Crusader Kings II: Way of Life

By James Tanaleon 30 Dec 2014 0

It's Christmastime and the elves at Paradox Development Studio have crafted a new toy for a King or Emperor to enjoy this Holiday Season. Released just a week ago was ?Way of Life? which is the latest expansion for their critically acclaimed title Crusader Kings II. ?Way of Life? is the much anticipated DLC that expands on the interpersonal and role playing aspects of the game. Priced at 7.99 USD, this tiny upgrade comes with a large amount of new events, diplomatic options, and side stories that is aimed at further enlivening the experience of steering the destiny of men and women through the Middle Ages. 

?Way of Life? is one of the most appropriate expansions yet released for Crusader Kings II. When one imagines what it is that makes the Crusader Kings franchise unique in the Paradox stable, it is the personal ecology that evolves from the interactions between the various characters in the game. Over the course of the centuries of game time, tens of thousands of men, women, and children of noble and low birth blaze a path of destiny throughout the game's span. Each of these individuals have dynamic and often evolving relationships and connections with each other ranging from the filial to contractual. Unlike its sister games of Europa Universalis IV, Victoria II, or Hearts of Iron III which plants the player as the kind of zeitgeist ethos of his or her nation-state, Crusader Kings II focuses on the dynasties and people that held the titles. It is a game that harkens back to a time when swearing fealty to a person was synonymous with swearing fealty to a national ideal. Personality rather than ideology ruled the era in which CKII is set. With this in mind, it is only natural that an upgrade to the system which governs these interactions would be released. 

Of the various innovations that this expansion brings in, one of the most important and exciting is the ?Focus? system. This system invariably replaces a lot of the ?ambition? dynamic that was present in the previous versions of the game. Instead of abstractly or randomly attempting to improve one's stats through ambitions, the player is given the ability to select a focus for his or her present character. Such foci include focus on family matters which not only gives a boost in fertility but also a boost in a character's diplomatic rating and health. Coupled with the ambition to have a son or daughter, this provides a powerful tool in increasing the efficiency of being able to produce heirs. Changes to the mechanics such as these make a great deal of sense. I had always found it rather distressing in the past that my monarch who faced the dissolution of his own kingdom because he would not produce an heir would not be actively and every day attempting to remedy the situation. This new mechanic finally addresses such interpersonal realities. In other words: characters now act with a bit more common sense. 

In all, there are ten foci to choose from: Rulership, Business, Seduction, Intrigue, Hunting, War, Carousing, Family, Scholarship, and Theology. At any time, the player can choose to focus on any one of these areas unless he is incapacitated, has not yet reached the age of maturity, or imprisoned. Certain options are also out of reach for individuals which it would not make sense (such as Seduction for a celibate or monk character). There is a small wait time in between choosing a focus, however, so that one does not simply change a focus at will although I found that this wait time is almost inconsequential and allows a person to dynamically change according to the situation on the map whenever it suited him or her. Each has a particular bonus associated with the choice as well. Aside from the bonuses I mentioned for the Family focus, for example, the War focus naturally gives three extra points in one's Martial rating, Theology gives two learning points and twenty church opinion points, and Rulership grants three stewardship. I especially found it funny that the Seduction option gives a character +10 to their sex appeal. 

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All of these foci give the player a sense of real agency to a character. More and more, the immersion into a character's internal motivations and dispositions becomes less and less mechanical or random as the game is being developed. This is an absolutely good thing. It reiterates Paradox's intention to create an immersive and story-driven strategy experience. Unlike most other strategy games which tend to shy away from customizable characters, CKII enters into it boldly. This expansion only deepens that gift to the player to take control of his or her selected prince or princess. There are many times when I had felt playing through CKII that I had come upon a character to control that I simply have to be the caretaker like some frustrated nanny watching helplessly as he fumbles about and ruins his own kingdom that I (his forefathers, basically) had spent centuries building. With the advent of these foci, it helps to steer a character towards the will of the player and to mold a character in the way the player hopes he or she will become. That's not to mention the rather great way in which these temporary boosts can help gameplay in general. For example, I find the Rulership focus excellent if I need to temporarily hold more demesnes than my current stewardship allows. 

