5 Life Lessons I Learned From Playing Crusader Kings 2

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It’s common practice among detractors of the medium to malign videogames as mindless escapism. The claim that success in games has no real-world corollary is brought up not infrequently, the idea being that time spent playing a videogame is time that could be better spent doing literally anything else.

Whether or not you feel the argument holds water, the fact is that games can teach us many valuable life lessons. Despite a century of historical distance, Paradox Interactive’s monarch simulator Crusader Kings 2 has imparted many a wise word that can still be useful, even in this modern world of ours.

1. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should

In games, as in life, we’re constantly given opportunities to prove our worth and assert our success. Some might even say we’re biologically hardwired to demonstrate superiority. But temperance is just as important a virtue as strength.

Take for example the time I crowned myself king of Ireland. Eager to flex my monarchical muscles and bolstered by the false confidence of a numerical advantage, I decided to wage a war for conquest on a Spanish kingdom—after all, two crowns are better than one, right?

I won the war with ease, but the invasion turned out to be a major mistake. I spent the next 60 in-game years putting down civil wars from Spanish dukes who resented the rule of an Irish usurper. I was left with two choices: Either halt any progress to keep fighting a stream of civil wars, or abdicate my Spanish throne to pacify my curmudgeonly nobles and give up everything I’d won in the first place. Not an ideal situation.

2. A few close friends are better than a lot of acquaintances

Man is a gregarious creature by nature—it only makes sense that we want to expand our social circles as much as possible. But there’s a social theory, known as Dunbar’s Number, that speculates that there’s an upper limit to the number of meaningful social connections we’re capable of maintaining.

To put a medieval spin on this, I established an empire but made the mistake of letting my vassals rule relatively independently as counts rather than place more powerful dukes or even kings below me.

I thought I was so clever, but as it turns out, it’s nearly impossible to get anything done when you have to reach consensus among two dozen vassals, as opposed to only dealing directly with a small handful of middle-management types. Even the slightest law change required months of carefully crafted diplomacy, buttering up this count or that chief until I’d won enough support.

You can’t please everyone—and you shouldn’t try.

3. Get your own house in order

We all have big dreams. Become the president, join the NBA, land a job as dog groomer to the stars—whatever your passion, you were taught as a child to shoot for the moon.

But ungrounded ambition can be dangerous. The taller and loftier the tree, the stronger the roots have to be. Before you turn your attentions outward, make sure you’ve got your own affairs in order.

Take for instance the time I tried to expand my empire by snapping up counties and duchies at breakneck speed, not caring to manage relations with my own vassals or even upgrade the buildings in my capital. Instead of a vast, sprawling empire worthy of the history books, I found myself with a giant blob of land that I had only the most tenuous grasp on. Sure, I controlled most of northern Europe, but my realm was racked with instability and political unrest, and I transitioned from one civil war to the next.

My tree had very sickly roots, and eventually it got too tall to be able to support itself. To put a spin on the famous RuPaul neologism, if you can’t rule yourself, how in the hell are you gonna rule somebody else?

4. Learn some humility

Nobody likes feeling inadequate. Pride, and its inverse shame, have a strong influence on human action. Look at the road to World War I, at Menelaus and Helen, at that scene from War Games. In each case, pride was a primary influence, and in each case the results were disastrous; World War I wrecked Germany economically and destroyed Austria-Hungary, the Trojan War ravaged Menelaus and his kingdom, and that damn computer never did learn that the way to win is not to play.

I learned to put pride aside the hard way, when my ruler was challenged to a duel to the death by an ornery vassal. Despite that I had forged an empire, held three kingdoms and had more prestige than any other person in the world at the time, I felt compelled to answer the challenge—the prospect of losing even negligible prestige was untenable. Not to mention, my odds of winning were astronomical.

Well, whether due to karmic backlash or a weird quirk of the game’s random number generation, my ruler ended up losing the duel, despite the odds being overwhelmingly in his favor. My emperor was cut down in his prime, before he had a chance to properly unify his realm. His successor was left with a giant mess to clean up—a mess that occupied his entire reign—all because I felt the churlish need to prove myself.

5. Prepare for disappointment, then learn from it

As the old saying goes, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry—often for reasons completely out of your control. Being able to work toward achieving your dreams is important, but being able to recover and bounce back when everything inevitably blows up in your face is even more so.

This is a lesson I learned, as one always does in Crusader Kings 2, the hard way. My plan was, having conquered Scandinavia, to work my way over to Ireland in an attempt to “de-Christianize” Britain.

No sooner had I conquered one measly county in Ireland than the collective monarchs of Ireland, Scotland and the various kingdoms of England all simultaneously declared holy war in an effort to throw me out. Needless to say I ended up back home in Norway with nothing but some wasted time and an embarrassing defeat to show for it.

Unlike other civilization-building games, Crusader Kings 2 is a sandbox—there’s no win state players are chasing, they simply devise their own goals and set out to accomplish them as best they can. If your primary objective becomes unattainable, it may be a setback, but there’s nothing stopping you from refocusing your efforts on a new goal.

Life, too, is a sandbox. The world is filled with an infinite number of opportunities and setbacks, all swirling around in the quantum chaos that is our daily life. This is perhaps the most valuable lesson I’ve extracted from my time with the game—failure is okay. Inevitable, even. The important thing is that you pick up your crown, dust yourself off and live to rule another day.

Patrick Lindsey is a Boston-based game critic and occasional developer. He writes his bios in the third person because that’s what everyone else does. He reluctantly claims responsibility for what you will find on Twitter @HanFreakinSolo.

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