2012 was a strange year for video games. Peter Molyneux convinced everyone to prod at a giant cube in his Curiosity—What's Inside the Cube? (it ended up being less than spectacular). Dear Esther's full release totally wrecked our collective Valentine's Day. The Walking Dead Season 1 was blowing minds across the world month-to-month.
It was a strong year for games that have left a lasting and deep impression on the player audience and the development world alike. It was a banner year, and that's due in no small part to the release of Paradox's quirky and strange Crusader Kings II, which celebrated it's 5-year anniversary on February 14th.
As I was working on this article, I had some conversations with people who aren't necessarily into PC-based strategy games. When they asked me what I was working on, I told that I was very excited about covering the five-year anniversary of Crusader Kings II. "What's that?" they would inevitably ask, and I couldn't ever really get it out in a cogent way. It's a simulation of an entire medieval world. It has grandeur. The stakes of each game session are nothing less than the stakes of empires; you can watch your heritable line fizzle into nothing or bloom into a powerful dynasty.
It's also the game of petty actions and jealousy. You rule your kingdom, but you find out that your only son is plotting against you. You jail him, but that makes your vassals angry, so you put him on house arrest instead. Then you realize that he's still trying to kill you, so you banish him from your kingdom. Then he becomes the spymaster of your rival, plots against you from afar, and wages a secret war across the border for the next thirty years.
There's no other game with that kind of scope, scale, and specificity. It's a unique and strange project that zooms into the most intimate levels of character interaction. As designer Henrik Fåhraeus explains it, the impetus for the game was based on a feeling:
"I had this feeling that if you create a complex enough simulation and if you throw in a lot of AI characters in there with personalities and opinions of each other and different ways they could act out—so a backstabbing-type character would have a way to perform intrigue and assassinations and stuff whereas a warlike, straightforward, honest guy would just declare wars. Sort of like a game of life, you know? If you have this simulation with rules then interesting, weird stuff would happen and stories would be told by the simulation if a player was around to experience it."
In the age of "[game genre] + [roguelike elements]" game design that we live in now, that might not seem like such a radical statement, but it is worth remembering that Crusader Kings II is still a pretty singular experience. Few, if any, other big-budget games take the risk of creating an entire world of individual actors whose weathervane opinions change the very shape of world politics. It makes sense that CKII remains unique. After all, as Fåhraeus explained to me, higher-ups at Paradox initially shipped the design of the first Crusader Kings off to a Russian developer rather than spend in-house resources on it. "It didn't turn out very well," said Fåhraeus, "so we brought it back in-house and finished it up in insane crunch mode in two months or something."
Ultimately, those unique character-to-character connections are what make the game "work" (both on a literal game systems level and in the sense of what gets players excited). Fåhraeus describes the relationship of figures such as King Robert the Fat or the Duke of Aquitaine to players as a "personal grounding," a kind of connection where we recognize ourselves in these historical rulers.
"They're people. They are clearly people, and people have been instilled with a sense of what that is, not just from old Errol Flynn movies but also fantasy shows and books and so on—knights in armor and all that stuff. It resonates, I think, with us. The clear fact that it's a person who has a personality: it's a drunkard, or a paranoid lunatic, we know what that is."
Creative Director Johan Andersson had similar thoughts about the enduring legacy of Crusader Kings II:
"It has to ebb and flow. No matter how powerful and big you are, it's all tied to humans. Your great kingdom can be destroyed by your powerful king suddenly dying, and everything's being inherited by your random cousin who is completely incompetent, and everything falls apart. . . . Humans are imperfect, I think. That's the philosophy."
This imperfection of humanity is part of the attraction to the entire Crusader Kings format. After all, there's something fascinating about watching a let's player like Arumba unite the Kingdom of Israel during the early Middle Ages against all odds. In the same way that it is empowering about taking on the role of an archaeologist or a super-soldier in the future, there is a distinct feeling of grinding it out when you can live your life as a ruler of a small-but-perseverant kingdom. Crusader Kings II is a humbling, atomizing experience; you can feel truly alone and against all odds while playing it, and that make the act of winning so much more indulgent.
Clearly that resonates with an audience. Crusader Kings II was a turning point in game development at Paradox, a company that Fåhraeus describes as being in "pretty dire financial straits" on release: "[ CKII] didn't have very high initial sales, so it was kind of surprising that by word of mouth or something it became the hit that it was."
We can attribute that success to players' attachment to characters and to the philosophy of openness toward the mod community that allowed for creations like the complete Game of Thrones conversion mod. "We've always been on the forefront of supporting mods," Andersson explained. "I'm a firm believer that you should not try to hide data files, and you should try to expose as many things as possible to the modding community so that they can mod the games because that prolongs the shelf life of the game and makes more people play."
That life of Crusader Kings II, from player engagement to modding support to actual, released expansion content, doesn't seem to be drying up half a decade into development. Paradox has sold more than a million copies of the game proper, and DLC content has stretched the numbers into the multiples of millions. In many ways, the network of communities and developers around CKII has grown to resemble the vast, weird networks of the Medieval Era that the game is modeling. It's a big world, but it's all connected, and each modder, LPer, and piece of DLC pushes and pulls at the massive web of relationships, affecting hundreds of thousands of fans.
Will it ever stop? Andersson is hopeful about the future: "As long as people buy the expansions, we will keep making them. Of course, we still need to have ideas, but as long as we have good ideas and people keep buying them, we're going to keep doing it."