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Charles the Lame, that is.

Crusader Kings was the last of the Paradox games that spawned from Europa Universalis. Earlier I was thinking about the release of that engine as it tied into the Civilization and Age of Empires advances, with each pushing the other forward. The original EU release was not too long after Age of Kings and shortly before Civilization III. EU and EU II were barely more than a year apart, making EU almost a paid public beta for EU II.

Following on the heels of the success of EU II, Paradox moved the engine to the Second World War with the release of Hearts of Iron. This was not a mere re-skinning of the EU engine, however. Unlike the EU clock, which ticked through the centuries represented in that game, Hearts of Iron played strategically but simulated hour-by-hour. Thus, operations could be planned to coordinate attacks from land, sea, and air, scheduling them all to hit their target at a given H-hour. The series became very successful in its own right and is the most recent of the Paradox games to be reworked as a new version.

The next of the EU spin-offs was Victoria: An Empire Under the Sun. Vicky, as fans like to refer to it, returned to the the massive scale of EU but added in the more complexity to account for the economics of the Victorian era. Rather than simulate a population of a territory as a whole, Vicky breaks down the population into different categories: the wealthy versus the poor, the skilled versus the unskilled, the soldiers versus factory workers, etc. Managing the economy, then, involves managing this detail.

The final (unless you count Stellaris) branching of the the Paradox engine came in the spring of 2004. This game started with the invasion of England by William the Conqueror (in 1066) and lasted until 1452, just before the fall of Constantinople. The focus of the game was less on nation states and more on dynasties. The player has control over a middle-ages noble and his court and must manage the lands and armies to which that noble has title. Those titles can be lost in battle, so maintaining and growing one’s domain requires alliances and warfare. Upon death, titles are redistributed according to the hereditary rules in effect for that place and time (and they can be altered by the player to suit). So another important part of the game was ensuring suitable heirs were present when the current noble shuffles off this mortal coil.

This became a complex and critical part of the game. Too few heirs and you might find your only heir to the throne wiped out by the plague just as you need him to inherit. Too many heirs and the mighty kingdom you’ve painstaking built up shatters as it is divided among squabbling children. Furthermore, the “stats” for each noble is also hereditary. So “good breeding” became a matter of selecting wives and husbands for your family and was necessary for prevailing in future battles.

It was a game monumental in its scope. While in many ways based on its EU roots, there were several areas of departure. In addition to the need to manage your family, there was considerable less reliance on that historical timeline and the event system that kept things somewhat on track. All it takes is one extra boy being born, and a pivotal succession crisis will never take place.

One more very popular addition was to allow a game completed in Crusader Kings to be exported and used as a starting point for EU II. All of the games in the EU family have been fairly open and modable, granting them a lot of attention both in terms of improvements and also “total conversions.” Shortly after the game started covering different eras, users took an interest in moving a given game-produced world from one product to the next, chronologically. EU games were ported to Vicky, although there is quite a gap between the two. The post-World War I ending of Vicky can be sent on to Hearts of Iron for the WWII, and that game was modded to extend into the Cold War. With one of their Crusader Kings patches, Paradox got in on the action and officially made it possible to continue playing with a CK world in EU II.

While on the topic of mods, one of the most popular for CK was the Game of Thrones conversion. That popularity exploded with the conversion of the novels to the HBO series. I recall reading, back in 2011 or 2012, how Crusader Kings was the best Game of Thrones game available, and it wasn’t even a Game of Thrones game. It seemed ideally suited to model just the sort of politics/warfare/sex battlefields that people love about the show, and that was part of what created the medieval history that we know.

But all was not perfect. The game progressed at essentially two different speeds. Personal interactions could be happening rather frequently whereas realm development took place over years and decades. Speeding the game up meant being innundated with messages about various characters and their interactions within the game. Like EU, CK allowed the player to customize the handling of event notifications. The problem was, even a minor character looking for a suitable wife could be critical to the game. Because character statistics of newborns were based on the statistics of their parents, selective breeding was necessary to create a competent court from which to draw your generals and administrators. I recall, back in the day, likening it to a computerized version of whack-a-mole.

