This week, we’re going to be a bit silly and talk about the recently released grand strategy computer game Crusader Kings III, because quite a few of you asked for it.
Now from the beginning I should note that this isn’t a game review. As a game, Crusader Kings III is clearly a tremendous success and a marked improvement over its predecessor. The addition of fully-body avatars (in place of portraits) for the characters and the new stress system move the actual gameplay and experience forward in important ways. So as a game, for just pure fun, it works. If you like the sort of games Paradox puts out, Crusader Kings III is probably the best they’ve done in delivering on a core concept.
But you aren’t here for my game reviews. You are here for me to talk about the history behind the game. So I want to draw out some elements of historical societies that I think CK3 expresses well, and some where I think it stumbles a bit. I’m not going to get into small-picture nit-picking about the names and dates of individual techs or the starting castles of minor counts. Instead, I want to focus on CK3‘s big systems and how well they express fundamental realities about the societies being depicted, both because that is more interesting, but also because it is a fairer way to judge the game’s historicity, since big systems get more development time and attention than tiny details.
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The single best thing the Crusader Kings series has ever done is express the personal nature of rulership. In so many strategy games, you play as the incorporeal embodied spirit of a state (as with all of the other Paradox titles) or its immortal god-king (for instance in the Civilization series), with little sense that these societies are actually run by different people with different aims, personalities, desires and proclivities. Strategies are effortlessly coordinated over centuries, with resources and advantage carefully hoarded to support schemes which won’t bear fruit for generations. And that’s simply not how states are actually led: states are led by people with their own goals (both for the system, but also within the system) and their own personal and strategic visions. Sometimes they lack the ability to really think strategically at all!
CK2 attempted this kind of setup, giving each character a set of skills and flaws which made them better at some things and worse at others, but since the player was still entirely in control, it led to the same kinds of problems as other games: a dynasty tended to look like a single hand executing on the same consistent strategy. Sometimes the ruler executed this strategy more competently, sometimes less so. But (for example) an incompetent, wrathful ruler didn’t end up starting a bunch of wars (unless ‘start a bunch of wars’ was something the player had been doing for a while) he just did the slow work of claim-fabrication and crown-authority-raising that the player had already been doing less competently for a while, until the next, more skilled ruled.
CK3‘s stress system is a brilliant modification to that system: forcing your ruler to act out of character for his or herself causes stress and stress can build up to some pretty nasty penalties. Things that work off stress tend to be either bad for you, or very expensive (or both!) so stress-avoidance becomes a key concern. Consequently, while there is still a bit too much of the 500-year-plan approach to the game, a ruler with traits unsuited to that plan can cause radical readjustments or at least long delays. For instance, I normally engage in a pretty continuously, low-intensity ‘vassal pruning’ strategy, revoking titles (typically fabricating claims on them first) and seizing and redistributing land to keep internal borders neat and improve realm stability without taking on too much ‘tyranny’ (which upsets all vassals). But if you end up with a ruler who has generous and thus takes a massive stress penalty for revoking land, or ambitious and thus takes a stress penalty for handing revoked land back out to someone else, at the very least you may be looking at decades where the patient weeding of the vassal-garden simply doesn’t get done. In essence, the traits combined with the stress system forced me to, for a time at least, abandon part of my strategic system and adjust.
That emphasis is particularly fitting for rulership in Medieval Europe, which was highly personal, both in the sense that the individual character of the ruler governed the behavior of the state, and also in the sense that diplomatic relations were fundamentally a consequence of personal relationships. Personal enmities often became state policy in this period (something that, of course, still happens, albeit less frequently) and Crusader Kings is one of the few series that makes any effort to simulate this.
That leads into my second really good thing: non-unitary states. Indeed, you might argue many of these polities aren’t really states at all! I am often frustrated by the degree to which strategy games represent all states – even modern states – as effectively unitary, driven by a single will towards a single goal. Even fiercely authoritarian states like North Korea are subject to internal divisions, conflicting interests and visions, parties and factions within the ruling class. This is, of course, all the more obvious in modern democracies, with political parties and so on.
