Nov 30, 2015

More obsessions: Crusader Kings II

This is a very long post. My final verdict on the game is in the very last section if you're interested.

Earlier this year, I had vague notions of getting something productive done this fall. As it turned out, my three-year studying binge that culminated in writing my master's thesis over the summer left me feeling a bit tired. Add to that the wrecking of the Finnish university system and with it my professional future, and I might go so far as to say that I was a bit depressed. The final blow to any notions of getting anything done was delivered by my brother, who gifted me a copy of Crusader Kings II on Steam.

I'd gotten my hands on Paradox's Europa Universalis back in the day. Based on a board game that sounds completely insane, Europa Universalis was a grand strategy game set in early modern Europe that was almost really good, but in the end too soulless to be really rewarding. I played it a bunch, though, but always kind of hoping that it would turn out to be a better game than it actually was.

Crusader Kings II is a direct descendant of Europa Universalis in two ways. The basic approach is strongly similar, so if you've played a Europa Universalis game, you have some notion how CKII works as well. This is a good thing, because the other way it's exactly like the EU games is in how completely hostile the presentation is. There's a tutorial of sorts that doesn't really explain much at all, and the manual only really tells you where to find which button. What they actually do is another thing entirely, let alone how the whole thing works. Hell, even the Wikipedia article on the game is a hopelessly confusing wall of text. To make any sense of what's going on, you need to consult the wiki a lot, and resign yourself to just flat out losing on your first several attempts as you try to figure out what the hell's going on and why.


I set out to do just that. There's a fairly good beginners' guide on the wiki, and one of the easier starts it recommends is 1066, the earliest you can start without DLCs, in Ireland. Mind you, not easy in the sense that it's easy to beat the game, but rather that it's easier to get a grasp of the mechanics of the game when starting out small. The original Europa Universalis had a sort of alternate history freeform scenario, where I particularly enjoyed playing as Éire, and there's an entertaining Let's Play as well, so I decided to try to get a hang of the game on the emerald isle:

That's the basic game interface, in the default terrain view mode, which is kind of useless. Here's a more legible map:

I'm sorry the pictures are so small, but this is the best I can do with Blogger. In the map above you can see the basic building blocks of the game: the counties and duchies. There are thirteen counties in Ireland, grouped into five duchies. The thicker borders delineate duchies; at the time that screenshot was taken, the duchy border between Mide and Connacht isn't shown because both counties are part of the royal demesne.

And this is me, at the moment:

That's King Abbán II of Éire, his wife and eight children. Unlike most grand strategy games where you play as something fairly abstract like a country, in Crusader Kings II you control a dynasty of characters, one ruler at a time. When the character you're controlling dies, you switch over to their heir. If there isn't one, you lose the game.

Here's the character I started out as, then Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn. The blazon in the top right corner is the symbol of his dynasty, the Ua Cheinnselaig.

Earl Murchad fought his way to Duke of Laigin and petty king of Mide, and amply deserved his sobriquet by living to an astonishing age of eighty. One of his many founding acts was to establish the barony of Clondalkin in the earldom of Dubhlinn for the use of his designated heir. When children grow up, they start getting uppity if they haven't either been granted a title of their own or married to someone who has one. Each county has a number of holdings, usually a castle, a town and a temple; generally whoever holds the main castle of the county is also count, called earl in the British isles. My solution to the inheritance problem was to give Murchad's heir his own barony in the capital county: until he acceded to the throne, he could be Baron of Clondalkin, and on his accession the barony could be handed on to the next heir.

This was a brilliant idea in theory, but in practice, Murchad outlived his son and heir Domnall, who died of depression at the age of 55, still Baron Clondalkin.

Other people had trouble with Murchad's succession as well. His brother Énna was caught plotting the murder of Domnall, and thrown into the oubliette where he died.

While Domnall may never have made it to the throne, his son Abbán would go on to become the first King of Ireland - but not before surviving a murder plot directed by his older sister.

Optimistically, King Abbán named his first son Domnall, and when he came of age, he was made the second Baron Domnall of Clondalkin. Domnall was a good kid and a capable soldier, but unfortunately he died fighting the Ua Briains, making his son Abbán the second king of Ireland.

But that's just the direct line of succession, though; in this game, you have a whole dynasty to run.


When I started the game in 1066 as Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn, my father Diarmait was still reigning as Earl of Laigin, immediately to the south. The dynasty basically consisted of him, his nephew Donnchad and his two sons, Murchad and Énna, with Murchad set to inherit Laigin. The dynasty tree view shows you the total prestige accumulated by the dynasty; there's no win condition in the game as such, but dynasty prestige is used to keep score.

Caírech was Murchad's half-sister, born to Diarmait's second wife after his death. Diarmait was, well, strongly motivated to do his dynastic duty:

We carried out a bit of feudal maneuvering with Caírech. For every title in the game, you can view a screen that shows you the potential claimants to it. This is tremendously important because just as in the Europa Univeralis games, you can't just suddenly decide to declare war on your fellow Christian lords; you have to have a casus belli. One of the most common ones is a dynastic claim, real or fabricated, on someone else's land.

Now, for instance, we can see that there's only one living claimant to the county of Dubhlinn, Ragnailt nic Gryfydd, whose claim is weak and won't be inherited unless the Duke of Slavonia declares war on us over it - possible, but highly unlikely!

As it happens, Ragnailt is Caírech's daughter. Back when Murchad was still Earl, there was only one claimant to the earldom of Dubhlinn outside our dynasty: one Gruffydd ap Cynan, grandson of the Duke of Powys, which meant he also had a claim on the duchy of Gwynedd. Not only was his claim on our earldom a potential threat, but a claim on Gwynedd might also come in handy in the future. Therefore, we married Caírech to him matrilineally, meaning that their children would become part of our dynasty, not his.

