Cover illustration of Crusader Kings II

The cover of Crusader Kings II makes it look like just another war game, but there is a lot more to it than that.

Lately I’ve been playing a lot of the PC game, Crusader Kings II. Besides being a whole lot of fun, this game is a breath of fresh air in the strategy genre. It’s a game not just about war and conquest, but about alliances, betrayal, marriages, assassination plots, corruption, and medieval law. It’s the most original gameplay experience since … well, probably since Crusader Kings I.

In Crusader Kings II (hereafter, CK2), you play the leader of a medieval dynasty. When that leader dies, his heir becomes your character. The game covers a time span from 1066 to 1453 (corresponding to the historical period bracketed by the Norman Conquest of England and the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople), so you’ll pass through many generations of rulers as you play. The fortunes of your dynasty may rise and fall: it’s not uncommon to start as a lowly count, to climb to a duchy and then a throne through might and guile, and then see the kingdom crumble in a succession war or rebellion until you’re back down to one county again. Along the way, marriages and succession law are every bit as important as castles and armies.

I’ve read a number of great articles about this game that made me want to try it, and I’m very happy that I did. I’d recommend Why Crusader Kings II Should Be Game of the Year and How to Lose at Crusader Kings II. I would love to explain why this game is so great, but it’s better to show you than to tell you. Here’s what’s going on in my latest game.

Count Cadwgan of Glamorgan: Starting at the Bottom

For simplicity, CK2 divides noble titles into five ranks: baron, count/earl, duke, king, and emperor. This glosses over certain real-world complexities, such as the fact that the ruler of medieval Wales was called a prince, not a king, even though he was independent. Such simplifications are necessary to make the game playable: this way, when you see a computer player whose title is “Duke,” you know approximately where he stands in the hierarchy. In CK2, a baron is someone who owns only one manor. A count is a ruler who controls a county and has barons (and their peers, bishops and lords mayor) as vassals. There is no practical way to progress from baron to count, so you can’t play barons. The lowest playable rank is count.

You can play as any Catholic ruler in Europe, and with the downloadable expansions, you can play Muslims and Orthodox Christians as well — and, when the expansion, the Old Gods comes out, you’ll be able to play pagans as well. You can start out as any count or higher ruler you want, so you can start as the Holy Roman Emperor if that interests you. I can’t really imagine where you would go from there, but from what I’ve seen, trying to hold onto a throne can be plenty challenging. So some folks might enjoy that. The interesting thing is, every time you load the game, there’s an option to change role to play any ruler from that saved game. If you ever get bored — or hosed — you can continue playing the same game as a different ruler, such as the blackguard who just usurped your throne.

I’ve played several games already. This time, I wanted to start out as an independent count (a count who owes fealty to no duke or king) and see if I could claw my way, over several generations, up to Emperor. There are several empires in the game, including one that never existed historically: the Empire of Britannia, consisting of England, Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. I set that as my goal.

I also decided to start early, in December 1066, right after the Norman conquest of England. In the December 1066 starting scenario, there are independent counties in Wales and Ireland. Ireland is a recommended starting point for new players for this very reason. Not being a starting player any more, I picked Wales. Wales can be tough because it lives in the shadow of England and needs to exercise some careful diplomacy not to get invaded and conquered. Though I would point out, being invaded and conquered wouldn’t necessarily end the game: you could just end up as a vassal to England, and then some years or generations later get a chance to break away in a rebellion, or marry a princess, or usurp the throne by intrigue.

Count Cadwgan the Loser

My starting character, the 24-year-old Count Cadwgan of Glamorgan, is a total loser. His only competency is Stewardship and a score of 8 is still marginal. The icons below his statistics on the right correspond to his personality traits. From left to right: Indulgent Wastrel, Lustful, Proud, Arbitrary, and Shy.

So I chose to start out as the 24-year-old Count Cadwgan of Glamorgan, who ruled only one county but bowed his head to no overlord. Characters in CK2 have five primary skills: Diplomacy, Martial, Stewardship, Intrigue, and Knowledge. They also have personality traits. The characters’ names and bloodlines are fixed by the starting scenario, but their skills and personalities are randomized. So, every time you start a game in the December 1066 scenario, the Count of Glamorgan is a 24-year-old male named Cadwgan, but his skills and personality are randomly determined each time. I definitely drew the short straw with this starting character: miserably low scores in all the skills except Stewardship, plus a series of unflattering and unpopular personality traits: Indulgent Wastrel (bad with money), Lustful, Proud, and Arbitrary (capricious at administering justice). It is hard to warm up to a ruler like that, and CK2 tracks the loyalty of your character’s vassals and courtiers with a numeric score. Vices like lust and pride tend to clash with the personalities of your ruler’s subordinates, eroding their loyalty. I was starting out playing an unlikeable loser. Earlier in my CK2 career, I would have been tempted to start over as soon as I saw a beginning character like that. I decided to play on, partly because I know a ruler has opportunity to improve his skills and even personality traits as the game progresses, and partly because I thought it would be fun to see how his vassals and kinsmen reacted to him.

