Collections: Teaching Paradox, Crusader Kings III, Part IV: Emperors, Soldiers and Peasants

This is the last part of a four part series (I, IIa, IIb, III, IV) examining the historical assumptions behind the popular medieval grand strategy game Crusader Kings III, made by Paradox Interactive. In the previous sections, we’d laid out what CKIII does very well: building a simulated model (albeit a simplified one) of power and rule within fragmented medieval polities bound together by ties of vassalage.

By contrast this week will be a bit more spread out, as I want to talk about some of the things that CKIII leaves out with that tight focus on fragmented, vassalage-based polities. Now we’re absolutely not going to get to everything. For one, we’re not going to discuss Central and Southern Asia too much here; while they are somewhat in soft focus I both think it is fairly clear that they are very likely to get further ‘flavor packs’ in the future (in the same way EUIV had spread out into less heavily played regions) and also because my own knowledge of medieval Asia is very thin beyond steppe nomads. The other very large ‘area that I think the game misses ‘gap’ that I don’t intend to address much here is institutional religion. CKIII has mechanics for this and while I’d argue they’re a bit underdeveloped for the outsized role that religion, especially the Latin Church, played in the period, they exist as a basis for expansion. Moreover, I am very much not a medieval church historian (a meaningful subfield) or an medieval literary historian (a subfield so large that at times it seems to be the actual field, with traditional medieval history as its subfield), so that sort of focus seems better left to dedicated medievalists.

What we are going to talk about here are a few areas closer to my research interests where I think CKIII is substantially less developed than it could be or where mechanics don’t work as well as I think they might to express the history of the period. That makes for a bit of a grab bag, but we’re going to talk about how the game struggles to simulate actual states, how the innovation system as currently structured both compounds these problems but also plays into a somewhat teleological view of historical progression as a sequence of advances towards centralization, how the current military system flattens some of the interesting diversity in military-and-social structure in these polities and finally – and perhaps most importantly – how the game’s strong focus on the elite largely leaves out non-elite actors, both peasants and burghers.

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The Heirs of Rome

We can deal with the bigger omission which is actually the smaller issue: the Byzantines. It seems necessary of course to note that the Byzzies (yes, I call them that) were clearly victims of necessary development decisions. The fact is, game development on this scale is partly about managing scope in order to actually release the product before the heat-death of the universe. With the decision to have non-Christian rulers playable at launch and to move a number of mechanics that were DLC in CKII to the base game (e.g. men-at-arms units), it was inevitable that certain things got left out of scope and clearly the Eastern Roman Empire (that is, Byzantium) was one of them.

And, though it pains me to say it, this was the correct choice. The ERE is, as we’ll see, a weird creature for this period, a figurative dinosaur walking the earth – great, terrible and terribly out of date – which means that any development time spent on crafting bespoke mechanics for it wouldn’t be applicable for anyone else.1 And of course there are player expectations to consider; nearly every historical Paradox game that I can recall has at some point gotten a Byzantine-themed patch or DLC, including games in which the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist or else ceased to exist within the first ten years of game start. So very clearly a choice was made, probably very early in development, to leave detailed Byzantine mechanics for later content.

That’s not to say that the Byzzies get nothing here. On launch, what they did get was attached specifically to the Byzantine Empire title, but with the fleshing out of the culture system, those elements got moved into traditions for Greek culture (which makes a lot more sense and means that should some other culture seize the title, as happened (twice), they wouldn’t automatically inherit the unique Byzantine way of doing things). In particular, Greek culture has two traditions that reflect this Roman inheritance. The first, ‘Eastern Roman Legacy’ enables the Cataphract men-at-arms unit, along with shifting Byzantine armies away from levies and towards (expensive) heavy infantry and heavy cavalry men-at-arms units. The second, Byzantine Traditions, enables the limited Byzantine government features, like the ‘Born in the Purple’ trait, a beefed-up short reign penalty (to reflect the greater instability of individual Byzantine rulers) and so on. Finally, the Byzantines begin with primogeniture, which is actually a fairly significant gameplay change since so much of the early game in CKIII is spent managing partitive intermittence everywhere else.

The unique set of bonuses that Greek culture carries which try to express some of the oddities of the Byzantine Empire. Eastern Roman Legacy shifts them towards a more professional, heavy army while Byzantine Traditions both enables the Born in the Purple trait, which is valuable, but also increase instability from the longer short-reign modifier and more common disloyal trait.

All told this is essentially just a framed ‘Work in Progress’ sign. Everyone knows that a more focused, substantive Byzantine flavor-pack is likely at some point (though every time you ask, “Byz wen?” it gets delayed). That said, I hope that when the Byzantine themed DLC does arrive, it isn’t just some features for the Byzantines, but instead takes the opportunity to interrogate the kind of polity the Byzantines had in this period and how that might work in CKIII‘s systems. So what makes the Eastern Roman Empire different and how might that be represented?

I have kept using the word ‘polity’ instead of ‘state’ in these posts because most medieval polities were not states; but arguably the Byzantine Empire was a state, with power at least notionally fully centralized in the person of the emperor, an inheritance from the late Roman governance system. While emperors still had to delegate command (and were thus at risk from rogue generals), political authority remained centralized and the state retained that effective monopoly on the legitimate use of force, at least to the end of the Komnenos dynasty in 1180 (after which the Byzantine Empire begins to fragment).

Via Wikipedia, a map of the Byzantine themes as of 1025 AD. The outsized theme of Anatolikon is not an accident, but a reflection of the fact that this was the largest fragment of the Byzantine army to be formed into a theme, the successor to the primary eastern army, the army of the East (in Greek, Anatole, thus the theme of Anatolikon).

At the level that CKIII works on, the key institution here are the θέματα (themata, sing. θέμα) or themes, which became the key administrative and military divisions of what remains of the Eastern Roman Empire after the catastrophes of the seventh century. The theme-system took the late Roman field armies and – beginning in Anatolia – tied them to specific districts, creating combined military-civilian administrative areas. Ironically this was in some sense a return to the older Roman system of combined military-civilian authority in the person of a provincial governor, but the difference here is that the army itself was essentially settled in its theme, to act as an initial defense force. Meanwhile, over time a new professional field army formed around the emperor, called the tagmata. The commander of a thema was given the Greek title of strategos, ‘general.’ And the developers clearly have this system in mind; the duchy-title divisions in the Byzantine Empire look to be modeled on geographic division of the themes in the early 11th century.

The de jure duchy divisions of the core of the Byzantine Empire. As you can compare them with the map above, there’s a clear effort here to try to replicate most of the themes on their original boundaries.

And so far this seems like the sort of local rule that CKIII simulates well, but the devil is in the details. Unlike the rulers we’ve discussed in previous weeks, the were appointed administrators, not local rulers; they did not hold their positions by heredity, but by imperial appointment. The emperor assigned someone the job of commanding a theme and could (in theory) revoke that appointment at any time. That doesn’t mean that emperors could select anyone; the Byzantine military-aristocracy was fairly small and whereas civilian court administrators could often be elevated from bureaucrats (including eunichs), army command was expected to go to members of the landholding elite who guarded that privilege jealously. However, while appointed, strategoi had essentially total control of their theme and of course some of them used that authority to turn their armies against the emperor.

Modeling that institution within CKIII‘s systems would be tricky. The problem here is that CKIII has a system for local landholdings (barony-level titles) which it fundamentally connects to a system for administrative control over large regions (ducal-level titles) through the vassalage systems. But that connection doesn’t exist in the Byzantine system; while strategoi had to be members of the large landholder class (the dynatoi, ‘the powerful ones’) they could be assigned anywhere, not merely where their holdings were. Perhaps the truest way to reflect this system inside of CKIII‘s systems would be to have all of the count-level vassals in the empire serve as a pool from which the emperor could arbitrarily select to command specific themes, but that would almost certainly break the game’s systems, since you could have a situation where a landholder in, say, Hellas was the strategos of Anatolikon theme where one of the landholders in his theme was the strategos of Hellas. The two characters would be both each other’s vassals and each other’s lieges. At the same time, the system would struggle to reflect the way in which the dynatoi expanded their influence at the expense of the central government by steadily expanding their holdings at the expense not of each other, but of the freeholding farmer class.