Caírech had two daughters, Lucia and Ragnailt. Ragnailt was married off to Ulfo Trpimirovic, son of Duke Stjepan the Dragon of Slavonia. She went on to have several children for his dynasty, including the current Countess and Mystikos of Cephalonia. Those circles below her children are the dynastic emblems of Trpimirovic. It's obviously risky for us to let claims to our holdings pass out of the family, but her claims are weak enough that they won't be inherited by her children, and Slavonia is far away.

Caírech's other daughter, Lucia, got the full feudal treatment. The first Baron Domnall of Clondalkin's second daughter, Flann, was married matrilineally to Ruah mac Ruaidrí, son of Duke Ruaidrí I of Connacht, a duchy we had designs on. Their son, Faílbe mac Ruah, was married to another member of our dynasty: Lucia nic Gryfydd. In general, intermarriage inside a dynasty can be a bit risky as it can result in hereditary complications, but in this case, they had a son who ended up as Duke Conállan the Just of Mumu.

Faílbe died young, so Lucia was married to the King of France to secure an alliance. Her sole living descendant from that marriage is the current Countess of Melgueil, of the house of Bourbon, no less.

So basically this little family story is the end result of two dynastic maneuvers, both to secure a claim to the earldom of Dubhlinn and grab potentially useful claims to Gwynedd and Connacht. We never did end up using the last two for anything, and the duchy of Connacht is now part of King Albán II's demesne through other means, but this story is the descent of not only several distant kinsmen in various European courts, but also the current Duke of Mumu, who as duke of three counties and spymaster of the realm is one of King Albán II's most powerful vassals. This is how the game creates stories.


As the son of Diarmait, Murchad's brother Énna obviously had a strong claim on the earldom of Laigin. As the player, you only ever control a single character in your dynasty and his immediate vassals. This meant that while I was only the Earl of Dubhlinn, had the earldom of Laigin passed to Énna, it would have been outside my control and Earl Énna of Laigin would have been another computer-controlled character in the game, albeit a very close member of my dynasty. There are various limits on how many counties you can rule directly: there's a hard limit based on the character's Stewardship value, beyond which it becomes inefficient to have too large a demesne, and also your vassals will be annoyed if you hog all the land to yourself. I'd decided early on to keep the duchy of Mide as my demesne, so once I became Duke of Mide and Laigin and could have earls as vassals, I handed the county of Laigin off to Énna. I figured that since he and his descendants are going to have the strongest claim to it anyway, why not just give it to him?

Énna passed the earldom on to his son Diarmait. As a wonderful detail, the frequency with which names are repeated down the family tree is different for each culture. The Irish sure seem to like repeating certain ones. Diarmait's son was called Donngal the Mad, because, well, he was:

Mad enough to ask me for the title to the Duchy of Laigin, which I gave him because I was King of Ireland by then. In general, your vassals won't like it if you directly control more than two duchies, and as I wasn't planning to keep Laigin for myself, I'd been meaning to hand it over to Énna's descendants anyhow. Donngal the Mad married his aunt, Énna's daughter Derbforgail, and lived to the ripe old age of 71, dying with a fantastic combination of traits that included Poet, Scholar, Charitable, Diligent, Humble, Chaste, Wroth, Deceitful, Cruel, Shy, Scarred, Brilliant Strategist, Inspiring Leader and of course, to the end, Lunatic. Rest in peace, you wonderful old man. His son Énna is the current Duke; his heir is Donngal mac Énna. Long may they rule.


Now we finally get to Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn himself: the first character I controlled in the game. Murchad inherited his father's enthusiasm for the dynasty; he had to be restrained from debauching his daughter-in-law at the age of seventy-one. Murchad had three children with his first wife Tailltiu, and after she passed away at the age of 50, a marriage was arranged with Cecilia de Normandie: the daughter of William the Conqueror, no less! I thought it would be a formal marriage for prestige reasons, but Murchad thought different and gave her four children. Here are his children by Tailltiu: the first Baron Domnall, the luckless conspirator Énna and Donnchad, who I made Earl of Osraige and whose descendants still hold the earldom under the Duke of Laigin. Donnchad's daughter Tailltiu was married to King Niklas the Lionheart of Sweden, and through her, both the current Duke of Västergötland and Chancellor of Sweden, as well as Prince Eskild of Sweden, are King Abbán II's kinsmen.

Énna mac Murchad, you'll recall, died in his brother's dungeons, but Murchad raised his son Fearchar personally, and he was married to Elisabeth, daughter of King Harald the Drunkard of Denmark. Their only child was Gormlaith nic Fearchar, who we gave in a diplomatic marriage to Duke Magnus the Cruel of Nidaros (sorry!). One of their children is the reigning King of Denmark, Svein the Unready. King Abbán II married his sister Sigrid, making Svein my brother-in-law. You can spot the various kings in the dynasty tree by the elaborate border around their portraits. Murchad's descendants also include, through Domnall's daughter Failenn, Duke William the Silent of Strathclyde, who has the slightly less elaborate border reserved for counts and dukes.

Next, there are Domnall mac Murchad's children. His oldest, Dub-Dil nic Domnall, was married to a pretender to the Isle of Man called Indulf. He eventually, with our help, became Duke Indulf the Usurper of Manaw, but unfortunately the heir Dub-Dil bore him, Finnbarr mac Indulf, died before his father. Indulf remarried, and his son, Duke Fergus the Cruel of Manaw, is of his father's Ivaring dynasty rather than ours. These things don't always pan out the way you'd hoped.