Cadwgan started with two vassals: the Bishop of Llandaff, named Ffilip, and the Lord Mayor Tysilio of Swansea. Sure enough, they started out disliking Cadwgan, partly because he was a new ruler (meaning he had not yet given his vassals cause to trust and admire him) and partly because he was an unlikeable jerk. Mayor Tysilio disliked Cadwgan so much (loyalty -9 on a scale of -100 to +100) he wasn’t delivering the tax revenue he was supposed to! Cadwgan wanted to put a stop to that, but the only ways to get the proper revenue out of Swansea were to get on the mayor’s good side, or replace the mayor. Cadwgan decided to try getting on the mayor’s good side first, so he gave him an honorary title at court: High Almoner, putting him in charge of distributing the charity that all Christian rulers give to the poor. You might think that entrusting a vassal who’s embezzling funds with a major financial responsibility sounds like a bad idea, but it worked fine. The influence the office brought, the trust it placed on Tysilio, and, probably, the opportunity for further lining his pockets boosted Tysilio’s loyalty back into positive territory, and he started forking over the Count’s share of the tax revenue from the city of Swansea. Everybody wins — except, maybe, the poor. Welcome to medieval governance!

Bishop Ffilip still disliked Cadwgan, but Cadwgan didn’t care. The law of the land stated that the taxes from episcopal land go to the pope, not the secular lord, so getting on Ffilip’s good side carried no material benefits. Screw him! (As you can see, I was getting to role-playing the unlikeable Count.)

Lawyers, Swords, and Money

My unlikeable loser of a character still wanted the same thing every ruler of one county wants: a second county. The only way to get that in his lifetime was with lawyers, swords, and money.

In CK2, you can’t just invade a neighboring county and take it over any time you want. That would be like every other strategy game out there: boring! The game won’t let you attack another Christian unless you have a good reason. Pagans and Muslims are, apparently, fair game, but I’m in the British Isles so they are far away. You need not only a good reason, but if you owe fealty to a duke or king, you need his permission to start a war — or, more to the point, you need him to be unable to deny you permission to start a war. That was why I wanted to start as an independent count. There are also other political considerations, like whether your vassals will eagerly commit troops to your cause or stall and hold back, or even rebel when your army is tied up in a siege five hundred miles away. For now, to even start expanding, Cadwgan needed that good reason for a war, called a casus belli in the game. So, how do you get a good enough reason to go to war?

In a word, lawyers. Every ruler, from count to emperor, has a council of officials who assist and advise him. One of those officials is called the chancellor (for simplicity, he has the same title everywhere from Ireland to Russia). One of the things the chancellor can do is “fabricate” claims on noble titles. If you’ve seen (or read) Shakespeare’s play Henry V then you’ve seen a dramatization of this process (Act I, Scene II). The way it works in CK2 is that you point your chancellor at a county you want to become yours and tell him to fabricate a claim on it. Every year, he (the chancellor is always male) has a certain small chance of success, proportional to his Diplomacy skill. The chancellor goes off and works quietly in the background, bribing, forging documents, making questionable legal argurments, etc., and sooner or later he reports back with a claim on that title that is superficially good enough. The difference between a casus belli and a flimsy pretext is in the eye of the beholder: once you have the fabricated claim, presumably your ruler acts all aggrieved and denounces the usurper who is unjustly holding his rightful title. Then the Pope will let you declare war, and your vassals will follow you and contribute troops to your cause. There are other ways to acquire a county, but fabricating a claim is the easiest at the beginning and it has the important benefit that when you win the war, the county becomes yours, meaning, your personal property.

Feudal obligations cut both ways. If you owe fealty to a king, he can call you to war whenever he wants. That’s another reason I didn’t want a king. (That, and sooner or later, I would have had to overthrow him!) On the other hand, if some acquisitive neighbor attacks you, the full weight of the crown (usually around 20,000 troops in the early game) will defend you from foreign aggression. My first character was a lowly count of Glamorgan in southern Wales, and could muster maybe 200 scantily-equipped troops on his best day. So it was pretty clear to young Count Cadwgan that he had better not pick on a vassal of the King of England — who had 20,000 troops and whose last name was “the Conqueror.” It was much preferable to fabricate a claim on the title of somebody without powerful friends, and preferably with no friends at all. Someone like Count Cadwgan himself: another petty, independent count. There was one right next door, in Gwent.