My other huge complaint with the model was the handling of ships. Unlike the other games of the EU pantheon, the handling of ships was abstracted. In the time before sea-going warfare, it made sense not to model ships as combat units. What shipbound fighting existed at the time was very different that what the Age of Sail would bring in the timeframe of EU. The problem with abstracting it entirely way is there were significant factors limiting sail and oar powered shipping, particularly outside of the Mediterranean. I often played my games somewhere on the British Isle, and inevitably at some point the Muslim hoards would sail to my island and attempt to covert me. It was a historical impossibility, but why?

This game, and pretty much all games for that matter, fail to model the effects of currents and prevailing winds on medieval sea travel. In this instance, traversing the points at the tip of Brittany, near Brest, or the south-eastern tip of England, near Dover, might involve waiting patiently for the forces of nature to help you around the bend. If the “you” in this case is a massive fleet sailing from Tripoli for the purposes of conquest, that would provide a point where the invaders are particularly vulnerable to interdiction. For example, the details of the (much later) defeat of the Spanish Armada cannot be fully comprehended without understanding these limitations on sailing routes.

Mercifully, Crusader Kings skipped over the EU III engine and, instead, became (as Crusader Kings II) the first of the games built on the current engine. And while it started its distribution through multiple channels, it eventually became sold exclusively through Steam.

Paradox has long had a reputation for releasing games with initial bugs. Crusader Kings II seemed to live up to that promise. This was a game that I wanted, badly, even before it came out. I was very much into Crusader Kings and saw a promise in the sequel to fix some of the issues I saw above. It took some time before I finally pulled the trigger. Even then, I refused to buy through Steam or any of the Steam-like services. I like to own the games I buy, not rent them. I finally found a sale through GamersGate, which offered a DRM-free version and happily began enjoying the new version.

Some months later, however, Paradox announced that they could no longer support the product through GamersGate and I had to move my license to Steam. This caused me to actually get a Steam account, which has grown nearly-uncontrollably ever since. It also started my relationship with Paradox and their DLC model for supporting their games.  It fixes, from the game companies’ standpoint, a long standing issue with game support. When a game requires ongoing maintenance, particularly for new features and other improvements, it is done at an increasingly uncompensated cost. Eventually, the company must release an expansion or a new version to generate the necessary revenue, often frustrating users who can sometimes feel they are being forced to pay for a bug-fix patch. The DLC model, while in some ways exacerbating the situation, may actually make it more palatable by seeking revenue more regularly, but in smaller chunks. In any case, I’ve resigned myself to periodically buying newer content for Crusader Kings and EU, and have been rewarded with not only years of active support, but sometimes game-changing improvements in the features.

DLCs have also been used to expand the chronological scope of the game. Add-ons have extended the starting point backwards some 500 years. A player can start, not just with the Norman domination of England, but back to the viking invasions or further back to reign of Charlemagne.

Charles the Lame

Earlier, I contrasted Crusader Kings with EU particularly in the area of historical fidelity. In the discussed game, I played a scenario and highlighted a particular place where the game (through an invasion of France by the HRE) departed substantially from history.

Continuing on with that game, I also continue to drift away from an actual tracking of historical events. On the other hand, gaming in the same medieval “world” will always mean there are some parallels between what the game creates and analogous situations that really happened.

As before, I am still playing as the Duke of Upper Burgundy, where I have hopes of expanding my power and possibly once again ruling over a Burgundian kingdom within the Holy Roman Empire.

In the real world, from the late 1270s into the early 1280s, the counties that would comprise the Kingdom of Arles, a kingdom of Upper and Lower Burgundy, were under the control of Charles of Anjou. In addition to these titles (the counties of Provence and Forcalquier) Charles I held claim to Anjou and Maine in France. He had been invested by the pope as the King of Sicily, after killing the previous ruler, Manfred (a bastard son at the end of the Hohenstaufen line), at the Battle of Benevento.

