • Sword of Islam, which lets you play as a Muslim ruler and all that entails
  • Legacy of Rome, which bumped up the options for Byzantine Emperors and the Orthodox Church
  • Sunset Invasion, the first (and last) non-historical DLC, which imagines a world where the Aztecs invaded Western Europe
  • The Republic, which lets players form Republic-style governments (Capitalism, ho!)
  • The Old Gods, which added earlier religions such as Paganism and Zoroastrianism (Yes, the thing you remember from Ghostbusters. No, Gozer is not a playable character)
  • Sons of Abraham, which added Judaism to the game along with several other new religious options
  • Rajas of India, which added the Indian subcontinent along with multiple new Eastern religions
  • Charlemagne, which lets players take on the famously misnomered Holy Roman Empire
  • Way of Life, which added new events and opportunities to role play
  • Horse Lords, which added Nomadic tribes and rulers
  • Conclave, the most recent DLC, which added a host of new features including new voting options and different ways to educate your royal offspring

So yeah, that’s a lot.

conclave expansion

This is more than a cosmetic DLC, it’s an eXpansion.

And sure, the DLC manages to keep the game fresh after all these years, but I’m sure every CK2 player has had that moment where the newest DLC was announced, and all you could think was, “Another one?” Eye-rolling aside, the developers have worked hard to redefine the game through these extensive packs.

It isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, though. A scroll through the various mod developer blogs will send your heart-aflutter. Mods are a big deal in CK2, perhaps as much as any game available right now. The community is numerous, dedicated, and remarkably influential in a way that most other games simply never see. Every time a new DLC pack comes out, it tends to break all the changes made by modders, causing a giant uproar in the community. Rolling back to previous versions is not uncommon advice for those seeking to modify their game files with third-party software. The Elder Kings mod, in particular, is peppered with broken code since the Horse Lords DLC came out, making it unplayable for many users.

Paradox has been supportive of the modding community, going so far as to promote mods on their social media platforms and provide hosting for some mods that follow their terms-of-service agreement. While I don’t mean to kick a bees nest, mods that use intellectual property from other sources, including Elder Kings and the Game of Thrones mods, exist in a legal “grey” area and pose a potential liability as far as the developer is concerned. The modding community might be frustrated with Paradox’s hesitation to support some mods over others, especially since the mods have become a fantastic reason to purchase the game, but I can’t fault the developer.


Each major DLC comes with a unit pack like this.

Here’s what soothes me: Most of the DLC doesn’t just unlock a group – it adds a ton of new mechanics and events specific to that group, and drastically changes the gameplay. With a few exceptions, the DLC is worth the price. And sure, some of it is light on content or is superficial, but the fact that four years later, Paradox is STILL generating content for this game is proof enough for me that they love it and care about its future. It would be easy, not to mention lucrative, just to come out with a CK3. But Paradox is showing loyalty to its existing customer base by not foisting sequel after sequel on them.

Even with just the base game, however, CK2 is addictive as all hell. The aforementioned DLCs add new core gameplay mechanics with each release. You don’t sit down for a short session when you turn this one on. Because of the choices presented at the beginning of the game, the replayability is through the roof. Once you get over the steep and lengthy learning curve, the game can provide you with generations worth of drama, family tragedy, and savage victories. As a sandbox with no real victory conditions, the player sets their own goals, and that’s the element of gameplay that keeps me returning. What if I bred the perfect court of geniuses and used their prowess to slowly dismantle the duchies around me? What if I played as Vlad the Impaler of Transylvania and tried being ridiculously nice to everyone? Oh the choices!

TL;DR: Crusader Kings II is profound – one of the few games that can change the way you view history, geography and the mercurial nature of humans. The learning opportunities alone are mind-boggling, not to mention the many different ways to play and enjoy the game. CK2 has stood the test of time because it has no real win conditions. A powerful narrative can be generated from setting your own goals and making your way through the medieval age. However, CK2 is not for novice strategy players, or even people who need to win. You might not “get it” on your first or seventh sitting. Those that do, though, will be rewarded.