Actually modeling this system would thus require severing territorial map holdings from the administration of levies and revenues, which is not something I think that CKIII‘s core structure can handle. The previous game, CKII, modeled appointed officials by making the ducal-level titles (the strategoi) freely revocable by the emperor, allowing the player a much greater degree of freedom to customize their administration on the fly, while still limiting their choices to the holders of existing county titles (albeit generally encouraging that players select strategoi from their own themes, which was uncommon historically). As systems go, that actually isn’t a terrible compromise and might serve as the foundation for more mechanics for CKIII.

I should note there is another kind of medieval polity that this system clearly struggles with and those are larger civic republics: situations in which civic town governance has grown to cover a large area and thus be a state in its own right. The most obvious candidates here are the great Italian republics (Genoa, Venice, Pisa, Florence, etc.) but powerful towns made important vassals or even semi-independent realms all over Europe (especially in the Low Countries). We’ll come back to this but the game has no effective way to simulate the very different way these pocket states worked either, even as powerful non-player entities. Establishing a set of mechanics to try to reflect more centralized states might enable the game to represent some of the ways that these small civic polities often punched well above their weight by virtue of more effective civic mobilization and internal governance.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve run with the Byzantine Empire and aimed to recreate the Roman Empire. This is my most recent effort.

And developing those systems also matters not just for republics and the Byzantines, but also for the ability of the game to model increasingly centralized late-game polities. Moreover, it will be crucial if the map ever aims to expand to include China (something long implied by the ragged eastward edge of the game map), which alternated between periods of fragmentation but also of strong centralized state organization during the period of the Middle Ages in Europe.

I think it is worth noting that while the Byzantine Empire still needs some work, that doesn’t mean they haven’t gotten their share of the new mechanics, like this court design for Eastern courts, clearly modeled off of Byzantine architecture.

But that doesn’t fix all of the fairly obvious duct-tape solutions for the Byzantines, like needing to have unique early access to primogeniture or the problem that Byzantine crown authority begins at ‘autonomous vassals’ without even having the ability to raise it to ‘high.’ All of that leads to problems with…

The Innovation System

The innovation system in CKIII takes the place of the normal ‘tech tree,’ and while I am going to lay into some of its issues here in a moment, I do think that the framing here is good. ‘Innovation,’ is a good, broad term for the complex of ideas, technologies and social structures represented here (all of which have good names for sending players on profitable wiki-walks). It’s also a more fun and interesting system than CKII‘s technology-levels, since each innovation is unique rather than simply iterating a bonus to a slightly higher level.

I won’t bury the lede here though: the main problem is that innovations are gated by era, with each era’s innovations locked behind a minimum year. That has all sorts of knock-on-effects, the most obvious is the duct-tape solution of giving Byzantium primogeniture at game start because otherwise they couldn’t develop it until 1200. But more broadly it shows up in the problem of major cities (Constantinople, but also Baghdad and Cordoba) starting at the development cap with limited ability to expand for decades. Inexplicably the Byzantines start the game having forgotten how to found cities, presumably because – since they have several decades to wait until the second tier of the tech tree unlocks – they needed something to research. Likewise, the early English kingdoms in this system have to start out with minimal centralization and confederate partition with no real ability to much change either for decades or centuries, despite the fact that Alfred the Great (r. 848-899) and his successors seem to have built a remarkably centralized kingdom which wasn’t subject to further fragmentation.

An example of the innovation screen. As you can see, none of the high medieval innovations are available, because the year is not 1050. This would be true even if the second condition (discovering 50% of the early medieval innovations) was met.

In short, the innovation system cannot handle differential development across the broader Mediterranean well at all, gating some societies out of innovations they fairly clearly had for centuries after they fairly clearly had them. Moreover, the ‘eras’ system imposes a degree of teleological determinism here where knowledge must proceed from fragmenting, decentralized, deurbanized polities towards more coherent, centralized and urbanized ones, but the actual routes that historical polities took through this period were hardly so clear-cut. It is a system that works OK for what were clearly the initial focuses of game development – mostly France, Germany and Scandinavia – but falls apart outside of that frame fairly quickly and cannot handle exceptions even within it. There were areas of honest technological advance in the Middle Ages, but a lot of what ends up in the innovation trees is cultural development, which is hardly so sequential and chronologically rooted as the innovation system implies.

Now if I may engage in a bit of amateur game design, the clear purpose of the era-gating is to prevent players from ‘blitzing’ a handful of powerful late-game innovations early in cultures that historically took centuries for them to develop; primogeniture is the obvious candidate for this kind of ‘tech rush.’ But I suspect as the game’s focus expands with flavor packs, the limitations of this system are going to become more and more apparent, because the sequences here simply don’t make a lot of sense. And I also think just having entirely different tech trees for different cultures is not much of a solution either.

My own amateur ‘fix’ would be to ditch the year-gating entirely and instead organize innovations the way dynasty legacies are organized – a series of parallel sequences where unlocking each level makes the next available (so a sequential tree). Thus a culture still needs to discover the different succession options in sequence, and needs to figure out how to manage provinces of 25 maximum development before learning how to do so for provinces of 35 development and so on. Then, to prevent (or at least discourage) players from ‘tech rushing’ key technologies, impose a ‘cool down’ of several decades between innovations in the same ‘tree.’ That could be a hard gateway, “you just discovered ‘hereditary rule’ and so must wait 50 years to begin ‘heraldry'” or a soft penalty to consecutive innovations in a single category akin to Heart of Iron IV‘s ahead-of-time research penalty.

Reshaping the system that way would, I think, allow for a better expression of the structures and innovations that some cultures had at the beginning of this period. The design could then also increase innovation development time based on either the number of innovations known or the highest level innovation known, creating a system whereby the less urbanized and centralized polities could ‘catch up’ over time. Constructing innovations as a tree rather than as a time-gated progression also allows for innovations which represent choices, rather than advances, which brings me to my next topic.

Army Structure

On the one hand, one of the strengths of the Crusader Kings series is that it accurately reflects vassalage-system armies as consisting of a ‘retinue of retinues,’ where each aristocratic vassal brings their own retinue and their vassals who in turn bring their retinues and so on until the army is formed. That leads to a fairly distinctive (and sometimes ungainly) army structure which CKIII broadly respects. The units that make up an army in CKIII are each of the levy contributions from either an individual holding or vassal; these can’t be split up, forcing the player to work with occasionally awkward sized units as a consequence of the system.

In addition to those levy units, a ruler also raises their men-at-arms and knights. The former reflect standing or semi-professional warriors, which covers a range of different kinds of full-time combatants on the battlefield. A unit of professional standing infantry fits under this rubric, as would a whole bunch of knights bachelor (unlanded knights) serving in the household or retinue of the king. The ‘knights’ (the term for these fellows is culture dependent) reflect aristocratic courtiers or vassals in the army and the way they function act more like officers than combatants in their own right – they can have a lot of combat power. I like the inclusion of ‘knights’ – the concern here is, I think, to try to reflect the personalistic nature of these armies without putting so many named characters in them that the player loses all track of them. Finally, a ruler can raise mercenaries, which act almost like a ‘bonus’ men-at-arms units.

The military screen, showing every kind of soldier: levies (derived from holdings), knights (here under the culture-specific label of ‘faris’) recruited from courtiers and vassals, and then men-at-arms units (paid for with money. Below you can see I have also hired a number of mercenary companies.

As a foundation, this is a good system, but it tends to flatten a lot of the variety in military structure between different cultures in this period. In practice, the system fits best post-Carolingian Latin Christendom (again, understandable given the focus of the game); some cultures, like the Byzantine Greeks above, have small bonuses to tweak the system to better represent their armies (Byzantine characters have larger men-at-arms units and smaller levies, reflecting a more professional army), but a lot of other distinctive and important differences are lost.

We’ve already noted, for instance, that the system cannot really simulate either the causes or the effects of the steady drift towards the heavy use of Mamluks in the Abbasid Caliphate and beyond. The game makes no distinction, after all, between how men-at-arms units are raised, but the political ramifications of the use of enslaved Turkish soldiers in the Islamic world were substantial. On the flipside, just as I’ve noted that CKIII‘s vision of ‘feudalism’ is an odd fit for pre-1066 England, so too is its military system. The early English fyrd-system was substantially more centralized (there’s a reason William the Conqueror had the administrative apparatus post-1066 to do a comprehensive survey of the entire kingdom; that apparatus had been built up for the fyrd military system), aiming to produce big armies of mobilized freeholding farmers (forms around the royal household’s heavy infantry, the huscarls) rather than armies of knights with their retinues. Meanwhile, what I know of the military systems of medieval India, built around the ‘three arms’ of foot, horse and chariot with a substantially disarmed peasant farmer class providing taxes rather than levies, doesn’t fit this model well either.