This fragmentation of power was even more extreme in many medieval polities, especially medieval European polities (but also in the Near East, note especially the fragmentation of power under the Umayyads and Abbasids). Crusader Kings is one of the very few games I have ever seen actually make a solid effort to really capture that fragmentation of power and combine it with the extremely personal elements of politics. In CK3, ‘France’ is not a single unitary entity – it is a person (the king of France) whose strength mostly comes from the taxes and armies he gains from his vassals. Those vassals may or may not be terribly fond of the king, they may have different interests and goals. And so the job of being king is less leading your united, coherent force against the enemy than herding the cats you have for vassals as they compete for power by doing all sorts of things you don’t want (like fighting each other, or you). In large realms, some level of internal warfare is a near constant background hum, often passing practically beneath the notice of the actual monarch (but of course, sapping his strength as money and troops are spent on it rather than on external wars). And in turn, attempting to centralize power is both a key goal and a difficult task (though somewhat easier in CK3 than in CK2, at least for the moment), in part because your vassals know that they are the major losers in a more centralized realm and so will push back against centralization efforts. It captures that push-and-pull which defined much of internal medieval European politics very well.
And all of the warfare plays into the third thing I think is done very well (though I suspect many players find it irritating): siege-centered warfare. The character of warfare in much of the Middle Ages was one generally where sieges were common and battles were rare and CK3 captures this very well. Most of your wars are spent not in exciting battles, but in boring sieges; battles, where you fight them, are almost always either trying to prevent a siege or open the road to one.
But that leads neatly into the first of our misses: there isn’t nearly enough ‘low-intensity’ raiding and pillage. When we look at the evidence for the endemic warfare between relatively small medieval European polities (wars between barons, castellans, counts, and so on), what we often see are armies often either too small or too limited in funding or logistics to just sweep aside enemy fortifications. Instead a lot of warfare involved chevauchées – mounted raids to inflict economic damage and (where possible) instigate small-scale engagements on favorable terms. Indeed, even ‘big’ warfare involved quite a lot of this kind of fighting (often on a much larger scale with more impactful economic consequences). This sort of raiding could either force the victim to come to terms in order to make the economic disruption stop or it could steadily weaken the target until a direct attack could succeed. In either case, it was an essential part of warfare in Europe and the Near East during this period and CK3 really doesn’t simulate it at all.
Oh sure, certain cultures can do far larger and more organized ‘raids,’ but that ought to be a feature open to basically everyone during wartime, such that a policy of continuous border raids ought to be a viable alternative or prelude (especially for small or poor states) to extensive siege warfare.
The second ‘miss’ also builds on a ‘hit’ which is that I think Crusader Kings III needs even more non-unitary state mechanics. I want to see vassals able to conspire with foreign powers. I want to see a return of the powerful council mechanics of CK2, where the strongest vassals could impose real penalties on a king who ignored their (often self-interested) ‘advice.’ I’d like to see more complex negotiation with factions (situations where you might give a faction X so that they don’t ask for Y) and more and clearer intra-realm alliances, where a king might have to contend with, say, several counts or dukes who formed a political bloc within his realm. These were aspects that were more heavily developed in Crusader Kings II and so it’s my hope that as we get new mechanics and DLCs for CK3, we’ll see more of that. Especially the ability to use the council to co-opt key vassals into your political bloc, at the cost of giving them a greater say in your decision-making.
Finally, the biggest current ‘miss’ is that the game, despite its large world-map, is very much targeted at affairs in Western Europe. This goes beyond detail in things like little mistakes in county-level rulers and runs into the mechanics of the game, especially the tech-tree. CK3‘s tech tree is time-gated, and key things like succession systems, the ability to found new cities, unit-types and so on are locked behind static year requirements which are themselves based (loosely) on developments in Western Europe during the period.
Which produces all sorts of oddities outside of Western Europe, particularly in the Byzantine Empire, the Near East and India. The Byzantines, for instance, don’t have access to things like cataphracts and city-foundation in the earliest game-start, despite those being old and well-established institutions in the East. While Byzantine and Middle Eastern powers start with better succession laws by default, they are locked out of some of the alternative succession systems and in certain situations can be bumped down to partition-systems because their society won’t ‘invent’ primogeniture until very late in the game. Quite frankly, the tech-system as it exists makes very little sense outside of Western Europe. I cannot imagine it being made to work without giving the Middle East and the Byzantines (and probably also India) their own completely different tech-trees, with much of the Western European tech tree starting out as unlocked (but then balance issues arise…).
This is compounded by some of the other political systems. CK‘s non-unitary system is really designed to simulate affairs in Western and Central Europe and is somewhat poorly adapted to reflect the far more centralized states of the Byzantines or the Middle East. While the geographic ‘duchies’ of the Byzantine Empire correspond fairly well to the historical theme system, the game treats the leaders of these themes (‘Doux’) as hereditary landholders rather than appointed generals (also their title should usually be strategoi). Likewise, the CK3 system really struggles to simulate either the Umayyad/Abassid diwan system or the later heavy reliance on Mamluks (mostly Turkic military slaves) over local levies later on. These are still systems with a lot of delegated power; a Byzantine strategos is still overseeing a theme army (a thema) which is a meaningful military force and Byzantine history has plenty of examples of generals turning local armies against the imperial center.
