Having more or less gotten the hang of Hearts of Iron III over a series of games in 2014, this month I returned to Crusader Kings II. Like all of the Paradox grand strategy games, it’s challenging to get into, with a complicated interface, brain-melting depth and vast scope both geographical and temporal. They demand patience and diligence and a willingness to roll with misfortune and play the long game. These are not so much my strong points.
I began the current game playing as Karl Karling, King of East Francia, in 769. This is the current earliest available start date, and Karl is, of course, the man known to history as Charlemagne and the subject of the titular expansion.
Big Chuck has it very easy in the early game. His brother Karloman, King of Middle Francia, will almost certainly die young, leaving that kingdom to Karl as well. I don’t know if this is scripted or not, but it’s happened in every game I’ve seen unless the player is playing Karloman himself. The two titles together are most of what one needs to found an empire, but to declare the Holy Roman Empire in particular you also need Papal approval and the throne of Lombardy, neither of which I managed to grab before Charlemagne’s well-ahead-of-schedule death in 795. But the Empire of Francia was founded, providing a top-tier title that cannot, in theory, be split by gavelkind succession.
His only legitimate son and heir, Otto (the bastard Pepin the Hunchback never having been legitimized,) found that theory translates very imperfectly into practice, as he was forced to put down a series of rebellions that threatened to break the newborn Empire into its constituent Kingdoms. At the same time the powerful Moors of Iberia declared a Holy War even as heathen Northmen began raiding the coasts of Francia in large numbers. Killed in battle against the Saracens at age 54, Otto lived only a year longer than his father, and left the Imperial crown to a six year old heir.
Thankfully young Charles II’s regency was capable enough to win the last wave of wars, and Charles eventually grew into a marginally competent leader. An able strategist but personally craven in battle, he set about on a series of wars to conquer the lands that had been lost in the wake of his grandfather’s death. But the great challenge, of keeping Charlemagne’s empire together after his death, has been met so far.
Now, in 839, Charles the Just is only 38 and looks forward to many years of rule — but his dynasty does not have a reputation for longevity, and he has been stricken by illness several times. He has reconquered much of what was lost but Bavaria, Pomerania and Denmark yet elude his grasp, and on his borders both Islam and nascent Sweden are in ascendance. Of partial Lombard heritage himself, he eyes their Kingdom in Italy jealously, but a major war at the wrong time could be disastrous.
So yeah, good times. I hope to finish this game this week, but at the current pace, with over 600 years before mandatory endgame, this doesn’t appear likely. I could, arbitrarily declare the game over at any point, but I’m unlikely to do that while Francia holds together. The next game, I’m thinking, with either be with the pagan Norse or the Byzantines, with whom I will attempt to re-establish the full glory of the Roman Empire. Or maybe I’ll play, for the first time, as a vassal count somewhere, maybe Lombardy. The cool thing is that all of these are just the tip of the Crusader Kings II iceberg; even after that there’s Republics to play, and Muslims, and Indian Rajas and Mongols and Zoroastrians…