This is the fourth in a series of reviews of Paradox’s empire management games. See the earlier reviews here:
Europa Universalis II: A Tale of Two Europas
Hearts of Iron: Europa of Iron
Victoria: Nineteenth Century Essay

After two successes, and one failure in the market, Paradox Interactive continued to look at doing further empire management games. They got a request from their publisher to produce one on the medieval era, and after some consultation, they came up with a general plan for a new game, which became Crusader Kings in 2004. While not in the league of Europa Universalis II or Hearts of Iron, it apparently sold reasonably well for PC and Mac.

After the success of the Victoria: Revolutions expansion, a final patch that had never left beta was picked up, polished off, and some all-new features added. This was released as the download-only expansion Deus Vult in 2007. This added the alerts that had been introduced in Revolutions, a windowed mode and advanced resolution support was added, so the game could be run on modern LCD screens in their native resolution (1280×1024 had always been the maximum available resolution before). I’ve only played Crusader Kings with the expansion, so this review will be about the final version.

The new game was both very similar, and very different from Paradox’s previous games. While keeping with the normal pauseable real-time format, you do not control a country, but rather a person. This person may be a count, duke or king, he may or may not have a liege-lord, but he will have experiences, age, and eventually die. And then the game will pass you on to his heir. If you have a landed heir of your dynasty, that is. If you do not, it’s Game Over.

So, the goal in the game is to enhance the power and prestige of your dynasty. The exact country you play can change over time as titles are lost or gained. This isn’t a role-playing game, it is still an empire management game, but the emphasis on people does give it more of a role-playing flair, and a very different feel than Paradox’s earlier efforts.


Paradox’s games had typically featured soundtracks full of music from the time period of the game. In fact, EU II would switch track lists in different centuries. This, of course, mostly equated to classical music for the soundtrack. However, medieval music is not generally familiar to modern ears, and Paradox decided to commission an original soundtrack for this game, composed by Inon Zur, and this has now become their usual practice (though with a different composer, Andreas Waldetoft, for most if not all later titles).

Considering it is a long game, it would be nearly impossible for the soundtrack to not eventually get repetitive, but it is a good soundtrack with some nice pieces.

Kings & Things

As mentioned, people are the main focus of CK, and they all have nine primary features: Four prime attributes: Martial, Intrigue, Diplomacy, and Stewardship; two hidden attributes, fertility and health; and then three ‘currencies’: money, prestige, and piety. All characters also have a portrait, a culture, and a religion.

Each character also has a rank. Since this is still an empire management game, the major players are the landed nobility in charge of the actual provinces on the map. CK uses a simplified and rationalized version of feudal structure with kings, dukes and counts, along with a number of variant terms (culturally defined) for those same ranks. There will also be a number of un-landed persons in the courts of these nobles, who are all termed courtiers (even if they are the heir-apparent to a throne). There are five posts to hand out to these courtiers, along with possibly granting landed titles to them. The first four offices each correspond to the the four primary attributes of a character, so that the sum of the courtier’s appropriate ability and the lord’s ability are what determine the realm’s effectiveness in that field.

And there is a trait system. Traits come in about four different types, and can affect all the attributes of a character (including the hidden ones), and give an idea of what the person is like. The most general traits show on the character screen as a green dot with a symbol on it, and may be gained and lost freely through events. Most of them have an ‘antithesis’ trait, that will remove an existing trait if the antithesis is gained. There are a small number of negative statuses with red symbols such as ‘stressed’ and ‘wounded’ that can evolve into worse statuses. For instance ‘stressed’ can go away on it’s own, or it could descend into ‘depressed’, which not only has even worse attribute modifiers, but can cause an event to fire where the character kills himself. There are traits on blue shield symbols that largely represent life choices and the like, such as celibate, and the extremely dangerous realm duress, which represents a contested succession, with a high likelihood of all vassals trying to declare independence.

Most events (using the same engine as earlier Paradox games) affect characters. An unused courtier may decide to move to another court. You may be tempted by a pretty face (a bastard son will have trouble inheriting, but it beats no son at all). You may gain a new rival, or friend, or fall in love with your wife, or gain her as a bitter enemy.


Kings can hold dukes and counts as vassals to himself, and dukes can have counts as vassals. Each province on the map is really a county, with an associated count title and coat of arms. The duchies and kingdoms also have their own coats of arms. There is a map mode that shows the relationships between a lord and his vassals and liege, but isn’t as informative as it could be, since there is (for instance) no one view of all the separate duchies (with their vassal counts) in a kingdom, leaving you to remember who is who’s vassal.