Looking to the Future: My First Dynastic Marriages

There was another thing Cadwgan needed even more than a second county: he needed an heir. If your line of succession ever dies out, that’s the end of the game. While his chancellor was off in Gwent with his schemes and his dusty scrolls of dubious provenance, Cadwgan set about the important task of securing dynasty’s succession. He started the game unmarried but already had an heir. This was Cadwgan’s half-brother, Rhys. Amusingly enough, looking at the heir’s character details revealed the boy had no mother. How did he manage that? I presume it meant the mother was some lowborn barmaid or maybe the boy was adopted. Anyway, heirs in Crusader Kings are fragile. They can die of any of the several plagues (typhoid, smallpox, even measles) that sweep across the countryside every few years. They can get killed in battle. They can just up and die or natural causes, or have a “suspicious accident:” not-so-natural causes. Young Rhys was a good start, but in CK2 one heir is simply never enough. You need at least an “heir and a spare,” as they say. Besides, he was Cadwgan’s half-brother, not his son. Cadwgan wanted his own issue to rule the future Empire of Britannia.

Looking around for eligible bachelorettes, it turned out that Cadwgan’s powerful neighbor, the Duke of Gwynedd, had a daughter. She wasn’t of marriageable age yet, so Cadwgan decided to ask for a betrothal. This would seal an alliance with the Duchy of Gwynedd, which theoretically meant Cadwgan wouldn’t be threatened by his stronger, wealthier neighbor. In practice, an ally can still attack you in CK2, but they can also be called in to help you in your wars. Having the backing of a duke, with three times as many troops and three times as much income as Cadwgan had, wasn’t a bad start. Better yet, any heirs from the union would inherit a claim on the Duchy of Gwynedd, which could provide a casus belli for a future war of annexation one generation later. For this reason, a marriage alliance in CK2 is not a thing to enter lightly. Duke Bleddyn agreed to the betrothal, making me wonder what future wars he was planning to drag me and my paltry 200 men into.

Then, Cadwgan took a look at his council. In addition to the chancellor, who is in charge of diplomacy and counts fabricating claims to neighbors’ titles among his many talents, every ruler has a marshal, a steward, a spymaster, and a chaplain. The marshal is in charge of military readiness and is frequently, but not necessarily, the best commander of troops. Cadwgan’s marshal despised him (remember, Cadwgan was an unlikeable loser). It is not good for the safety of the realm to be disliked by one’s military chief. So Cadwgan noticed that his marshal, Drymbenog ap Maenrych (I am not making these names up!), aspired to get married. Cadwgan helped Drymbenog by finding him a suitable lady from his court. For some reason, courtiers can’t seem to get dates for themselves unless they own land. (Actually, I think this simulates the medieval practice that a girl’s liege had the power to arrange and approve her marriage.) Once Drymbenog tied the knot, he was grateful to his liege for arranging the match, pushing his loyalty into positive territory. I noticed that Drymbenog was Trusting and his new bride was Deceitful, so as a player, I can’t help but wonder if he’d still regard the match as a favor a few years down the road.

Since Cadwgan had just arranged a couple of marriages (his own and his marshal’s), he also made a betrothal for his half-brother. In the game, Harold Godwinson, the King of England whom William the Conqueror had deposed, had two daughters living in exile in Northumberland. Their guardian, the Earl of Northumberland, agreed to a match between Rhys and the younger of the two girls. Rhys had the Ambitious trait and was, hopefully, about to be disinherited as soon as Cadwgan had a son. He was sure to be trouble. The marriage to Gunnhild would give Rhys’s heirs a claim on the throne of England. Cadwgan’s hope was that Rhys would move to the court of Northumberland and there hatch schemes against the English throne, rather than staying in Glamorgan to make trouble at home. Unfortunately, the Earl of Northumberland was only too glad to unload Gunnhild on Cadwgan’s court instead, so any scheming Rhys was going to do would happen right at home in Cardiff.

Surprise Visitors Make Cadwgan a Better Person

From time to time, random events occur in a CK2 ruler’s life. These are announced through pop-up dialog windows and they usually offer a simple choice for the player. In 1071, a group of hedge knights arrived at Cadwgan’s castle. He chose to welcome them with a lavish feast, and as a result his personality changed from Shy to Gregarious. This reversal was popular with his vassals and courtiers (and with his wife, Nest), who liked him better now that he enjoyed hanging out with them. Mind you, his skills were still mostly zeroes, so Cadwgan was still inept, but he was more likeably inept.

Then the hedge knights decided to have an impromptu tournament, and one of them got wounded. He asked his host for help. Cadwgan had a couple of choices for how to respond and he decided to allow the penniless knight to stay at his castle until he recovered. This cost Cadwgan some prestige in the eyes of his court, but it was clearly the right thing to do: this choice changed his personality from Arbitrary to Just. That made a big difference to his vassals and courtiers, because an Arbitrary leader suffers a 10-point penalty to loyalty (on that scale from -100 to +100). Just leaders get a 10-point bonus.

