PC Game Review: Crusader Kings II: Sword of Islam
New writer James Tanaleon goes on a pilgrimage to the Middle East with Paradox Interactive's latest expansion for the Crusader Kings series.
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Murdered monarchs, invasions by North Men, horsemen hordes, dwarf regents, dynastic rivalries, decadence, wandering in the desert, and lots and lots of human reproduction: no, I'm not talking about this past season of Game of Thrones...
Crusader Kings II is a name that should be familiar to most aficionados of grand strategy. The sequel to the highly acclaimed game of the same name, Crusader Kings II offers the player a chance to play as a member of a Christian dynasty for the sake of advancing that family to power, wealth, and influence. The latest expansion being offered as DLC, Sword of Islam, expands on the original premise, and grants the player access to the vast and rich dynasties of the Muslim world between the 11th and 15th centuries.
In the original game, the player can choose to become anyone that has a landed title, whether it be a simple count or a robust (or overextended) Emperor. Though, it's not so much the realm that he manages as much as it is the myriad of vassals, courtiers, and—most importantly—the often unpredictable members of his own dynasty both at court and abroad. Assuming one is already well versed in the context of Crusader Kings II, what does this ten dollar DLC expansion offer to the player?
The Muslim Flavor
Perhaps the most immediate and arresting development of the expansion is the ability to finally play the ocean of Muslim characters available in the time frame of the game. One can play as the Ayyubid Caliph or attempt to work his way up the ranks as a sheik from a backwater province in the middle of the Arabian Peninsula.
Aside from opening up almost a third of the viewable map as playable, the new expansion features new artwork designed to exemplify the geometric aesthetic of the Islamic cultures of the time. They are complete with a rework of the interface and fine details, and new event artwork. The Gothic refinements that accentuate the experience of playing the Christian nations have been replaced by the, almost, calligraphic highlights of the Islam-themed interface. Even the council members have been “re-flavored” to let the player know that he's at home being Sultan or Emir, with proper titles and new character models.
Even playing as a Shia Muslim, I couldn't find a single Ja'far in my court to be Grand Vizier.
The various events and decisions that one is familiar with from playing the vanilla game also have their Islamic counterparts in Sword of Islam. One no longer buys indulgences or sets up great feasts. But rather the fast of Ramadan and the Pilgrimage to Mecca become centerpieces of flavor decisions. In many instances, these decisions also trigger a chain of events that gives the player the opportunity to affect their piety, purses, and personality.
My caliph decides to channel some Paragon Shepard.
The Decadent DLC
It is not merely a change in costume that these events and decisions contribute to, but an introduction of a whole new gameplay attribute: “Decadence”. Decadence is a new variable much like piety and prestige which affects certain calculations in the game, but do so on a dynastic level. The effect of higher decadence is lower troop morale and decreased tax production for anyone in that dynasty; representing the stagnation and backwardness of a family giving way to complacency and wealth. One need only look at various historical examples of caliphates and emirates that have fallen when more energetic dynasties supplant them while they're resting on their laurels.
Bismillah! He was just a poor boy from a poor family!
The purpose, it seems, behind this new mechanic is to better differentiate the contrast between the linear Christian dynasties with obsession to de jure titles, with that of the dynamism of the Muslim experience which historically offered more flux and flexibility concerning legitimacy, succession, and political bodies. However, because Decadence increases as a function of how many un-landed males in your dynasty you have laying about. It becomes an interesting whack a mole game of either providing them with newly conquered land or killing them off. Indeed, to keep your dynasty at the cutting edge it becomes a byzantine game of managing male population with realm size, which adds a unique new way of approaching the experience. This is almost never a major problem for the Christian counterparts as un-landed males only contribute to the mostly benign prestige hits.
This concentration on managing the family, as opposed to non-family, is similarly reflected in being able to imprison and execute anyone in your dynasty without negative opinion (though, not without risk of them resisting and revolting). All family members can be executed excluding your immediate sons, which is something I occasionally wished I could do on the Christian side of the game. Ironically, of course, it's usually your sons which will cause the most problems.
This new mechanism is also compounded by a rather interesting addition that was introduced for this DLC: depending on character rank, one can have multiple wives. I must admit that I was oddly curious about this when I first began playing the expansion. The two ring icon for arranging a marriage continued to stay on my character even after his first marriage, and so I had selected another lady to add to my family. I kept going until I had four!
It's good to be the Caliph... but it's expensive, too!
Of course, the rather large family that came from these unions was a great blessing to my dynasty and it was certainly fun to see a whole new experience, considering the monogamous monopoly before the expansion (unless you modded, of course). It's not just for curiosity or historical accuracy why this new dynamic was added to the experience. Jealousies and rivalries become apparent within the marriage bed(s) as well, especially when they start killing each. This adds to the immersion and rich quality of the gameplay, and increases one's overall experience as a Muslim despot.
