Challenge Accepted: Does vanilla Crusader Kings 2 hold up today without any DLCs?

By T.J. Hafer 13 Apr 2018 0

Were you one of the fortunate people to pick up Crusader Kings 2 for free last week? You’re probably wondering what to do next: CK2’s reputation as a strategy game is matched only by the amount of DLC available - well over $250 worth, in fact, including cosmetic packs. There’s so much of it, we had to put together a guide on what to buy first.

But that begs the question: if you only pick up the base game, are you still going to have a good time? When it launched in 2012, CK2 landed a more than respectable Metacritic average of 82, and it’s had 19 major patches (and tons more minor patches) adding fixes, optimizations, new features, and quality-of-life changes in the six years since then. But can all this really make the vanilla experience feel balanced and complete in the absence of a whopping 17 major content expansions?

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To answer this, I set out to play roughly 100 years as the same starting character (and his descendants): Duke Guilhem of Toulouse, vassal to the King of France in 1066. It’s worth noting that some of the biggest things you’ll miss out on with no DLC are the 769 and 867 start dates (so no Charlemagne and no Viking Age), as well as most of the map. Only feudal rulers of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Miaphysite faiths are playable. That still leaves you with a ton of choices but locks out over half the current map as it exists today - including some interesting non-feudal starts, such as the Merchant Republics of Venice and Genoa.

Even over the course of the first three generations, there is a huge difference in the amount of stuff going on. With all the DLC, I was bombarded by almost too many pop-ups and intrigue options. Rarely did a year go by in which you weren’t asked to make some sort of decision or initiate some meaningful action. In vanilla CK2, there’s still a fair bit of passing time on speed 5 as you wait for things to happen; a claim to fabricate, an assassination plot to fire, or another character to simply die so you can inherit that land you want.

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I eventually came to the realization that much of CK2’s DLC serves to open doors to where you eventually want to be. For example, in both runs I endeavoured to focus on intrigue and wipe out all my competitors for the French throne through clandestine skulduggery. The Way of Life expansion makes it immensely easier to get started down this path, as selecting the intrigue character focus grants a +3 to Intrigue, which can turn an amateurish plotter into an aspiring web-weaver fairly quickly. It also opens up some random events that may allow you to slay your target without having to achieve the required amount of plot power. Overall, Way of Life was definitely the DLC I missed most in this test.

I also hadn’t realized how much I had come to rely on the new casus belli from the recent Jade Dragon expansion, which allow you to launch a border war for a single province (at the cost of significant piety), without having to wait for a claim to fabricate. The randomness of claim fabrication is still one of the most frustrating elements of CK2, and especially with the limited options for Catholics to fight against fellow Catholics, it can really feel like you’re relying on chance to even be able to expand at all.

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The next biggest feature missing from my life, especially playing as a vassal, were the new laws and council mechanics from the Conclave expansion. In my all-DLC run, I could work trade favours and undermine the authority of the king without ever slitting a throat or raising an army. Over time, it was possible to revoke his authority to decide just about anything unilaterally and eventually force him to adopt elective succession, opening the door for his dynasty to be deposed by anyone silver-tongued and well-connected enough to win over the realm’s most powerful nobles. And guess who that was? With no DLC, it certainly wasn’t me. My options were far more limited: The only way to force anything on the king was to start a faction, get some other big shots on my side, and fight a whole, big, costly civil war over it. Yay.

Most of the rest of what I found painfully lacking could be filed under either ‘visual niceties’ or ‘quality-of-life’. For example, with none of the portrait DLCs everyone in the world either looks like a pasty Frenchman or an Arab, regardless of who they were. I also missed the little extra bit of flavour that comes with seeing all the various culture-specific unit models and clothing options. Vanilla CK2 also forces you back into having to constantly micromanage your councillors, since their passive, off-map jobs are only unlocked with the Monks and Mystics expansion. That last one was something I didn’t even realize I’d gotten so used to and may lead to me re-evaluate how essential that particular expansion is.

But the $275 question remains: Is Crusaders Kings 2 a fun game without its DLC? Well, even for someone who has played at least 100 hours with each new DLC release, I have to conclude that it is, but only up to a point.

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You can still scheme against your rivals. You can still try to breed the perfect heir and arrange marriages that will unite kingdoms. You can still join in the glory of the crusade for Jerusalem and rally your fellow dukes to depose a wicked king. The core of CK2 remains solid, if lacking in frills and often leaving you with too-long periods of idleness in between anything exciting happening. There are also some notable free features - like secret religious societies - that have come out since launch and require no DLC whatsoever which makes vanilla CK2 a much better prospect today than it was back in 2012. The biggest caveat is how much you want to play as non-Christian, non-feudal rulers. If you got CK2 with the dream of ruling the Middle-East as Caliph, or to resist the crusaders for example, then vanilla CK2 offers nothing for you.

At the end of the day I can’t say I’d necessarily recommend playing CK2 without any DLC. If you can only afford a couple of expansions, it’s well worth the investment - especially in cases like Way of Life or Conclave. These add-ons take entire facets of the core game and flesh them out, expanding with new options, systems, and flavour (some better than others, admittedly). But if you did recently pick up the game for free, and really don’t want to commit to buying anything extra just yet, it’s not like you’ll have a terrible time. What makes Crusader Kings 2 special isn’t reliant to any of the bells and whistles that have been attached to it since launch.

Now all you need is a handy sales event for all the CK2 expan- oh wait.

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