I was playing as the King of England. I ruled for over thirty years, sometimes a tyrant, other times a hero. When I died, I could keep playing, because I was now controlling his son. Who, it turns out, not only had a lisp, but was gay, whose arranged wife hated him and wanted him dead, whose brothers instantly declared war and whose holdings were soon being picked over by Frenchmen.
That would be fairly entertaining if it was a scripted occurrence. Or the result of dramatic writing. What makes Crusader Kings II so amazing is that it's not.
For years now, Paradox has been toiling away on its grand strategy games, releasing a number of series that, while differing slightly in focus and in historical setting, are all generally about the same thing: taking total control of a people or nation. From continental invasions to building a market in some backwood village, you control everything that goes on in your lands.
Crusader Kings II is no different in this regard. Anyone who's played a Paradox game of this ilk before will be right at home with things like its interface, battles and movement. What may not be familiar is the way the game has you managing not just places, but people as well.
WHAT I LIKED
Getting There. There's never been any question there are some incredibly detailed and flexible mechanics running Paradox's grand strategy games. The problem has always been in the terrible way those mechanics are presented to the player. While CKII is still far from perfect in this regard, most of the really important stuff can actually be accessed and understood using the game's own tutorials, a first for these kind of games (normally you need community-driven FAQs to help you get your head around things).
People Power. Despite the fact I had a Kingdom to rule, I found myself spending most of my time worrying about the King's court instead. Through its emphasis on dealing with individual inhabitants of the game, CKII lets you conduct diplomacy, arrange marriages, educate kids, plot assassinations, bully vassals, piss off the Pope, claim other people's land and hook your 2 year-old son up with the 51 year-old Queen Mother of Norway. You can even award someone the title "Keeper of the Swans". It can be exhausting, but it also gives the game a very personal feeling. Sure, you're spending time looking down on Europe like a God, but you spend more time knee-deep in real, human politics, a rarity for a video game.
Randomly Generated. You can start the game from pre-defined moments in history between the 11th and 15 centuries, and when you do, the people and places of Europe are locked in. Everything that happens after that first click, though, changes every time you play. A son who loved you dearly and supported you as Chancellor in one game could literally stab you in the back in another, meaning even repeating the same game as the same ruler in the same place twice never gives you the same game. It's a blast seeing the politics of a Kingdom unfurl anew every time I start a new game.
Grand Scope. This emphasis on personal relationships bleeds over into the larger strategy of the game, and enriches the whole experience like few other games of this type can manage. You become invested in the relationships you're forging, and because they're often extensions of diplomacy, you become inordinately passionate about their outcomes. I mean, on one hand, all you're doing is sliding numbers around and adjusting values, but good god, when those numbers are represented as catty Spanish princesses trying to kill my wife while I'm off subduing Belgians, it just sucks you right in.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE
What? As I said above, the game's UI is... better than usual, sure, but there's still plenty of room for improvement. Paradox really needs to get some help in the field of "put buttons and commands people need to play the game where people actually need them".
Huh? Paradox also needs help in the field of "OK, so our systems are complex, so let's make our tutorials thorough and easy to understand". Because they're not, which is a shame, because that's going to put off a lot of people who, with the right hand-holding, could really get into this game.
THE FINAL WORD
I can finally, after years of only talking about these games with people who play military strategy board games in their spare time, recommend a Paradox grand strategy game to more "casual" (warning: relative term!) gamers. Crusader Kings II still has serious issues with accessibility, but once these are overcome - and they are worth overcoming - you'll find one of the most challenging, entertaining and rewarding strategy games you've ever played.