That said, if I may once again put on my amateur designer hat, I think the levies-men-at-arms-knights model is flexible enough to accommodate these differing systems. My own instinct would be to add ‘army structure’ as either a realm law (parallel to crown authority) or a cultural tradition (I’d lean towards the former). I might offer the following systems as choices (with proposed bonuses to reflect their nature):

  • Fyrd System: Higher levy contribution from vassals to make a levy-centered army.
  • Steppe System: Substantially lower total levies, but levies from steppe-nomad-culture vassals are horse archers, with a bonus that at last it wouldn’t be necessary to give the Mongols a huge number of ‘event’ troops to make them dangerous.
  • Professional Core (e.g. the ERE before c. 1000 or so): Essentially the current traditions bonus for the Byzantines, with fewer levies but more men-at-arms. This might work in degrees, from ‘professional core’ to an almost fully professional army (the latter perhaps reflecting the disarmed peasantry of parts of India, for instance).
  • Mercenary Core (e.g. the Komnenoi, Abbasids): Permanent mercenary companies begin to take the place of levies, but their leaders are powerful and dangerous vassals.
  • Feudal Array: The current system. To balance it, perhaps the liege when raising a vassal’s levies also raises a proportion of their knights – perhaps a proportion based on vassal opinion – which might better reflect the centrality of military elites to this system as compared to the older fyrd-style systems.

Access to a given system could then be put into the innovation system, with different cultures starting having ‘discovered’ one or the other system, but being able to ‘discover’ and adopt another culture’s military system. As the system stands now, essentially everyone deploys what is effectively a feudal array, which rather flattens a lot of the variety in military systems we actually see in the period.

Peasants and Burghers

All of which gets my small issues out of the way and leads into my larger issue with CKIII‘s design. As we discussed at the beginning of the series, I prefer to break what we sometimes call ‘feudalism’ into two distinct systems: vassalage (the system for political-military relationships between elites) and manoralism (the system for economic relationships between the peasantry and elites). And almost everything we’ve discussed has been about vassalage: how it functions, how personalistic it is as a system, how legitimacy is built within a vassalage-based polity and so on.

We have spent almost no time, however, on manorialism and the commons, which is fitting because frankly CKIII doesn’t spend much time on them either. It is hard to say this is necessarily a failing so much as it is a clear choice. As I noted with EUIV and Victoria II, each Paradox game chooses a focus: EUIV is about states and not people, whereas Victoria II is much more about people (and tries not to be about war). In its design, the clear decision was made to make CKIII about elites and not peasants; the former are lovingly modeled with even barons and landless elite courtiers given personalities and making AI-based decisions. That focus clearly comes at the expense of the peasantry.

Back to our al-Yiliqi game, once the conquest of Aquitaine is consolidated, a decision becomes available to ‘Avenge the Battle of Tours.’ I get where the designers are going with this decision, but the effects of it – pulling the kingdom of Aquitaine de jure under the Empire of Hispania is an odd one. Still, that will do wonders for kingdom stability, so I trigger it.

In as much as the peasantry is represented, it is as a part of their holding. Each holding has a ‘development’ score which reflects the level of urbanization and population present,2 which increases the levies and taxes the holding grants as well as the size of army that can be present without experiencing supply loss (essentially a ‘foraging cap‘). The effectiveness and pervasiveness of your administration is reflected by the ‘Control’ score (out of 100), with low control often leading to penalties to levies and taxes. Levies and taxes are further modified by buildings you can construct in the holding in four ‘slots.’

Finally, the attitude of the peasantry to you is reflected by a ‘popular opinion’ score. This is a very simple mechanic, with generally fairly few modifiers, with the largest being if the ruler is the same faith and culture as the county and a stacking penalty for waging offensive wars. It provides no bonuses if positive, but if deeply negative popular uprising factions may form, which are generally far less dangerous than vassal factions (which makes some sense; peasant revolts were both fairly common and mostly failed). A number of in-game events offer dilemmas which can increase or decrease popular opinion, though frequent offensive warfare is the most common cause of highly negative popular opinion. In a sense then popular opinion is the other half of the vassal opinion legitimacy framework reflecting the peasantry’s view of the regime’s legitimacy, but in practice this mechanic is decidedly secondary.

The burghers – the residents of towns – get a bit more focus, but only a bit. Town governments are represented by baron-level vassals (‘mayors’), but as characters in the governing system these fellows are mostly inert. They don’t scheme to expand the town’s influence and pay a fixed percentage of their taxes and levies regardless of opinion.

The player in turn has relatively little to do with the burghers or the peasants. While historical recruitment systems often reached pretty deeply into the organization of the countryside, doing things like brigading households together with each group of households required to provide recruits, or setting land aside for military settlers, the player isn’t involved in any of that, nor do they engage in tax collection or reform. These roles aren’t absent, but they’re abstracted into tasks the player can set their councilors on (stewards can collect taxes or increase development, marshals can increase control or levies) whose effects are directly proportional to their relevant skills; a set-it-and-forget-it mechanic. This, combined with some events, at least acknowledges that this would have been a daily concern of the ruler – the management of his own lands – but abstracts it away so the player can focus on other things. On the balance, I think this is an understandable design decision, but the player looking to think historically needs to be aware just how much is being abstracted away here.

For a game focused on rulership though, the inertness of town governments strikes me as more of a problem. Major towns could be very troublesome vassals. In game, towns are represented as having minimal defensive capabilities, but in actual practice a fortified town full of angry burghers was a very difficult military problem, since a large and motivated town militia could dispose of a lot of labor in its defense. At the same time, because burghers tended to be wealthier than peasants, town militias were a good source of higher quality infantry (both armored infantrymen but also crossbowmen), making good relations with them important for developing military force. A lord could dictate to the peasants, but had to negotiate with major towns, and this just isn’t well reflected in-game.

One of the issues is the structure of holdings: each county is split more or less evenly into castle, temple and town holdings (typically one of each, plus perhaps an open slot or two) and these holdings are more or less equally productive (castles produce more levies, towns more taxes, temples somewhere in the middle). But in practice a big town – which is going to come with its own surrounding agricultural hinterland – could be a substantial nucleus of population and wealth that would have made it substantially more important than surrounding castles or monasteries. Not all towns were like this, but certainly larger towns could be outsized and powerful vassals in a way that simply doesn’t happen in CKIII.

It gets my ruler the cool name ‘the Avenger.’

In my view this reflects one of the major weaknesses of CKIII‘s design. I suspect the developers are aware of this too; quite a number of events added with Royal Court relate to the concerns of the burghers or the peasantry so there is an apparent desire to represent this, but it isn’t well integrated into the game’s systems. Whereas I can imagine DLC or flavor-pack sized ‘fixes’ for the game’s struggles in these other issues (states, the Byzantines, etc.) it’s hard to see how CKIII could do much more than just those events without a fairly radical redesign. That said, I understand this as a design concession; games like this have to focus on something and some of Paradox’s other titles (Victoria and Imperator especially) are much more common-people-oriented. As I’ve noted before, one of the great strengths of the Paradox oeuvre is that because each game focuses on different aspects of history, they can serve as correctives and rebuttals to each other, though it is a shame that by far the most people-oriented game in the catalog, Victoria, has also traditionally been the most niche of the set.

Reading Crusader Kings

For all of these complaints though, I think Crusader Kings III is probably more successful at achieving a historically informative simulation as compared to EUIV and Victoria II (though neither of those games is a failure by any means). My own sense, witnessing also the way that their other titles, especially EUIV, have evolved over time is that this is reflective of the growing maturity in Paradox’s historical design, but also the smaller geographic scope (though even here CKIII suffers from placing South and Central Asia in soft focus). It isn’t perfect, mind you – indeed I’ve just spent the last 5,000 or so words complaining about it and this is hardly a complete bill of goods. The core of both the success and the omissions of Crusader Kings III‘s vision of the Middle Ages is its focus on fragmented polities governed through dynastic, personalistic rule; within that framework the game is a remarkably capable simulator of vassalage politics (within the bounds of what is possible for a mainstream video game), but historical elements outside of those bounds are at best gestured at in events, when they aren’t simply omitted.