There is a fair amount of possible skulduggery related to titles. You can fabricate a claim to a county (at a cost in Prestige), and then demand control of the county—usually by war. In fact, to go to war with someone, you generally need such a claim. Peace negotiations revolve around acknowledging claims, giving up claims, money, and possibly forcing the other power to become a vassal.

Duke and king titles are associated with certain areas, and if they are not currently in use, you can create the title if you hold the associated area and spend money for the privilege (and a gain in prestige). If someone else holds the title, but you hold the associated area, you can create a claim by virtue of your holdings, and then go to war to force the holder to give up the title.

Finally, a lord can keep direct control of his counties (his demense), but there is a maximum size before the game starts penalizing the lord with reduced taxes and troops (and any vassals the lord does have will become unhappy), encouraging proper division of lands. The amount a lord can directly control depends on his intrigue skill (without counting his spymaster), modified by the time period (later parts of the game allow larger demenses), and the lord’s title (kings can control more than dukes who can control more than counts).


The county is the basic territorial unit (/province), and has a few things to manage in its own right. Unlike other Paradox games, you do not recruit military units at all. Instead, each county has its own muster. Normally, this stays at home in the county and costs you nothing. However, when you muster the fighting men of the county, they appear on the map as a unit, and you start paying them money.

You can always do what you want with the musters of any county you directly control, but those of your vassals can be another question. If the muster isn’t already serving the lord, you can directly muster it for yourself, if the vassal is loyal enough, and doing so will tend to decrease his loyalty. You can also ask that vassal to muster his troops for you, which will still place them under your control, but it will take a few days to get a response, and he may refuse.

Each county will have a maximum unit size (which will vary), and when the muster isn’t called out, it will gradually replenish to its maximum size. However, this does not happen while it is in the field, so the muster can start out large, but will slowly be reduced by attrition, and can be very quickly reduced by a losing battle, leaving large field armies mere shadows of themselves.

There are four classes that make up the population of a county: peasants, burgers, clergy and nobility. Each one has a certain amount of power in the county, and as the power of the lower two classes increase, more taxes will be collected, and the size of the county’s muster will increase. Increasing the power of the nobility will grant prestige bonuses, and the power of the clergy piety bonuses; increasing them will yield fewer, more effective troops.


Counties can also have a number of improvements built in them. What can be built will depend on the technology in the county. As the game progresses, and technology builds up, the number of available improvements gets quite large. Some of these will generate extra gold, some will expand the size of the muster, some help the spread of technology; the number of different effects (not all visible to the user) is quite large.

Technology is not so much researched in this game, as it spreads. You can decide to concentrate on certain subjects, which gives a continuing chance at improvement in that field, but that only affects your capital. The normal mechanism is that when a county possesses a technology, it will eventually spread to adjacent counties on its own. There are three main fields of advancements (military, economic, culture) with a number of different fields in each, and then five levels in each field.

Combat and Sieges

The muster of a county consists of seven different types of soldiers: heavy and light infantry and cavalry (well, knights instead of heavy cavalry), pikemen, archers, and horse archers. That last category does not actually appear in normal armies. Only Mongol and Arab armies have the capability of fielding horse archers, leaving the Christian armies to suffer under their mobile firepower. Combat itself loops through four different phases where first the archers attack, then the light units join in, and then all troops get to attack with archery at half effectiveness (for two phases, front and flank).

Beyond the number of troop types, and increase in the number of phases, combat works much like usual in Paradox games. Once the battle is joined, events are out of the player’s hands, and the battle is decided by the troops, the leaders, and the terrain. There is morale that will force an army to retreat, and will take time to recover after a battle, but this is only visible during a battle, so it can be hard to tell if an army is actually effective at this moment, or will just run away shortly after the battle in joined.

Military technologies generally represent the adoption of later equipment and grant bonuses for various troop types. Though, while the bonuses are spelled out in the game, the base figures are not, so it is hard to get a handle on just how much meaning these bonuses have.

Taking control of a county follows much the same model as in Victoria; once a county is invested with enemy troops, there is a constant progress bar of how the siege of the local castle is proceeding. Castle types improve with technology, and start with a cheap and simple hill fort (really a motte-and-bailey castle), expensive and time consuming huge castles. Each level of fortification of course takes more time (and men) to besiege, but they also ‘push back’ the progress on a random basis. A force might get halfway through a siege, but lose so many men to attrition, that the push back starts dominating, and the progress will reverse until reinforcements can be brought to bear.

