Crusader Kings II, at its launch, was a well-made and wildly entertaining game, thanks in particular to a clever blend of grand strategy and character-driven RPG. The release version was merely the set-up for the superior versions that followed, in which the mechanics were deeper and the entire game was more refined. The fact that Paradox would sometimes take enormous creative risks with its expansions was admirable. When those risks failed, as they sometimes did, I could forgive them, because the degree of difficulty was so high that it made other games seem somewhat amateurish by comparison. CK2 had plenty of issues, of course, particularly from Rajas of India onward. Too many expansions began to feel cluttered and disjointed, and Paradox had the tendency to add new time periods and locations before fixing the older ones, but the underlying mechanics were always solid.
The latest expansion for CK2, Conclave, demonstrates all of these well-established virtues and a few of the same flaws. On one hand, many of the same mistakes and problems from previous versions are present here, still carried along by sheer inertia and repetition; it also adds several new problems to the mix. On the other hand, Conclave is a more concise expansion that benefits a great deal from its concentrated focus. The limited setting and the high political stakes both work in the game’s favor, retaining the freedom of the grand strategy genre, while also providing a tight focus that places internal politics and personal interactions front and center. It is not a particularly action-packed expansion. While a lot of blood is still shed, Conclave’s most important confrontations are fought not on gruesome battlefields, but in close quarters as characters try to out-think and out-wit their enemies, in typical medieval fashion, with self-serving schemes, petty quarrels, and endless jockeying for titles and positions.
The most significant change in Conclave is the new council system. In previous versions of the game, councilors were mostly content to carry out the king’s dirty work and not interfere with politics, but in Conclave they have a much greater role in shaping the policies and overall direction of the realm, which, needless to say, creates a messy power struggle within the highest levels of government. What this means, in practical terms, is that, depending on which laws are active in your realm (ranging from a powerless council to a completely empowered council), ministers can choose to block the king’s diplomatic actions, such as war declarations or banishments. Each character has a unique stance, or personality trait, that dictates their voting behavior (for example, the pragmatist favors a policy of caution and restraint; they’re deeply skeptical of foreign policy adventures).
There’s a delicate balancing act between giving up just enough power to keep your vassals satisfied — lest a civil war ignites and consumes your entire realm — and not enough to be completely crippled by their demands. That means trying to balance all these groups of different people, with their huge array of competing interests and needs, each one contrary to the other. This is a game where emotions and personality conflicts struggle to control the playing field. Inexperienced players (and maybe even quite a few veteran players) can easily lose control of their realm if they’re not careful. Sometimes the game goes too far and the council feels a bit like a straightjacket, with less room to maneuver than ever before. For this reason, I suspect that most players will need a certain degree of familiarity and expertise with CK2 before they play Conclave. The wrong vote at the wrong time could stunt your kingdom’s growth or limit your ability to govern effectively.
The premise has a lot of potential and I appreciate that Paradox was willing to revisit a neglected and underutilized mechanic; but because CK2 is already so smart and fascinating, and because the council system complements, rather than merely expands on, the structures and mechanics I’m already familiar with, Conclave probably works better than it should. If I had to judge the features based solely on their own merits, they would feel underwhelming. The most glaring problem is that once you understand the nuances of the system and always grant just enough concessions to mollify the biggest power brokers in your realm, you can pretty much rely on your council’s continued loyalty for the rest of the game. Some of the most appealing aspects of CK2 — the political gamesmanship, the pragmatic deal-making, the violent betrayals, and the alliances forged with other characters to punish your mutual enemies — don’t occur in the council itself, which is a shame. I was hoping that the ministers might be smart enough to make secret agreements with other council members, or execute a particularly well-timed power grab to seize a little more control; anything that makes it a more daunting prospect to keep so many scheming advisers at bay.
And I think that’s related to the way the council is designed: the mechanic is much more punishing as long as you remain unwilling to compromise (which was my first instinct), but much more lenient and forgiving once you understand how to arrange the system to your benefit, so that the council is no longer a threat to your rule. In fact, Paradox added an usual twist to the system: once you’ve passed a law called war declaration committee, which grants the council the power to reject or approval all your decisions to declare war, your ministers can no longer join factions at all, as long as you don’t act like a tyrant in the meantime. This can be easily exploited by stocking your council with powerful vassals and cronies who can’t rebel, which is kind of unfortunate. It’s not a fool proof strategy, of course; the council could always reject your war declarations. But I was usually willing to make that strategic tradeoff and compromise in the short term in order to position myself to accomplish greater goals in the future.
Conclave also adds a new political “currency” called favors for those who really want to engage in a bit of coercion and arm-twisting. This mechanic essentially allows you to store up goodwill with other characters and then call those favors in at the right time (sort of taking its cue from The Godfather). Favors can be used to influence a crucial vote on the council or force someone to join your war. I’ve also occasionally seen advisers attempt to sway the council’s vote or turn loyal vassals against me with a single poisonous whisper. But I think they’re even more powerful in the hands of a particularly devious player. If the council is about to vote against your war proposals, for instance, you can sometimes (though not always) circumvent that decision by persuading an intransigent councilor to vote your way. It isn’t a substitute for a real political system, but I do like that favors can dramatically disrupt or change strategies on the fly.
While the council mechanic could still use a little more work, I did really enjoy Conclave’s other big feature: the reworked education system. A child’s education is no longer determined by the guardian, but instead, a new feature called childhood focus. Chosen at around the age of six, each focus is associated with a set of traits which the child will gradually accumulate over time (for instance, the humility focus will evolve into humble or shy, although which one is semi-random). Guardians have little influence on the process, although they can occasionally intervene to block certain undesirable traits. Despite the fact that childhood education is now mostly automated, I really liked the fact that my decisions seemed to have a greater impact on their development; the process was less random and arbitrary.
The third new feature is a revised diplomatic system. Royal marriages now create non-aggression pact between rulers, which is a good way to negate a potential threat. You can also force other rulers into accepting a royal marriage by using favors in a tactical manner. Nevertheless, despite the improved options, there is one grave defect that merits strong criticism: the new coalition system. The first problem with coalitions as a mechanic is that they shatter the illusion of historical realism that the game so carefully builds up. Even historical wars like William’s conquest of England now garner an instant, continent-spanning coalition. The second big problem is that there isn’t any real strategy for dealing with large coalitions other than waiting for them to dissolve naturally; non-aggression pacts can take care of some, but not all, faction members. The only saving grace is that AIs will not launch offensive coalition wars — it’s essentially a defensive pacts against a common enemy — but somehow it ends up being even less interesting than the EU4 coalition feature. It feels like Paradox went searching for a solution in search of a problem.
Although Conclave does require an unusual amount of hard work on the player’s part, as well as the patience of a saint, the expansion is still mostly worthwhile (many of the bad changes were in the free patch, so there’s no way to avoid them without reverting to a previous version). If the game’s flaws and issues are still undeniable, so are its considerable virtues, and it’s the virtues that will resonate over time. This is history rendered with enough intelligence and imagination to make up for its few blemishes.