You might like this if:

  • You’ve always dreamed of being a Machiavellian Prince and plotting the demise of your enemies
  • You get a thrill from playing the “long-game” over hundreds of years
  • You’ve always wondered what the world would look like if the Aztecs took it over
  • Games like Civilization and Chess are too simple for you
  • You’re a history buff and secretly wish it was still the 80s – the 1280s, that is

You might NOT like this if:

  • You’re one of those people that can’t sacrifice hours of your life to one video game
  • You can’t stand long, steep learning curves
  • You dislike ‘spreadsheet games’ that are heavy with reading and micromanagement
  • You want turn-based combat
  • You’re repulsed by the morally-ambiguous or downright nasty choices CK2 presents

Review Policy

Brittany has played a total of 253+ hours of Crusader Kings II on her primitive Windows 8.1 home-built system with Intel® Core 2 Duo CPU @ 3.00 GHz, 8 GB Ram, 64 bit Operating system, and an NVIDIA GeForce GTX 260 graphics card.

Categories: 4X, Reviews

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15 replies »

  1. Here’s another con: buying the full game with all its content (as in all the major DLC) costs $$$, even if you get it in sales. Same with any other Paradox franchise.


      • Nevertheless, that’s a thing to note for the potential buyer. I wouldn’t call it a con any more than my own gripe about tiny fonts. Just some things to be aware of before you buy it.

        Case in point, I wish I’d known about the lack of font-scaling before I bought it about a year ago. There’s $20 I’m not getting back.


  2. Featuring Paradox’s patented ‘impossible to read’ tiny fonts and little bits and bobs and doodads on the interface that are ridiculously hard to see and understand.

    Seriously, I think these people HATE gamers.

    Hey, Paradox…. lots of strategy gamers ARE NOT TWENTY THREE YEARS OLD WITH EAGLE VISION. Even with reading glasses and a 27″ monitor I can’t play these games.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Awesome review Brittany!

    I’ve tried to play CKII … it’s just too much for me. I think if I had an entire day where I could wake up in the morning to an empty house (no kids, significant other, pets, wild animals, plumbing problems etc.), brew up a huge pot of coffee, and settle down for 10+ hours to learn the game I could manage it.

    Sadly, it’s been about 10-years since I had such a day. Trying to learn a game like this in the wee-hours late at night in little spurts is just impossible (for me anyway). But it makes me happy that others can dive in through, and I love reading/hearing about everyone’s amazing little stories.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. “CK2 has you tracking armies across familiar territory: Europe, the Americas, parts of Africa and Asia, and the Middle East.”

    There are no Americas in CK2…
    As for the DLC, it’s expensive for what it adds, though that depends on your wages. If you want to be picky, look at the CK2 Wiki to check out what each one of them adds.


  5. I’ve tried it like three times, and halfway through the tutorials my eyes start to glaze over and I slouch forward, defeated.

    I guess I am one of those “superficial gamers” Mythox mentioned.


  6. Awesome in depth review. Stumbled on it by accident, have sunk 600+ in CK2 so far.

    Minor things:
    The game has in fact a couple of win conditions that might elude people. First of all there is a score, which consists of the cumulative prestige and piety of all members of your dynasty across a play-through. This is measured against and compared to prestige values of real world historical medieval noble families (and because starts are the same you could measure it against your friends). Furthermore Paradox games make an effort of playing iron man mode. Steam achievements that present real challenges and must be done over multiple dedicated play-throughs and are only achievable in iron man mode.

    I would make a very different DLC recommendation list (also cheaper):
    – Old Gods: because the Viking loot mechanic and tribal lands, also the Scandinavian start is really well set up
    – Legacy of Rome (because of the best achievement challenges -rebuilding Rome, and because of retinues (which are a different army type that is kind of a must have)
    – The Republic: because it is a very(!) well crafted dlc with a completely different feel to it and also has implications when playing regular nobility, because of the ability to create republics in your realm
    – Way of Life: because it drastically improves on the character development options of the base game
    – Conclave: The latest dlc, makes the latest patches make sense – after 4 years of development ‘we’ players had the game pretty much figured out. The steep learning curve makes way for a rather simple game when you learn the ins and outs, Conclave was IMO (loads don’t agree) a necessary nerf to the late game.