Finally, it is worth noting that seapower is absent from the game. Instead of building fleets and transports, troops automatically embark ships and set sail any time you tell them to cross water. This costs money, and the travel is quite slow. Unfortunately, the pathing tends to be too eager to send musters on expensive sea voyages, so it can take some management to avoid.

The Crusades

One common complaint against Crusader Kings is that you can only play Christian powers. However, this was an intelligent design decision, since, with one exception (the Kingdom of Nubia), this keeps players away from ‘edge of the world’ problems, as limits of the map are either ocean, or occupied by non-Christian powers.

The game does split between Catholic and Orthodox countries, though Catholicism gets most of the attention. The fifth councilor is the head of your local church, and he determines your relations with the Papacy. When the current pope dies, a new one is selected, and the court closest to the new Pope becomes the ‘Papal controller’, who can try to have enemies excommunicated and the like. Having good relations with the Papacy helps you get this position.

A major preoccupation of the Christian powers in this period were, of course, the Crusades. In-game, the Pope will occasionally call a Crusade (which is a random event, and not controlled by anyone, even the Papal controller), with a particular goal (Jerusalem, Cairo, etc.). As long as the Crusade is active, there is a monthly hit to your piety (which often just counters your normal gain), but any piety rewards for fighting infidels are increased; taking the target of the Crusade can be very lucrative in terms of your piety rating.

There’s some problems with the system, though it apparently was re-worked for the expansion to cut down on the randomness of Crusade targets. However, it still feels arbitrary. And that, of course, is because it is. It a pure AI/random decision, only constrained by what places are currently ruled by Moslems. There’s no sense of the politics or strategic considerations that drove many decisions with the later Crusades, and it it actually feels foreign to the rest of the game because of that.

The Mongols

The Mongols of course, conquered much of the eastern portions of Europe and parts of the Middle East during the 13th century, and in the game they show up about on time, via events that populate the fringes of the map with large armies that have several advantages.

Their military technology is fairly high, giving them most of the combat bonuses. They take over a province as soon as they finish besieging the castle. They have no domain limit to reduce the effectiveness of a large realm.

This means that once established, the two Mongol states (Golden Horde for the eastern Europe armies, and Il-khanate for the Middle Eastern armies) can easily become a potent force, and a big problem for everyone else. However, they are religious enemies for everyone, making declarations of war easy, and eventually they will be forced to adopt gavelkind succession, which splits the realm up between heirs, and the successor states will not have the demense bonus.


I’ve long thought about doing a game on warfare in the Middle Ages. You’d spend a lot of time trying to gather money so that you could afford to pay your troops for one season. One of the high points of CK for me is the fact that you do not have standing armies. And indeed, money goes up in peacetime (you hope) and down in wartime.

While the game does shift the focus from countries to dynasties, it’s still a bit empty. There are friends and rivals, but no real feel of factions, and dynastic infighting. The simplified version of feudalism does not allow for the entanglements of a vassal having more than one lord (or the classic case of William the Conquerer being King of England in his own right, but also owing fealty to the King of France for his Norman possessions.

But even if Crusader Kings is not the most historical game possible on the subject, it still gets things right that a lot of other games (especially the technically medieval-based fantasy conquest games) get absolutely wrong about the period. It isn’t the in-depth examination of period society that Victoria is, and it isn’t the close technical examination that Hearts of Iron is, but I think it gets the job done very effectively.


Strategy games journalist Troy Goodfellow once said that Crusader Kings wasn’t Paradox’s best game, but it was his favorite from them (this was in 2011, before CK II came out), and while I’m not sure what my favorite Paradox game would be, I can well understand his sentiment.

Once again, Paradox showed that they could take the same basic game structure, and deliver a very different feel. From the grand sweep of empires across the globe in Europa Universalis, to the very detailed study of society and internal politics of Victoria, this time the game has a very personal feel. It isn’t a role-playing game, and cannot be mistaken for one, as there are no real characters here, and no dialog, no spark of life behind the actors on the stage. But the actors are there, and they are people, and not countries.

The common failure of most grand strategy games is to ignore the centrifugal forces that act against larger structures, while preserving most of their advantages. In CK, keeping a large kingdom together for any length of time can a harder accomplishment than conquering the world in a game like EU. It isn’t a detail-oriented simulation like Victoria, but it is much more successful at delivering the feel of the era.