4x strategy (explore, expand, exploit, and exterminate) has a problem. None of the games seem to be able to tackle a basic design flaw that was already present in the original Civilization, the “snowball effect”.
In a normal 4x game you start in a weak position. Your first objective is to conquer any of your neighbours in order to become bigger and more badass. If the game is good, these are always scary times, you are small and a mistake will cost you dearly. Good strategies, bold moves and some luck is required. Fun!
However, as games are made to be won, you will inevitably expand and after roughly 3-5 hours you’ll have won some territories. You’ll have more money, more armies and basically be more robust. You’ll be for example 5 territories or cities strong and your 4 neighbours are size 3.
And here comes the problem: after 3-5 hours, you have already won the game. You have become too big to be stopped. You’ll be able to cope with those size 3 neighbours, double your size again and then be 10 territories strong with maybe one or two mighty empires of 15 ahead of you. You turn your back to them and easily wipe the other (by now) small size 3-7 guys. By the time you attack a big empire, you are twice as big as them and technology or geography do not matter, you are too big for them. Since the moment you overcame those one or two first neighbours and grew to size 3, the rest of the 30-100 hours ahead of you is just wiping out enemies weaker than you. Your victory is inevitable, congratulations, you have snowballed the game.
Should you feel proud of your strategy skill? Hardly, these games are all about growth and they include no mechanism to slow it or even reverse it, so you very rarely lose territories, face an alliance of AI neighbours or have to stop an invasion of green slimy hordes of flying worms. The last phases of any Civ-like game have always been brain dead boring, as you still have to push through yet another 100 turns in order to end the game. You may have fun watching a battle between the AI’s last 2000 soldiers and your 16000, but the depressing thing is that you do not even have to properly move them. They’ll win the battle by default as they are 8 to 1. In fact you are more sympathetic to the enemy’s armies, as they heroically let themselves be decimated in one last stand.
I have played this arc over and over, complained about it and wondered if there was a way to elegantly reinvent 4x gaming. The key word here is “elegantly”. There have been many proposals to solve this, but they all failed. Many use special victory conditions, like Shogun 2 or Colonization, some use scripted events, like Rome:TW and others simply make the game impossibly complex so that you cannot play it well, like Victoria 2.
Enter the King
Here comes CK2, yet another 4x strategy game from Paradox. They are famously regarded as the designers of the most obscure and overly complex games in the current mainstream. Games like Victoria or even worse, Victoria 2, are simply layers and layers of monstrously detailed economic information that simply cannot be coped with and today, any Paradox game is to be approached with caution.
CK2′s marketing caught my attention more than a year ago because they seemed to be fed up with the snowball effect and they promised to have found the much coveted elegant solution. Instead of playing as a country, civilization or leader, you’d play as a dynasty.
It seems trivial but it is not because it allows for the designers to introduce multiple mechanisms that will slow down and even reverse your growth curve. It is fascinating to look at CK2′s design in this way, because it all fits.
In CK2 you start a as nobleman holding one or many titles to his name. You get to choose from any of the many counts, barons, dukes or kings in 1066 Europe. Each of these characters has a set of skills and controls a bigger or smaller piece of land. You will control him/her until he dies, when you will pass to control his/her heir. And so on and so forth until the game ends. There are three ending conditions, you lose when you lose all your titles and thus do not control any more territories, you lose if your last dynasty member dies without a heir and otherwise, the game ends in 1450 when you count your score. Your score is formed by the prestige points accumulated by all the members of your dynasty. So again, simple enough.
Each starting position is completely different. You might start in the middle of Christian Europe and be a small count who is vassal to a duke who in turn is vassal to a king or emperor or you might be surrounded by territories full of infidels or you could be neighbour to the most annoying piece of AI ever created, the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church. In any of these situations, your first order of business is to understand what is around you, but most importantly WHO is around you. Who is allied with who, who is father to who, who is going to inherit what, who likes you and who does not.
That is because the whole game is about people. As an example, I will describe the starting position of a single character, the extremely humble Count of Hainaut. This is when things get interesting.
The name is Flanders, Ned Flanders
This guy is 22 years old and unmarried so of course, no children. He controls a single territory in what is now the belgian/french frontier but he belongs to the Holy Roman Empire, the sum of Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Hungary, half of Italy and much more. He is vassal to a Duke in today’s Dusseldorf that hates your guts because you are dutch and he, as the rest of the empire, are german. To the north of you lives your small brother who controls what is today’s Holland. All this is very nice and dandy, but as it turns out, you have a border to your west with none other than the huge kingdom of France. And in the kingdom of France, controlling what is today’s Dunkirk and Oostende, is the Duchy of Flanders with 5 territories. And the Duke of Flanders happens to be your father.
Hmmm, that means that when your father dies, his titles will pass on to the dynasty, meaning you (yay!). But as he has a Gravelkind succession system, the titles will split between the direct heirs (booo!).
When your father dies, you’ll become a french duke, the french king will hate your guts because you are dutch and not french and Hainaut will pass to be french (but only until you die, your heir will not retain Hainaut and it will go back to the Emperor). As a side note, of the 4 titles your father has, three will go to you and one will go to your ugly, stupid little maggot of a brother, who is sitting on his Holland county grinning because he’s going to take what is rightfully yours without doing anything.
Embrace the dark side, young padawan!
With this starting position, you have many different strategies. The most obvious one is to kill your father, thus speeding up the process of your inheritance. The second obvious one is to kill your brother. This would allow you to inherit the full Duchy of Flanders. However, the same is true for him. If he kills you somehow, he gets it all.
