Marcus Roberts is Deputy General Secretary of the Fabian Society.
Ah, Westminster. Where politics is practiced through unending committees, and the closest we get to a Chris Christie vengeance story is Jesse Norman’s removal from a non-binding policy board.
And so, even the most addicted political game players among us might be forgiven for sighing as we leave Strangers: “Is this all that the game offers? Is there nothing more?”
For me, that’s where Crusader Kings II came in. Because, put quite simply, CKII is a game of politics as it really should be practiced: non-metaphorical backstabbing, briefings that lead to actual beheadings, and, for the datageeks of politics, the reduction of all the strengths and weaknesses of the court to a series of plus or minus numbers.
Yes, truly this was the game for me.
But what is it?
CKII is nothing less than a medieval kingdom simulator for your computer. Choose your level of fiefdom (everything from Earl of a county to Holy Roman Emperor) and manage taxation, vassal relations, levies, bishoprics, faith and the pope, rebellions and succession. And that barely scratches the surface because CKII excels in detail, giving you a chance to immerse yourself in the kind of minutiae that true lovers of the great game of politics find joy in, yet which leave any sane civilian bored to tears.
An impressive asset of the game is how well everything connects. Character traits like “ambitious” or “zealous” not only boost and penalise your scores in different ways, but then adjust how others with complementary or clashing attributes deal with you. This in turn has knock on effects for actions such as raising money or troops from vassals. And when you click on those vassals you find that their attributes in turn effect their relations with others and so on. This is just a small example of the sheer depth of the game which may be off-putting to some but which, once you’re deep into it, is highly addictive.
But in order to enjoy it I recommend starting small and building up. And that’s what led me to play my first big game from the perspective of my home country. Jedburgh: capital of Britain
As a child of the Scottish Borders reared on Buchan’s Richard Hannay, I had dreamed of representing the borderland in the House. Alas, as I realised that Conservative or Liberal hegemenony was perpetual, I had to abandon this ambition. But CKII lets me live it out – and not just as a poor successor to Michael Ancram or Michael Moore, but as the fully fledged Earl of Teviotdale complete with courtiers and reavers to despoil the vile Sassanachs south of the family seat of Jedburgh.
As the Borderland grew to encompass Northumbria and all the rest of Caledonia, and Jedburgh became my Royal Capital, I realised just how much depth for acting out political vengeance fantasies the game possessed. Imagine the turn the nation might have taken had Gordon been able to practice his vengeance upon Tony in a virtual setting instead of via proxy war across cabinet ministries? Or if Vince Cable could rage against his petty vassal Baron Willetts in a simulation instead of a budget round?
All of which is to say that starting small can deliver just as much pleasure as ruling a great continental mass. The genius of the game is in its flexibility and its awesome all-levels environment.
The last joy of CKII is to be found in its plot. Here, for once, a computer game does not rob us of our imagination but rather gifts us greater scope to play. As the hours of gaming turn into days, your mind constructs ever more elaborate backstory explanations to the hints and whispers the game’s scripting suggests. That “tumble with the servant” may lead to a bastard son who may one day spike a civil war with his inheritance claim, or your “plot to kill the bishop” may see you excommunicated setting back your plans vis-a-vis the papacy by a generation or three. The scope is extraordinary.
And it doesn’t stop there. Because CKII goes out of its way to accommodate mods. First up on my downloads list is Game of Thrones. Tony and Gordon’s feud will seem petty indeed once I unleash my dragons on King’s Landing. Now, if only I can design a Miliband mod…