Crusader Kings II: Horse Lords - A Review by James Tanaleon

By James Tanaleon 30 Jul 2015 0

Strategy gamers young and old understand full well the iconic vision of the Eastern Hordes galloping into fearsome battles across China, the Middle East, and Europe. No student of world history or warfare can ignore the devastating and immense accomplishments of one of the most feared fighting forces in the history of man: The Mongols. The very name brings forth images of massive armies of horse archers and the pillage and capture of cities from Beijing to Baghdad. Unstoppable in their progress, these fearsome steppe warriors make it into almost every incarnation of game that centers around the Middle Ages. 

How many of us who are veterans of strategy games remember the advent of the massive stacks of Mongol invaders appearing on the edges of our maps? How many of us who have played Medieval Total War have felt the rumble of horses every time this ocean of man and horse appears? It is to these masters of expansion that the latest expansion to Crusader Kings II aptly titled “Horse Lords” is centered around. 

As the name suggests, this latest expansion now allows the player to play a completely revamped Steppe experience. For one thing, a small area in central Asia is now unlocked for the player. It is here that one finds the nomadic tribes from Uighurs to Sogdians to Mongols that are the prototypes of the vast empires in the coming centuries. The spaces provided by this expansion are still relatively small compared to the large addition of the Indian subcontinent, but there is still enough room to maneuver amongst the provinces available. 



The most significant addition of this new expansion is the streamlining and highlighting of “government types.” Before this DLC, government types were simply determined by the various demesnes in each province. Provinces that had a city capital were minor republics while those with castles were Feudal. Now, government types are coded into people and nations and given their own mechanic of interaction. This formalization of the government types coincides with the introduction of the new “nomadic” form of government. Instead of just the “tribal” style of government in the previous expansions, this new “nomadic” type has unique qualities that were tailored for the Mongolian style of play. Perhaps the biggest difference is that whereas Feudal government types require castles or Republics require cities in order to avoid suffering a malus, Nomadic government types require empty plots of land. In other words, grazing areas for the nomadic populations to live. This is bolstered by the idea that provinces that you conquer as a Khagan can now be pillaged to the point of being razed to the ground. 

Already, this small step alone makes playing as any Nomad nation a radical departure from any other kind of nation in the game - and I think this is one of the biggest selling points of the new DLC. What Paradox has done here is achieve something which once again demonstrates how Crusader Kings II is a fundamentally dynamic title compared to anything else in their stable. It is easy to see how this is true when comparing what this new expansion does with what is present in their other flagship title Europa Universalis IV. While the expansions for Europa Universalis IV do radically change gameplay, they do so universally. Every nation in that game is affected uniformly by these changes. Take a DLC like “Horse Lords,” however, and what you get is a setup where playing a different group of factions represents an entirely different mode of gameplay. This is not a new thing for Crusader Kings II DLCs. “The Republic” was an expansion that introduced an entirely new way of playing CKII by allowing a player to be a merchant republic, but that DLC played more like a mini-game. The merchant republics just deal in accumulating money and protecting trade interests so it is by definition smaller in scope. “Horse Lords” however takes it on a whole new level. Now, entire empires are run through a playstyle that is certainly different from other factions. Here you have empires that prosper on the destruction of cities rather than the creation of them. Here you have empires that eschew vassal levies and instead have giant hordes of elite horsemen that are personally loyal to you. In other words, this DLC is truly another step in Paradox's commitment for an asymmetrical game experience. 



The wonderful thing is that although it's a different game experience, all of these new mechanics are set into slots in the user interface that correspond to what their closest mechanical counterpart is in the other factions. So, for example, instead of having an entirely new tab on where to build one's personal horde, it is all built into the military interface where the “retinues” would have been if one was playing one of the Christian nations. This makes the interface intuitive despite the new additions. It isn't just a one to one transfer either; there are certainly internal mechanics that make hordes drastically different from their western retinue counterparts. For one, one can purchase new horsemen with prestige rather than money (although money is, as usual, a universal currency and can be used to purchase horde divisions). This emphasis on prestige is yet another addition to the immersive atmosphere of playing a Khan as a nod towards Genghis Khan's famous meritocracy. Prestige is also an important factor in determining who is the successor to the Khan unlike the rather stuffy succession laws of Western aristocrats. 

Another interesting development of this new, “freer” form of gameplay is the liberation of the mercenaries. Mercenary bands are no longer hard coded in the game, but can be formed dynamically. One can even send family members to fight in mercenary bands which gain size the more money they earn. There is also a lot of prestige to be had for anyone joining and succeeding in a mercenary company. I have always praised the Crusader Kings II engine for its ability to create a truly dynamic emergent storytelling environment and this once again adds to that. This dynamic of freeing up characters from geographical locations as per the theme of nomadic gameplay is also extended to individuals who lose their landed titles. If one still controls a horde, they can attempt to reconquer territory from someone else with what horde they have left. This is similar to the way in which “adventurers” were introduced in previous expansions. 



