Crusader Kings II - Way of Life

The archbishop was pretty sure that my fourth daughter, Aelfflaed, was The Devil.

It’s kind of a long story - have a seat. The wine’s poor, I apologize - and here in Leinster, it costs a bloody fortune to have it imported from France, the damned merchants are laughing at me as they sail away, thinking how much I paid for it. D’ye take water in your wine? Muadhnait, bring our guest some warm water.

So, as I was saying, the devil. Well, the gate from hell was probably the first sign. She was just a lass then, but one the cottars come in, upset like they always are and say “Your Majesty, there’s a great big hole in Osraige that leads to Hell!” and of course I say what any sensible man would say. “Boys, that’s just cruel, Osraige can’t help looking like that.” But they insist that no, this is worse and won’t I come see. Now, y’must understand that I didn’t have so many airs in those days, being only a minor king of part of this godforsaken backwater, as opposed to also being the king of those other godforsaken backwaters, so the cottars were used to treating me - me, Siegebehrt - like some sort of royal servant.

“Don’t you worry, boys, I’ll take care of it”, says I. I tour the site, and to me it looks just like Osraige always did, filthy and broken. “Boys, boys, this is just a quarry”, says I. But they insist it leads to Hell. So I call the churchmen to do their job and exorcise it, and go back to my castle, well-satisfied at how good I was at Kinging.

Maybe I should have listened to them.

Aelfflaed was a strange girl.

Her mother was from Kratovo, a place near to the ancient home of Alexander the Great, which suited me just fine. The hangers-on in the court begged me to not go that far afield for a wife, but I had plans. Those plans required an heir, but more importantly they required me to keep the other local lairds a-guessing as to what I had planned, and I couldn’t muck that up by marrying one of their daughters. Besides, murdering a relative is a sin. Or so they tell me.

It were just little things going wrong at first. Horses neighing when we walked by. Great black birds always wheeling around the castle. But soon, it became worse. The water in the well turned foul. People said they heard voices. And then, servants began to die. First the barrow-boy, then two of the girl’s chambermaids. Never a mark on them, never a sign of struggle. Just a look on their face - well, I’m not a superstitious man, but they tell me they looked like they’d been frightened to death.

I saw that look. Not on the barrow-boy, not on the chambermaids, but on the face of my second-eldest daughter, Beorhtgyth. Beorhtgyth, who had taken care of Aelfflaed since she was tiny, found dead in her chamber, with the 7-year old child sleeping peacefully next to her cold, dead, corpse.

So, I did what any monarch who loves his children would do: I sent her far, far away, to live with distant relatives in Spain. After all, I had to think of my other daughter, Beomflaed. I could na’ allow any harm to come to her.

For a time, all was quiet, and I was convinced I had solved the problem. Tragic that Aelfflaed had turned out bad, but when she was of age she’d still prove useful to marry off to solidify some alliance or other. Maybe I could wed her to that Welsh bastard and she’d do him in, take care of a problem for me. He’d never see that coming, would he? Heh.

The next year, my tiny boy, Copsige, was born. This being my first son, all the court heaved a sigh of relief - like it or not, in Ireland women cannot rule, so this kept the crown from reverting to my half-wit brother, Murchad.

Then, without warning, Beomflaed was found dead in her room. Sitting at her desk, reading a letter from Aelfflaed.

The Archbishop screamed for hours in the privy council of black magic and deviltry. But I’m a King, and I know of poison. I’ve read a book. I didn’t know how she managed it, but it didn’t matter. Beomflaed and Beorhtgyth’s lives called out for retribution, and I knew that, unless I did something, wee Copsige’s life was forfeit.

I called Aelfflaed back from Spain. Her mother pleaded with me. “She’s just a child!” “Aye,” said I, “a child of the devil!” With the Archbishop backing me, none dared object as I ordered the axeman to chop off the head of a 9-year old girl. All congratulated me on having defeated The Devil, who as the priests tell us can take many forms. But you and me, now, we know the truth, don’t we? Aelfflaed wasn’t the Devil. She was just a bad seed. Evil, aye, evil as can be, but a human sort of evil. And I’m the human sort of evil who stopped her.

