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The Surprising Design of Crusader Kings II

January 6, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 3 Next

Paradox Development Studio's Crusader Kings II has been one of the surprise critical hits of the year, garnering attention and sales beyond what might be expected after a dozen Europa Universalis-style grand strategy games. I'm one of those critics, having reviewed it positively, and then only grown more impressed with its systems. What makes Crusader Kings II special and deserving of this praise is that it successfully models historical human behavior using a transparent system.

When Paradox offered me the chance to interview Crusader Kings II's project lead and designer, Henrik Fåhraeus, I took it in order find out just how this had been accomplished. Modeling human behavior within complex systems is one of the great dreams of video games (just ask Chris Crawford). Crusader Kings II, almost out of nowhere, impressed me by "...[building] a system that effectively simulated the power dynamics of medieval dynastic politics, and then [forcing] me to engage with and learn just how destructive those systems could be." How was this accomplished?

My expectation, built on years of developer interviews stressing the hard work of game creation, was that Crusader Kings II's success came after meticulous planning as well as constant testing and tweaking. But what came across in the discussion with Fåhraeus was something different: the power of serendipity and improvisation in creating a great game system.


I asked Fåhraeus about the influences and goals for the project, and he gave two main motivators. First, Crusader Kings II was another evolutionary step for the team.

"It was more a matter of taking all the similar systems we've developed at Paradox Development Studio over the course of multiple games (Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings, etcetera) and trying to find a better, unified way of realizing the same thing, with the added requirements of a character based game."

Paradox's commitment to pushing the Europa Universalis game engine to its limits is both slightly bemusing (it was clunky enough when it debuted over a decade ago) and impressive in how much the team seems to be succeeding.

He also mentioned a few games as influences, saying that Crusader Kings II "...(drew) inspiration from various spiritual ancestors; some relatively obscure, like The Lords of Midnight and Birthright: The Gorgon's Alliance and others not so obscure, like The Sims."

I think he may overestimate the degree to which people would see the breezy suburban modernity of The Sims as comparable to the epic medieval scope of his game; still, it's definitely there. You build relationships with your peers by giving them gifts and building the kingdom's infrastructure in a manner conducive to happiness. Instead of paintings and refrigerators, you ensure that dukes possess the counties that form the traditional bounds of their duchy, and if that's not enough, you can grant them ceremonial titles like "Keeper of the Cups." The goal is still the same: encourage the people that you interact with have more positive than negative relationships toward your character.

There were also era-specific considerations. "Of course, we wanted intrigue and vicious backstabbing in Crusader Kings II, since it was so sordidly common in real medieval history. Novels like the A Song of Ice and Fire and Dune books (both of which I love) only reflect reality."

That Game of Thrones connection, as mentioned by several critics, is quite clear in the game, and CKII quickly spawned a detailed, high-profile Game of Thrones mod. Fåhraeus's specific example: "Conan II, Duke of Brittany at game start in 1066, was murdered with a pair of poisoned hunting gloves, probably on the orders of William the Conqueror." With this sort of event as the model, the goals of the game become clear. "In order to facilitate this, AI characters especially needed to have clear opinions they could act upon."

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Matthew Burns
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I bought this game a little while ago and it is in my "to play" list. This game just looks incredible.

Oh, I should say I have a degree in history and wrote my thesis on economics in England during the 14th century. Hence I am ridiculously bias toward a game like 'Crusader Kings II.' :-)

Dave Long
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I'm surprised by the views of the author that Paradox games are generally "yet another Paradox game". Clearly, while the sequels bear some resemblance to their predecessors, they generally involve substantial improvements and changes to gameplay (generally far more than sequels in other genres, no less, and often more than other franchises in the strategy genre - eg; Total War) - and the differences between Paradox games are huge (equivalent or more than the differences between the Call of Duty and ArmA franchises, say, were we looking at FPS').

Excellent interview though, and great to see CK2 getting commercial success. I haven't played it m'self yet (it's on my must-play list though) - main issue being that Paradox games are often so damn good that it takes me a few hundred hours to 'play them out' before moving on, which means I can take a while getting through them.

Rowan Kaiser
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Well, obviously there are major differences within the Paradox games, and someone who plays them in depth will see those. But I've been seeing a lot of CK2 love from game journalists who haven't played Paradox games before, or maybe they've played an EU game or two. Definitely not the types who would be able to sort out what makes Victoria so different from Hearts Of Iron or whatever.

Dave Long
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Aye, and that's a good thing :). I just find that game journos (and journos/people more broadly) will stereotype stuff they're not so familiar with - the old "all [pick your ethnicity] look the same" thing applied to videogames. Totally agree many journos may think that way, but that's largely due to their limited gaming experience and limited approach to understanding the world around them. Your response happily suggests you don't fall into this camp :).

Dolgion Chuluunbaatar
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Very nice feature. I just recently bought the game on a Steam sale and now feel like a thief. This game is truly unique and innovates in a genre that could really use some new ideas. What amazes me is that there is this elegant dichotomy between roleplaying and strategy and the way these two fit together is just so organical. In some ways, CK2 is a better RPG, or a truer RPG than any of the Skyrims or Mass Effects of the world. You play a medieval lord, and it puts you in exactly these shoes, with all that comes with it: managing your vassals using diplomacy (which really deserves to be called that), governing your duchy/kingdom/empire, making war, worrying about your successor etc etc. All of the important aspects you'd imagine a medieval lords life to consist of are in here, and none of it is scripted (at least if feels that way). This is what I miss in RPGs today. Most are too preoccupied with trying to cram a prewritten story down the player's throat while more or less clumsily trying to allow some player input to shape the flow of the game. I'd much rather play a game that allows me to play out my own stories, enabled by a sophisticated simulation component that powers the core of the game, and facilitates the random outcomes that designers want to allow for. There's few ambitious RPGs like that in the market, and I'm glad and surprised to see this innovation come from left-field in the form of a grand strategy game.

Talat Fakhri
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One of the better Gamasutra article on Game Design. Logged in specially to congratulate!

Rowan Kaiser
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Thank you!

Mark Chen
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It's also really amazing the role-play put into some of the after-action reports on the Paradox forums. e.g. this fascinating and hilarious tale: