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What You Can Learn From Crusader Kings II

As games have continued to grow in size and scope over the years, their ability to serve as an educational tool has developed along with it. Now, I know what springs to mind when I mention education alongside video games: maths flash games your teacher would force you to play in order to pad out a lesson, Christian “games” that featured terribly animated Biblical figures spouting off life lessons, and much, much worse. However, I believe that video games can teach the player about politics, history and life in a more nuanced way than any other form of media.

The game I think is a perfect example of this is Paradox’s Crusader Kings II. For those who have never played the game, Crusader Kings II is a real time grand strategy game set in the medieval world. The game is unique in that it blends strategy with role-playing elements seamlessly, and it is this quality that allows it to teach us so much about the history and politics of the era.

Unlike other strategy games, such as Age of Empires or Civilisation, in Crusader Kings you take control of an individual rather than a nation, specifically a land holding noble. I cannot stress enough the number of characters you could choose to play as; you can play as any noble from the rank of Count or higher from any day between January 1 1066 to December 31 1399. Yes, any single day between those two dates, expanded upon further with the various expansion packs for the day. Paradox show their dedication to historical accuracy by mapping out the medieval world in this way, and it means that you can watch a film or television series set between these dates, choose a historical character and then search for them in the game and choose to play as them. Enjoyed Brendan Gleeson’s over the top performance as the sadistic Raynald de Chatillon in Kingdom of Heaven? Select the correct date and play as him.

Once you have chosen your character, you are ready to play. But what should you do? Crusader Kings leaves this intentionally vague. You can try to conquer land, murder all your relatives, or try to make your son Pope. It is entirely up to you, and the player is encouraged to set their own goals. Try starting as an Irish tribal chieftain and unite all of Ireland under your banner, or play as a Spanish King and remove the Islamic heretics ruling the South. The only problem is, all the other characters in the game have their own interests and goals too, and some may be in direct opposition to your own.

In this way, Crusader Kings II creates its own micro-version of the medieval world every time you play. Ahistorical scenarios can play out in front of you without any interference at all. While you’re busy trying to sail your Viking longboats to sack Rome, William the Conqueror has failed to do any actual conquering in 1066, leading to a continuation of Anglo-Saxon England. It is through its rich world that Crusader Kings II explores issues surrounding power in the medieval period.

Below I want to discuss just some of the issues the game raises.

The most moral ruler is not necessarily the most successful

While any fans of Game of Thrones might think the above statement is all too bloody obvious, Crusader Kings II allows you to put this into practice. You can set out to play as a King who will be the most moral ruler he can be. You will only punish those who deserve it, refrain from invading your neighbours and try to be as nice to the common folk as you can be.

Brilliant, good on you! It’s great to see a ruler striving to do what’s best for his or her people!

Only, there will be twenty vassals underneath you who are not going to be playing by those rules. They will seek to usurp you whatever the cost. Ambitious lords are not interested in doing what’s best for the people, only themselves. They will arrange for your heirs to have hunting accidents, or begin bribing or blackmailing your other vassals to support them and not you in the event of a civil war. Before you can say “divine right”, your children are dead, your peasants slaughtered, and your head resting on a pike above the new administration’s walls.

“what if your daughter shows some signs of the disease? Do you toss her outside to die and try to save your other children?”

Additionally, the most moral action is not always clear. What do you do if a powerful Duke demands another of your lords serve under him, and all evidence suggests he is correct? Do you agree, even though this will give the Duke enough men to topple your reign? Is it worth risking a bloody civil war and a tyrant seizing power just because it is legally the right thing to do?

If the Black Death is stalking your lands, do you hole yourself up in your castle or make a show of toughing it out alongside your common folk? If you do hide in your castle, what if your daughter shows some signs of the disease? Do you toss her outside to die and try to save your other children?

While conquering all those little Kingdoms around yours might seem morally reprehensible, what if unifying them under your rule is the only way to protect the people from Viking invasions? What sounds morally sound might result in far more deaths further down the line. Crusader Kings II teaches that the right and honourable course of action is muddied by power and politics, and you might find yourself justifying heinous actions in the name of a greater good.