I’m an old man, now. The was many years ago, of course. The crown rests on the head of Copsige. Do you know what they call me? Not “The kinslayer”. Not “The monster”. Not “The baby-killer.” No, no. I’m “Sigebehrt the Just”.

That’s are the sort of king we have around here, y’see. Someone willing to kill his own lass and call it justice.

Your wine’s gotten cold. Muadhnait, pour some more for our guest. No water this time. Drink deep.

Aelfflaed


I’ve always had a troubled relationship with Paradox’s grand strategy games. Meticulously crafted, with beautiful visual design and an obsessive level of detail, they’ve often worked for me more as objects to be admired than as games to be actually played. I’ll start a game of, say, Europa Universalis with the full intention to see it through to the end and then at some point a sense of overwhelming hysterisis attacks me - a feeling that, although I’m being asked to make many, many decisions, most of them are meaningless. Whatever I do, wherever I move my armies, whatever policies I adopt, it doesn’t really make a difference. This isn’t strictly true, I realize, but it’s how the game makes me feel. For me, playing EU IV invokes the feeling of trying to whittle down a mountain by pouring water on it. You know it will eventually wear away, but it’s going to take a long time to do it.

For many years now people have suggested that I try Crusader Kings II as an alternative to EU. I finally bent to this suggestion, and I’m glad I did. Crusader Kings II (hereinafter CK II) is, at heart, a more focused game; a faster game; a more intimate game. Rather than being centered on countries, CK II uses the idea of a noble family as its central organizing principle. What you’re concerned with is not the survival or expansion of Ireland or Spain or Muscovy but rather the survival and expansion of your dynasty, whose interests may or may not coincide with those of the counties, duchies, kingdoms, or empires your dynasty rules.

CK II shares many mechanics with EU IV, but the focus is different, and the implementation is generally simpler (and, I think, better). You will fight battles, for example, but rather than (quite painfully) individually recruiting regiments of infantry and cavalry one at a time, you click one button that simply musters your or your vassals’ foces, and march into battle (regrettably, the traditional EU mechanism of “And then, after fighting the major battle, you play whack-a-mole for 10 minutes with the remnants of the enemy forces” is still in effect.) But with the bad also comes the good - like all of Paradox’s games, CK II has one of the most beautiful maps in computer games.

Crusader Kings II Map

The majority of CK II is spent either grooming your dynasty directly (arranging marriages, adjusting inheritance laws, trying to acquire territory through violence or alliance) or in managing the relationship between you and your vassals. As your dynasty grows, you must rely more heavily on vassals to do much of your administration for you. (You can try to do it all yourself, but the game imposes grievous penalties on rulers who accrue too many titles - for example, hold more than two Duchies, and all of your vassals will hate you. Well, hate you more.) The central tension of the game is you want your vassals to be strong enough to be useful to you, while still weak enough that you can put them down if they rebel.

All that I’ve told you about above is part of CK II proper. Way of Life is an expansion to the game which basically allows you to add Sims-like focuses to your rulers. Straightforward concepts like “Rulership” or “Business” are available, but the game offers a host of more story-driven options such as “Carousing,” “Seduction,” or “Theology”. All of the concentrations in the game have direct game-mechanic side effects, but the real point of them is that they increase the chance of triggering special events that basically bring “Choose your own adventure” moments to the game (the story I began this review with, for example, was one such event - although one that actually pre-dates the Way of Life expansion.)

Way of Life is an intriguing expansion because it is so responsive it to how people actually play the game. It takes a grand strategy game that has storytelling elements and converts it into a storytelling game that has grand strategy elements. The best analogy I can make here is to Dwarf Fortress (without the crushing UI disappointments that that game carries with it). More than almost any other game, Crusader Kings II: Way of Life manages to approach the platonic ideal of “Losing Is Fun”. Simply put, I think it’s the best of Paradox’s strategy games, and I hope they continue to push their engine in this direction.

Crusader Kings II (normally $39.99) is available from Paradox, along with a panoply of expansions, including Way of Life (normally $7.99). Both the game and the expansion are available for Windows, Mac, or Linux.

Paradox graciously provided Tea Leaves with a review copy of the Crusader Kings II: Way of Life expansion.