When compared to other grand strategy games, Crusader Kings has garnered quite the reputation for all of the crazy, idiosyncratic things that you can do. Does your mad king want to marry his horse? Sure, why not? Are you sick and tired of that troublesome son of yours? Why not just have him assassinated? Or perhaps you can marry off your son or daughter to help foster closer relations with a neighbour?
You can easily spend hundreds of hours playing it on PC, but for Free League’s board game adaptation, they’ve tried to squeeze it all down into something that can be played in a couple of hours. You’ve got just a few generations to play with, the map is a nicely condensed rendition of Europe, and most importantly, you’re playing with other people who are (hopefully) more than willing to engage in a little silliness.
“For us, Crusader Kings was the perfect game to go with,” said Free League Publishing’s Tomas Härenstam. “Free League’s background is in tabletop RPGs and CK has a strong role playing element, so that really makes sense and all the juicy stories that come out are what gets us going. The strategy is there as well, sure, but the stories and the family drama is really what makes CK stand out and it’s what we’re really excited about for the board game as well.”
Up to five players can take control of a dynasty here, starting with a king in need of a queen and a country that’s ripe for developing. Each character in the game has a trait drawn at random, which is then added to your little drawstring bag of hereditary traits that are passed down through the generations. That makes sense when it’s things like handsomeness or dwarfism, but it’s a case of nature versus nurture when alcoholism or stupidity is passed down.
The brilliance of this is that these traits help to create the stories within the game. For many actions you decide to take – you play cards that you picked from four categories at the start of a generation – you’ll be drawing tokens from your bag instead of rolling a die; draw a positive trait and you’ll succeed, a negative one and you’ll fail. Except you can then tell a little story of how you won or failed. If your ruler embarks on a crusade, and comes back covered in glory because of his handsomeness, then you can tell a whimsical story of how the heathens laid down their arms on the battlefield because of just how damn pretty he is.
Tomas said, “That [emergent storytelling/silliness] was really key to get going, and the family drama is really at the core of that. We get into the situation where it’s really important to manage your family tree, and to make the right person inherit the throne you sometimes need to resort to rather extreme measures. For example, you’ll be sending that imbecile son off to the crusades, and things like that. These kinds of situations do turn up in the board game in kind of the same way as the video game.”
Speaking of crusades, you have to send someone off on one once per generation. That can be an unfavored son, sent just to fulfil the obligation, but if you’re without a disposable heir, you’ll be forced to risk your king. Succeeding earns you an extra card at the start of the next generation, giving you greater possibilities with your hand, but it also adds a negative trait to your bag.
“There is chance in the game, and I think that fits CK,” Tomas explained. “The computer game is also a game where weird stuff happens to you, so we wanted to keep that. We moved away from dice because with the trait draw, where you put the tokens in the trait bag and randomly draw them, two things happen: when you draw a trait you will have that actual trait there to create a little bit of story, so if you succeed because you were strong or you were cruel that creates different stories, but mechanically you can change the trait bag and that means your “dice” will change depending on what you’ve done previously in the game. If you manage your dynasty well, you marry the right people and make sure the right heir inherits the throne, you’ll get more green positive tokens in your trait bag and that will increase your chances of success.”
The game balances itself in that fashion, giving the more powerful rulers a higher likelihood of having more negative tokens in their bag and failing their actions. You can spend some of your gold to get extra chances. Similarly, the other rulers can spend to reduce your chances. It’s just one way of messing with other players, alongside the side effect to each action card you play, whether that’s uniting enemies against you, giving other kingdoms the plague, or blessing another dynasty with a new child.
This board game is definitely going to be at its best when you play it with the right crowd. For me I can see the myriad opportunities to be silly, the times that I can poke fun and, somewhat inadvertently, screw myself over. There were the times where I was collecting taxes, forcing other players to have three, four, then five children. There’s the time where, without an heir, I sent my king off to the crusades and he died from being far too drunk, leaving my Queen as my new ruler. I then decided to ask my erstwhile opponents for one of their sons in marriage, who then promptly fathered a new son the next turn when someone decided to collect taxes in their lands. That player had previously paid me to assassinate one of their other sons.
One thing that does need changing is that when the side effect of an action affects other players, it currently rolls around to the next player in line. Early on it means that when players raise taxes on their first turn, the first player ends up with three sprogs all at once, but later it lessens the way that you can toy with others. We soon decided to do away with this rule, instead deciding to choose who we’d afflict with more kids, random bounties of gold, or whatever.
As great as it sounds, one minor hang up might be that this game was first put on Kickstarter – the campaign ends at 7PM BST today, if you’re interested, and has breezed through its stretch goals. It feels odd that with Paradox Interactive announcing this alongside a handful of other board games and with Free League Publishing having a few successes under their belt, that it should need to be crowdfunded.
“Free League is a tiny company,” Tomas explained, “and we’ve Kickstarted projects before, so it’s become the way we do things. Not all of the time, but for a lot of the games that we do we actually Kickstarted them. It’s been working really well for us and it’s a great way to build community, to get people on board, and of course, just to know how many boxes to print as well!
“We discussed this with Paradox and they thought it would be nice. Of course it’s a cooperation, but it’s our project and we’re not funded by Paradox financially, so it’s on us.”
Crusader Kings might feel like an unlikely game to jump from computer screen to tabletop, and yet there’s a certain brilliance to it. While the board game lays the foundations for you to play on, managing your kingdom and dynasty to greatness, it’s the social side of the game that is most appealing here. It’s complex enough to do the former, but light enough to let you play with friends for just a few hours.
“It’s not Monopoly or Ticket to Ride,” Tomas said. “It’s more complicated than that, but it’s also not a super hardcore board game that takes an entire weekend. We want it to be fairly accessible and playable, and I think it’s a way to give someone that CK experience without needing to understand the whole computer game. That’s something I felt when I worked with the computer game that I really loved, but it was hard to get people to experience because they heard it was a long way to get started. This is a way for me to give people a taste of that.”