Abbán went on to become King Abbán I of Ireland. Flann, grandmother of Duke Conállan, was already mentioned, as was Failenn. Their sister Brigit was married to Kaiser Heinrich! Murchad mac Domnall was a curious case:

This Murchad was a bit dim, so we married him off to a princess of Poland; if the wife's title is superior to the husband's, he goes over to her court. Unfortunately, someone seems to have told him why he was being sent off, as he soon started plotting to murder Abbán. I wasn't going to let the idiot of the litter assassinate the heir to the throne, and as he refused to be reasonable about it, we had him killed.


So the male line continued through King Abbán I. At that point, plotting seemed to run in the family, as pretty much the first thing his eldest daughter Tuathflaith did when the next Domnall was born was to begin plotting his murder. We had her thrown in the oubliette, where she died. The decisively less murderous Máiread married the Duke of Norrland, and the current Duke is her grandson. Domnall's younger brother Erc is still alive; I built the castle of Ail Finn in Connachta to be his personal fief. Erc's been something of a magnet for resistance to King Abbán II, as several factions have formed to champion him for the throne. So far nothing's come of them, but to be honest, I think both the King and his heir will sleep easier when he's dead.

Abbán's youngest daughter, Dub-Lemna nic Abbán, was also at the center of an elaborate feudal maneuver. Meet one of the great characters of the Irish unification, Duchess Sinech the Usurper of Ulaidh:

Sinech was the sister of Earl Áed of Tir Chonaill, and came to our court to press her claim on the earldom. We agreed to help install her as Earl, as it made our lives easier by giving us a cheap casus belli against Tir Chonaill. To ensure her loyalty, a matrilineal marriage was concluded between Dub-Lemna nic Abbán and Sinech's son Conchobar. Sure enough, the ambitious Sinech became Earl of Tir Chonaill. Once all the earls of Ulaidh had become Abbán's vassals, she offered to buy the title of Duchess of Ulaidh from us, so we sold it to her. Unsurprisingly, she went out of her way to secure the duchy, and during Abbán II's minority, she was one of the foci of resistance to his rule until her death at the very respectable age of 72. Her son Conchobar proved a chip off the old block when he threw one of the counts of Ulaidh in prison and launched an all-out war to seize his vassals' properties. He would've won, too, had he not died in battle against Earl Abner of Tir Eoghain, leaving the duchy to Dub-Lemna's son Ruairdi, of our dynasty and much calmer. His brother is King Abbán's cousin Abbán mac Conchobar, and currently serves as the Marshal of Éire. So Sinech may be dead, but her legacy lives on, and her grandson is Duke of Ulaidh. I like to think she'd be happy.

I've already arranged for Abbán's second daughter to marry the Baron of Buckingham, but this all reminds me I really ought to find Sithmaith nic Abbán a husband as well. He's been a good marshal to me, and I'm building a new castle in Dyfed that I think he could have. You like to have competent vassals. The other marriage challenge I'm facing is the heir to the Earldom of Gwent, actually a relative of Sinech's. Áed mac Máel-Petair was a son of Sinech's nephew, Earl Máel-Petair of Tir Chonaill; he came over to my court when Sinech usurped his father's title. He was a competent military commander at a time when I didn't have too many of those around, and since he was instrumental in our conquest of South Wales, I had him married to my sister Lucia and made Earl of Gwent:

Áed and Lucia only had one daughter, for whom I struggled to find a husband, and so far they've only had one child, also a daughter. Since she's staying at my court, I should really find her a husband to make sure nothing silly happens with the succession to Gwynt. I don't want it to end up with Sinech's descendants in Ulaidh! Abbán mac Conchobar might be far enough from the succession that if he had a son, that might solve both the problems of Abbán's descent and Gwynt.


None of this is particularly important, though, compared to my main task: the succession of the kingdom. Here's my oldest son and current heir, the third Baron Domnall of Clondalkin. Yes, Abbán II also decided to call his first son Domnall, and I went ahead and gave him Clondalkin. Pay attention to the part that's titled "Siblings", though:

There are several game mechanics in play here. First of all, under primogeniture succession, I get a prestige penalty for all unlanded sons. One I could manage, but four would hurt. The sons themselves, of course, will also insist on getting land and titles for themselves: soon after they reach adulthood, they'll start pestering you about it, and if you refuse them, they'll start to dislike you and either begin plotting to change the succession laws or even murder the current heir, or leave for another court like Sinech and Indulf of Manaw did for mine. With a big and threatening England right next to us, I don't fancy seeing one of the princes of Éire hanging out at Westminster! At times, I'm seriously tempted to just plonk down the 10€ for the Sons of Abraham DLC that lets you send troublesome courtiers off to a monastery somewhere.

The flip side to all this trouble is that whatever size your realm, you need competent and reliable people to do things, and quite often your immediate family can be both of those things. Also, as I mentioned before, you simply can't administer each and every county in the kingdom by yourself, nor would you even want to. At the moment, I'm getting opinion penalties with my vassals because in addition to the duchies of Mide and Connacht that form my demesne, I'm also holding the duchy of Deheubarth in Wales, so I actually want to pass on some of my properties in short order. While your vassals are alwys going to be ambitious and fractitious, at least if they're from our dynasty, they'll be that much easier to deal with.

This is an aspect of the game that quite nicely showcases the need for constant expansion - if your rulers keep having children! I've had a game that ended in game over when my dynasty died out, so while finding inheritances for eight children can be a massive chore, there are worse situations to be in.

What I've tried to convey with all this is what a massive and complex job managing a dynasty is. Ideally, the end result to all these maneuvers is to leave the Kingdom of Ireland securely in the hands of the Ua Cheinnselaigh dynasty. A prince of the realm handed a distant barony won't be very happy, and especially in the early years of a young ruler he can be dangerous, but the hope us that in the long run, as his or her descendants are more distant from the crown, they'll be far more reliable vassals for us than members of a rival dynasty would be.