And I’m sure history’s greatest tyrants did exactly the same.

The predatory nature of power

So, you have decided that morality is overrated, and now your goal is to accumulate as much power and prestige as humanly possible.

Great! Only, the more power you gain, the more at risk you are from those seeking it. Enemy nations will surround you, just waiting for a sign of weakness so that they can strike, but even more dangerous are your countrymen. Your own vassals will be vying to replace you, your peers are your deadly rivals, and your superiors are to be fawned over until the moment your mercenaries fire a crossbow bolt into their heart.

Power means that even your own family members cannot be trusted. Your brother has a claim to your throne as well, and your lords may seek to install him should you displease them. Your uncle will probably plot to kill you, as he resents you for your position too. Killing or imprisoning relatives can be difficult, though, as it could get you branded as kinslayer or tyrant, and motivate resistance to you further.

“Problem is, the more power and land you accumulate, the harder it is to protect it.”

Holding power is a juggling act, where you must keep your subjects too divided to pose a threat and more resentful of each other than you. Install people they hate as their superior, give an inbred imbecile a huge amount of land, have your rival excommunicated by the Pope, have your own brothers murdered; all of these are valid moves in a game designed to keep you on top.

Problem is, the more power and land you accumulate, the harder it is to protect it. When you gain land, you need to have nobles to rule over it in your name. This means that you now have another possible enemy you have to consider. The more unruly lords you have, the higher the chance of them forming huge coalitions against you. They will create factions in order to change laws they don’t approve of, limit your power, or even to replace you with a preferred candidate. Neighbouring countries will grow uneasy if you keep conquering those around you, and will form military alliances specifically to keep you in check. All those tiny nations around you might not look like much individually, but collectively they could field an army three times the size of yours.

The huge mess that is the feudal system means that you can never expect to conquer the whole world in five or even five hundred years. No matter how powerful you make your character, there will always be people both within and outside of your realm seeking to destroy you and grab that power for themselves. This of course reflects the realities of the medieval era; King John was forced to sign the Magna Carta to keep his power in check, and his son Henry II was held prisoner in his own realm while the lord Simon de Montfort ruled in his stead.  There were always those trying to climb the ladder of power, as many bloody civil wars can attest to.

War is an unpredictable reality of politics

In most strategy games, warfare is the only diplomatic tool at your disposal. You will declare war on an opponent, engage him in battle and defeat him through your superior tactics. Well done, enjoy all the spoils that come with conquest, you genius!

In Crusader Kings, it does not work that way. War is a messy, chaotic business that should be avoided wherever possible. Many players first attempt at the game (mine included) involves them still holding the Total War mindset: they see a smaller nation to the South of them, see that they can field fewer men that the player’s own country, and decide to invade immediately.

Only, what they failed to notice is that the ruler of that tiny nation’s daughter is married to the Holy Roman Emperor, and so are surprised when tens of thousands of terrifying German warriors land on their shores. After the player’s grand army is crushed, an ambitious Duke, who did not send his men to fight for you as you fired him from your council,  decides he wants the throne for himself, and declares war. Now the player is left with 10 soldiers to hold a castle against two enormous armies.

Hooray for war…

What the player eventually learns to do is try to ensure that the war is won before the any arrows have been fired. You will break-up any alliances your opponent had, murder their King and watch them kill each other in a bloody civil war, save up enough cash for emergency mercenaries should things go sour. You will do anything to stack the odds in your favour.

“War is messy, expensive and can destroy the nation that was victorious.”

Even then, nothing is a guarantee. You could have prepared for any eventuality but still the unpredictable could happen: your best commander dies of dysentery a week into the campaign, Mongol invaders decided this was the best week to sack your castles, your character receives brain damage from a warhammer to the head mid-battle. War in Crusader Kings is always a gamble, that could go horribly wrong at any moment.

Even if you do succeed in your goals, what now? You beheaded the enemy King when you stole his Kingdom, but now you still have to deal with all his lords. Lords with foreign ways and possibly even a different religion to yours. They will despise you, and for generations these vassals and their descendants will rebel at every possible opportunity, always seeking independence.

