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Breed Is Good: What Crusader Kings 3 Taught Me About Human Nature
Eliza Clark , May 24th, 2022 08:34

The hours Eliza Clark lost manipulating intricate interactions between learned and inherited traits in Paradox's medieval grand strategy RPG are amply repaid in pope-seducing narratives, mad map-making and a new appreciation of why inbreeding is a bad thing

“Wow,” I say to my long-suffering partner, shoving my phone in his face. “Look at this. Isn’t this ABSOLUTELY INSANE?”

He looks back to me, completely puzzled. “What am I looking at exactly? This is just a map of Europe.”

I am deflated. How could he fail to understand that what he is, in fact, looking at is a hilarious map of Europe. The empire of Italia is in Scandinavia. The British Isles are currently divided randomly into four states: The Empire of Britannia, England, Crusader England and Brittany. There is no Holy Roman Empire, but there are 40 independent microstates cluttering central Europe, at least three of them named Bavaria. Someone formed Ireland in Romania, and Iceland is a Muslim Caliphate.

“Right,” he says, after I explain this. He is not laughing, because he has not boiled his brain on 300 hours of Crusader Kings.

Crusader Kings 3 is a medieval grand strategy role-playing game released in 2020. Paradox Interactive debuted the series in 2004 with Crusader Kings, releasing its first sequel in 2012. All three Crusader Kings games blend the military strategy gameplay of tabletop games like Risk with the financial and familial management of simulation games like SimCity or even The Sims proper. Role-playing is also a major element. The definition of role-playing games (or RPGs) is extremely broad and the genre encompasses wildly different titles. I’ll describe RPGs here as games in which the player occupies the role of a character they have been assigned or have constructed from scratch and makes gameplay decisions based on how they feel that character would behave. For instance, if I were to begin playing CK3 as an “Arrogant” character with the “Imbecile” trait, I may enjoy making very ill-advised, quixotic military decisions which lead to my total financial and dynastic ruin.

I began playing CK3 after diving into Frostpunk (2018) – a game that has the player build and manage a colony struggling to survive on a frozen Victorian-era Earth after a climate catastrophe leads to a severe drop in temperatures. It had been years since I’d played a game with that management/building element and I wanted something more intricate. Frostpunk is complex and punishing and comes with a number of set scenarios which are interesting to replay – as well as “endless” mode – but it was limiting in its scope.

It reminded me of Space Colony (2003) a real-time strategy game I played as a child which more or less advertised itself as “The Sims, but in space”. I was (and sort of still am) an obsessive player of The Sims, as is to be expected of any woman born after 1990. Originally disappointed and confused by the more strategic elements of Space Colony, my ten-year-old self soon caught on to the mechanics and found herself greatly enjoying the farming of “space turkeys” and mining of various ores while caring for the 20 or so employees of the Weyland-Yutani-esque Blackwater Industries.

The employees all had names, backstories and personalities – and because of this, the player was able to create their own little space opera of friendships, rivalries and romances in among the mining and farming of the colony. In Frostpunk I was missing the soap opera – the stories I’d enjoyed creating in games like The Sims and Space Colony.

Generally, I am all about the story and character-based gameplay. As an adult, I gravitated away from simulation games and toward RPGs. The Fallout series (particularly Fallout: New Vegas) was my first love, and I am, for better or worse, a massive BioWare fan. Though I initially stuck to more modern and mainstream combat-based RPGs, during the pandemic I dove into some more niche, top-down titles such as Disco Elysium, Pillars Of Eternity and Planescape: Torment. I don’t play a lot of games – or at least, I don’t play many different games. The games I do play, however, I tend to spend a humiliating amount of time on. I am somewhat mortified to report that I have clocked over 1,000 hours on titles like Fallout: New Vegas, Breath Of The Wild and Skyrim, and even the more structured, linear games I play (those with a fixed 30-50 hour play time) are sitting at several hundred hours from obsessive replaying.

It’s a bit of a mystery to me that I didn’t arrive at something like Crusader Kings sooner. I love a game that gives me the space to create and control my own stories. I love games that offer the player a great deal of choice and can be replayed over and over again without feeling tired because of those choices.

Plus, I also love the sweet combination of micromanagement and a fantastical setting – be that sci-fi, fantasy or historical. Crusader Kings ticks a lot of my gaming boxes, but it also appeals to the part of me that really, really enjoys the bits in A Song Of Ice And Fire (or Game Of Thrones) where characters sit around and organise things. As much as historical epics and fantasy media are about adventure and exploration, they’re also about admin. You know you’re in a robustly developed and researched world when you’re getting a lore dump about grain taxation. If the more grain-tax adjacent scenes in Wolf Hall or The Witcher are exciting to you, the power of video games enables you to enjoy that admin yourself.