The son of Charles I, also Charles (II) and known as Charles the Lame, was at the time Regent of Provence and heir to the titles of Anjou. A plan was hatched between the elder Charles, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph I, and Pope Martin IV. Charles the Lame’s son, Charles Martel would, upon marrying the daughter of Rudolph, receive the title of King of Arles and preside over that historical kingdom. In exchange, Charles I was to back the an inheritance of the title of Emperor to be passed through the House of Habsburg. Finally, the pope’s family would be granted a Kingdom located in northern Italy. Instead, Sicily revolted against Charles’  (I) rule in the War of the Sicilian Vespers and the marriage and the creation of the new kingdoms was never to occur.

That’s a lot of Charles.

In my world, Sicily is controlled not by the French (as was the case in 1282), but by the Holy Roman Empire. By 1286, a war has begun between two claimants to the title King of Sicily. The conflict has drawn in the Emperor himself, and fighting has spread far enough north to impact my own duchy and, in doing so, drawn my attention.

sicily1

The year is 1286 and a war has broken out in a Sicily divided over who is to rule them. This may be a chance for my family to press their claims in Italy.

With Sicily in chaos, I have decided to advance an imperial claim on one of the central Italian counties. Unlike in the real world, where the Hapsburgs have begun their ascendancy to pan-European power, in mine  Rudoph von Habsburg is a count in Upper Burgundy and my chief administrator. I am married to a princess of the empire, the sister to the predecessor and cousin of the current Emperor Václav II.

sicily2

I’ve moved my army into the war torn peninsula, but I am without friends.

I have forgotten a key feature of Crusader Kings II and civil wars. It may seem like a rebellious lord is easy pickings, and making a claim on a pretender’s holding will allow you to pile on to an already winning side. But that’s not quite right. As I have made a claim on a county claimed by both sides in the war, they actually both consider me an enemy. In the above screenshot, while I was biding my time, waiting for the pretender king (whose claim I have challenged) to weaken before I deal with him, I was ambushed by the loyalist armies. The king who is still recognized by the Emperor as the true King of Sicily still believes the title to the usurper’s lands lay with him. I had a chance against one of them, but not both.

The screen above represents one of the major features the Crusader Kings II introduced, and one that has been enhanced since the original release. From the beginning, the EU franchise resolved battles using a pop-up screen where the armies would attrit in “real time” as the strategic clock advanced. Interaction is minimal while the battle was ongoing, with the ability to send reinforcements (if another army is close enough) or retreat from the battle before forced to by the battle engine. Obviously the timescales don’t quite work, but it provides a workable interface for both the strategic game and individual battles that occur within it.

In Crusader Kings, that battle engine now has considerably more depth. Each fight sees the the units involved divided into three “battles,” as the language of the time would describe them. If there are insufficient sub-units, only two or maybe only one of the battles will be populated. Each battle can be allotted a commander, which will improve performance when fighting. As the enemy forces engage, each wing attacks the corresponding wing of the opposing army and goes through various types of combat. In the previous screenshot, the armies are beginning an engagement in skirmish mode (see the blue bow-and-arrow icons for all six battles). A unit will progress through that skirmishing into an infantry mode. Once one side breaks, the opposing side will have a pursuit phase. As the opponents wings are eliminated, a winning army will engage with multiple-on-one attacks among those forces that remain.

There is additional detail in the model. I occasionally see special indicators during a fight, like a “shield wall” icon popping up. One presumes that the effectiveness of the unit during the different phases depends, not only on the commander, but on the mix of weaponry in the component units. More and better archers should mean more effective skirmishing, and so forth. As before, you have little interaction once the armies are engaged. But the depth of the battle model is engaging, with an effective user interface to show progress. It is also limits the engagement to that of a supreme commander. In doing so, it encourages you to control the things that a supreme commander could control – better leaders and a better mix of weaponry – rather than having you micromanage every unit in every battle, Total War -style.

Back to the battle within the context of the game. As the attack started I made an assumption, which turned out to be correct, that numerical advantage (albeit a slight one) of the Sicilian army would be all it took to tip the odds against me within Crusader Kings II. It seems like it would set up an even battle in FoG(U), with the slight numerical advantage countering any weakness in UI play. In fact, I assumed that the battle would produce the opposite result given the nearly even armies. So much so, I was afraid that the fight wouldn’t even be close and the results would be entirely misaligned with what I saw in the strategic level.

sicily3

I used the army-building tools to recreate the fight from Crusader Kings. The two armies clash on Turn 4 of the battle.