For the teacher then, looking at how to respond to students whose vision of the Middle Ages was substantially formed by CKIII‘s theory of history focused around dynastic politics and for the student looking to expand their knowledge from that base, the exercise will mostly be one in filling gaps, addressing key historical themes that sit outside of that focus. That can mean a focus on the sort of polities that do not fit well within CKIII‘s simulation, like the Byzantine Empire or town governments (both those within larger kingdoms but also the independent Italian civic polities like Venice, Genoa and so on), but it can also mean a focus on the sort of people that CKIII leaves out of focus, which mostly means the peasantry, but also to a meaningful extent the clergy.

Honestly now beginning to run out of things to do I spot the ‘Secure the Mediterranean’ decision, which likewise expands the de jure holdings of a title, enabling more stable expansion. It’s going to secure me to take Corsica and Sicily, which means quite a bit of war, but Muntasir is up for it, so to war we go.

Fortunately, the study of the Middle Ages is fairly well equipped with Annales-inspired micro-histories exploring the lives and mentalités of the peasantry, works like E.L.R. Ladurie’s Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966; available in trans. J. Day, 1976 as The Peasants of Languedoc) or, reaching just into the early modern period, Carlo Gunzburg’s Il formaggio e i vermi (1976, available in trans. Tadeschi and Tadeschi (1980), the former exploring the material reality of the common peasantry and the latter their cosmology and worldview.

Likewise, it might be worth putting a bit more into exploring the situation within the towns. My own knowledge of medieval Italian communal structures is sadly fairly thin beyond the basics (I’m actually hoping at some point to rope a colleague into guest-blogging about them), so I shall stick more to the rest of Europe. S. Ogilvie’s The European Guilds: An Economic Analysis (2019) is both a remarkably summary of scholarship on the topic and a tremendous wealth of data and analysis of what we know about how guilds shaped the structure of civic politics and also how they interacted with both city government and larger political structures. In a narrower study, L. Crombie’s Archery and Crossbow Guilds in Medieval Flanders (2016) provides a good ‘glue’ between the lords-and-vassals centric vision of CKIII and the social structures of towns, as well as illustrating the importance of that relationship since these guilds were both important civic institutions but also key means for lords (in this case the Dukes of Burgundy) to obtain effective infantry from the towns in their realms. Of course variation by region, time and relationship is substantial; City and Spectacle in Medieval Europe (1994), edited by B.A. Hanawalt and K. L. Reyerson collects a dozen smaller studies of individual interactions (rituals, festivals, donations, etc.) between ‘feudal’ rulers and the towns in their domain which gives a sense of the variety and particularity these relationships could have.

I use the invasion CB in North Africa, netting a much larger sweep of territory, before a final hard-fought war to pry the last bit of Sicily from the Byzantines. This is as far as I got at time of posting this, though the game remains exciting as the Pope has just declared a Crusade to recover Leon that probably has enough troops for me not to be able to stop it. Alas, posts must go up on schedule, so that will have to be a challenge for another day.

Finally, while CKIII can and does gesture at the literature and intellectual culture of the period, with the player able to commission literary works and retain scholars that fairly clearly call to historical exemplars, by necessity it only alludes to the content of those works.3 Thus the player is never going to meet St. Benedict, Gregory of Tours, Ibn al-Athir, Dhuoda of Uzes, Peter Abelard, Heloise d’Argenteuil, the Venerable Bede, ibn Khaldun, Anna Komnene and so on, or their writings. Fortunately, every medieval history course I’ve ever seen already foregrounds intellectual and literary history in this way; myself I make heavy use of the venerable Rosenwein reader (B. Rosenwein, Reading the Middle Ages (2006, but now in a third edition), easily one of the best source readers I have ever taught with) to introduce students to the literary culture of the Middle Ages. For those looking to self-teach, it should be noted that the reader is intended to sync up with Barbara Rosenwein’s A Short History of the Middle Ages (now in a fifth edition), which is also a very capable textbook.4

On the other hand, for the medieval enthusiast for whom CKIII has inspired a desire to look more deeply into the business of rulership and the intellectual framework around medieval kingship, it is hard to recommend a single volume on the topic. While CKIII models many of the common elements of kingship fairly well, in practice when one wants more specificity kingship generally rapidly becomes the study of particular models of kingship and royal administration that are specific to their time and place. The next step is thus to pick a polity or dynasty and go reading, though the books written at this level are intended for scholars and written with that in mind. Nevertheless some tentative suggestions: J.E.A. Jolliffee, Angevin Kingship (1955),5, H. Takayama, The Administration of the Norman Kingdom of Sicily (1993), J. Naus, Constructing Kingship: The Capetian Monarchs of France and the Early Crusades (2016), and L.E. Wangerin, Kingship and Justice in the Ottonian Empire (2019). There’s also a fair amount of kingship scholarship discussed and cited comparatively in T.R. Trautmann, Elephants and Kings (2015), stretching into Southeast Asia, though its primary interests as elsewhere. As you might imagine from books written for scholars, there’s quite a range here in prices and availability.6

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that there is more to this period – indeed any period – than any single game can cover. Even more than the other Paradox games we’ve discussed so far, CKIII picks its focus and sticks to it: this is a game about individual elites and the decisions they make as rulers, and the way that expectations and norms of rulership shape those decisions. A lot of the missing elements above frankly wouldn’t fit well into a strategy game of this sort in any case; unlike with Victoria II, where the lives of regular folk could be presented through the processes of industrialization and political liberalization in the period, reflecting the relatively unchanging structures of peasant life in the Middle Ages isn’t a great fit for this kind of game. Personally, I would love to see a developer really tackle medieval peasant life (in a game where ‘peasant village’ isn’t just a transition stage to ‘big city’ – I’m actually quite impressed by Farthest Frontier, but you don’t stay a village in that game) either as an economics/business sim (run the farm, try not to starve, maybe accomplish some upward social mobility) or a narrative driven RPG. Different genres offer different opportunities.

Next week we’re going to trade in our spurs for wings to discuss the theory and practice of strategic airpower. This is a topic that has recently become a frequent request owing to current events, so that’s where we’re going next.

  1. Though I think that they might be handy aspirational goals for players aiming to further centralize their own realms.
  2. The tooltip says it reflects “the local infrastructure and technological advancement in a County,” but given its effects, this really ought to be population and urbanism.
  3. As much as the historian in me might wish for extensive quotations, that wouldn’t fit with the need for modularity in CKIII‘s event dialogue system and moreover would clash with the series’ general tongue-in-cheek tone.
  4. With the noted benefit that Rosenwein also adopts a broadly Mediterranean framework, rather than a strictly western European one.
  5. A warning here: Jolliffee does not translate any of the Latin in the book, so if you cannot read Latin this is going to be a very difficult book to read as Latin phrases are sprinkled liberally through the text.
  6. Special thanks here to colleagues Daniel Morgan, Peter Raleigh and Elizabeth Hasseler who helped me in assembling this further reading list.

89 thoughts on “Collections: Teaching Paradox, Crusader Kings III, Part IV: Emperors, Soldiers and Peasants

  1. Good one, I think they would never add China because of how much computer power it would take to manage so many vassals and how broken it would be to have such a strong ruler.

    1. They’re apparently planning to which suggests they’re going to add some meat to imperial mechanics.

  2. Its interesting that CKIII share many weakness with ASOIAF: weak religion, unimportant cities, ignoring peasant, etc.

    I guess its influence of romantic Knight-and-Damsel chivalric romance.

    1. Well, in CK3 religion is a pretty big deal; it’s the church that’s weak, or rather weakly simulated. If you have non-temporal clergy, like Christianity, your temple holdings are all under the control of your Realm Priest, and if he doesn’t like you you get zero money and levies from them. So you care a lot about the church but it’s pretty easy to keep one guy in particular happy.

      I think the limitations of the simulation come from the fact that it’s not just about characters; it’s specifically about dynasties. Towns, churches, and themes don’t have hereditary succession so they’re out of focus. CK2 crowbars in themes and merchant republics but theocracies remained flatly unplayable the entire run, though it did have ways of interacting with the college of cardinals and variable ability to control local bishops and install antipopes.

      1. Oh, and Italy has the Republican Legacy tradition, which makes it easier to get count-level mayors and makes them pay you more and like you less, plus Venice has a special building only for republics, so there’s some gestures in that direction.

      2. I do note that you *can* get county and duchy, etc. level republics, and they will start scheming in the usual way. It’s just that… There isn’t usually much of a reason to *do* that.

        1. I actually do it a lot, especially as Italians who can turn minor counts into republics and get significantly higher contributions. I tend to prefer gold to levies, and Republic flat rate tax contribution is higher than all but the last tier of feudal, and they have more money to start with.

