Reading the game: history lessons from Crusader Kings II

Continuing the Reading the game series, this article will break a new subject for this blog: history! Surprisingly, my obsession with philosophy does know bounds, plus my aspiration is to have a blog about education in general, not philosophy education alone. That being said, in the future I also would like to cover some completely different fields such as chemistry or physics. But first, let’s look at one of the most historically accurate games about the middle ages to date: Crusader Kings II (2012).

Paradox Interactive
Crusader Kings II is a Paradox game. Paradox is a game publisher so associated with a specific brand of games that just mentioning “Paradox games” gives you a good indication of the game’s content: a focus on historical accuracy (or just realism, in the case of games in modern day settings), very specific optimization options and making your decisions meaningful – every action has a consequence. Crusader Kings is this publisher’s series about the middle ages, covering the years between 769 until 1453 AD. It lets you pick a ruler of any area in or around Europe and set your own goals – initially, procreating before you die and keeping your lands in the hands of your dynasty will be hard enough. Crusader Kings II is different from most (grand) strategy games in that you don’t play a country but a dynasty, a much more realistic portrayal of political power structures in medieval Europe. As the game itself will tell you: the starting situation is historical, and thus completely unbalanced. And while you may opt for a course of peace, you will notice that most rulers (or raiders) in the world will be out for your gold, titles and lands.

Historical accuracy and realism
The realism in Crusader Kings II consists first of all of this historical outset, where all of Europe is divided in historical counties, and secondly of the factors which the AI’s simulation takes into account. Letting the game run its course (with or without your intervention) will create many more or less possible variations of actual history, based on a number of factors: a ruler’s skill and ambition, succession laws, religion, the natural borders of your land, and not to forget: pure chance. These mechanics are quite sophisticated, and have given the game a reputation of having a very steep learning curve during the first hours. YouTuber Arumba has a tutorial series about Crusader Kings II that runs for a solid six hours.

Crusader Kings II for learning
As a consequence of this focus on realism, understanding the game mechanics of Crusader Kings II can give you an understanding of these concepts in historical reality. I will explain how this works for three of the game’s core elements.

Counties, duchies, kingdoms
Crusader Kings II’s map is diveded primarily into counties rather than kingdoms or countries. Of course, the county borders and de jure duchies were not as constant in reality as they are in the game, but Crusader Kings II is still several steps ahead of many other games. As stated before, its approach is unique in letting you play a dynasty, rather than a country. This means you can go from count to king or even emperor, or vice versa, and this highlights a dynamic present in Europe’s history that is oversimplified by many other games: that countries, let alone nation states, (with which many “Europeans” wouldn’t have identified themselves at the time) were not the main “units” in the struggle for political power, but dynasties, alliances, or even individual rulers, depending on the particular situation. In other words: a much more complex picture than you will see in a game series like Civilization. No offence there: the Civilization can be a lot more fun than Crusader Kings, but the latter wins the battle for realism by a long stretch.

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The de jure kingdoms in 1066 (susceptible to change over time)

Claims and succession
Although of medieval Europe’s military history, it’s mostly the crusades that have drawn attention, and in Crusader Kings II, religion will be the point of conflict of many wars as well (especially when the pope funds you for them). Following closely on that list of hot issues however, was probably the succession of claims. Crusader Kings II does this (harsh) reality justice by distinguishing the complexity of succession types that different regions subscribed to: (elective) gavelkind, feudal elective, primogeniture, ultimogeniture, tanistry, et cetera, the choice of which of course depends on the specific historical context (government type, religion, et cetera).

That being difficult enough, claims to titles and lands are not simple either. Crusader Kings II is by my knowledge the only game to make the distinction between de jure and de facto claims, a distinction between the actual controlling (de facto) ruler or the “rightful” (de jure) ruler. Not that the latter is set in stone though, de jure claims on kingdoms and empires can shift over time, a process that some effective diplomacy can speed up. Claims can also be fabricated, an often used strategy since many government types cannot declare war and conquer land without a “casus belli” – a “reasoned” claim to a territory. Pagan rulers have much less restrictions in this regard, but their claims are much harder to inherit within the same dynasty. Paradox has made some historical concepts and dynamics into game compelling mechanics, and while staying relatively true to the history books, this can make the game as much fun as for example Game of Thrones, or other works of fiction that revolve around intrigue in a medieval setting. The sometimes arbitrary nature of claims may be the smallest lesson to take from this part of the game.

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The dynasty tree

Bureaucracy, efficiency
A third mechanic of Crusader Kings II is that of bureaucracy, by which I mean the organization of your realm in terms of government type, taxation, specific laws, et cetera. Most strategy games let you “mine” resources and directly “build” troops out of them, and while that mechanic is generally fun and effective, it has little to do with historical reality. In Crusader Kings II‘s feudal Europe, in which most new players will start, every ruler has vassals, landed nobles who have troops and incomes, of which they provide a percentage to their liege. Historically, efficiency of tax collection and the raising of troops was a huge deal, and crucial to sustaining political power in a region. Crusader Kings II has a combination of factors determine how many of their troops and income vassals are willing to provide to you, including personality modifiers, your demesne size, your laws, et cetera. If your realm gets bigger, you may consider creating new titles to create more layers of bureaucracy, saving you the trouble of dealing directly with lower vassals but decreasing your control over them. Once again, this is a real historical struggle that Paradox has made into an important (but also fun) game mechanic.

So far, it seems like the developers have made a pure historical simulation, but that’s not strictly true either. Crusader Kings II can be a lot of fun, because of its focus on intrigue and scheming, some crazy random events that you can encounter, and just generally giving you the freedom to do some things that would in no conceivable version of reality have been done by the real historical counterparts of your in-game characters. Just watch this trailer that piles up some of the hilarious game elements.

After all, Paradox is a publisher that values realism, but also a compelling game, and Crusader Kings II is exactly that. Like other Paradox titles, it’s notorious for dragging you in for hundreds of hours of play, and this has everything to do with the enormous range of possible scenarios, and your ability to influence them. I have written before on how many games don’t give you direct knowledge or even skills, but are still good for learning because they are simulations that let you experiment. Crusader Kings II is a prime example. Part of understanding how and why things occurred the way they did is understanding what would have happened if… and it’s games like these that are the ultimate toolbox for that kind of question.

So don’t give this game to students and expect them to know who ruled what and when within a few hours of play. But let them be engaged by the complexity of Crusader Kings II‘s mechanics, and they might understand much better the workings of dynasties, political power plays, succession and the role of religion in medieval politics. A characteristic of learning through games that I haven’t touched on yet is the fact that prolonged interaction with these kinds of concepts will be very beneficial to remembering and understanding them. And if you’re looking for prolonged interaction, go for Paradox games like this one.

What do you think of Crusader Kings II‘s educational potential? Is there something I missed? Please let me know in the comments!


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