Of course, this doesn't always work out, as the sad tale of King Abbán II's only brother demonstrates.

Back when King Abbán II came to the throne, the unification of Ireland wasn't complete yet. After Sinech's usurpation, we had enough of Ireland under control to declare Abbán I King, but the petty kingdom of Mumu still held out in the south. Abbán II saw to them, defeating the petty king of Mumu in battle and annexing his realm. My plan at the time was to present the duchy of Mumu, as it became, to Abbán's only brother Ercáed. Conallán mac Faílbe had already been made Earl of Tuadhumhain, one of the counties of Mumu, but when Ercáed started pestering me for a landed title, I gave him Urmhumhain to hold as count. Predictably he soon started complaining about not having the duchy. I'd been meaning to look into the various remnants of the old ruling family of Mumu, but since Ercáed had the nerve to bug me about it, I thought "you know what, fine, it's your problem". And it was indeed.

Meet Countess Taileflaith the Usurper of Urmhumhain. Effectively Sinech's southern colleague, Taileflaith earned her title by declaring war on my brother, defeating his army and throwing him in prison while proclaiming herself Duchess of Mumu. And because it was a conflict inside one of my vassals' holdings, I couldn't help him out! Well, not directly. Soon enough, our spies found out that Taileflaith was fabricating a claim on the Kingdom of Ireland, and this was obviously going much too far. I had her thrown in prison and stripped of the duchy, and in prison she, too, died. The Ua Cheinnselaig dungeons have been the death of many a conspirator against the crown.

Having done this, I was all set to restore my brother's titles, but he'd apparently been banished by Taileflaith. Ercáed had made his way to the court of the King of Scotland, and despite a generous gift from me and an invitation to return, he wouldn't. At some point I think he even set up as the King's spymaster, until the Duke of Manaw had him murdered. Luckily, his claim to the kingdom died with him, but his story is a tragic example of how carefully laid dynastic plans go wrong. This is also how Conallán the Just got his duchy; he's much more popular with his vassals than Ercáed ever managed to be.


Here's what the strategic situation in the British Isles looks like right now. The Norwegians are still hanging onto the Orkneys, but other than them, the whole area is dominated by the kingdoms of Ireland, Scotland and England.

There is a de jure kingdom of Wales that consists of roughly present-day Wales, as well as Devon and Cornwall. Because all parts of it are being held by other kings, what happens is "de jure drift", meaning that parts of the kingdom become associated with different kingdoms. You can see it marked on the map below as colored hatching: Devon and Cornwall are drifting over to the Kingdom of England, the southern counties of Wales are being incorporated into my Kingdom of Éire, and the rest of Wales is becoming de jure Scottish.

So I'm basically stuck behind a unified Scotland and a powerful England: not a good place to be. There's always hope, of course; the Norwegians won their last territorial squabble with Sweden, which might hopefully empower them to take a hand in England or Scotland again soon, and we have a strong marriage alliance with Norway. The King of England is getting old, and there's always the possibility of at least a succession crisis, or if we're lucky, a full-blown civil war.

This is what the rest of the game world looks like. The north is still a bit of a patchwork, but Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Poland are consolidating themselves. The Holy Roman Empire is going strong.

To the south, France has almost ceased to exist between Brittany, Normandy, Aquitaine and the Holy Roman Empire. Normandy is an English fief, while bizarrely, Mortain is subject to the King of Scotland. Byzantium seems to be doing all right - is that Antioch they're hanging onto? - but the reconquista doesn't seem to be going great. There might be some opportunities in that direction.

To the east, the map extends as far as India, and Abyssinia in the south. None of them have any real practical bearing on my game, but they're there!

Actually playing as an Indian ruler would require a separate DLC, as does my future project:

The Old Gods DLC pack lets you play as a Pagan ruler and reform a pagan religion to be on par with Christianity, Islam and what have you. I'm slightly annoyed that they've called Finnish paganism "Suomenusko", as not only is suomenusko neopaganism that really has very little to do with any actual Finnish pre-Christian faiths or practices, but the name itself is completely anachronistic and would have been senseless to pre-Christian Finno-Ugric peoples. Despite this, I'm moderately excited for the possibility of starting a Finnish Pagan world conquest from Häme in the future.


In the more immediate future, King Abbán II is going on crusade. There was briefly a Kingdom of Jerusalem, for at least long enough that a predecessor of the current King of England managed to grab the title, but they got thrown back into the Mediterranean.

I have no interest in acquiring lands for the King of England; on the contrary! So why go on crusade? Largely because it gets all participants the Crusader trait:

Those bonuses, +25 to church opinion and +30 with all co-religionists who are also crusaders, are invaluable. King Abbán I was a crusader, and it definitely helped, both with diplomacy and collecting taxes from bishops. If I can get Abbán II, his heir and most of their important vassals to share the Crusader trait, it should make the handover to Domnall that much easier. So in other words, a third Baron Domnall of Clondalkin gets to try his luck as designated heir of the kingdom...

The various traits characters have are incredibly important; they make the difference between a random set of names and faces and a real character. King Abbán II, for instance, has been tremendously helped by the fact that he inherited the Quick trait from his parents.

Characters can inherit some traits, but mostly they're acquired. Upbringing is massively important here; a poor choice of guardian for a child will mean they get all kinds of negative traits, and their stats won't develop nearly as well as they could. Characters who are made guardians of children of the royal family also get a big opinion boost, so there's always a choice between handing out guardianships of your children as political tools or trying to choose what's best for the child.

Of King Abbán II's children, only Prince Fubthad inherited the Quick trait. I made Abbán see to Fubthad's education personally, as he did to his heir's, which has resulted in Fubthad having pretty good stats as well as a choice of positive traits. Princess Ben-Muman's guardian, on the other hand, has let her develop a bit of a temper:

Having a guy who's literally called Scandal might seem like a poor choice as guardian of royal children, but he's actually doing a good job with Prince Glaschu here!