These foci are merely the jumping point, however, for a greater set of events that are now triggered or available once a focus is set. For example, if one is educated in Intrigue but received a low rating (such as being merely a Flamboyant Schemer), choosing the Intrigue focus may trigger events that increase one's education rating higher. Having the Rulership focus can also trigger events that can reward a player with certain wonderful attributes such as being Just or Diligent. Aside from assigning traits, staying in one focus for a while also delivers events that will trigger modifiers that can increase one's ratings in the fields the chosen focus is in. Aside from changes to character traits and modifiers, lifestyle traits that were previously just random chance encounters predicated upon choosing an ambition are now independent event chains themselves when choosing a particular focus. Being a Gardener is now achieved if one is in the Business focus for long enough, for example. There are exciting new lifestyle traits as well that were added. Game Master, for example, represented by a chess knight's icon, gives +2 diplomacy, +1 Martial, and +20 opinion with other Game Masters.  Becoming a theologian gives +2 learning and +1 Intrigue. My personal favourite?considering I tend to have a rather large realm to control?is being a Socializer which gives +3 Diplomacy and +10 sex appeal. It's good to be King, right? 

The new focus system also changes the way in which certain decisions are triggered. For example, one can only go on pilgrimage if one currently has the Theology focus. Imagine my initial reaction when my tried and true ?go on pilgrimage? option was not available for most of the game until I came to realize that it was embedded in a particular focus. It is both a blessing and a curse. New players will have a fun time discovering what new and exciting ability is available as they try out different foci, but players who are veterans to the game will find that a lot of the options which they previously took for granted are now locked away and there is a bit of a new learning curve for individuals who might have been used to the old system. One cannot go on a grand hunt, for example, unless one has the Hunting focus activated. 

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Nonetheless, there are new decisions and options one can undertake in each of the foci. For example, I was rather excited to find that I could duel my rivals if I had the War focus enabled. I was able to bring chaos to the Byzantine Empire, for example, when my King defeated the Basileus. After I found out that he had accepted my challenge, there was a beautiful thrill in wondering whether or not I would win the duel or if my rival would prevail (I was no fool, of course, I made sure that I had an able bodied heir to take my place should I had fallen). What I also rather adored was that Paradox saw it fit to give choices even in the midst of scripted events. I could choose to let my rival go maimed or injured, for example, and gain prestige, but I could also choose to show no mercy and kill him but suffer a penalty to everyone's opinion of me as a merciless duelist. This level of attention to detail is an excellent way to build immersion for any gamer interested in feeling like he or she is truly ruling a medieval kingdom. 

Naturally one of the great things about this new DLC is that not only are these Foci firing their various events for the player's character, but also for everyone else. The entire ecology of the game is teeming with individuals going around seducing each other, dueling each other, improving their gardens, going on socializing romps, or impaling people right and left. Many of these event chains from others obviously can affect the present player?especially if one is the liege lord of individuals who are constantly spying on each other. I am often amused whenever I get reports from my various vassals?who have been spying on each other?of the scandalous sexual practices of their targets. Aside from the amusement, these actions also allowed me to decide whether or not to expose someone as a bastard, expose them as a slanderer and have them imprisoned, or other such mechanical choices that increase the intricacies of the game to a new level. 

Despite my enthusiasm about these new changes to the way in which traits are worked, I still do find a bit of disappointment in the Focus system. Perhaps it boils down to what I had come to expect from the update. Yes, it's true that we received a bevy of new events and event chains that lead one to better custom tailor their character, but I felt that it came about in a way that was more of a minor enhancement to an already present mechanic. The ambition mechanic used to fulfill most of these needs already and, in fact, still continue to do so for anyone who has not upgraded to this latest DLC. So then the question becomes of whether or not this new fancy focus system is not merely a redress of the ambition system. I often find myself without any valid ambitions, for example, since I complete most of them quickly enough and the Focus system merely becomes an overwrought ambition system. 

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To be fair, we do receive an increased reservoir of lifestyle choices and actions. In fact, it's safe to say that the number of lifestyles has doubled and the number of events relating to personality has probably tripled. However, I still feel like it's two steps forward and one step back since while giving twice as much content, it also limits the content that CKII is first packaged with. I had also wished to see a lot more narrative chain events that occur in the long term such as the beautiful event chains summoning the demon child or the event chains associated with the Hippodrome as Byzantine Emperor (or the pirates!). I was hoping for more adventures like those. Unfortunately, Paradox seemed to wish to focus on the more mechanical aspects of roleplaying and on events that boosted stats rather than drama. To that end, I'm not sure if it's entirely worth the eight dollars (I might have priced it better at five). Therefore, it's safe to say that while I am genuinely enthusiastic about this new expansion, but it was also a bit of a letdown. When Paradox announced it, many fans were expecting a major addition of focused storytelling and drama rather than stepping stones to getting more stats. I could easily be counted among those, but that probably won't stop me from enjoying this well-crafted expansion and probably won't stop me from recommending it to any fan of the genre or anyone looking for a unique experience that combines grand political strategy with centuries of roleplaying. 

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