Family Ties and Bad UI: The Utter Inscrutability of Crusader Kings 2

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The first time I played Crusader Kings 2, I uninstalled it. Hours later, I installed it again, and played until four in the morning. The next day, I played until the sun came up. I am now in self imposed exile from Crusader Kings.

Me and my friend Max both decided to try and tackle this game together, and had the same experience. Utter confusion, frustration, absolute obsession. Just prior to me writing this, he texted me a video, set to “Started From the Bottom,” by Drake. Proof of his empire.

“It was a good idea to have Wales take over the world,” he said, his little nation spanning Europe, with colonies in Africa and Asia. “The names are all so crazy.”

The first time I played this game it made me want to tear my hair out. I couldn’t tell if anything was happening. I was so used to progress bars, pop ups to tell you that you’ve gained experience, slyly worded copy to give me hints about how to play. The most modern feature of Crusader Kings 2 is that it automatically saves every year, on January 1st.

In Crusader Kings 2, you can play as anyone that is alive in 1066 AD, with the implicit goal of having your dynasty conquer and rule Europe, parts of Africa and parts of Asia. I mean, the game doesn’t really give you any goals, or really any instruction. You don’t get achievements here. You could spend your entire game fast-forwarding and watching how the game calculates how history would turn out. At most what you’re doing is nudging a little here, fighting a little there.

Max said we should buy these guys a User Interface Designer, and to some degree I agree with him. In a word, the UI is awful. It’s just awful. Even the tutorial mission they give you is almost impossible. I almost didn’t finish it! How could I—everything is buried under menus, everything takes over three clicks to get to, everything is just impossible to find. Crusader Kings, at the end of the day, is a gloss that’s been thrown on a bunch of spreadsheets. I am throwing numbers at other numbers and hoping that equation will yield the results that I want. Maybe you can reduce every game that way, if you want to be a cynic. But Crusader Kings doesn’t hide it as artfully as even its closest cousins, like Civilization, which do a lot of the narrativization of your gameplay for you.

The second time I played Crusader Kings 2, I started off as a Baron in Ireland, sort of just plodding through, trying to understand why so many of my friends like this game. I got him married. I fast forwarded through time. I was exhausted, as I usually am in the evenings now, and almost slept through the pop up indicating that a plot had been discovered to murder my infant son by my brother. Well, imprison him, that’s fine. Fuck brothers, anyway. A few months later, another plot was uncovered that my other son from my previous wife was trying to murder me.

Oh no. That would not do.

Traversing the Crusader Kings UI feels like work. It takes time to understand the conditions in which your schemes can be met. It will not guide you. The buttons have inscrutable labels—when I asked for guidance on Twitter, people sent me multiple page length guides and expansive wikis on just how to start the game correctly. Sometimes you have to just hope that the numbers you threw at these other numbers will intuit what you want to happen. I’m still not ever sure if I’m doing things right. Sometimes, Crusader Kings feels the most like court intrigue, like spying, like interpersonal interactions of any other game I’ve played.

It’s the uncertainty. You can predict human behavior but you can’t really know how people will behave. It’s always a dice roll. Humans aren’t a series of numbers of course, but maybe Crusader Kings’ inscrutability helps disguise it’s calculations better than games that hand more information to their players.

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So, I threw my brother and my son in jail. I exiled my son and took his cash. Despite all this, he was still first in line to inherit my title. I bribed some of my vassals, I threw a fair. I made people like me. And then I changed the rules of succession. My son would have nothing, he would die a no one. Later, when I pursued a claim on an adjacent plot of land, he did, as a commander in my army.

The type of succession law I put in place was gavelkind, which allows certain noblemen to vote on a few nominated people to succeed. I nominated my cousin, whose stats were more or less what I wanted, and who would insure that I kept the lands I just fought for. He was outnumbered in votes in favor of my Chancellor, who had a much higher diplomacy stat, which is more or less the de facto stat on which the AI decides who to vote for. I clicked through to check him out, see what I was up against. My Chancellor, it turned out, was nearing 60 years old.

Had he been younger I would have had him assassinated. But I was only just past 40. I could just wait. And sure enough, a few years before I died, he croaked. In the scramble to reorganize, no one had enough time to nominate another successor. My cousin would become Baron.

“The game changes a lot when you become Emperor,” Max told me. I wouldn’t know. I missed a Skype call with my boyfriend one evening because I had been playing Crusader Kings, and realized that I didn’t have enough time in my life to play that game.

It’s been weeks since I’ve played and I still know where everyone is positioned on screen. I know what my next steps are. The new Baron became a Count and I realized then that I needed to make a plan to destabilize the surrounding counties and absorb them. I needed to become King of Ireland. But my military had been depleted from the last war I had gotten into, and the Queen of Muir was pressing a claim on my lands. I needed to act quickly. It would take me a lifetime of lost and gained lands to get in the position to knock everyone out. I needed to prepare my armies. I needed to fabricate some claims. I needed to be ready.

Crusader Kings is uncomfortably close to life in a way that I don’t see other games try to replicate. I’m not even sure if it’s intentional, but I lose track of time in that game because I think of the people in that game as people. I think of the children of my avatar as my real children. There are people in that world that I truly hate, and people in that world that I truly love. I feel hypnotized by it. It’s a discrete world that becomes real when I interact with it. A lot of the mythology of that world is within my own mind—but it’s such a populated, interconnected world that it’s hard not to create a mythology for it. I was so happy when half of Ireland was mine and then I zoomed out. I looked at how France had changed, looked at the kingdom of Spain, the Muslim Nations, Russia, the Netherlands. There is still a whole world for me to conquer. And this is why I had to stop playing.

Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t go out of its way to trigger a dopamine hit. You have to find it yourself. So when you do find it, when you do find the way into this game, the thing you were looking for, the narrative thread, the pleasure is that much greater. The game is just a mask for a giant spreadsheet outlining a complex system of predicted behavior, yes, but what my eyes see, what I’m interacting with, is a story that I am writing. It’s my own personal Game of Thrones. I’m both the author and the person it is acted upon.

Other games go so far out of their way to indicate that you’re winning that they become boring. It stops being fun to win when I know I’m close. Sometimes you just need one bite of a candy bar before you throw it away. Crusader Kings doesn’t tell you anything, doesn’t even really ask anything of you. Like the real world it is replicating, it just kicks you out the door. Fuck you, you figure it out. And you might fail, but you just keep going. And going. And going. And going.

Gita Jackson has dedicated her entire adult life to wading through the marginalia of popular culture and finding gold.

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