          1. Sure, but in CK2 it was nearly always the right move to create a Duke-level Republic vassal as soon as you could keep them. Just for the ships, all of the other considerations were meaningless next to that; you’d often have situations where all of your feudal vassals combined provided a flotilla too small for your army, but one Merchant Republic could take your army directly to Egypt from anywhere in the world.
            CK3 has no such reason.

  3. Well, I’m afraid my reading list has just expanded considerably. (If only I could actually finish a book…)

  4. Bravo! Great series! I don’t really have anything to add here other than my congratulations though, so I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Bret, just wanna say I started a playthrough in 867 as the Duke of Bohemia and really applying your strategic advise about titles and conquest under the earlier succession systems (Confederate Partition, and Partition) has been huge help. I managed to have my own little Czech Capetian miracle through happenstance a few generations with only 1 male heir under male preference and 1 generation were there were 2 sons but one got forced to take vows due to story events. You really made the early game period more enjoyable and I love being more able to dip my toe in there instead of just starting a 1066 game again.

    This and the whole series of articles on CK3 were quite good reads and I felt like I learned a lot, keep it up!

  6. Amazing post and series of posts as always, but I’m afraid you didn’t cover the most burning question — when you call them Byzzies, do you pronounce it like bus-ee (like a busy bee)? Or with a long Y like Bye-zee?

  7. Literary culture could get complicated. Flatter the lord by making a chivalric romance about his fictitious ancestor in the Matter of France, and because of the injustice his overlord did the ancestor, have something you can’t sing before his real overlord.

    This is one reason why the Matter of Britain took over in France.

  8. Re games playing as a peasant: The board game Agricola takes place in the 1600s, but it feels late medieval-ish anyway. Be warned that this is one of the most stressful games ever made, as it successfully sells the just-barely-getting-by feeling; you can be one turn short on completing your fence for the livestock you want to raise, and be stuck begging and keeping that sheep in your house instead, your dreams crushed.

  9. I’ve been thinking about this issue since Part I of the series, and I’m puzzled by the fervor with which some people object to the term “feudalism.” If you want to analyze the system as containing two components, vassalage and manorialism, that’s fine, but:
    1. The two components are joined by the central figure of the individual knight, who is both the lowest noble (or gentle) vassal, and the lord of the manor (in an idealized structure); and
    2. According to Azar Gat, the combined system is a common (maybe universal) response to the two conditions of a weak state (which requires delegating sovereign power) and the use of cavalry as the dominant military arm (because each cavalryman requires lots of acreage to support him and his horses).
    Obviously, a society could have one of the components without the other, in which case it would not be feudal.

    1. Well manorialism provides a self-sufficient economy, self-defense military, and self-ruling administration – which was a demand due to the weakening of the central power. So manorialism has a link with feudalism, at least in the case of medieval Europe.

      The problem with “feudalism” is it can refer to a lot of things, but people often only use it to describe a single aspect of medieval European society, which makes it confusing.

    2. As I understand it, Bret’s problem is that “feudalism,” both in its common use and as a singular term, conflates the relationship the peasant-knight relationship with the knight-king relationship. Splitting feudalism into manorialism and vassalage helps bypass pre-existing assumptions about “feudal government,” which also emphasizing a bit point that people often get wrong about it.

      That isn’t to say that “feudalism” defined as “the confluence of manorialism and vassalage” has no potential use, but for a public-facing educator, it’s more important to emphasize the things people tend to misunderstand.

    3. One issue with combining them under the same term, which I see a lot, is that it implies that the relationship between serf and lord were of the same basic structure and form as the relationship between liege and vassal. They were different not only in degree, but also in kind.

    4. One reason that comes to mind is that even within a “feudal” society, not all manors were controlled by a specific person who counted as a vassal of the overlord, and not all economic units could be considered manorial.

      England was clearly feudal as a whole in the High Middle Ages, but the City of London was not a manor, nor was it composed of manors, and it could only be called a “vassal” of the English crown in a very odd sense of the word.

      A monastery might control a patch of land and oversee a functionally manorial economy within that land, but the abbot was not necessarily a vassal.

    5. It’s important to interrogate vassalage systems independently because they are a common recurrence. Criminal underworlds are generally some form of vassalage. Warlordism usually forms some level of vassalage. Vassalage can exist in many economic systems.

      Mannorlism is more important to think about the spectrum of labor systems from “free” to “non-free”. With modern capitalist systems on one end and chattal slavery and serfdom on the other. And the push and pull of these systems, which change much more slowely than the governing systems they operate under.

    6. “a common (maybe universal)”

      Both adjectives strike me as odd; IIRC, Gat says ‘feudalism’ arose just 2 or 3 times. Europe, some centuries of Japan, and maybe the Zhou Dynasty.

  10. While a lot of manorialism does seem out of scope for CK 3’s systems, could towns be more accurately represented by just boosting their power level (to represent the economic and military importance), and making their leader’s opinions of you respond strongly to popular opinion (and maybe expand the options for managing public opinion)?

    This would be added work, so I can see why it was secondary in design, but it seems like fertile ground for an expansion, that could be slotted in relatively easily.

    1. There’d be mechanical difficulties as currently implemented. Towns are holding-level, so you can get pretty much as many as there are slots, and if they were stronger you’d only build them. Also, while baron-level vassals are semi-fully-simulated* they don’t do much. There can’t be split control of counties** because that was a huge pain in CK2 and so barons don’t join factions. It is possible to have count-level or higher mayors, but that’s rare outside of Italy, although I make a lot because I’d rather have money. Plus using popular opinion can be problematic because that’s significantly influenced by the count themselves.

      Putting them on a feudal or clan system, or more likely a modified version of one or both, would make engaging with them, at least the big ones, more important. The current military system doesn’t support using them directly as sources of elite infantry, though they can be a big part of funding them.

      *for performance reasons they don’t do everything counts and up do even if those things are personal and wouldn’t depend on a count’s resources

      **Minus leased holdings, which are still under the count but contribute through the realm priest or not at all

      1. The cities were not really sources of elite infantry, or any kind of infantry for that matter. In Switzerland, they did have actual conscripted levies, but those were mainly from the countryside controlled by the city.

        The navies were a different matter: most medieval navies were city fleets. Lübeck, Hamburg and Danzig were quite as formidable in the Baltic as Pisa, Venice and Genova on the Mediterranean. And even in Great Britain, the Crown was dependent on the Cinque Ports to provide the naval strength well into modernity.

        1. “Elite” is relative to other infantry of the period. As Bret has noted in previous posts eg the Men of Rohan the European aristocrats didn’t value infantry on the battlefield and didn’t invest in them, which led to poor battlefield performance, which led to infantry being even less valued…

          However, there is a LOT of variation across all of Europe over several centuries. So there are numerous cases where yes cities did provide good infantry. (My source: Armies of the Middle Ages, volume 1, by Ian Heath.)

          Cities had numbers and wealth, so could provide a lot of infantry with better armour and weapons than most peasants. (Immaterial factors like training and discipline are harder to quantify. City infantry could fight bravely, or not.) Paris or Ghent in the later Middle Ages could offer 5,000+ infantry for a campaign, which by medieval standards would be an army all by itself.

          Cities early in the middle ages were also the only places that had cannon and handguns in numbers. Before that they supplied ‘high tech’ crossbowmen.

          1. Also heavy infantry. The infantry militia of Bruges in the 1300s, for instance, were to have a full mail shirt, with a helmet – to have an entire unit of infantry that heavily armored would have made them a valuable battlefield tool. Of course that kind of heavy equipment was possible because the propertied townsfolk that made up the militia were wealthy enough to afford it.

        2. It’s not hard to find medieval battles where town militias were effective, sometimes decisive – Laupen, Worringen, Hausbergen – all 13th or early 14th centuries and well inland. Town militias were a critical part of Christian Spanish forces against the Muslims. Moreover, castle-guard was a common, resented, impost through the earlier period.

  11. So based on this write-up, I assume the Hanseatic League is very poorly represented in the game?

    Also, quick China question: in earlier games in the series, did you select an era name every time a new emperor took the throne (i.e., Kangxi, Qianlong, etc)? And does the game just use the Gregorian calendar no matter which culture you play? Because it would get unwieldy for the year to reset to 1 with every new ruler but it would be a nice touch.