The first time I sat down to play the game (having never played a grand strategy game before) I was expecting something… simpler than what I was met with. You boot up the game, and are urged to play the tutorial. How hard could it be? I wondered, as I began playing Petty King Murchad in 1066. How long will the tutorial last?

About 30 hours, six kings and one united medieval Ireland later, I still had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

CK3 drops the player into the seat of a noble house on a meticulously researched medieval planet Earth which ceases to be historically accurate the moment you hit "play". Beginning in either 867 or 1066, the player can choose to play as any ruler from Europe, the northern half of Africa or roughly as far east into Asia as Tibet. The game always ends in 1453 with the historical fall of Constantinople, marking the end of the medieval era. One can choose a real historical ruler (popular choices include any of the sons of Ragnarr Lothbrok, Harold Godwinson and William the Bastard/Conqueror) or create your own to drop into the seat of your choice.

Characters come loaded with (or can be assigned during creation) a number of traits divided into three categories. Personality traits (including Arrogant, Brave, Compassionate and Lustful) influence how the non-playing characters react to and think of your character (the Forgiving dislike the Vengeful, for example) and how much stress the player’s decision-making exerts on the player-character. Stress is an important mechanic: your character can become so stressed they start binge-eating or smoking hashish (medieval kings: they’re just like us). If they get too stressed, they drop dead. One death can start a “stress chain reaction” (the death of close relatives adds to stress) that wipes out a huge chunk of your dynasty.

Education traits are also important – your character may be educated in the Lifestyles of Diplomacy (negotiation and playing nicely with others), Martial (military tactics and being boring), Learning (acquiring a freakishly long lifespan), Stewardship (fuck bitches, get money), and Intrigue (fuck money, get bitches). These traits are rated by a point score generally placed somewhere between 0 and 20.

The traits players often find themselves most hung-up on – and which generally provide the biggest bonuses or penalties – are congenital traits. Levelled traits around Beauty, Intelligence and Robustness are key among them.

A character may be a Genius (with a +5 buff to all stats) or an Imbecile (a trait coming with a brutal -8). They may be Amazonian (giga-chad) or Feeble (gets sand kicked in their face at the beach, dies of "Being Sickly" aged five).

The traits that have the clearest physical effect on characters are those related to attractiveness. A character may inherit the traits Comely, Pretty or Beautiful – but they may also be afflicted with Homeliness, Ugliness or Hideousness. The attractive traits make small tweaks to your character’s base genetics – they get more symmetrical, rosier of cheek and lip and they don’t age as quickly. The ugly traits, however, take a sort of… chainsaw to the character’s DNA, adding terrible skin and appalling Monster-Factory-style facial features which may dog your dynasty for centuries, à la the Habsburgs and their infamous jaws. Once those character traits are nailed down you can choose to play as an emperor, a king, a duke or a count – and from there, you set your own intentions. When your current character dies, you play as your heir. If you have no viable heir, it’s game over.

Outside of the character-creation stage, you have limited control over which traits your dynasty members will have. However, you can acquire perks to increase your chances of getting certain positive traits: the pursuit of perfection leads to many players setting up full-blown eugenics programmes to tightly control inherited traits – often discarding heirs with bad congenital traits or stinky personalities. Often the latter kind take care of themselves – your Arrogant, Ambitious, Sadistic heir will usually end up doing something that requires their immediate imprisonment.

To control congenital traits, players will often engage in strategic inbreeding. Done well, you will have a dynasty of beautiful, beefy, geniuses. Done indiscriminately, your dynasty will find themselves battling congenital traits with negative health, education and social consequences. The trait generally considered to be the worst in this game is the dreaded Inbred, the granddaddy of negative traits, which carries massive penalties to fertility, attraction, health and -5 to all stats.

Many players may get caught up in trying to er… breed a master race, but CK3 has no set objective. The game comes with rules around world-state that the player can fiddle with (eg society will be male-dominated by default, but you can opt to remove or invert gender inequality) but these are more related to the game’s function than how it is played. There are no quests, but Paradox does provide players with a number of achievements to aim for.

Achievements range from the extremely easy (Until Death Do Us Part is awarded to players who get married) to the nightmarishly difficult (Mother Of Us All asks the player to start as countess Daurama Daura of Kano in 867, then to reform a pagan faith and convert all of Africa to it). The mechanics of the game are vast and complex and, with several hundred hours clocked, I still do not feel entirely confident that I know how to play it. The minutiae of the systems of warfare, stewardship and succession in the game remain anathema to me and probably always will. I simply do not have the attention span to intentionally learn how to play it properly and efficiently. I am genuinely quite happy to play CK3 as if I were playing Zoo Tycoon with a lot more incest.