    And further:
    Sons of Abraham and Sword of Islam are very cool if you’re done playing in the west, but I’d argue not immediately important. Rajas of India, Charlemagne, Horse Lords play third fiddle to all of the above, but Charmlemagne is arguably more important because of the earlier start date. Sunset Invasion is silly (never bought it, don’t know why you would in a historical strategy, play EU4, it has a great Aztecs DLC).

    Every time a new one comes out, all the others are in sale, so you’ll never have to pay full price for them.

    Lots of new players are overwhelmed and can’t get into the game. Sometimes it’s the gameplay itself that puts off people that expect different experiences from playing games, sometimes the game just is too difficult for some people, I mean an actual intellectual barrier.

    Paradox (like in other titles) often is fixing and breaking as much as they are creating. Sometimes certain game rules and quirks are best described as faulty game logic or bad design. Sometimes they forget the needs and wishes of ‘regular’ folks. I know this because I push these games often on friends of mine and it is difficult to not sympathize with their frustrations while playing with them. These games really do ask a lot of people in time and attention and most of all willingness to learn, study almost. But… in the end it provides an experience like no other. And CK2 is for me the crown of them all (until now). It’s funny, challenging, and one of the best MP experiences by far. We have a yearly LAN purely dedicated to it.

    Let’s see what Stellaris will bring tomorrow… from what I’ve seen it’s meeting regular space 4X and paradox grand strategy right down in the middle and might be a perfect stepping stone to get into PDX logic HF!


  7. The game’s greatest strength in my opinion is how it tells you stories amidst all that medieval strategy.

    Just one example: my old wise, somewhat sickly king died at the noble age of 69 after repeated attempts by me, the guiding hand of fate, to hasten his long due demise to give way to the preferred heir to the throne.

    As fate (not me, the other one) would have it, the widow of the now dead king got pregnant just as our noble ruler perished. I did my best to prove that the son was not his, but alas, there is only so much an invisible hand of fate and divine guidance can do to sway court opinion.

    The wench gave birth to a son, so I was now looking at a 16 year long regency, which went surprisingly well at first, mostly due to the mostly positive ruling of the recently passed king.

    It first happened, when the originally intended heir, second child of the late king has died of a hunting accident, leaving the 10 years old prince the last direct descendant. Then during a trip to a remote castle, robbers befell the prince’s party in the forest. Luckily the royal guard has managed to save the prince and got him and the worried regent to safety. The series of bad luck did not stop there.. a few weeks later, the prince tripped and fell from the wall, while doing a routine inspection with the regent. luckily enough and to the relief of the regent who did look extremely worried up there on the top of the wall, the price fell into a haystack and survived without a scratch. That damn wall must have been in terrible condition, because the same incident happened on two subsequent inspections. The court engineer was beheaded at the suggestion of the regent. (see the pattern here? – me, the omnipotent guiding (tied) hand in this was screaming from the top of my lungs: “he is trying to kill you, you moron! “- but to no avail) Anyway, on the fifth or so attempt, someone finally caught the regent red handed and the guards swiftly imprisoned him.

    My prince turned 16 and died a year later from the pneumonia.

    So what happened – in case you are still wondering – was that my king died, my roughly 40 y/o wife got pregnant a month before (unlikely to begin with, extremely unlikely to be from the king at that age and health) giving birth to an unexpected heir (thanks to the ultimogeniture – last child inherits). After about 10 years of regency, the regent decided he could do better himself and first got the older brother out of the way and then tried to kill the prince, who, due to some extreme luck managed to survive roughly 6 attempts on his life and due to some unluck have not managed to identify the killers in the first 5 :)

    Then, to crown the entire story (pun intended), he died of pneumonia a year after coming to age, leaving me with a fun story to tell, but with no direct heir to rule my lands and all the ensuing trouble of maintaining law and order in the kingdom..



  8. Great in depth review here well done! Personally, I love this game and PI’s EU4 also. They both add a much more poltical dimension to this period in history, something that Creative Assembly’s Total War series seriously lacks.

    A little more on the multiplayer aspects would have been great though, espeically because they aren’t exactly “stable” to put it politely! :)



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