The heritability of certain traits adds a twist to arranging marriages; especially in the early days of the dynasty, it may be worthwhile to seek out husbands or wives for your children who have positive hereditable traits. I did so this time around, and I think that it's paid off to an extent. Each marriage you contract is a balance between acquiring claims and alliances, controlling claims to your fiefs, avoiding characters with poor attributes and negative traits, and looking for characters with positive attributes and traits to contribute to the dynasty.


As I took the screenshots for this post, I couldn't stop myself from thinking ahead. I'm not terribly keen to take on a unified England, as they'd destroy us militarily and you can't really rely on allies for anything except not coming in on the other side - maybe. With both Scotland and England, a waiting game seems to be in order. So what other opportunities are there?

I couldn't help noticing this tiny county in Brittany, Broërec, which has somehow managed to become nominally independent:

Broërec is a de jure part of the Petty Kingdom of Breizh, which is coterminous with the Kingdom of Brittany. I think I forgot to explain this, but a petty kingdom is a name used for independent duchies in some parts of the world; Murchad became petty king of Mide when I founded the duchy of Mide and held it as an independent ruler. Some of the de jure titles exist from the start of the game, and some have to be created. Here it looks like the petty king of Breizh hasn't been bothered to fork over the dough to crown himself King of Brittany.

Looking at potential claimants to the throne of Breizh reveals several Scots princesses, apparently because at one point the King of Scotland married a Breton lady:

It also reveals one Branoc mab Guoethoiarn, a 16-year-old married courtier at Breizh who isn't a big fan of his liege and holds an inheritable claim to the petty kingdom.

Because he likes King Abbán II a bunch more than he likes the petty king of Breizh, he's willing to come over to our court if invited. It's only a weak claim, but inviting him over costs nothing, so why not?

The county of Broërec doesn't have any interesting potential claimants, but the count himself does happen to have a strong claim on another county in Breizh, Kernev, and would you look at that? His only heir is an unmarried daughter.

Hey Fubthad! I found you a job!

There's a number of ways this Breton gambit could go. Count Hedyn of Broërec could have a son, bypassing his daughter Iudhent for the inheritance. Even then, though, if Fubthad and Iudhent have any children, they'll belong to my dynasty and have at least a weak claim on Broërec that we may be able to use. Depending on how good Hedyn's spymaster is, we might also be able to do something about any sons he comes up with. Whether we have a use for either a potential claim on Broërec or Breizh depends a lot on how the succession in either one ends up going and a lot of other things, but on the whole it's not much trouble to go to for a shot at the Kingdom of Brittany.


As I write this, the game year is 1163, so all the above is what's happened in the first hundred years or so. The game goes on until 1453, so there's still a whole bunch more to survive to get to the end. On starting this game, my goal was to become King of Ireland, and I've now done that. The next goal, I think, will be to try to survive until 1453, if only for the achievement.

If you're willing to overlook the brutal presentation and considerable initial difficulty, this is an absolutely fantastic game. It strongly reminds me of Koei's excellent L'Empereur, a Romance of the Three Kingdoms spinoff where you played as Napoléon: another strategy game where you didn't just move anodyne tokens around on maps but rather commanded people. It's the focus on people, and the way that playing the game creates stories about people, that make it so immensely compelling.

In terms of "historical accuracy" or rather verisimilitude, the game does an excellent job of portraying the classical pyramid model of feudalism, so had such a system actually at some point existed as a coherent whole, this is very much how it might have worked. In that sense, I'd say it'd be accurate to call Crusader Kings II a highly succesful alternate history game.

On the downside, many of the mechanics, especially warfare, seem a little disappointingly simplistic, but it's really impossible to tell if this is because of the actual mechanics or their presentation. Battles seem to be decided almost purely mechanistically so that the larger army wins, and sieges are succesful if the attackers outnumber the defenders and can afford to wait, failures if not. So warfare is really just a matter of building up an army that's bigger than your opponent's and rolling them over.

Having said this, there's a bewildering array of detail seemingly dedicated to it, but because the actual mechanics are so completely opaque, it's almost impossible to understand what significance any of them have. If upgrading my castle from Militia Training Grounds I to Militia Training Grounds II costs 120 gold but gives me +50 light infantry and +50 archers, I don't actually understand what that means, let alone have any idea if that's a good investment or not. This kind of complexity doesn't really seem to add anything meaningful to the game at all. In terms of historical verisimilitude, the mathematical attrition logic of combat in the game has absolutely nothing in common with medieval warfare, so in addition to being generally unsatisfactory, it's also the game's biggest thematic disappointment by miles.

To return to the positives, in addition to the focus on unique characters with personalities, where the game really shines is in the decision-making situations it creates. All decisions you make, from arranging marriages and guardians for your children to going to war, are multidimensional; there are very few, if any, straightforward optimization situations. The best decision at any given time is what works best in that situation, rather than what maps out as optimal on a spreadsheet. There's a very immersive and properly complex in-game logic that you can use to make decisions and plot the future of your dynasty, and the world is dynamic and unpredictable to just the right extent, where you can plan ahead intelligently, but nothing will ever work out quite like you expected either.

On the whole, I want to give a very strong warning: this game will destroy your life. It's extremely immersive and terribly, terribly addictive.

Nov 23, 2015

LotR LCG: A solo interlude

One of the outstanding qualities of the Lord of the Rings living card game is how good solo play is. It adds a whole other dimension to the game and especially to deckbuilding: I normally play two-handed with a Tactics deck, but how the heck do I beat those enemies without Legolas, Boromir and the eagles? So in this post, I thought I'd talk about the solo gaming experience and how it's influenced my deckbuilding. I hope you'll forgive the utterly self-indulgent, thinking-out-loud nature of these posts; I was writing them as a form of therapy while slogging through the final stages of my master's thesis.