    1. China per se was not in previous CK games. In late CK2 they were an unplayable offmap power, albiet with the Western Protectorate variably on the map representing their efforts to control parts west. You could raid China or send them stuff to get back skilled specialists with a multitude of effects and sweet items. You could even go to war with them, which consisted of them sending a giant army of event troops to beat you up, but if you somehow win you install a relative as Emperor and China will like your dynasty until his descendents get kicked off the throne.

    2. I think it’s fair to say that the Hanseatic League is not represented *at all* in the game, except in the extreme generalization that many coastal cities have port buildings.

    3. The answers you have already gotten about both China and the Hanseatic League are correct.

      Regarding the question of calendars, the game uses a simplified Gregorian/Julian Calendar counting from the birth of Jesus, no matter who, when and where you play.
      .I say simplified Gregorian/Julian calendar because the game has no leap days at all, and leap days are the difference between the two (also the Julian had no fixed start date, but the Christian world had adopted the custom of counting from the birth of Jesus centuries before pope Gregory)

  12. “Alfred the Great (r. 848-899) and his successors seem to have built a remarkably centralized kingdom which wasn’t subject to further fragmentation.”

    I realise this is a bit off-topic, but of all the former provinces of the western Empire, Britain is hardly the one in which I would have expected this to happen. So is there any idea about how it did happen?

    1. It can be done when your kingdom is small and relatively homogeneous and was not affected by the collapse of the Frank empire.

    2. Alfred’s kingdom was built in large part to cope with particularly extreme exposure to Viking attack; any local smaller unit of power was destroyed or driven into Alfred’s arms by that external pressure.

      He also was building on Anglo-Saxon traditions of centralized but very small states – eg he took the traditional Fyrd system made for the petty kingdoms and built it into an England-wide (-ish) into one that would allow quick burgh-centric response to local attacks while generating a central army to come to the local burgh’s rescue.

      1. “he took the traditional Fyrd system made for the petty kingdoms and built it into an England-wide (-ish) into one that would allow quick burgh-centric response to local attacks while generating a central army to come to the local burgh’s rescue.”

        This sounds somewhat similar to the Byzantine theme system, perhaps with pre-Norman earls as strategoi? Though with the difference of organizing the local military rather than settling a unit of an existing army.

        1. Yup! Though with twists, because fast viking sea and river movement required shorter reaction times than the Byzantines fighting off Muslim invasions with conventional armies:

          the local fyrds were built around a fortress (“burh”), and in case of a local attack were intended to move as much population and wealth into that fortress as possible and wait until relieved by the mobile army.
          There were A LOT of these small districts. For speed of both calling up local levies (see below) and evacuating into the burh, the rule of thumb was that everything should be within 20 miles (!) of a burh. Contrast Byzantine themata, which could be hundreds of kilometers across
          Thematic armies were professional/standing armies, but the enormous number of local burhs meant this was impractical for Alfred’s kingdom. Instead, fyrds (built on traditional Germanic institutions) were levies assigned to a set of free households – feeding back into the requirement for lots of small local burhs, as calling up reservists is much easier the closer to home they’re employed.

    3. As a very meta-level thought about the question:

      Gaul/France and assorted other former territories of Western Rome retained reasonably powerful ‘barbarian’ warlords and power structures that had enough wealth and manpower to hold together relatively strong local power blocs.

      Perhaps the sheer poverty and total breakdown of administration after the departure of the Romans and the subordination of whatever Romano-British culture was left to the Anglo-Saxons, England was well positioned to be united by the first king to expand into the power vacuum, just as England was ‘well’ positioned to be heavily raided by the Vikings who took advantage of that same power vacuum. In a richer kingdom closer to the old Roman imperial core, someone like Alfred might have faced more organized opposition from local lords who had their act together and didn’t need his new organization to defend their holdings.

      Also, England was on an island with clearly delineated borders on most sides. There was no impulse to spread the kingdom farther, and conquering more land was impractical, so the only way to strengthen the realm was to organize things more effectively.

      1. I disagree with your last paragraph; England was not particularly isolated. They had two land borders, and their history up to that point showed that invasions by sea are very possible as well.

        1. I think there’s a misunderstanding here.

          I’m not saying England was isolated. I’m saying that England had fairly clearly defined “natural frontiers,” and that once an aspiring king of England bumped up against those frontiers, any subsequent expansion started to get a lot more difficult.

          The vast majority of the English border was ocean. The land borders with Wales and Scotland were difficult to force. They could be (and eventually were) forced, but to do this required precisely the kind of centralized English state we’re talking about.

          Likewise, the possibility of raiders from the sea creates a need for a centralized state, because you need to make sure the raiders can’t find weak points and carve out new blobs of Danelaw (or whatever) for themselves.

          So rather than try to subjugate new territories to become stronger, or cultivating personal relationships with their overlords, English kings in the [i]first[/i] half of the Middle Ages (roughly 500-1000 CE) had to concentrate on building up structures.

          That’s… closer to what I was getting at, anyway.

    4. Probably a “succeed or die” phenomenon during the Viking Age, where any choices that didn’t increase political and military power were immediatly punished, and generally abandoned.

      1. Yup – Alfred’s Wessex was the only one of half a dozen or so Anglo-Saxon states that survived the Viking invasions, and his centralization was driven by military needs. It grew into the Kingdom of England by sweeping up territory of English states that the Vikings had destroyed but didn’t put in the work to hold on to.

        1. And it should be pointed out, spent quite some time just being taken over by vikings (or their descendants) anyway.

    5. Basically, the Danish and Irish/Scandinavian invasions eliminated the smaller kingdoms, along with Northumbria, and boosted Wessex, then the stress of continual defence (against the various Great Armies) made strong governance essential and relatively uncontested. Fortified burhs were established under appointed officials (sheriffs), supported by central taxation that either funded defence or bought off the Northmen as convenient. The local allegiances and traditions were buried in the process. Given a further fillip by the Danish Conquest – the line of Wessex came back to a homogenised kingdom.

    6. Many thanks for the replies: food for thought.

      I am a bit suspicious of the class of theories that rely on external pressure. There may be points at which the country was unusually exposed to attack, but it is not obvious why this would be more so than, for example, Ireland. Or plenty of other places surrounded by potential enemies (such as almost anywhere).

      This suggests to me that there must have been some institution that encouraged centralisation of authority more in Britain (or England) than elsewhere, despite the destruction of Roman institutions.

      I am inclined to wonder about patterns of inheritance. If you have a society in which power and authority come from inheritance of some finite resource – land, people, CHOAM directorships, etc – then over a timescale of generations the distribution of authority is going to be dominated by the inheritance pattern. At the extremes, if you have equal inheritance for all children, the vital resource is going to end up pretty widely spread after a few generations, much as if Asia were divided equally among all of Genghis Khans descendants. At the opposite extreme, single-heir inheritance will lead to the resource getting much more concentrated, especially if the rich marry each other.

      And I gather that primogeniture was especially common in England in later centuries. But I don’t know about the Early Middle Ages. If inheritance was especially inegalitarian in that period, it would drive the country to precocious centralisation, whatever the external circumstances. If not, it wouldn’t.

      1. It just was more true in England than in Ireland.

        Comparing in the same time period: in the Viking age, Ireland was geographically more sheltered than England.

        Comparing to the pressures faced by Ireland later on when it was in turn conquered by England: the Viking conquests didn’t leave room for existing elites in the same way that the English conquests created space for anglicizing Irish nobility. A key part of the “pressure = centralization” narrative is that the pressure is applied not just to the central authority, but also to the lower-level elites who would normally resists such centralization.

        The pattern of Viking attack – extremely destructive seasonal raids, followed by retreat – meant that local rulers had an incentive to support centralization. The pattern of English attack on Ireland meant that local rulers had an incentive to cut deals and stab each other in the back and undermine any attempt at unity.

        1. “The pattern of Viking attack – extremely destructive seasonal raids, followed by retreat – meant that local rulers had an incentive to support centralization.”

          That doesn’t sound very different from the pattern of Viking attack in Ireland. Or the pattern of Arab attack on the coasts and islands of southern Europe, for that matter. Or even the pattern of nomad attack on Kievan Rus’.

          Yet none of those other areas seem to be famous for their precocious centralisation. If being raided caused centralisation in England, it should have caused it in those areas, too.

          Alternatively, if their is some Special Level of Raiding that causes centralisation – how do we know what that level was, or whether it occurred in England? If we argue that England and only England must have had that level because it was only there that centralization occurred, we end up arguing in circles. Centralization was caused by the Special Level of raiding, and we know that England had the Special Level of raiding because it had centralization.