Have I made CK3 sound a bit dry? Yes. Is it actually? Yes, honestly, kind of. You spend most of your in-game time pausing, speeding up, and clicking various menus while hovering over a partial world map. It’s dry, but it’s not boring. As you work toward a vague goal (for example: founding your own faith, dismantling the papacy or forming a specific empire), you’re also involved in the day-to-day management of your realm. You hire a council and set them on specific tasks: you can tax your realm or develop your culture. You can build and upgrade castles, city holdings and religious buildings. You can befriend (or seduce) foreign rulers, win over or murder your rivals; you can arrange marriages, begin affairs, or attempt to reform your stuffy old religion to add in a cool new tenet like human sacrifice or “carnal exaltation”.

You can also “paint the map” – the colloquial term for not really engaging in the game’s role-playing aspect but instead focusing on conquering as many territories as possible. This is generally discouraged – many players will extol the virtues of never becoming an independent ruler and playing out a low-stress game as a powerful, wealthy vassal with no designs on the throne.

It’s a lot of admin, grain taxes and menus but it’s satisfying. In the flow of the game, real-life hours can slip by alongside virtual decades as you role-play your character and work toward your desired goal.

Personally, I’m currently ruining Europe by having my Haesteinn-dynasty Vikings ruling most of Italy. My goal is to destroy Catholicism. Why? Largely revenge. In a previous game I conquered northern Europe with a pagan witch-cult of my own design. I spent hours grooming virtuous rulers in the Learning lifestyle in order to accrue enough piety points to reform my Norse faith. I added witchcraft and decriminalised adultery and polygamous marriage (but just for women: let’s go girls!), and set about the slow process of converting the old faith to the new. I conquered new lands, and formed an empire. I raised tens of beautiful, moderately inbred children; I developed and built up my lands.

Alas, I looked upon my mighty works and despaired as they were absolutely destroyed by the Catholics – I really just got the shit crusaded out of me sometime in the mid-1300s. Crusades are obviously a big part of Crusader Kings and I was doing a lot of human sacrifice, but I still took it very personally. I lost a huge chunk of my empire, I lost a lot of money defending my title, and there was absolutely nothing stopping those monotheistic, Mediterranean pricks from doing it again!

So, I began anew.

In my new playthrough, I will get the Pope before the Pope gets me. In order to do this, I need to control the entire region of Italy and make sure the Pope is unlanded. And unlanding the Pope is easy. Start in 867 and the Catholics are much easier to deal with. I unseated the Pope within ten years with the power of Jarl Haesteinn and a Varangian Adventure (which lets Vikings invade absolutely anywhere on the map, with no restrictions) – Rome is mine and so is most of Italy. Unfortunately, the Byzantine Empire is currently occupying Sicily and I am too scared to fight them.

Their army is much bigger than mine and I am currently playing in "Iron Man" mode (which means no save-scumming for me) so I suppose we’re just going to be in limbo there until I either grow a backbone or murder enough emperors to destabilise the largest empire on the map – I’ll report back in 30 hours or so. For now, I’m educating my children in the art of Intrigue and hoping they won’t try to murder and/or seduce me while there’s work to be done.

The way I play the game is pretty vanilla. The simple pleasure of administration is not enough for some players when depravity calls. I want to kill the Pope. Some ask: why kill the Pope when you could seduce the Pope? Some players have exterminated all of mankind with their horse dynasties or inbred so spectacularly their warped genes cannot survive outside their immediate bloodline.

You could also create total gender equality or decriminalise homosexuality but like, why do that when the pope is sooooo sexy, as are all of your immediate relatives with their gorgeous, gorgeous congenital traits?

And of course, it’s not just about what you can do, but about what the game’s artificial intelligence can and will inflict on you – or what it’ll get up to while you’re not looking. For example, you and your innocent baby-sacrificing cult may be minding your own business in a freshly conquered England that's about to get crusaded by 70,000 very selfish virtual Catholics. Or you might find out your mother is shagging your son and needs you to cover for her. Your spymaster may have to alert you to the fact you’ve been cucked and your precious male heir isn’t yours – you might get cancer or the plague, or get murdered.

Crusader Kings 3 creates a unique experience for players: on the one hand, it is an inaccessible historical strategy game which requires an hours-long tutorial for new players to even have a hope of understanding; on the other, it’s a simulation game with the potential to be so crude and absurd it makes Grand Theft Auto look like What Remains of Edith Finch. The duality of man is the duality of Crusader Kings: you are intellectual, impenetrable, and cultured; you are also a stupid horny monkey. You may build your kingdom, develop your culture and steward your lands to wealth and prosperity, and you may also make sweet, sweet love to the Pope. Then murder him.

Eliza Clark is the author of Boy Parts, a novel of class, art, sex and power; a kind of Geordie Psycho for the 2020s. To buy it from Influx Press go here