First, some bad news. Like I mentioned last time, I picked up Lost Realm on a lark, since I really like the setting and wanted something new to try out solo. The first quest, Intruders in Chetwood, is pretty straightforward: one quest stage, 30 progress, no engagement checks, raise your threat by one extra for each enemy in the staging area. So not only do you have to quest, you also have to either fight or manage your threat. Wait, did I say or? Silly me. You have to fight, because you can't win as long as any copies of Orc War Party are in play. As if that wasn't bad enough, over half the encounter cards have shadow effects, some of which are downright nasty, and many specifically punish chump blocking. Oh, and Orc War Party is immune to direct damage, so neither Descendant of Thorondor or Thalin can help us here, and can't have attachments, so no Forest Snare, either. You also can't really wait, either, because as soon as there are more enemies in the staging area, your threat will explode, and/or a horrible treachery will make them all attack you or something. The only thing you can do is straight up fight them, or if you can't, then I guess you can't beat this quest.

It's not just the Orc War Party, though: pretty much all the enemies are too much for my puny Spirit/Lore questing deck to handle. I took a couple of shots at this, but either my threat skyrocketed to 50 or my heroes died in combat. Two-handed attempts with my partner on Tactics didn't go one bit better. This game often walks the line between being highly challenging and maddeningly frustrating, and Intruders in Chetwood falls on the wrong side of that divide for me, so I gave up. There are some pretty good player cards - side quests are a great addition - but geez. Maybe we'll get back to Lost Realm one of these days, but for now, I'll just let it gather dust.

I strongly agree with the Dor Cuarthol blog:

That said, “Immune to Player Card Effects” is boring. It means that your only option is massed numbers, it means that all of the thought goes out of deck-tweaking, and you just need a Middle Earth version of Hulk Smash.

To me, this is true of all the restrictions on player card use, like no attachments or immune to player events or whatever. Sometimes they're thematically appropriate: you don't Forest Snare a Nazgûl, for instance, and the restrictions on the trolls in We Must Away worked brilliantly. I'm 100% in favor of restrictions on player card use if they make the gameplay experience more interesting. I'm absolutely against them if all they do is add a needless obstacle to using cards that you've paid money for, and stop you from thinking of clever ways to deal with enemies. To me, Orc War Party was an excellent example of the latter.

A large part of my disappointment is thematic. You've got the whole of Eriador to play with: Rangers, barrows, ruined kingdoms, the Witch-King, what have you, and what you came up with was "let's make them fight loads of orcs!" Brilliant. The other deluxe expansion we have is Khazad-dûm. So far, I've managed to beat the first quest solo, but I keep getting overrun by orcs in the second one. Given that it's Khazad-dûm, though, I don't really think I can complain: if I didn't want to be fighting orcs, why the hell did I buy a deluxe expansion set in Moria? I expected something a lot more interesting from Lost Realm, and it didn't deliver.


My first ever solo success with my current deck was, predictably, A Passage through Mirkwood. I've also managed to solo through Hunt for Gollum and Dead Marshes, but to be honest, these were all pretty easy (we're actually thinking about getting the nightmare decks). I feel that my first proper solo success was beating We Must Away and Over the Misty Mountains Grim, which I talked about earlier. It was while playing We Must Away that I first managed to lower my threat below 20, which gave me the idea of including Resourceful in my solo deck. I'm happy to report that the experiment was a success: in my second solo playthrough of Hills of Emyn Muil, I got my threat below 20 and managed to play Resourceful on Eleanor, who also had a Song of Wisdom at that point. To be fair, though, I blew through the quest so easily anyway that I can't really claim the extra resource made that much of a difference.

There's a decent post on Dor Cuarthol about solo play, which I pretty much agree with: the solo experience is different, at times much more difficult and frustrating, but also very satisfying. As I've said before, my feeling so far is that while multiplayer games obviously generate a lot more problems in staging, the fact that there are several players on hand to deal with them tends to more than make up for it, especially when players can tailor their decks to be more specialized than they could manage in solo. The solo experience tends to be much more random; even when something unexpectedly disastrous happens in multiplayer, the odds are that someone has something they can at least try, or at the very least some of the load can usually be shared. In solo, it's much more likely that there's simply nothing you can do.

The other major difference between solo play and multiplayer so far has been pace. Multiplayer games, at least with three or four players, rarely last a huge amount of turns in my experience; either you can deal with the deluge of encounter cards or you can't. At least for my deck, with a (comparatively, for non-Hobbit heroes) low starting threat and quite a bit of threat management, in many quests I can hang around for quite a while, getting all my allies and attachments and whatnot into play. In quests like We Must Away and Conflict at the Carrock, where hanging around is positively indicated, I can use the fantastic Henamarth Riversong to really manage my quest progress, and prepare properly for what's coming. By contrast, Henamarth's ability is dramatically less useful when there are three or four cards coming off the encounter deck every turn.

In my case, the biggest gameplay difference is definitely card draw. In a slower-paced solo game, I have several times drawn my entire deck with the help of Gléowine and Beravor. This was why I wanted to include Will of the West on my sideboard, and it's even made me contemplate ditching Gléowine from my solo deck. In multiplayer, not only are there less turns, but I also occasionally lend Beravor's and Gléowine's abilities to other, more draw-challenged decks, so far fewer cards pass through my hand.

The other key difference is that in solo play, secrecy becomes possible. Like I said, I've managed to get Resourceful in play already, and with some interesting encounter deck manipulation cards with secrecy in the Dwarrowdelf packs, I really might consider something along those lines for my solo deck. Out of the Wild is interesting, especially since Escape from Mount Gram but also on its own, and would combine nicely with Risk Some Light, while both that and Henamarth make Needful to Know a viable proposition.