Just don't tell Char and Amuro...
The rather interesting tradeoff in this expansion is that while multiple wives now provide a level of dynastic security with a plethora of progeny, it also means that sibling rivalries can tear the entire realm into civil war—especially since Muslim nations only get access to “Agnatic Open” (strongest male) succession. This naturally pisses off the eldest son and encourages the young lads to fight amongst themselves. With no ability to change succession laws and with whole litters vying for control, the Muslim experience in Sword of Islam is a lot more chaotic than the juristic Christian counterpart, and provides the player with a whole new layer of gameplay that wasn't present before. This is a new challenge which grows ever more difficult as the dynasty expands, which is a perfect “scaling” difficulty mechanic for this type of game. This is a welcome contrast to the Christian realm experience which can turn quickly into easy-mode when one has a sufficiently large and rich dynasty.
The decadent Shahanshah must have bought his sons' clothes from the JC Penny Fall Collection: Earth tones and beige!
A Load of Crap... Etc…
There are some different approaches as well, that Paradox Interactive undertook in this expansion. One welcomed change is the new method for executing plots and intrigue. Instead of rather bland percentage values for triggering an assassination event in your intrigue tab, one of your plotters will come up with an idea here and there; including my personal favorite, which involves a pile of manure being used as an explosive. Though, somehow I wonder how walking and sitting for dinner on top of a pile of manure, even if it is hidden under floorboards, doesn't immediately tip someone off that something is wrong. Regardless, I do enjoy the better immersion provided by this new development. It certainly adds to the enjoyment when you see your enemies blown up by a pile of feces.
I wonder what Lt. Colonel Kilgore would have to say about this.
There are other changes that add to the richness of the game, such as new military-based attributes (which are funny to see on women since they never lead armies anyway) that are rather specific. The Persian Shahanshah in my game, for example, is quite adept at flanking maneuvers. Naturally, there are a lot of personality additions for Muslim players which will not only enliven the experience of playing them, but will also provide more depth for your adversaries when you're playing the Christian side of the game. One can certainly test out these new attributes in the massive options available for warfare, especially now that there are new casus belli available for Muslim rulers. Paradox Interactive has said that they added new “battle tactics” to combat in the game, but I find it to be a rather paltry additive. Unless Paradox Interactive is willing to create a whole scenario where large battles can be fought out or planned, small text plots that tell me that a third of my troops are charging or flanking hardly seems necessary.
Overall, it's an excellent and much needed expansion. The Muslim world was so rich during this time period that it was a waste to not be able to truly play them until after the DLC release. For those individuals, however, who are not interested in playing the Muslim nations, it doesn't actually add anything new. Most of the flavor texts are the same ones that a Christian ruler would have, but placed in the proper and specific Muslim context. Thus, it doesn't offer anything ground breaking for someone who was satisfied with their Crusader Kings II experience already. Even the new attributes and intrigue changes can be seen as a minor patch rather than something worth ten dollars. However, with the strength and spirit of the sprawling and lively modding community at Paradox Interactive, and the great support the development team gives the modders (look at the sanctioning and publishing of Europa Universalis mods by Paradox Interactive, for example), it's a sure bet that Sword of Islam will be the staple; the stable base of any future mods. It is therefore a must have for anyone who wants to have a modded Crusader Kings II experience.
I understand many individuals say that Paradox Interactive has also become “decadent” lately with releasing games that don’t seem to be as ground breaking as their previous titles, or are too busy resting on the laurels of established titles. But they are still, in my opinion, a consistent source of satisfactory games and—for those who aren't fully satisfied—their games are often the foundations for some of the best modding I’ve seen on the grand strategy front. Sword of Islam is but another positive step forward for the publisher, and another must have for Paradox Interactive fans.
Review written by: James Tanaleon
About James Tanaleon
James Tanaleon grew up in the sunny suburban sprawl of Orange County, California and has had a long history of console and computer gaming thanks to his avid gaming father and his tech savvy friends. While receiving his education from both the University of California in Irvine and Franciscan University in Ohio—graduating with a Bachelor's Degree in Western and World Literature—he never lost his enjoyment for games. During this time he also cultivated his knowledge in music, history, religion, and international studies. He currently works in Orange County as lead writer for the startup game company Diecast Studios LLC and produces freelance writing on the side. James once served as editor-in-chief of Paradox Interactive Forum's monthly magazine The AARlander, and has written over a thousand pages of after action reports in his preferred genres of grand strategy and RPG.
Forum username: Aristocrat