|Crusader Kings 2|
CK2 might disappoint fans of high-spec graphics and endless 3D animations, because in some respects it's actually a somewhat old-fashioned game. The action takes place on the European map, augmented with frequent pop-up messages to highlight new developments and decision points. When soldiers move around the map the animations are satisfactory but hardly cutting edge; two men with swords meet in battle and swing at each other like they're chopping firewood, and a number representing the size of the army counts down until one or the other army is defeated. While there are some modifiers for leadership and terrain, the larger army nearly always wins.
But the map itself is a beautiful thing. From Ireland to Iran and Nordkapp to the Nile, you can flit across the whole of Europe and its neighbouring lands. The various map filters allow plenty of tinkering that any map or history buff will relish. Aside from the simple terrain display, a multitude of political boundaries can be displayed, from small counties to massive kingdoms and empires. The designers have put a lot of effort into making the political maps look just as good as the best maps from historical atlases, and when your dynasty's colours and the serif capitals of your kingdom march across the map in a regal arc it's a proud sight indeed.
The gameplay is so varied and involved that it's hard not to become rather addicted to manipulating the lives of these rulers and subjects. Every individual has their own abilities and personality traits that affect their actions and their relationship with you, their ruler. Choosing your advisors wisely is a good start, but after that there are also important decisions to be made - who to marry, who to plot against, how to expand your demesne, what to build in your castles, towns and bishoprics. The importance of marriages to cement alliances and bring valuable character traits into a bloodline is paramount, not to mention the value of producing a large brood of offspring with which to secure the succession and marry off to create yet more alliances.
After a few false starts in various locations I made good progress playing the rulers of Munster in Ireland. The game starts in 1066, but by 1131 my Ua Briain clan had established the Kingdom of Ireland. Less than half a century later they had even added a second kingdom to their dominions, which is no mean feat. For the details of my Irish dynasty, read on - but be warned, things went downhill fairly quickly...
Duke Murchad I 'the Careless' of Munster (1063-80)
The first Ua Briain ruler post-1066, Murchad established himself as the Duke of Munster, ruling over the lands in the south of Ireland. He died a natural death at the age of 53.
Duke Brian II 'the Wise' of Munster (1080-1108)
Brian II expanded the Ua Briain lands further northwards. His son and heir died imprisoned in a rival Irish lord's donjon aged only 22, so when Brian died a natural death at age 60 he was succeeded by his grandson.
Duke Brian III of Munster (1108-10)
The short and unhappy rule of Brian III was marked by war against his Irish rivals as he attempted to solidify his claim on Munster. He died in battle against the villainous Harald Crovan, aged only 22. Luckily for the dynasty, he had a son...
King Cormac I of Ireland (1131-41) and Duke of Munster (1110-41)*
Only a toddler of two years when he succeeded his slain father as the Duke of Munster, Cormac grew into a powerful ruler. By the time he was 23 he held sufficient lands to reunite the Kingdom of Ireland and proclaim himself king. (If only the pesky Scots hadn't poached the county of Ulster when things were looking hairy, Cormac would have ruled the entire island). Cormac was able to rule as king for ten years until an infected wound carried him off. Alas, his son and heir Brian was only a mere boy when he took the Irish throne...
*Henceforth only the main titles will be mentioned.
King Brian I of Ireland (1141-44)
Poor, unlucky Brian was cursed with an ambitious and cowardly regent, who conspired to rob him of his young life in numerous plots. When one after another of his devious schemes failed to kill young Brian, Duke Kalman II of Meath took matters into his own hands and slew the 12-year-old king with his own dagger.
King Dunlaig I 'the Ironside' of Ireland (1144-80) and Galicia (1176-80)
With the death of Brian, King Cormac I's second son Dunlaig took the throne and became one of the greatest rulers in medieval Irish history. In his long reign he built numerous fortifications and city improvements across Ireland, but he is probably best known for his successes on the battlefield and in diplomacy. With the sword he won an entire kingdom, that of Galicia in northwestern Spain, from the infidel occupiers after the Pope had declared a holy crusade to win back the lands for Christendom. And with diplomacy he arranged clever marriages that won him the Duchy of Northumberland out from under the nose of the King of England.
King Cormac II 'the Careless' of Ireland (1180-1201) and Galicia (1180-1201)
Alas, when a king as resourceful and talented as Dunlaig is followed by the merely average, his son Cormac, history can only take a turn for the worse. Unable to hold onto his father's gains in Iberia, Cormac lost every scrap of Galicia to vengeful caliphate soldiers by the end of the 12th century. He then lost his life in battle against the invading forces of the greedy Queen Emma I of England, falling on the fields of Ulster in 1201, aged 43.
King Dunlaig II of Ireland (1201-02)
While the death of his father Cormac II may have provided temporary relief from the rampaging forces of the English Queen, it also brought on a major rebellion by the new king Dunlaig's Irish vassals. The young king lasted a mere year on the Irish throne before being killed in battle against the rebellion leader Earl Fergus of Breifne, aged only 25.
Queen Xene I of Ireland (1202-22) and Countess of Tyrconnell (1202-48)
What - no sons? The Irish were therefore forced to pay homage to a woman as their monarch. The oddly-named Queen Xene may have sported an exotic moniker - her mother was a Princess from a mysterious royal court in the East - but she was able to hold the kingdom together for two decades despite coming to the throne at the tender age of six and spending all but one of her years as Queen engaged in a vicious struggle for her title with the avaricious Queen Emma of England. The Duchy of Northumberland was the first to go - unable to protect it from huge English armies, it was given up with little fuss. Then came full-blown war with England and years of invasions. After 20 long years of battle in which Ireland was ravaged by English troops and fortress after fortress fell to the invaders, Xene was finally deposed as Queen of the Irish in 1222 when the Scots joined the fray on the side of the English. Xene had been hoping that by dragging out the war as long as possible, either the pretender (her craven aunt Cacht) or the perfidious English Queen Emma (known as The Great in England, but as The Bitch in Ireland) would die. Xene risked her reputation and immortal soul by sending assassins after her aunt at least three times, to no avail. But now the Irish crown that was so cherished by her ancestors passed to her aunt Cacht, may God rot her soul.
So for the last 26 years of her life, Xene was reduced to the role of a mere Countess in the far north of Ireland. At least she was no vassal of Queen Cacht, and at least she could console herself by styling herself in correspondence as Queen of Galicia, even though she had never set foot there and no scrap of Galician soil was ruled by Irishmen. And while her luck in battle was limited, Xene proved more fortunate in affairs of state, marrying one of her daughters to the young King of Lotharingia and another to a cadet prince of the Byzantine Empire. Xene died a natural death in 1248, aged 52.
Count Finnsnechtae I of Tyrconnell (1248-)
Can Count Finnsnechtae overcome the isolation of his meagre lands, the japery of those who mock him as a king who lacks not one but two kingdoms, and the potentially ruinous unpronounceability of his name to bring the Ua Briain clan back to greatness? Possibly, but now I have a hankering to play as a Swedish earl or perhaps the King of Sicily. Wish me luck and good counsel!