          1. As I said, it was a matter of degree. Raids in England were sufficient to drive most of the existing English petty kingdoms into collapse, which they did not in Ireland or continental Europe, or in Kievan Rus’ until the Mongols.

            The critical factor seems to have been that the nobility themselves did not see any alternative but to give up their autonomy in order to preserve their security.

          2. asazernik, most people would have thought that driving a kingdom into collapse makes things less centralised, not more so.

            More seriously, you are deducing that the raiding on England was different from the raiding on Ireland because of the observation that England became more centralised; and also deducing that England became more centralised because the raiding was different.

            This is arguing in circles. A must be true because B is true, B must be true because A is true…

          3. That’s a fair point. In the Irish case, the raids and settlements produced a fusion – the Norse-Irish dynasty of the Ui Imarr, for instance (which then often raided in Britain and France). The political structure seems to have been resilient more than resistant (it went on to absorb the Normans).

          4. “most people would have thought that driving a kingdom into collapse makes things less centralised, not more so.”

            If raiders cause Albion to collapse, but don’t hold on to it at well (or at all), and Banglia expands into the collapsed Albion and can use that to build better defenses to raiders, that leads to more centralization.

            On its own Albion would probably be less centralized, but it has a neighbor who can exploit the vacuum.

    7. I don’t really disagree with anything anyone else has said, but I do want to add that Old English descends primarily from the Wessex accents of Anglo-Saxon, and that the use of the ‘th’ sound in Wessex predates exposure to the similar Viking sounds and was instead created through intermingling/contact with Brythonic people.
      So there is faint evidence that Wessex specifically did incorporate some abandoned Roman social structures by merging with Romano-British in a way that other Anglo-Saxon petty kingdoms did not.

  13. I have been inspired by this series of posts to take yet another swing at EU4, but the game’s complexity is stunning. In your Restored Roman Empire playthrough, is that a blue patch in southern France a bit of Sweden? How did that happen?

    1. I don’t think it’s Sweden but I’d have to go back and look.

      What I’d with starting out with Paradox games: in CKIII, it’s best to start with a smaller ruler to learn the game. In EU4, it’s actually easier to learn with one of the larger players (Castile, France, England, the Ottomans) because you can recover from mistakes as you learn systems easier.

        1. England has a scripted start that makes it harder than most countries for a new player; France and the Ottomans have centralization pains they have to go through but the Ottomans get a military power boost during the beginning whereas for France the boosts are in the mid- and late-game. Austria gives you a lot of help through it’s mission tree, but playing inside the HRE is almost a different game from the rest of the world. Castile has the most mission-tree and mechanical help of any country and is also positioned best for trade income in the first third to half of the game, and it’s mechanics still match up to what you would get as an experienced player playing a more minor nation and writing your own story.

  14. And of course there are player expectations to consider; nearly every historical Paradox game that I can recall has at some point gotten a Byzantine-themed patch or DLC, including games in which the Byzantine Empire didn’t exist or else ceased to exist within the first ten years of game start.

    Me: There’ve probably been enough Hearts of Iron games for me to make an argument against this claim. I just need to do a quick check to make sure that there isn’t a Byzantine Empire in the WW2 game, and—what do you MEAN you can reform Byzantium as Greece?!

    I should note there is another kind of medieval polity that this system clearly struggles with and those are larger civic republics: situations in which civic town governance has grown to cover a large area and thus be a state in its own right. The most obvious candidates here are the great Italian republics (Genoa, Venice, Pisa, Florence, etc.) but powerful towns made important vassals or even semi-independent realms all over Europe (especially in the Low Countries).

    CK2’s “The Republic” DLC has a pretty interesting way of handling Italian merchant republics, which I have to hope is reasonably historical because I have insufficient familiarity with medieval Italy to judge them. I do wonder why they’re limited to coastal republics, though.

    One thing it doesn’t do is reflect the influence that large cities could wield without needing to conquer nearby territory to exert it.

    The design could then also increase innovation development time based on either the number of innovations known or the highest level innovation known, creating a system whereby the less urbanized and centralized polities could ‘catch up’ over time.

    I’ve always been fond of “tech tree catch-up” systems which work by giving entities a bonus to research “techs” that entities they’re in contact which have researched. So in the case of CK3, if provinces of your culture are adjacent to one which has figured out hereditary rule, you unlock hereditary rule faster. And perhaps provinces of your culture being governed by a ruler of the culture with hereditary rule (or vise versa) could have a similar effect!

    Point is, knowledge is hard to lock up; innovations spread to people who have a chance to examine them and see how they work.

    Even more than the other Paradox games we’ve discussed so far, CKIII picks its focus and sticks to it: this is a game about individual elites and the decisions they make as rulers, and the way that expectations and norms of rulership shape those decisions.

    The only Paradox grand strategy game I can think of that has a tighter focus than the Crusader Kings series is the Hearts of Iron series, which has a temporal focus rather than CK’s regional focus. (Imperator is in the same ballpark, but the impression I’ve gotten is that it’s too unfocused for its own good, trying to combine the best parts of every big Paradox title.)

    So yeah, good on CK3. And CK2. Not so much on CK1, that seems like a very different kind of game and I’m not as impressed by it.

    1. It’s been a while since I played so my memory might be a bit hazy, but I’d imagine the reason they only had coastal merchant republics implemented is because so much of the economic ganeplay was focused on controlling trade zones based around the sea tiles. Given that the land areas on the map are divided only into counties/baronies without big overlapping areas equivalent to the sea zones, I’d imagine there were too many engine complications involved in modelling equivalent trade routes/zones on the land.

    2. Not only can your reform Byzantium as Greece in HOI4, if you go theocratic as the Soviets/Russian Empire you can change your map color to purple.

  15. Victoria is more niche than Imperator? I much prefer the time period of Imperator and haven’t played any Vicky, but the latter is well on its way to what looks like a very significant and high profile third edition, whereas Imperator:Rome quickly got dumped like a bad first date.

  16. Would love to read your thoughts on Manor Lords once it comes out. It’s a city builder game where you build a medieval village along with a manorial economy.

  17. Now that you’ve done Vicky, CK, and EU, what other Paradox games are you planning on looking at in this series? I assume Hearts of Iron and Imperator: Rome are on the cards, and maybe even Vicky III after its release, but are you also going to cover Stellaris, despite it not depicting history?

    (And if you do cover Stellaris, might you also consider covering Terra Invicta, which while not a Paradox game has frequently been described as “XCOM as imagined by Paradox”?)

  18. Typo hunt:

    very large ‘area that I think the game misses ‘gap’
    I think this should have one more or one less quote

    previous weeks, the were appointed
    Should be they

    (including eunichs)

    differential development across the broader Mediterranean well at all
    Not sure about this. It sort of works as is, but maybe Mediterranean world?

    (forms around the royal household’s heavy infantry, the huscarls)
    Should be formed around or forming around to match rest of paragraph

    increases the levies and taxes the holding grants as well as
    Should be a comma or ‘and’ between taxes and holding grants?

  19. Some games that focus on medieval peasants and but there off the top of my head: Medieval Dynasty (despite the name is a yeoman life simulator), Clanfolk (manage a Scottish clan homestead), The Guild series (A burgher life econ simulator), Patrician series (a Hanseatic trader sim).

  20. You’ve repeatedly emphasized that vassalage and manorialism are two different kinds of relationships. I was somewhat hoping to get some more information about what you meant when you said this. At first glance both would seem to be an exchange of land for some sort of vow of service – in one case military service, in the other case for economic production. Is about right? Or is the idea that the relationship with the peasantry is much less personal, or somesuch?

    1. I think that is a pretty important distinction. It is one thing for force your economic producers to produce something for you. It is quite another to force your military servants to serve you. Just how do you force them to do anything?

    2. Their ideas are similar, but they are still two separated systems. One for production, and one for administration. And they can exist independent of each other. A centralized state can still have landlords leasing their lands to tenant farmers. And a state without land tenancy can still have the ruler giving administrative power to cronies in exchange for their support.

      1. Also, a state which does not rely on cavalry can still apportion land in exchange for supplying soldiers. But the plots will be smaller. A knight’s fee runs 1000 acres; a 100-acre plot would support an infantryman and his family. The former plot needs tenants; the latter can be farmed by its owner.

