The confusing, fascinating historical strategy game Crusader Kings 2 is free on Steam until Saturday. If you picked it up, here are a few tips to get you started.
The most intimidating thing about Crusader Kings 2 is the user interface. There’s a lot of stuff on screen, and none of it is explained. When you open up the game for the first time, you have the option to play the Learning Scenario. This is optional, but don’t skip it. It is the only time the game will outright explain what a lot of the buttons do, and you’ll have a chance to see what it’s like to fight a war and gain new territory. It’s important to know how to do that stuff, because you’re going to be doing it a lot. I also found it helpful to keep the beginner’s guide from the Crusader Kings 2 fan wiki open, just so I had a checklist of things to try out as I began to explore the game.
Ostensibly the goal of Crusader Kings 2 is to grow your empire and gain more territory. When you’re just starting out, navigating the medieval politics can be pretty confusing and it’s easy to get discouraged. Instead of making it your ambition to be King of France, start smaller. Pick a random noble in a random country and see if you can pursue a random goal single-mindedly. Once I played with the objective of changing my succession to be matrilineal. My subjects and my children didn’t love this, so it started a long chain of assassination attempts and dastardly plots. The wider world and its politics didn’t matter as much, and I got more familiar with the systems of the game while I snuffed out my male heirs one by one.
In this game you have a court of subjects who have control over smaller parts of your domain. By clicking on their portraits, you can learn about how they feel about you, their ambitions, their relatives and their backgrounds. It’s a good idea to check on how your vassals feel about you periodically. It can also be really fun, as you’ll learn things about these characters you might otherwise miss. Which one of your cousins harbors a secret grudge against you? Who hates you now that you changed succession to Elective Gavelkind? Who in your kingdom is inbred? Knowing more about these characters’ dispositions makes it easier to be invested in boosting them up or fucking them over.
The characters you play as will die pretty young, and a lot of them will die before doing anything substantial. Don’t worry about it—Crusader Kings 2 is about the long game. Some of my favorite games of Crusader Kings 2 only started getting interesting after the character I was initially playing died. Suddenly, there was a long chain of conspiracies and factions scrambling for power when my heir was still a child and more easily murdered. I’ll never forget when I had to imprison my heir’s own mother for trying to assassinate her son. This game is brutal.
Historical kings and queens making your eyes glaze over? Maybe you’d find the game easier to play if it was a post-apocalypse United States. Or maybe you’d prefer playing in Westeros. The Crusader Kings 2 modding community is vibrant, and adding a bit of fantasy can really open up the gameplay in this esoteric game. Hell, when I added a sexy mod with vampires and, inexplicably, Belle from Beauty and the Beast, I re-ignited my excitement for the game. If a total conversion mod isn’t for you, players have also added mods to make the game even more historically accurate, like this one that overhauls the Jewish characters in the game, adding Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur and sects like Chasidism. Crusader Kings 2 feels impenetrable at first, but it’s actually a wide open sandbox of fascinating gameplay experiences—go find one that’s fun for you.