That said, I am pretty optimistic on this score: CK2 also began with relatively few mechanics to simulate those concerns, but by the end its ability to model Byzantine affairs was pretty good (the Middle East much less so; I hope we’ll see a better approach this time around that is less about ‘decadence‘ and more focused on balancing the pros-and-cons of competing systems of levying troops). My hope is that we’ll see similar expansions with bespoke mechanics for the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and India.
Along with the hits and misses, there were two issues which I think were probably unavoidable in a game context, but which are worth noting.
The first is the mechanic around knights. On the one hand, I really like the idea of this mechanic. It puts value on personal combat Prowess (as distinct from the Martial skill which is more about leadership in war) and incentivizes the player to find and recruit talented warriors. That fits with the emphasis on personal combat skill in the warrior ethoi in both Europe and much of the Near East. But there are some, probably unavoidable, issues with this system.
The first is that the number of these knights is very low. I think this is pardonable, because you need to keep the system simple and manageable to a player, but obviously an important king would have more than ten knights in his court. But the broader issue is that the knight-system essentially pushes out the role that used to be played with lords leading their own levies, which I’d like to see come back to really represent the army as a retinue of retinues. In practice, a big royal army ought to at least include not just the levies the king is owed and the knights of his house, but also many of his vassals and their knights.
My own preference would be for a slice of a lord’s household to remain attached to his liege levies when summoned, based on the opinion the vassal has of his liege. So a lord with low opinion might send his required levies with only one of his knights to lead them, but a lord with very high opinion might come himself bringing all of his own knights in tow. Doing it that way would mean that big royal armies might well show up with most of the aristocracy of the realm in them, which makes sense – this is part of what made battles like Agincourt (1415) and Courtrai (1302) so devastating: it was possible to lose a non-trivial fraction of the warrior-aristocracy in a single day if a major royal army were badly beaten. It would also emphasize the difference between smaller armies with perhaps a dozen knights and the big realm-wide armies that might arrive with dozens if not hundreds of named characters (and have consequently have both far greater combat power, but also create far greater risk committing to a battle).
The other issue is just a basic function of computer games: Crusader Kings III cannot handle non-binary states. Politics and lordship in the actual Middle Ages was often very fuzzy; individuals might be both independent (in some of their realms) and vassal to other lords in other parts. Nominal vassals often wavered between actual vassals and de facto independence in ways that the game’s stark yes-or-no logic struggles to simulate.
Likewise, the game has difficulty dealing with long periods of indecisive, relatively low-intensity war. It is either full-on total war or total peace. There are sharp penalties for staying in an offensive war too long, which (along with the limited war goals) discourages the kind of continuous hostilities that typify quite a lot of warfare in the period. But more broadly that plays into the war-goal system itself, which is a gameplay band aid that Paradox has pulled into basically all of their titles, designed to enforce limited wars through an artificial game system rather than historical systems. This system always made a lot more sense in the mostly (diplomatically) limited wars of Europa Universalis and Victoria and far less sense in Crusader Kings or Imperator, where objectives in war often were total and constrained mostly by the difficulty of capturing large numbers of fortified settlements and of keeping armies in the field for prolonged periods.
(Obviously, an obligatory caveat that wars in the EU and Vicky time frames were a lot less limited if they were ‘colonial’ but that is something the games simulate as well, allowing far more powerful war-goals outside of Europe. It’s not perfect, both games have some serious eurocentrism problems (I mean, it’s Europa Universalis), but it makes more sense in the period. Also, I should note that I still vastly prefer the artificial war-goal system of Paradox games to the “In the Grim Darkness of the Not-So-Distant Past, There Is Only War” solution that Creative Assembly has opted for in most of it’s Total War titles.)
Crusader Kings is a rare flower – a game that I might actually recommend as useful for trying to understand a specific place (Western Europe) in a specific time (the Middle Ages). It is far from perfect in this regard and still much more a game than a simulation, but the emphasis laid on the personal nature of rule and the primary of personalities within systems of vassalage means that playing it can, I think, help folks develop the beginnings of a mental model of medieval European politics (which ought then to be refined by much reading). Very few games, I think, meet this bar (though I’d say EU4 as an example of realpolitik does and one can make the case for Hearts of Iron).
Also, it is just darned fun. As you can see above, I am doing what I always do first in almost any Paradox title: returning the Roman Empire to its proper glory.
Next week, we’re going to pick up again with our series on “How Did They Make It” with Iron Production!