Crusader Kings is one of Paradox Interactive's most respected grand strategy franchises; taking the Europa Universalis framework and using it to tell an epic saga of dynasties, machinations and all manner of dynamic, real-time skulduggery. The sequel is set to be one of the most historically accurate games ever made, so with my thinking cap firmly on, I sat down with Paradox to see how Crusader Kings 2 development is coming along.
Put simply: family comes first. Arranging the right marriage and securing heirs is more important than waging epic battle - though excitingly, you'll have as much trouble keeping your scheming spouses, courtiers and sons in line as you will with rival rulers.
The broad premise is much the same as before. Four hundred years of European history (starting from the auspicious year 1066) provides players with a sandbox playground full of disparate provinces, regions and fiefdoms to ally with and conquer. You'll raise taxes, raise armies and raise hell in the Holy Land in the time-honoured fashion... but that isn't really what Crusader Kings II is all about. Rather, it's about establishing a successful lineage, with the objective being to secure a bloodline that rules for many generations.
An enormous database chronicling hundreds of European historical figures has been laboriously extrapolated from archive footage and the occasional Wikipedia visit, which feeds into a sprawling family tree that extends throughout the 400 year period. Players can choose to start their game as any of these nobles; all of whom have been profiled in terms of personality traits, abilities and even chronic illnesses such as Tuberculosis or STDs. This simulation runs exactly as it actually happened without the player's input, but the joy is for us to break with the proper turn of events and forge a new future - a new history, if you will.
These character profiles are more than just an impressive historical research tool. Paradox leapt into the persona of King Stenkil of Sweden to demonstrate this living history at work - and his "lustful" demeanour soon compelled him to sire some bastard offspring with lascivious courtiers and hush up the incident in order to save face. His terminal pneumonia also provides players with a ticking clock, adding an interesting race against time to set up as many heirs and alliances as possible before he succumbs to his condition. The sheer scope of the endeavour and opportunities for replayability is near-infinite, and incredibly impressive to boot.
Prestige is everything in Crusader Kings 2. This is effectively a 'high score' that increases after triumphs and decreases in the event of embarrassing failure, and it's carried on throughout your entire bloodline. Once a game ends, your prestige score is added to a cumulative total that should make for fierce leaderboard rivalries. Not only that, but it dictates how other countries view your kingdom... and how they respond to declarations of war, demands for fealty and marriage requests.
Speaking of marriage, this is the main method by which you'll strengthen your bloodline, sire heirs and secure the political alliances you'll need to succeed. Eligible spouses can be viewed from a handy drop-down menu, along with their character traits, intelligence reports about their behaviour and what they seek in a husband. Marriages can be arranged for both your ruler and his/her brood - though prestige will take a hit if a nobleman marries below his station. It may be necessary to take a short-term reputation hit in order to guarantee the overall success of your dynasty.
The course of true love never did run smooth, and your spouses or offspring will occasionally embark on Machiavellian schemes of their very own depending on their personality. Lustful brides may carry on torrid affairs in your own kingdom, whereas ambitious wives may even try to seek power for themselves. Not to mention that your sons may decide that they're better suited to the throne than their old man. Your spymaster will become your main weapon against this potential treachery, and players will have to decide how to deal with each situation once the intelligence surfaces. Unfaithful or overly ambitious wives can be divorced, assassinated, banished or otherwise sidelined - whereas errant offspring can be put down with careful forethought or even an iron fist by more brutal rulers.
Getting a divorce wasn't simple during the Crusades. The Vatican effectively rules over all matters of love and war at the level of Kings and Dukes... meaning that you'll need to curry the Pope's favour with exorbitant gifts and tax revenue. However, there's another way around the problem: installing your own Antipope. This awesome gameplay feature allows you to fund and support a puppet pope who makes a claim to be the true voice of God - and though it's incredibly difficult to get all of the bishops and cardinals on side (copious bribes will be necessary), the rewards are absolutely incredible. Not only can you effectively divorce and marry at will, but the enormous church tax levies will flow straight into your coffers.
Of course, there's plenty of real war to be waged, which revolves around intelligently setting up troop formations in an accessible menu. Commanders and even your monarch can lead your troops in battle, with their martial skill playing an important role about how each engagement resolves. Having a strong king ride at the head of your army is fantastic for morale, but provides the enemy with a unique way of crippling your kingdom with one stray arrow. Sorry Harold.
Multiplayer is set to be incredibly exciting. Up to 32 players can simultaneously stake out their claim to medieval Europe, but in an interesting twist, they can also assume the role of separate allied nobles and vassals in the same province. The emperor or overall ruler of the region will be decided by democratic vote, meaning that players will need do their best to court and manipulate their peers in order to be elected to the top spot. Vassals can also scheme against their fellows or the emperor himself, to the point of creating strategic alliances and declaring open war. The emperor will be able to put his foot down and end these internal conflicts, but at the cost of all-important prestige and respect in the eyes of the world. Making him ripe for future betrayal, we reckon.
Crusader Kings II is set for a Q1 2012 release window, and it's looking incredibly exciting even at this stage. We'll bring you more info as we hear it.