It’s certainly not their highest profile title, but Paradox’ Crusader Kings has certainly been a solid force in the Swedish publisher’s lineup. Crusader Kings II is still getting new content despite an original release date of 2012, and now it’s the first one of their franchises to get a board game adaptation. Thanks to a collaboration with Free League (Fria Ligan in Swedish), the physical version of the game is available right now – we couldn’t wait to get started with it.
First impressions for the game are excellent – familiar-looking artwork on the front of a rather heavy box, indicating that it’s packed with stuff. Inside are plenty of cards to play with and heavy cardboard tokens to push out while getting the game ready. There’s a detailed game map, brightly colored bags for players to use and a collection of nicely detailed figurines. They don’t require any assembly and come in different colors, but they’re monochromatic – so you’re playing with red, yellow, green and blue figurines in addition to the dark and light grey ones that complete the set.
As with the videogame, the Crusader Kings board game revolves around players striving for control over medieval Europe. Politics, religion, combat and interpersonal relationships all play a role, but the way the game unfolds isn’t exactly like it is in its digital counterpart. Where the videogame offers countless avenues towards success, the board game is somewhat simplified in that it is a more linear experience in which controlling a big territory on the map feels like it’s an essential part of your chances of success.
The simplified approach to Crusader Kings also means that you’re playing a more condensed version of the source material, in which a game’s length is more regulated than you might expect if you’re coming from a digital background. A game of Crusader Kings is divided up into eras, during which you pre-plan/program your actions and work towards an endgame – which so far has meant that several players will attempt high risk maneuvers in the final turns to try and cause a drastic shift in the power balance. Many of these have to do with succession, as having a king without an heir means you’re at risk of losing half your wealth (and thus the game) if your king gets taken out. Having an heir doesn’t safeguard you either, as others might aim for your entire bloodline in true Game of Thrones fashion.
The reason this tends to be a common tactic lies with the fact that controlling territories is such an integral part of the game and leave you with few other options to win. If you intend on conquering the map through a series of crusades, then you’re going to have a tough time if you ignore your home and territories. A large part of the scoring system depends on just that, and the parts that are tied to crusades and events have a good element of luck tied to them.
Strategic and tactical decision-making don’t feature as much in Crusader Kings as you’d expect, partly because ‘the unexpected’ (events you weren’t counting on and weren’t ready for) doesn’t happen often enough and the things that DO happen (like childbirth) aren’t always that impactful. While this certainly helps in keeping the game ‘on track’, it also means that the scheming and long term ambitions you might have don’t play as big a role as they do in the videogame. Smart decision-making happens more in the short term here, as you try to anticipate an opponent’s move while playing your (event) cards.
Luck of the draw helps control the flow of the game, but there’s another element to this which makes Crusader Kings a fun social experience. Get into character a bit, and you can really make the most of your game by teasing other players, joking around or suddenly going through an unexpected change in character – doing things no one was expecting.
I suppose that, at the end of the day, this is where Crusader Kings succeeds as a board game. It may not offer the strategic depth and diversity that the videogame has, but as a condensed social experience it still touches upon a lot of familiar Crusader Kings elements. This makes it familiar for veterans, yet accessible enough for newcomers – a chance to come together to destroy one another.