As the armies moved to contact (screenshot above), my fears seemed to be realized and then some. While I made an effort to keep my lines organized as I moved them forward, the AI charged pell-mell across the open field, hitting my lines piecemeal just as I was moving out of my own encampment. It appeared that I would easily defeat the enemy in detail.

sicily4

My left wing is utterly collapsing and any hope I have of salvaging the battle on my right seems to have slipped away.

As it turns out, the AI may have been aggressive but was not “too aggressive.” Despite the fact that my lines were better ordered, I was overwhelmed by the enemy assaults.

This is no organized analysis, but there seems to be a clear difference between AI performance in the original version and the Unity version. In the old version I had scenarios where holding back to draw the enemy into assaulting my position would result in running out of turns before the enemy was even engaged. This new AI seems to want to being killing me as fast as possible. Furthermore, it is effective at doing so.

sicily5

I stand corrected. The Sicilians have obtained a decisive victory over me and come pretty close to matching the results I saw in the Crusader Kings resolution of the battle.

This was effectively the end of my campaign to gain influence on the Italian peninsula, although I refused to admit it at the time. Like so many commanders before me, I figured that I had weakened the enemy even as he had weakened me, and that one more push would put me back on top. I assembled a second army, this time made mostly of mercenaries, and moved them in for a reprise. The problem, however, remained that I was outnumbered by both sides of the Sicilian Succession War combatants when they were combined and I was again forced to to wait out the enemy, hoping to see him weaken himself. In this case, the enemy was able to wait me out. As funds to pay my mercenary army ran low, an enemy was able to bribe them to flip sides and my next battle, instead of being a nearly even fight, turned into a massacre. So I had to return home, not just a loser, but a broke loser.

A Ship and a Sea to Sail Upon

Fighting up and down Italy doesn’t require much in the way of sea transport, but given the vehemence of my complaining, I had probably better mention that aspect of Crusader Kings II. In this iteration, ships have returned to an explicitly-modeled factor in the game. They are available to be raised in the same way as land armies, based on the counties you control, or hired as mercenaries. Either way, they are terribly expensive.

What it means is that, if there is a sea-transport component to your campaign, you’re going to have to have a lot of extra money set aside before you start. You’ll also want to plan appropriately. Having fleets sitting around idling will mean your treasury quickly runs dry. You’ll want to get your transporting done as rapidly as possible and then release those ships back to wherever they came from.

It still doesn’t model sailing in a realistic detail, but from the games I’ve played so far, it seems to create realistic end results. Sea invasions are huge deals, even over short stretches of ocean. While I usually end up at some point during a game paying the cost to send a Crusader army across the water to the Holy Land, I almost never bring them home again. And I’ve never seen the marauding north-African hordes laying waste to the shores of England and Wales in Crusader Kings II.

Similarly, the frantic dating game into which the original Crusader Kings could descend has been largely fixed. This latest engine (CK II, EU4, and the new Hearts of Iron) has added in a better user interface which is particularly effective when it comes to the decision-making aspects of the game.  A player no longer has to keep their eyes glued on dozens of different factors as time goes by, hoping not to miss a critical event. Instead, many of the decisions are presented as alerts to the player.

Add to that some better browsing tools, and the marriage game becomes easier to stay on top of without the frantic effort of before. The model for marriages has become more complex as well, meaning that unless you are marrying off a particular enticing child, you’re not going to be able to scour the world for a tall, barrel-chested woman to breed a race of warrior-giants. Furthermore, the “mini-game” of influencing your children’s statistics has become deeper and more multi-dimensional. There are the statistics and there are traits, which each influence the other. These come from not just who the parents are, but also decisions that are made during their upbringing. It is, at the same time, both a more interesting game and one that is no longer critical to overall success or failure.

Charles may have been called lame, but Crusader Kings II is not.

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