This is the seventh in a series of reviews looking at the evolution of Crusader Kings II. See the previous reviews here:
Crusader Kings II:
The Second Crusade
The Old Gods: That Old-Time Religion
Sons of Abraham: A Little of Everything
Rajas of India: My Elephant for a Kingdom
Charlemagne: Back in Time
Way of Life: The Short Way

After the focused expansion of Way of Life, the Crusader Kings II team went back to expanding the scope of the game. In this case, exploring the eastern edges of the map (which was re-worked a bit), and the lives of the nomads of the steppes. Horse Lords was released on July 14, 2015, alongside patch 2.4.

The map was also expanded slightly again for this. The geographical scope didn’t change, but some previous wasteland north of the Tibetan Plateau was made into new counties, and new cultures were introduced for them.


Even before announcing the actual expansion, it was announced that CK II was in for another round of clean up and bug fixing. One of the programmers had found in his own game with a successful (and very large) Byzantine Empire, that the vast majority of AI time was spent with all the characters checking ‘can I blind/castrate him’ on all the other characters. So, obviously there were optimizations that could be done.

Along with this, the interface was cleaned up, and got some nice upgrades. Upon starting a game, there is now a large page that comes up giving all the main ideas you are operating under. That is, the type of culture you are, the main government form, and your religion. Moreover, this page can be accessed at any time through a button next to your portrait, so you can see all the characteristics and bonuses.

The idea of honorary titles was also regularized a bit, and a very important one added: commander. Instead of appointing commanders of your troops directly from your vassals and Marshal, commander is now a minor title with some income and prestige, and your army leaders now come out of this pool. The old system occasionally let the same character be in multiple places at once, which naturally caused problems. The new system is handy, since the position also improves opinion, and allows you to vet potential army leaders before you’re desperately hunting through all your vassals as you raise armies for a war.

Nomad Hordes

The main focus of the expansion itself are the nomad tribes of the eastern regions of the map. Without the expansion, the area continues working under tribal government rules (see the Charlemagne review), but having the expansion changes the government and holding types for the region, and allows you to play as a nomad horde, no matter what their religion (though that might become a problem, and cause a Game Over, if you ‘settle down’ as a tribe or feudal/iqta government).

Generally speaking, nomads are looking for empty holding slots, which are used as pasturage, and contribute to their maximum population and manpower. Unlike tribes, this is not one holding per county, and getting bonuses for empty slots, this is one holding in the realm, and getting bonuses for all the counties’ slots. Additionally, their capital is a new type of holding:

Nomad capitals have khans or khagans in a clan. These do not directly generate levies or taxes, and always have a minimal fortification value. However, they have an extensive list of fairly cheap upgrades to the capital, that provide bonuses to population, taxes, morale, combat bonuses, and even movement speed. Moving a capital is fairly easy, and all buildings will go to the new location.

Like tribal governments, they are stuck with one inheritance rule, which is for the male relative with the highest prestige to take over the primary title. Vassals also get a choice as to whether to stay with the new ruler, or declare independence, creating the usual breakup and scramble whenever the current ruler dies. A new feature is to send sons away to become mercenaries, where they will hopefully become rich and famous.

Nomads can hold other holding types (and even build temples) as vassals, but of course don’t see them as directly useful (though holding, say, a castle, can allow a horde to settle down as a new feudal kingdom… who will lose most of his old bonuses, and all the unsettled land, and will need to get more regular holdings in a hurry). So, regular holdings can be pillaged, which causes all sorts of problems (revolts, lower taxes…), but also destroys two building improvements in the holding, and if the last building is destroyed, so is the holding, returning it to an empty state to become pasturage.


Each independent nomad ruler has an emperor-level title, while his direct vassals (well, the nomad ones), have king-level titles. Each of these denote rule over a clan, as opposed to any territory. So, every nomad realm will have one or more clans in it.