Since the basic mechanic is to encourage empty holdings, one might wonder what becomes of vassals in the new Nomadic style. It's true that vassals are relatively fewer amongst the hordes. Usually these are reserved for client states which had been subjugated under the various and copious new sets of casus belli that is afforded the player. Instead, the Khan of Khans has to deal with the internal politics of various clans. The new clan mechanic represents the various great houses of the vast horde that have personal loyalty to the Khan. I say “great” houses because what the clans represent are not the total houses of the Horde, but the ones elevated to the status of owning pastures. Therefore, if a Khan does not distribute out land to any other clan, the clans in his horde will be particularly displeased seeing that their leader is hoarding all of the grazing land for himself. This, in turn, causes rebellions which can number in the tens of thousands of men. Managing the clans on one side and managing factions amongst vassals (clans included) on the other becomes a Sword of Damocles for our Great Khans and certainly represents the drawback of playing as a Nomadic conqueror. While it is almost too easy to crush non-Nomads in various wars due to the excellence of Mongolian Horsemen, maintaining and securing the vast Empire requires a firm and steady hand and plenty and plenty of hooves. 

Holding onto a large, stable empire, however, has many benefits. One of which is the introduction of the Silk Road into the game. This rather ingenious little addition can be seen in the Trade tab and consists of a string of provinces that link the off-map China with Europe. It isn't just one “road,” either as there are several paths these goods and services can take ranging from routing through Baghdad or going up through Russia. Provinces along the silk road enjoy added bonuses to their economy for each demesne there and is especially lucrative for cities. Trade nations can now build trading posts on these land provinces as opposed to only the coastal provinces of the previous expansion. Controlling provinces along the silk road is a surefire way of accumulating riches. 



The interesting mechanic with the Silk Road is that if there is open war happening along the route, everything “downstream” of that route is disabled. If the steppe hordes, for example, decide to raid provinces at the intake points near Tibet, all of the provinces leading up to Damascus will lose their precious bonuses. The traders will always try to route to any open paths (and there are several) but the economic impact will be felt by those awaiting for those caravans to arrive. As such, it provides another level that the player can actively see the impact of their decisions on the geography and life of the world. 

Naturally, it is a bit difficult to exact tribute from places that one razes if one is trying to be a ruthless steppe overlord; and it is not exactly such a good idea to keep plenty of vassals (unless one is planning on switching to being a Feudal Emperor), so a new type of vassal was also implemented which distinctly targets the needs of the Great Khan's purses. Tributaries can now be acquired through wars and these special type of vassals not only send money but also cannot refuse any call to war. In other words, Paradox has truly shaped a whole different kind of game for the sake of this expansion so that the Nomadic experience can finally be represented with mechanics tailored for their lifestyle. 

Of course one should not fail to mention that although this is an expansion which will run $15.00USD to purchase, there is still a lot of content given “for free” to players who may want to wait for a Steam sale. Interestingly, none of the Nomads are played by AI if one has not bought the expansion: the areas which were unlocked by the DLC remain as “wasteland” or impassable terrain for those without “Horse Lords.” The hordes will appear as a script once more. This is a stark departure from previous DLCs which allowed the AI to control the factions that were still locked to the player, but I am not so disturbed by this idea since it still maintains the ferocious fear of the oncoming Horde events later on in the game and provides that “late game boss” setting that most CKII players are keenly aware of. 



Nonetheless, the government changes will still be available to all players while another element that managed to make it into the software patch was the ability to build forts in provinces (built in a similar way as trade posts) in order to provide a temporary base of operations for on-the-field armies. This is certainly an inspired idea and helps to make the still rather primitive mode of fighting in Crusader Kings II a tad more realistic. 

At the end of the day, “Horse Lords” is another worthy example of Paradox's policy to slowly polish the game with new downloadable content. It should be clear to any fan of the franchise that Crusader Kings II is an unfinished game. But rather than cause for concern from a player, this should be a cause for excitement. It means that with such great quality from an “unfinished” product providing hours and hours of entertainment and storytelling, any fan of Crusader Kings II can look forward to more necessary and revolutionary leaps forward in game experience. In a very real sense, the game is evolving into something which has even transcended and surpassed the hopes and aspirations of fans of the original Crusader Kings and “Horse Lords” is yet another example of that upward trajectory.



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