The Crusader Kings board game pales in comparison to its source material27 Jun 2019 0
If one opens their box of Crusader Kings: The Board Game, developed by Free League Publishing in cooperation with Paradox Interactive, one might be surprised to find a coupon for 90% off Crusader Kings II. I thought it was shrewd considering how one could bet that over 90% of those who bought the game were already owners of the much beloved PC version.
And yet, how is Crusader Kings: The Board Game as a translation of the CKII experience? In short, it's like that moment where your awesome, genius demi-god of a monarch goes on to sire a dimwitted fool for an heir… but it’s something that warrants further explanation.
Playing Crusader Kings II is an amazing immersion into a world of choices, ambition, and interpersonal drama. One might think the board game would inherit plenty of these traits. After all, it's not impossible. Look at the tense conspiratorial drama of the classic Diplomacy or the exacting calculating action of Axis & Allies. Narrative driven gameplay has even been proven in tabletop classics like Battlestar Galactica or Arkham Horror.
So where exactly does the Crusader Kings tabletop version fail to deliver what its parent game promised? Let's focus on just four major areas.
Paradox's Signature Depth is Ignored
For a long time, if you were a Paradox title player, you could count yourself as the erudite 'elite' of the strategy scene. You weren't playing just any mainstream strategy game, you were playing a grand strategy game. This meant no fully rendered battles or abstract turns, but instead a complex and deep system of every aspect of a particular time period unfolding in actual time for centuries in-game.
Crusader Kings II is no exception. The intensely personal vassal system, focus on individual fealty, and de jure legalities made Crusader Kings II chess and every other strategy game focusing on the Middle Ages feel like checkers. Whereas Medieval: Total War would just have you right click on any province you wished to paint your colour, CKII practically offered a Bachelor's Degree in Medieval Politics.
Unfortunately, none of this historical granularity exists in Crusader Kings: The Board Game. One such glaring example is that there are no complex vassal systems. Germany, Spain, and Italy are treated as unified entities. There isn't even an Umayyad Caliphate to contend with! Crusader Kings II excelled as a marvel in its genre and time period specifically because it allowed you to have Ducal enclaves and messy, complex fiefdoms. It made managing the constituent parts of your realm an integral part of experiencing the uniqueness of the drama of the Middle Ages. In essence, this Tabletop game setup is more conducive for Europa Universalis since it was then that centralized nation-states started to become de rigueur.
CKII went out of its way to avoid the same mistakes other games have made in (mis)representing the realms of the Middle Ages as monolithic entities with centralized commands, standing armies, and neat provinces. Crusader Kings the tabletop game ignores this and oversimplifies.
“Game” vs Experience
One of the biggest meta-problems with the translation of the PC classic to the tabletop is that it has fallen victim to “balance”. The original PC game was never interested in 'balancing' factions, dynasties, or individuals. It thrived on the multiplicity of experiences one can inhabit that were as-true-to-history as the engine could handle. One can have it easy as the Holy Roman Emperor (if you call having to deal with all those vassals and the Pope “easy”) or challenge one's self with an Iberian county against the waves of Muslims from the south. It was the asymmetric world of the Middle Ages that enhanced the drama. It was the great story of a lowly emir or decaying Basileus that brought unity and civilization back to the world.
Even multiplayer experiences in CKII never worried about balancing things out between players. With sufficient numbers of players, it was the humans themselves that kept the more powerful nations in check. How often were larger, richer states hemmed in by the cooperative efforts of smaller realms? This is a facet of trusting the players to achieve a balance of power among themselves which is completely absent in the sterilized tabletop version. It's true that some of the best 'balance of power' games like Diplomacy start with a (mostly) equal beginning, but this was historically supported in how stalemates were a real phenomenon in the modern era. There is no historical excuse for the parity achieved between the various realms and starting positions for the Middle Ages.
The limitations seem to be rather arbitrary as well. Being able to conquer entire kingdoms wholesale rather than piecemeal through a legal claim was one of the defining features of Crusader Kings II which focused on the legality and morality of war rather than simply the practicality of it. Instead, one is limited to the conquest of a total of eight territories as if these nations are simply scratching at each other with no real decisive drama.
Characters are at the very core of Crusader Kings II. Weaving a story with each character and guiding their development from backwater counts to mighty Emperors is one joy of playing through the game. Traits, decisions, and character interactions form the backbone of the Character system of the game.
Unfortunately, very little of this has been translated to the tabletop. While it's true that you can still marry and murder individuals during your turns, the mechanics and consequences of these actions are relatively shallow. There are no complex plots involving the acquisition of support from other characters: it just requires “successes” to be drawn out of a bag. Literally.
Ironically, even this mechanic can be influenced by directly funding assassinations which the PC game actively seeks to discourage in favour of a plot system. Crusader Kings the tabletop game regresses to a previous version of “direct action” assassinations.
Traits—which are some of the most interesting parts of the PC game—are haphazardly done. You can literally get both “godless” and “pious” at the same time. You can have “cruel” and “kind” at the same time—something which the PC game specifically disallows. The PC game makes it a point of drama to have a character shift from one of these attributes to another and yet the tabletop game has no concept of cogent characterisation. If there is a mechanic to resolve this, it isn't found in the game manual.
The PC game made it a point of allowing the player to carefully groom and customize their character from generation to generation, but most new traits are acquired from a random draw of a bag and from “buying” more traits through gold transactions. How utterly antithetical to the narrative backbone of CKII which makes personality changes fluid, believable, or dramatic. Sure, the board game tries to do a strange inheritance system by dumping your previous ruler's traits into the bag, but this in itself continues to undermine the agency provided by the PC game to the player to forge their own dynasty as they see fit situationally rather than chaotically. In the place of destiny is the luck of the draw. This leads to our final focus for today.
Randomness vs Sandbox
Paradox made a shift from the intensely historical realities of Europa Universalis II and Victoria for the sandbox model of creating your own history with EUIII and Crusader Kings (I and II). To that end, a certain level of a-historicity is tolerated with events driving divergence in the timeline to rather interesting and fun effect. Yet, the board game does this with no real sense of narrative. The narrative is just as schizophrenic as its character mechanics.
As one case, action cards contain an event that follows, but there is no logical link between the two. Collecting taxes, for example, somehow can also cause your rival to conceive an heir? There is no careful guiding of destiny with the board game. There is a certain feeling of chaos and emptiness about the experience of the game that is not at all in the spirit of the PC game which leaves you in a vibrant world but gives you the tools to lead your characters to their destiny. One simply does not get the “scope” of CKII in the board game version. The destiny of Europe and your dynasty almost becomes irrelevant and window dressing for the paltry achievements.
As a good friend of mine who played it this past weekend said: It's basically a mediocre board game with a Crusader Kings reskin. I couldn't help but agree. That may not have been the intention, of course, but the mechanics do not at all line up with what the PC game experience is like and it's nigh unrecognizable from other reductive tabletop experiences. It would be one thing if it was rewarding—similar to how the Age of Empires III Board Game is very different from the PC parent but is still quite a fun worker placement game, but Crusader Kings is reductive to the point of parody. It's like trading in your Legos for Duplo Blocks.
It's no surprise that the impressive knight figurines in the game are not meant to be used for armies, but, actually as merely placeholders to show which provinces you own! This gilded yet hollow edifice is exactly the kind of plastic experience a CKII veteran may feel with this version of a beloved franchise.