This game. This flipping game. It’s a masterpiece, there’s no other way to describe it. It’s quite simply one of the best games I’ve ever played in my entire life.
“But why? How can this possibly be possible? It’s a game about maps, Fiyenyaa! I know you like maps, but this is just hyperbolic insanity.”
But ah, how you’re wrong, rhetorical-Fiyenyaa. Aside from the fact that actually maps are really entertaining and cool and fun in their own right without even needing some video game attatched to them, well, this game has so much to it. And here’s why;
Here we have a screenshot. My character is the Emperor of the Arabian Empire and the Caliph of Sunni Islam. I control the Middle East, North Africa and am making inroads into Spain. So naturally, Crusades ensue; here we see the Pope (the next Pope really needs to be called “Hilarius”) leading troops against me in Lisbon. This pope appears to be a bit of a rogue. Look at those little icons in his character profile; he’s a just and gregarious man, but he’s also quick to anger, envious and overly proud. Don’t worry though, I sent him packing.
That’s an interesting bit of geopolitics, but there are all kinds of stories that result in this. A muslim ruler is expected to have a certain amount of wives as befit his status (2 for a Sheikh, 3 for an Emir, 4 for a Sultan or higher). This naturally tends to result in a lot of children from several mothers (assuming of course that your character isn’t gay, or believes in chastity, or has some illness which resuts in lower fertility). This means that if one of your wives is particularly scheming, she may decide that killing your heir is a good course of action so her son can inherit instead of your son by another woman. Is she found out? Do you kill her, lock her up, or breath a sigh of relief because you were trying to kill your son because he was a useless layabout and your second son is a go-getting young lad any Sultan would be proud of.
Essentially, this game is a set of systems which tell procedural stories. The traits the characters have, the actions they take for themselves and for (or against) one another mean that every character has a unique and appropriate relationship with every other character. The framework of medieval feudalism means there are neccesarily complicated relationships and power-plays going on; it’s entirely possible to begin the game as an emperor and end as a lowly count (and indeed the other way round) – and the reason this works so well is because you don’t play as a state or a country; you play as a family.
Here in this screenshot we can see a very large Byzantine Empire (borders of which are lovingly put in by me with a big red marker pen) which has utterly fallen to bits due to the way the game works. This is a major civil war which ended with me (playing as the Emperor) as a Duke in Anatolia after having been master of an ever-growing chunk of the known world for the past 400 years. The previous Emperor ruled from the age of 17 til he died at the ripe old age of 83 – he lived so long his son died, and the Emperor’s crown was put on by his grandson. However, a new ruler means opportunities for ambitious men and women to make their move. They can scheme to become independent, to depose you in favour of another claimant to the throne, to reduce the power you wield within your own domain. It turned out that no-one really liked the Emperor’s grandson, and they wanted to put his much more capable daughter onto the throne. It also turned out that if the entire empire falls into revolt, I can’t really fight against it successfully. So I was knocked off the throne, destined to live out the rest of my days a vassal to my auntie. Then they revolted against her to reduce her power. Then she got invaded by the Hafizid Caliph and lost Jerusalem. Then she died. I’m not saying I’d have done better, but I hope those bloody nobles are happy. Especially the Despot of Jerusalem, who languishes now in the capital, landless and disgraced.
So yeah, this game is basically a historical story telling engine.
Oh, also a word about it’s DLC practices. This game is basically a textbook example of how to do it right. The DLC you can get are either cheap and cosmetic (and therefore completely-totaly-fully optional) or substantial and compatible. When I say compatible what I mean is when the big DLCs came out (and there have been a few; originally you could play only as Christian monarchs, there were DLCs for Islamic rulers (The Sword of Islam), trade republics (The Republic), Pagans (The Old Gods), and some extra flavour for the Byzantines and Orthodoxy in general (Legacy of Rome)) they patched the base game so they were not only compatible (for example, adding the extra lands put in with the Sword of Islam DLC), but actually included all the mechanics added by the DLC. The only major restriction is if you don’t got the DLC, you can’t play as the people who it’s about (other than the Byzantine one, where you can play ’em anyway, just without some of the events and mechanics being enabled). Means in multiplayer any mix of DLC is fine (although the multiplayer, at least for me, does require some third-party networking software and is liable ot de-sync very easily).
This game is a monsterous medieval masterpiece.