As you can see, one of my problems is that I want my deck to be able to do everything and then some. But even if none of this secrecy/scrying stuff works out, it'll be good groundwork for a future Mirlonde/Rossiel Lore deck. A deck with Rossiel, Mirlonde and Beravor would have a starting threat of 23...


So, let's solo play! I started out by revisiting Passage through Mirkwood. Drew a good opening hand with Gandalf, Arwen, a Warden of Healing and Elrond's Counsel, meaning the Forest Spider wouldn't be coming at me just yet. Everyone except Eleanor quests, and Dol Guldur Orcs show up, doing two damage to Éowyn; they will be engaging us! Elrond's Counsel drops our threat and traveling to Old Forest Road readies Beravor; Eleanor defends the orcs easily with Arwen's bonus, and Beravor deals them two damage.

At this point, everything is more or less under control. On the second turn, I play the Warden and hang onto two Spirit resources. Éowyn and Arwen quest, revealing a King Spider, who exhausts the Warden of Healing. With an engagement cost of 20, the spider's coming for us as well, and at this point it's all we can do to defend both of them. Beravor defends the Dol Guldur Orcs, whose shadow card is... King Spider, which exhausts Eleanor. So now I'm taking the King Spider undefended. Its shadow card is Ungoliant's Spawn, which raises my threat by eight, and the attack does 3 damage to Beravor. The threat increase means I'm at 36 after this turn, so next turn the Forest Spider will be joining in as well.


Seriously though, this is why we play this game. Just like that, one of the easiest quests in the while game has left two of my heroes on the verge of death, and my party facing more enemies than we can defend.


In my opinion, there are two reasons to buy Over Hill and Under Hill: We Must Away is one of the best quests in the game, and you should never, ever leave home without OHaUH Gandalf. He will now save us.

Gandalf and Arwen quest, and we draw Mountains of Mirkwood. Gandalf, Eleanor and Beravor defend an enemy each, mercifully not taking any more damage, and Gandalf's questing left Éowyn free to use her massive attack of 1 to get rid of the Dol Guldur Orcs. Gandalf obviously sticks around, raising my threat uncomfortably high, but in two more turns there are no more spiders and we're happily making our way down Beorn's Path. Éowyn does manage to get Caught in a Web, vindicating my decision to bring along some Athelas, and soon enough we've made our way out of the woods.

Whew. That was a lot more nerve-racking than it should have been! I'm sure a nice, calming trip down the river will make everything better.


That's right, it's Anduin time. I feel like I've tried this quest solo a million times; only once did I get past the Hill Troll, and then I got swamped by the second stage. For a long time, beating Anduin solo looked damn near impossible. Hell, we couldn't even get anywhere three-handed at first. Now, though, having managed to scrape through Passage through Mirkwood by the skin of Gandalf's teeth, I'm giving it another shot.

None of my heroes can defend a Hill Troll even once without dying, so even if I'm going to use the time-honored tactic of Forest Snare, I need some help. Also, the troll's defence of 3 means it's going to take us a million years to get rid of him, snare or no, without Mirkwood Runner. Ideally, an opening hand would have a defence buff (Arwen or Protector of Lórien), Forest Snare and Mirkwood Runner.

Of these, all my opening hand has to offer is Arwen, but a copy of Elrond's Counsel means we'll have several turns to spend, hoping to catch at least Forest Snare. I probably should have gone for the mulligan, but I was tempted by the fact that I'd finally drawn a side quest, and didn't. It was my newest addition, too: Scout Ahead!

This is a brilliant card: not only does it let me see what's coming, I can get rid of an annoying enemy or treachery permanently. It's perfect here, since the Hill Troll means I'll end up stuck on the first stage of this quest longer than it would take me to muster up the progress to pass it anyway, so diverting some to a side quest is no loss. I played it straight away, along with Arwen, and got enough progress in on the first turn to clear it. The next cards in the encounter deck are Banks of the Anduin, Gladden Fields, Pursued by Shadow, Dol Guldur Beastmaster and Wargs. Guess which card I added to the victory display?

If you've ever played Journey Along the Anduin, I'll bet you did. Banks of the Anduin is a lovely location; Gladden Fields comes with victory points so I can't pick it anyway. Since I can set up Pursued by Shadow so that Eleanor can get rid of it without taking any chances, the choice came down to the Beastmaster and the Wargs. Even though two shadow cards can be trouble, his engagement threshold is 35, so I don't need to worry about him just yet. Honestly though, I didn't take too many seconds to think about this, because Wargs can be so incredibly annoying. And now there's only one of them left! This was a good start.

Knowing what was coming out of the encounter deck for at least the next three turns helped, and we not only cleared a couple of locations but also succeeded in drawing Forest Snare! It would hurt Beravor, but we were ready for the Troll.

Next turn, our questing cleared Banks of the Anduin, so we knew what shadow card the Troll would get, making this the perfect opportunity to engage it. Arwen's bonus raised Beravor's defence to 3, meaning she barely survived the Troll's attack. Next turn, we snared him! We started whittling away at the immobilized troll, fighting off some orcs as we did. Luckily, I got a Warden of Healing into play, as well as Henamarth and a Northern Tracker, essential for clearing locations away from the staging area. The attack of 2 helps quite a lot, too! A few turns more, and my Mirkwood Runner showed up, quickly finishing off the Troll.

