Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods Review (PC)

Paradox expansions are difficult, from a content perspective. The ‘internal’ titles, now simply the Paradox Development Studios (PDS) titles, are some of the finest examples of grand-strategy you’ll ever see: deep meaningful systems, strong central themes that bring their chosen era to life and hours upon hours of game time... but they can be hard to write about sometimes. Prior to Crusader Kings II, an expansion for one of the internal titles would typically be a collection of some bigger tweaks and fixes (that couldn’t simply be patched away), and meaningful but not ‘game-changing’ expansion or alteration of some of the vanilla game’s core concepts. They almost always made the game that much more fun, and they’d almost always be impossible to write about - Mainly because there’d never be *enough* to talk about properly.

Thankfully, Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods doesn’t have this problem. It’s the fifth major expansion to be released for the game, and it’s the second expansion to add a completely new scenario (the first being the a-historical Sunset Invasions). Instead of providing a fictional scenario however, The Old Gods simply takes you back 200 years, to the time where Pagan conquest and power was probably at its best. The Lothbrok’s are starting to divide England between them, Denmark, Sweden and Norway don’t exist as political entities yet, and even Christian Europe is in a state of upheaval. The great Muslim dynasties are busy fighting the flourishing Byzantine Empire, Spain, even each other… and, if you look real closely, you’ll find a couple of merchant republics trying to turn a profit in a world filled with death.

Raiding is a quick and easy way to get cash and fame as norse pagans, but beware, the local lords may rise up to try and crush you

Like the name suggests, The Old Gods focuses on the ‘old’ or ‘pagan’ religions of Europe. You have the Norse gods from Scandinavia, the various Slavic and Finnic religions of Eastern Europe, Tengrism from the steppes, even a few Zoroastrian believers left in the Middle East. Christianity and Islam could still be considered the two ‘dominant’ religions, but there’s plenty of room for the others as well at this point in time. For the first time, you can play as these Pagan lords, and they come with their own gameplay features and even a new interface to set the mood. For starters, Norse Pagan armies can pile into boats and go A-Viking (looting), for money and prestige. Pagan rulers in general also get special casus-belli, like being able to take border provinces at will. If your ruler has the ambition to become King of an area, he also gets unlimited use of the ‘Subjugation’ casus-belli.

Playing a Pagan ruler is a double edged sword, however. Sure, it’s easy for them to get wealth, power, and to expand their territories, but they are locked into Gravelkind succession, which means it can be hard to keep these large domains (unless you ‘game’ the system a bit) if you have a lot of sons. Civil wars can be frequent, and pagan rulers especially can have trouble keeping their vassals under control, as there are harsher short-reign penalties. Further to this, all of the Pagan religions are ‘un-reformed’, which in the context of the game basically means they are not unified or organised. As such, you can’t force vassals to convert, and you and your subjects are more susceptible to religious conversion, especially from reformed religions like Christianity. After all, you’re playing the guys who, in games past, you would have been waging ‘Holy Wars’ on. The only way to stop this is to capture your specific religion’s holy sites (typically located all across the map in hard to conquer locations), and then reform the religion so that it essentially acts like Christianity or Islam. However, when you do this you lose the ability to subjugate at will, and you also lose the defensive bonuses unreformed pagan rulers have.

It’s not all about the Pagans though – playing as the Christians can also be an interesting experience, especially from the earlier start date. The great Frankish Kingdom in Europe has been split into multiple parts – East Francia (which goes on to become the Holy Roman Empire), West Francia (which goes on to become France) and Lothoringa, or Middle Francia, which kind of collapses and gets absorbed by the other two. Spain is all but conquered by the Muslims, everything east of Berlin is pretty much Pagan, and only the Byzantine Empire really stands strong. The Christian ‘game’ in the new start point plays up the Intrigue aspect a lot more, as you have three large kingdoms who all have claim on each other vying for control of Europe, and the Slavic pagans to deal with as well. Not to mention the Norse lords will be raiding you every so often... it becomes a more complex and exciting experience.

There are more special event invasions at the start of the 867 game, like the Magyars forming Hungary, and the Norse invasion of Saxon Britain

There are a lot of general changes in The Old Gods that effect everyone – the holy sites we mentioned above applies to all religions, and for already reformed faiths this can effect Moral Authority. The technology system has also been completely reworked – instead of the random spread of ideas; you can invest technology points into your capital area, which then spread to the rest of your domain over time. This can skewer things somewhat when you get to the end-game, especially if you use the earlier start date (massive armies raging all over the place), but it does make progression easier to interact with and understand.

If you’ve never picked up a CKII expansion before, The Old Gods would be the perfect place to start. Saying that, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pick up the other expansions either, but we guess it depends on what you like to play as. One of this generation’s greatest strategy games has just gotten a whole lot better, and with the recent news that Paradox have committed to another two years’ worth of expansions for this game, God only knows where this game is going to go next. Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods is out now for PC, and retails at around £9.99.

Top Game Moment: Forming one of the pagan Kingdoms of Sweden, Denmark or Norway is quite rewarding, but in general this game is full of ‘top’ moments.

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By the_fourth_horseman (SI Veteran Member) on Jul 10, 2013
I think it was great fun, and my small time viking count Danneskjold snowballed into a dynasty with an empire stretching from the north cape to italy. As usual. I do think that the plunder-perk makes the game a little too easy to play as a viking, but a very fun experience nonetheless.
By the_fourth_horseman (SI Veteran Member) on Jul 10, 2013
O and the easy Casus Belli you get as a pagan makes playing and expanding as one a little bone-headed as this will be your only way of expanding. Expanding your realm beyond Scandinavia - which is a point where you will get fast - is not possible by tactical marriage as no christian wants to marry a filthy pagan. This is realistic, of course, but be mindful of this deviation from the normal and more profound CK2 routine of achieving success. Grab your axe and get it on !