All this reflects reality. How many countries have entered a war, certain that they could win only to find that their rice-farmer enemies are far more determined than expected? How many occupations result in bloody insurgency? Many believe that war is a quick way to get something done, but history tells a very different story. War is messy, expensive and can destroy the nation that was victorious. Take the story of the Christian Kingdom of Jerusalem: after being established by the victorious soldiers of the First Crusade, the Pope blessed this new nation dedicated to holding Jerusalem in the name of Jesus Christ. Only, this nation was surrounded entirely by Muslim neighbours determined to regain the city for their own faith. The following centuries were awash with horrific wars where both sides attempted to force their own religion’s supremacy, while the Kingdom of Jerusalem slowly dwindled away to nothing. What was a quick, total victory for the crusaders was rendered meaningless by the precarious position their conquered lands placed them in.

The Fragility of monarchy

You have managed to successfully crush your neighbours, outmanoeuvre your rivals and have expanded your realm immeasurably. Your character is hailed as “the Great”, and is recognised as a truly amazing ruler. Congratulations!

Only, what happens after King Aethelred “the Kickass” dies? While your current ruler might have all the personality traits necessary to make him an effective King, his heirs might not be cut from the same cloth as their father. Perhaps your eldest son is a paranoid lunatic suspected of murdering his wife, or is a complete imbecile who struggles to dress himself let alone rule the nation you have worked to so hard to create.

The game offers many ways for you to avoid this fate. You can send your children to be educated by the most capable people in your realm, but, like everything else in the game, this is still subject to chance. Your heir might fail in his studies, despite his tutors best efforts, or, even more suspiciously, perhaps his teacher intentionally taught him to be a poor ruler. You can choose to educate your child yourself, but even with complete control you can still make errors as a parent and churn out a person riddled with mental disorders.

“Even if your heir is a child prodigy, you are still at risk.”

What to do if your heir is unacceptable? If you are a Christian ruler, you could always just ship them off to a monastery, but otherwise the options are rather difficult. You could try to kill them, maybe put them at a head of an army and send them into near-certain defeat. You could also take more direct action, and try to have them murdered, but there is always the risk that your involvement will be discovered and the whole realm know you as a kinslayer.

Even if your heir is a child prodigy, you are still at risk. After all, the medieval world is a highly dangerous place, with disease and murder a fact of daily life. There is always the chance that your brilliant heir will die before you, leaving the child you paid less attention to ready to take the throne.

Succession is always a messy business in Crusader Kings II, and the stability of the realm you carefully crafted as one ruler can be shattered the next. Civil wars abound following the death of the King, as jealous brothers/uncles/cousins-three-times-removed all press their claim against the new ruler, supported by lords who seek to profit if their candidate succeeds.

Crusader Kings II brilliantly shows the inherent flaws of monarchy in this way. Inherited rule is an entirely illogical method of governance, as the traits of the father do not always pass down to the son. Look at Edward I of England: a strong, manipulative monarch who empowered his nation greatly in his time, conquering Wales and Scotland and pushing further into France. His son, Edward II, nearly lost it all before being murdered in a plot headed by his own wife. Many successions led to brutal wars across the medieval period, for example the death of Henry I led to nearly twenty years of war between two sides claiming true legitimacy. Monarchy is a deeply fragile system, as a golden age under one ruler can swiftly turn into a bloody anarchy the next, and the mechanics of Crusader Kings emulate these perfectly.

Conclusion

To summarise this article, Crusader Kings II is a brilliant simulator of medieval politics that brings the biggest issues facing the world at the time to the fore. There are many other issues the game gives light to that I could have discussed too (the role of the church, how disease can affect politics and marriage as a political tool to name a few) but there is no better way to experience this than to play it yourself. Paradox release new content regularly, as with most of their grand strategy titles, with Jade Dragon, which seeks to explore the role China has on South-West Asian politics, set to release later this year. While the game is expensive, with its many expansions bumping up the cost further, I cannot recommend it enough if you have even a passing interest in medieval history or politics. Reading up on this subject is one thing, but being able to simulate it in such an engaging way is quite another.