    3. A manor ties together a landlord and the labour needed to produce from the land. Vassalage ties the elite together in a hierarchy (not necessarily military). It’s a very direct from of surplus extraction. For contrast, see Mogul and Ottoman practice, where the cavalry soldier was assigned the tax revenue from an allotted district (a timar or jagdir), but not the land or labour.

  21. As far as improving upon the system of Innovations go, maybe it would make sense for them to depend not just on things like Culture and Time-period, but also depend on the Development and Control score in your Counties and maybe the presence of some specific Holdings in some non-linear way that can bypass Time-locks. So the Byzantines (as well as other polities in-game, like a hypothetical China DLC) could start off with more urbanized regions that allow them to have a unified political authority, an organized bureaucracy and different military systems from the get-go (and will lose this power if the urbanized regions are lost or weakened in some way!), while the post-Carolingian polities don’t have that luck and have to develop conditions for it.

    1. Average development in culture’s counties does influence the time it takes to develop innovations. (This does create a perverse incentive to have a small culture, because then this score is easier to raise)

  22. If you’re looking for a “peasant life” simulator, one weird little niche indie game to look into is FreeHolder (I’ll do a Steam store link below). It’s not in some ways a good game, it’s very janky, and it’s oddly married to a SNES Final Fantasy aesthetic that doesn’t really match the theme, plus it’s in essentially permanent early access with no real likelihood of being finished any time soon (or even updated). However, it IS fundamentally a game about scratching out a living as a smallholder in the Roman Republic, where you spend much of your time trying to figure out a successful farming and foraging strategy while planning against crop failures, baseline survival is an achievement rather than something to take for granted, and any improvement in your material condition must be carefully clawed for from one thin food surplus at a time, and even then requires a degree of maintenance.

    Alternatively, it’s not exactly “peasant” life per se and is focused on the American West, but “Veil of Dust: A Homesteading Game” has a similar sense where food surpluses are something you have to struggle to achieve, and where much of the early and mid-game is spent slowly consolidating yourself into a stable day to day situation.

    Be curious to see what you make of them, especially FreeHolder given that it is in your time period!

    1. Like most of the art in this series, it’s from CK3. Given the runestone and the general Viking-ness of the scene I’d wager if it’s from a Norse or Danish or Rus culture. Could be commemorating a runestone, could be doing some holy visitation event, could be elevating someone to kingship or imperial title.

      1. It specifically is combining a depiction of an Event from Asatru/Norse religion (fades out of the real world in the first third of the game timeline) and culture with clothing motifs the game uses in the last era; it’s hard not to assume this is deliberate, and the picture is meant to document some occurrence in an alt-history with a Reformed Norse Pagan religion.

  23. Now I’m curious if you.will ever cover Imperator, what it does good, what kills it, especially since we know that it’s exactly where your expertise is.

  24. “In short, the innovation system cannot handle differential development across the broader Mediterranean well at all, gating some societies out of innovations they fairly clearly had for centuries after they fairly clearly had them. Moreover, the ‘eras’ system imposes a degree of teleological determinism here where knowledge must proceed from fragmenting, decentralized, deurbanized polities towards more coherent, centralized and urbanized ones, but the actual routes that historical polities took through this period were hardly so clear-cut.”

    And this is the biggest thing putting me off getting CKIII. I enjoyed CKII, and, reading these posts, I find myself thinking “ooh, I should get this game”. But then you remind me of the innovation gating, and I close my wallet in disgust.

    I can see why they’ve taken this approach and it seems like there are a lot of other things around the game to enjoy and appreciate, but it’s such a clumsy, I kind of want to say lazy, solution to a problem, and so ill-fitting for some of the polities of the period that interest me the most, that I suspect I might find it hard to cope with in gameplay.

    1. Sounds annoying.

      I got CKIII and played it a bit (under 20 hours, probably.) I got turned off when

      my character had a genuine romance with his own wife

      one of my vassals randomly murdered her

      the game had me respond “eh, I didn’t love her anyway”

      and my character kept having martial training from the vassal

      Seriously, what.

  25. Fascinating stuff, thank you! I would definitely love to see that guest post about the Italian communes and cities! In the mean-time, do you have any recommendations for readings about them?

    1. Also I do hope that you will still do one of these series for Imperator at some point (beyond the fireside post we got), despite its collapse. I would really love to your detailed thoughts and, given your emphasis on how each Paradox game emphasises some things and and sacrifices others toward its own theory of history, it would be interesting to look at Imperator as a game that tried to synthesise the approaches that the others take (perhaps fatally, in terms of sales, though I still hold a lot of love for the game).

  26. I think this is an example of where the Paradox model actually works pretty well. They can nail the hard core of what a game’s about, and make the other systems related to that hard core more of a factor in updates and expansions. We probably won’t fully get much of what you mentioned for, but I think we can get at least a compromise between what we have now and what would be ideal for most of if not all these issues.

  27. One of the elements of the game that most consistently bothers me while playing it is the sense that the dynamics of a war and its campaigns are entirely different in the game than they would have been at the time. In some respects this is understandable as the game wants to focus on the personal stories and interactions and on representing “kingship”. On the other hand, there are ways I think CK3 could use warfare to develop precisely those personal stories and interactions that it mostly fails to take advantage of, and mechanics it already has but doesn’t use to their full potential.

    The player’s response to the outbreak of war is to raise an army and not only to frequently refuse to join the army themselves even when they would culturally be expected to without any political consequences, but also often to put that army under the command of their most disloyal vassal purely because he happens to be the most competent and there is no risk to doing so (the cost of giving him free prestige is negligible, AIs don’t know how to use their prestige effectively enough to make that hurt). Another missing concept that could be represented, perhaps taking inspiration from Royal Court DLC mechanics, are councils of war in general. This feels like an opportunity to expand on the ways petty rivalries could complicate military campaigns (Raymond of Tripoli’s advice not taken ahead of the disastrous Battle of Hattin). I think the politics of war would make for good DLC material.
    Armies in the field during war are almost never disbanded and then recalled ahead of the next campaign season, because it is always possible and faster to get reinforcements, which seems inappropriate for a lot of the systems of military organization being represented. The only exception to this is when men-at-arms are disbanded in order to teleport them (a rather absurd exploit that could be fixed by requiring companies of men-at-arms to have home provinces just like levies, which wouldn’t even be inaccurate). I think this and some parts of logistics are mostly a concession Paradox is making to their traditional stack warfare model and its adherents, even as other aspects of the mechanics are pulling away from it. I have high hopes that they will continue to differentiate the military systems in their games in appropriate ways.
    The representation of raiding is very interesting but unfortunately limited, with it being heavily restricted in ways that don’t quite make sense to me (limiting overseas raiding culturally makes a lot of sense, but mechanically forbidding the French from doing chevauchee seems particularly silly). The practice of raising an army and taking it into unfriendly territory purely to inflict economic damage and earn money and respect with no real interest in holding strong points or exerting political control, while reasonably well represented by the prestige and cash reward and temporary modifier to sacked provinces, was not limited by religion and government form to the extent and in the ways it is in-game.
    The usual player response to Supply Limit is that since their full army is quite likely significantly larger than the limit, it is kept in several groups that are placed in neighboring provinces, which are then coordinated by the player using perfect instant communication and implausibly proficient scouting to ensure optimal concentration of force in the case of battle. But following the series on Logistics this sounds more like Napoleonic Warfare than like splitting the army up for forage. I haven’t read much about other campaigns, but at least in the various wars in Bohemia during the period represented, I gather it was quite common for Imperial forces to be split, due to both logistical constraints and political fragmentation, and that the various detachments would come in through different mountain passes, weren’t necessarily coordinated with or even aware of friendly forces in the theater, and were consequently vulnerable to defeat in detail.
    While the game does represent foraging capacity as “Supply Limit” and even features an amount of supply carried by the army (that seems absurdly high relative to consumption honestly, which then reduces the impact of Supply Limit), its representation of seasons is so meager that basically all armies (including of course AI) are in the field year-round, move at constant speed, and mostly react to winter by avoiding the mountains. Along with the siege mechanics, this makes warfare extremely regular and predictable, especially outside of battles, which might just be a necessary gameplay concession.
    An army passing through friendly territory does no damage (to development, control, or popular opinion), which seems simplistic even assuming they are purchasing supplies, which it’s not clear to me that they are (the cost of keeping an army in the field is constant, which also seems wrong). Related to this is the absurdity that is universal military access.

  28. If you want an RPG set in Middle Ages not as a noble, I can recommend Kingdom Come: Deliverance. This game also has a potential for ACOUP post, I believe

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