So you need to decide if you are going to actively try to kill your brother or not. If no, then you can protect yourself from any plots by ordering your spymaster to uncover plots in your county, that will make it hard for him to kill you. If you do decide that you want to rid the world of such vermin, you’ll need a lot of money and to do it fast before he is able to have a son/daughter. Maybe it’ll be easier to kill his wife instead of him?
You get the idea of how far this kind of reasoning can go, but the elegance of CK2′s design is that it affects your approach to the whole strategy and not only the diplomacy. For example, any kind of long term investment in Hainaut will be lost in around 40 years time when you die, so maybe it is not the thing to get into right now. Also, any advances in the relationships with your german neighbours are completely useless as you are to become french soon. You need to marry if possible with a girl from a good french family that will give you a solid alliance when you become Duke. You also need to start thinking about getting clever courtiers to help you in the council and be good teachers for your future sons. Those sons will be the ones you control when your guy dies, so you need a woman that can give you those kids. So not too young or too old then. Say, a 18 year old daughter of a count, or ideally a Duke, from France.
This is more or less an example of what you are looking at when you start the game as the Count of Hainaut. And this guy is a random choice, every count/duke/king has his/her own story to develop that can be as interesting or more that the story of the Duchy of Flanders. The starting positions are complex and interesting because everything is interwoven in cool and deep ways.
So once you have taken a look around you and taken the first basic decisions, you can unpause the game, and immediately, your story starts to become unique. All your plans will be altered by marriages, unexpected deaths, the Pope, the Emperor, the King, Holy war, lots of betrayals and many events that alter your course through this mess that is feudal Europe. You have chances of having gay sons, becoming converted to the Orthodox faith, being called on a Crusade, your mother killing your father only so that you inherit and one month later your wife kills you so that it is your son who inherits immediately…
It sounds chaotic and hilarious, but in fact it is simply brilliant: what you are seeing at work is the answer to the snowball problem. The brilliance of this game is using nobility titles to tie the grand strategy of a classic 4x game to the scale of a single person.
CK2 is a classic design that merges two types of gameplay, much in the tradition of XCOM or Rome:TW. In this case, instead of merging a grand strategy game with a tactical combat game, Paradox has merged the Sims with Civilization. And Nobility titles are the magic glue that tie both together.
Once you have the idea of the titles in your design, it is easy to introduce many different brakes to the growth curve that are fun and coherent. They can be events that happen to your characters (the Sims game), like for example if your guy decides that he can afford to take liberties with the wife of your financial advisor, she gets pregnant, the husband gets angry because even though he’s gay, he’s also proud. So he kills your character, forcing you all of a sudden to go on playing as the brother that you were planning to kill five minutes before. And of course, what seems as a nice relaxing evening with this nice lady ends up delaying your dynasty’s expansion plans for more than 20 years. The system prevented you from growing and instead of getting frustrated, you’ll be telling the story to your friends.
Or these events could be things that happen to your country instead (the Civ game), like your king getting into a war that he cannot win and you seeing that not only your king is getting resources from your territories to fight this lost hopeless war, but that you are going to lose everything. Unless you declare independence, of course. If you time it right, it might actually work in your favour, so what you could do is raise your army so that the king does not have the chance to get your men for his army, thus increasing his chances of losing…
The magic glue works, it all fits nicely.
Complexity version 2.0
Paradox games are complex and so is CK2, but the good news is that it is complex in the right places. For starters, technology, military and finance have been extremely simplified if you compare it to Europa Universalis or Victoria.
The interface is a scary beast at first, but it has a very simple rule that will make it very easy to use effectively: letting the mouse cursor hover over any piece of information will give you much more information. Also, although there are many menus and screens in reality the whole game is played by dealing with people, so you only need to really understand one screen in the game: the screen that describes each character. From there, you’ll do everything important in the game.
CK2 is a complex game with a complex interface and a lot of information to deal with but it is a kind simplified complexity, where you can move through lots and lots of menus in an intuitive way. The only game that I can possibly compare to CK2 is Football Manager and CK2′s interface is way easier and more intuitive than FM.
The other stuff.
Paradox has spent money in CK2 and it shows, but they are still Paradox. They have never been amazing at graphics and CK2 is no different. In comparison, Shogun’s 3D map is much more attractive and beautiful and is also faster than CK2′s. I’d say that for a strategy game, CK2′s maps and graphics are adequate.
The music is nothing to write home about, it is also adequate and there is enough of it that you will not get tired of it too fast. however, this is a game where you’ll spend many, many hours playing, so rest assured you’ll end turning it off.
The biggest complain I have with the game is the multiplayer. Labchimp and me have been unable to setup a game and I can assure you that the process is as obscure as it can be. We have not given up yet, but it has been frustrating and bad.
A minor gripe that I have is the launch process: the game seems to perform a first time install every time I launch it, then goes into a completely useless splash screen with only a single button that you have to press and then finally starts the incredibly long loading time typical of Paradox games.
And the last complaint I have is about the difficulty level, the game plays fairly ok in normal but when you want to increase it the two higher levels are simply AI cheats with military and economic bonuses. It is really a pity, because the standard AI is pretty good in all that involves diplomacy but it is very bad in military matters.
Get to the point!
It has been a long review, I know. And the point is this: CK2 is very, very good. And it is an important game because it moves the genre forward. It is able to brake the growth curve of 4x games in an elegant and enriching way that makes the game better. Previous attempts to do the same were frustrating and painful, specially in Victoria’s case where it was just so complex that you HAD to play badly. In CK2, not growing and thus losing is actually a lot of fun.
If you like 4x strategy, you simply cannot not play this game, it is up there with the best of the best.