For what it's worth, the second quest stage is actually much harder than the first. You reveal one extra encounter card in staging, and enemies don't make engagement checks, so you have to pull them out one by one. After our first staging, there were four enemies in the staging area: the Beastmaster, a Goblin Sniper, Wargs and some orcs. Enough threat was building up that it was Gandalf time again; we killed the orcs, got A Burning Brand on Beravor so she could defend the Beastmaster risk-free, and Gandalf and Elfhelm took him out. As soon as my Northern Tracker cleared out several locations, we waved goodbye to Gandalf; having him around had cost me a bunch of threat, but luck held and I drew both copies of The Galadhrim's Greeting, more than making up for it.

In fact, my threat was so low that when I hit the last quest stage and did the final staging of the quest, only the Wargs engaged me of their own accord! I had to engage both Eastern Crows in the staging area myself, and the damn Wargs took several attempts before they'd stay put. Only then could I finally engage the Goblin Sniper who'd kept my Warden of Healing permanently busy, and finish the quest.

That's right: I won! I still can't quite believe it. Again, Over Hill and Under Hill Gandalf popped by to act as a fourth hero for a couple of turns, and my threat-reducing cards certainly made life a lot easier. My latest additions were brilliant: the Warden of Healing made the Goblin Sniper little more than a nuisance, and Scout Ahead took a weight off my shoulders in the early going. I was lucky, too, drawing Marsh Adder, Chieftain Ufthak and the other Hill Troll as shadow cards. But still, before this it hadn't mattered one bit how lucky or unlucky I was as I'd always lost, and actually succeeding at a quest that I at one time thought would be impossible for this deck is a great feeling.


Since this troll-fighting thing seemed to suit my deck better than I'd anticipated, I also decided to take a shot at Conflict at the Carrock. To cut a long story short, I don't know how I could possibly do this solo thing without Henamarth. Knowing what's coming off the encounter deck almost feels like cheating! We had to tangle with a Hill Troll in the early going, but luckily Gandalf stopped by to deal him some direct damage, Protector of Lórien let me defend him and Gandalf's attack of 5 helped put him away expeditiously. The only real problem I had was that both of my copies of The Galadhrim's Greeting were stuck at the bottom of my deck, and since there was no way I was going to get those trolls in play before my threat was well under 34, we had to hang out on the first quest stage for quite a while.

Eventually I drew my entire damn deck, got my threat below 30, and off we went to fight the trolls! Since I had both copies of Forest Snare in my hand, I voluntarily engaged two of the monsters to snare them, leaving my Mirkwood Runners to whittle down their hit points. The next two we just fought straight up: with an attacking force of Beravor, Elfhelm, Haldir, a Northern Tracker, two Mirkwood Runners and both Éowyn and Henamarth or Eleanor chipping in, we can one-shot a Troll! Having done that twice, all that remained was finishing off the two snared trolls and we were done!

The best part of all this is that the only solo quest that I really got into any kind of trouble with was Passage through Mirkwood.


And as usual, my deck update. Despite my disappointment with Lost Realm, I did really like the idea of side quests, so I went and picked up The Wastes of Eriador when it came out, just so I could get a copy of the awesome Scout Ahead in my deck. It was also high time to upgrade my healing allies: although I quite like my Daughters of the Nimrodel, they have two major drawbacks: they can only heal heroes, and since they don't have the Healer trait, I can't attach Athelas to them. Both of these problems are easily fixed with The Long Dark from the Dwarrowdelf cycle, which includes three copies of Warden of Healing. I was also excited to include them for thematic reasons. I have one Rohan hero and several Rohan allies, one Dúnadan hero and several Dùnadan and related cards, and one Gondor hero - but no Gondor allies. Finally I can fix this!

Now that I've established my solo sideboard, i.e. the cards I swap in when playing solo, I can start making my deck a bit more specialized. Since my partner uses Legolas, preferably tricked out with one or more Blade of Gondolin, in quite a few quests we end up with no active location after the combat phase. I wanted to use Thror's Map to fix this, but the FAQ made that impossible by changing Thror's Map to a travel action. Boo! In my opinion, if this errata was prompted by players using Thror's Map to abuse Path of Need, surely that card could have been fixed instead. Another idea could have been to restrict Thror's Map to times when there is no active location.

One change I did make: I can't remember the last time I used Forest Snare in a multiplayer game. With Thalin a regular quester, I've been thinking about trying out Infighting to get rid of annoying Goblin Snipers and, Eru forbid, Hummerhorns, so maybe I'll make that swap and see how it goes.

The Amazons

52 cards: 26 Spirit, 21 Lore, 5 neutral; 3 heroes, 25 allies, 8 attachments, 14 events, 2 side quests


Allies: 25 (13/9/3)
Elfhelm (TDM) x2
Northern Tracker x2
Arwen Undómiel (TWitW) x2
Escort from Edoras (AJtR) x2
Westfold Horse-Breaker (THfG) x2
West Road Traveller (RtM) x3
Haldir of Lórien (AJtR)
Mirkwood Runner (RtM) x2
Gléowine x2
Warden of Healing (TLD) x3
Henamarth Riversong
Gandalf (Core)
Gandalf (OHaUH) x2

Attachments: 8 (1/6/1)
Unexpected Courage
A Burning Brand (CatC) x2
Athelas (TLR) x2
Protector of Lórien x2
Song of Wisdom (CatC)

Events: 14 (10/4)
The Galadhrim's Greeting x2
A Test of Will x2
Dwarven Tomb
Hasty Stroke x2
Elrond's Counsel (TWitW) x3
Infighting (AJtR) x2
Radagast's Cunning
Secret Paths

Side quests: 2 (1/1)
Scout Ahead (TWoE)
Gather Information (TLR)

Solo sideboard:
swap one Warden of Healing (TLD) for Resourceful (TWitW)
swap Gather Information (TLR) for Will of the West
swap Infighting (AJtR) x2 for Forest Snare x2


Next time, multiplayer mayhem in the mines of Moria!