Clans are fairly independent, and for instance, will never provide troops to their liege. On the other hand, there’s no musters in the first place. As intimated above, clans have population and manpower in addition to other attributes, and population is is the prime determiner of income. Meanwhile, manpower is used to raise 250-man contingents for the horde (this acts like retinues from Legacy of Rome, and replaces them for nomads; they’re generally a lot easier and less expensive to raise, but they’re also nearly the entire sum of the available military).

Inside of a horde, the clans have relations with each other, which are spelled out on a new status screen. The primary things you get to see are all the current clans, and their leader, and whether any have a current blood oath or blood feud going on. The former is basically an alliance between the two current heads of clans, while the feud can keep going for generations. It also shows each clan’s sentiment with the others. That is effectively a relations score like the normal ones between characters, but it is turned into a modifier to actual relations between members of the different clans.

In addition, clans can be absorbed into another (if it is small, and probably, unpopular), a large clan can be spit up (which it’s likely to resist), and new clans can be created (really, just a minor clan being ‘promoted’ to being big enough to show in game). All of this helps add a fair amount of… Brownian motion to the structure of a horde, and seems like a pretty good job of getting the fluid nature of nomads into a static game format.


Nomadic nations generally have lots of ability to go to war with their neighbors, but can’t have a lot of vassals, and pillaging a rich area down to pastures may be time consuming, and lead to lots of rebellions to put down (but can make you quite rich!), and absorbing lots of new land may unbalance the clans, and lead to internal chaos.

So there’s a new type of ‘vassalage’ available with the expansion: tributary. This leaves the country technically independent, but subordinate to its master, paying taxes to it, and liable to be called up in wars.

Tributaries are fragile relationships, and can dissolve upon the death of the current suzerain. The tributaries aren’t part of the court, so they can’t be part of a faction there (like ‘independence’), though they can declare war on their suzerain to gain it on their own.

Silk Forts

Another slight change to the interface was the ‘tab’ for trade posts was redesigned and regularized a bit. There’s now two special holdings that can be constructed for cheap in most provinces.

The Silk Road was added to the map (for everyone), as a series of routes stretching from the east edge of the map to traditional end points in the Sea of Azov, Constantinople, and the Middle East. Any province it goes through gets bonus income… until war (sieges, raids…) blocks that branch. That stops income on that route, but others will get more money in compensation.

Trade posts can be built by anyone who controls part of the Silk Road, to get even more income out of it. This is subject to limitations by technology, and Merchant Republics can still build them in any coastal province.

Along with those, forts can be built as temporary fortifications in any county you occupy (except that nomads can’t build them). This is a new slot in the same ‘tab’ introduced for trade posts, and are cheap to build, and have no upgrades.

They can (slightly) delay enemies who will have to besiege it before they can get to the regular holdings when invading a country, but the main uses are offensive. The main trouble with attacking nomads is that their counties have no holdings, so as soon as your army moves on, you give up control of the county, and lose the war score taking it gets you. Typically, the only ways to get war score is by winning battles (which can be difficult), and taking their capital (which still doesn’t give much).

But you can occupy a province, build a fort, and then move on. The fort keeps control, and you extend your supply line, avoiding the attrition that being far beyond your borders can bring. Similarly, building a fort on Pagan territory negates the supply and attrition penalties attacking them gives.


I have some problems with this one, caused by the problems of ‘layering on’ new mechanics after the fact. Introducing nomads is a good idea, and they’re handled very well here. But they only exist if you have the expansion, whereas tribes always exist. Similarly, if HL is the only expansion you have, you’re a bit trapped, as settling down can put you out of the game.

What is outside of the expansion is also quite good, with plenty of little touches that round off more sharp corners. Not mentioned yet is the fact that government type is no longer strictly holding dependent. This was mostly to keep from suddenly changing governments accidentally (and maybe ending the game) by changing your capital. But it opens the door to introducing some extra nuanced types, which would happen.

If one wants to play as Genghis, or some other horde leader, this is obviously the expansion to get, and I don’t think anyone desiring that will be disappointed. But the ability to… paint yourself in corner means that it is unwise as a first expansion. Getting one or more of the ‘religious unlock’ expansions (SoI, TOG, SoA, RoI) would be recommended.