I've long admired the strategy genre - even though it's a corner of the world of videogames which can be unnecessarily obtuse and bogged down in complex play mechanics. I've tried many over the years, and have run screaming from my keyboard on numerous occasions - usually because of real-time strategy titles, a genre I generally can't get into no matter how hard I try.
Turn-based games are different and I've poured many hours into titles such as Civilization, Disgaea, King's Bounty and Advance Wars on the GBA. I still get flustered, but learning the intricacies is all part of the fun.
A few weeks ago, I was listening to the Gamers With Jobs podcast, where they were chatting about Crusader Kings 2. They made this latest game from Paradox Interactive sound incredibly interesting and, inspired by their discussion, I decided to take the plunge and I'm glad I did, as this game is without question one of the best games I've played all year.
Crusader Kings 2 is a grand strategy game set across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The timeline kicks off in 1066 and plays out for a maximum of 400 years. Unlike other turn-based games I've played, there are no set end-game targets to hit. Instead, Crusader Kings 2 puts you in the silk slippers of either an Earl, a Count, a Duke or a King, and you are free to go about your business in any way you want.
The only real goal is to keep your bloodline going for the full 400 years - not easy - after which the player is given a score based on how well they performed throughout the centuries. It's how you get there which is the interesting part.
You could, for example, rule an entire kingdom with an iron fist, mustering huge armies and threatening to wage war across the map. You could be a brutal dictator and tax your subjects to the hilt and quell any rebellion with brute force. On the flip side, you can start off in a tiny independent county and concentrate on simply forging strong friendships with your neighbours or attempting to unite a country through diplomatic endeavors.
All the action takes place on one huge map - think of it like a giant board game - and as the years slip by, familiar lands will change name, while you can zoom in and watch wars and battles play out.
Although skirmishes and all-out wars are part of the game - even if you want no part in violence, trouble flares in other far off lands or, terrifyingly, on your own borders - the main themes of Crusader Kings 2 are many and varied.
Everything revolves around diplomacy, marriage, dynasty, heirs, subterfuge and rebellion, while each member of your court - vassals, wife, children etc - have traits which govern how they act towards your character and it's here where things get interesting.
Here's an example:
In my first game, my Count was married and had three sons. So far so good. However, the man under my charge turned out to be a lecherous old bugger and took a fancy to a 16-year-old girl from his court. He ended up in the sack with her and fell in love. His bastard child was born and although the Count's lover was delighted, his wife's opinion of me plummeted, which had an adverse reaction on my Count's stats. To make matters worse, I legitamised the child at court, which made my closest advisers and other family members distrust me.
While this was going on, I noticed my 13-year-old son had a couple of nasty traits which suggested there could be trouble further down the line. In this situation, a few options are available to boost his opinion of me - for example, I could have granted him a title which would slightly improve relations. However, just to be safe, I had him executed - a messy move which didn't end well and caused several of my court to flee to another county to escape my tyrannical rule.
In my second game, I chose a small corner of western Scotland. But while I was minding my own business, the Norwegian army were spotted tramping around the country. They were off to sort out the Earl of Atholl - why, I really don't know. But it was at this point things started to get interesting.
The Earl of Atholl didn't have a strong army and would have been overrun by the Norwegians. However, the Earl's brother was none other than King Malcolm III of Scotland, which meant any attack on Atholl would bring the King's armies into the fray and war declared on Norway.
I watched this drama unfold from the relative safety of the isles - although I knew if it all kicked off, the King would come calling, insisting I contributed most of my peasants and farmers to the war effort.
However, my Count had his own problems to deal with: He was married to a 39-year-old French woman who, after two years of marriage, had yet to produce a child. This is particularly bad, as if your character dies without an heir to the bloodline, it's game over.
But there were some upbeat happenings around my court while Norway ransacked small communities. My spymaster and mayor - who both disliked me intensely because of my slothful ways - popped their clogs. The spymaster died from syphilis, while my mayor had been in a coma for three months before finally deciding to shuffle his mortal coil. I was planning on murdering him but his untimely demise saved me the bother - so that raised a smile.
I've clearly waffled on for far too long here, but while Crusader Kings might not look like much, it is a fabulously engrossing and deep game. Some of the play mechanics are archaic and I had to trawl online for a few details which weren't properly explained in the rather flimsy tutorial. But, ultimately, it's a rather splendid game.
At the time of writing it's on sale via Steam and on Gamersgate. But even if you miss the sale, it's still well worth checking out if you are looking for a long-lasting and laid-back treat.