Cadwgan was still an Indulgent Wastrel, Proud, and Lustful, but at least he now had one virtuous trait among that mix. He was no longer a total loss.

Cadwgan has Kids

If Cadwgan had died childless, his heir, Rhys, would have become my new character. Rhys was more competent than Cadwgan and I had been half tempted to do something stupid in the hope Cadwgan would get killed so I could play Rhys. With the marriage to the Duke of Gwynedd’s daughter, I had put Cadwgan’s dynasty on a positive trajectory, so I decided to keep playing as Cadwgan. Since Rhys was Ambitious, I knew that sooner or later he was going to double-cross his inept half-brother.

Cadwgan and Nest had their first child in 1071: a daughter named Sibyl. In CK2, every realm can have its own succession law. Since the point of the game is to manage a medieval dynasty, succession law is hugely important to how the game plays out. Glamorgan had the succession law I’d received when the game started. The relevant part with regard to Sibyl was that succession went along agnatic-cognatic lines: male heirs were preferred, but females could inherit if there was no male closer to the line of succession. There’s more to it than that, but the fine points are undocumented and hard to figure out. Sibyl displaced Rhys from the line of succession.

I was a little concerned that if Sibyl were Cadwgan’s only child, she would have a hard time maintaining her title. Female rulers have a loyalty penalty to their vassals and rival claimants to their titles tend to come out of the woodwork. Still, it was much better to have a female child than no child at all! With luck, a son would arrive, and Sibyl could then shift from the role of heir apparent to the more traditional medieval role of a noble daughter: bargaining chip. Marriage alliances are a big deal.

The following year, Cadwgan and Nest has a son, whom they named Meurig. Just for the heck of it, I checked for available heiresses to whom I could arrange a betrothal right away. (More typically, I wait till the children are nine or ten before committing them to a betrothal.) The Queen of Scotland was a three-year-old girl! That would have been a highly advantageous match: an alliance with Scotland in the near term, and in the long term, Meurig’s son would become a king! Unfortunately, the regent of Scotland (a regent is an officer to administers the realm for an underage ruler) was sure he could find the little queen a better husband than the son of a one-county upstart from Wales. There was no harm in asking, and it would have been so cool if it had worked!

A couple of years later, Meurig and Nest had a second daughter, Gwenasedd.

Schemes and More Schemes

Cadwgan’s chancellor made no headway in Gwent, so around 1072 I sent him to he county on the other side of Glamorgan, Dyfed. Late in 1074, the chancellor, after two years of forging documents and bribing officials, came through with a fabricated claim on that neighboring county. This provided a casus belli to attack the county and dispossess the current Count. To finalize that claim cost a very substantial purse of gold: about 25, at a time when Cadwgan’s monthly net revenue was hovering around one gold. Presumably the money goes mainly to bribes and legal fees. I gladly paid that big legal bill, and finally, all that remained was to assemble an army and march it into battle!

There was a problem, though. Cadwgan only had a single county, meaning he could only muster a couple of hundred troops if he was lucky. The Count of Dyfed only had a couple of hundred troops, too, so at first glance that looks like an even fight. As the defender, the Count of Dyfed would enjoy the benefit of his castle. A castle acts as a force multiplier for the defender, so the attacker needs overwhelming numbers to successfully storm the castle. The alternative is to lay siege and starve the defender out. To even do that, the attacker needs to outnumber the defender, and that was by no means certain for Cadwgan. He needed more troops to ensure victory. He had one ally: his father-in-law, the Duke of Gwynedd. The trouble is, it wasn’t really in the Duke’s best interest to support the growth of another Welsh lord. I didn’t think it likely he would back Cadwgan’s cause.

So, who else wants to be allies with an upstart count who has only one county? Mercenaries, that’s who! Mercenaries are hideously expensive, but they are very much worth it. The cheapest band of mercenaries in the game costs 75 gold up front and about 7.6 gold every month. Again, this was at a time when Cadwgan’s monthly net income was about 1 gold. The good part is that the cheapest company of mercenaries has about three thousand troops at full strength, compared to Cadwgan’s feudal levy of around two hundred. Mercenaries clearly provide an overwhelming advantage in the early game. Cadwgan had already been saving money for a few years, but he’d had to pay for things like bribes and legal fees to manufacture the claim, as well as some common-sense improvements to his castle, mostly aimed at increasing the revenue it generates. He was still a long way away from the 120-150 gold needed to hire mercenaries and pay them for the duration of the campaign.

While Cadwgan was hoarding his measly income to hire an irresistible mercenary army, his spymaster reported that he’d uncovered a plot: Rhys was scheming to murder Cadwgan’s four-year-old daughter, Sibyl! I had known to expect trouble from Rhys, but I hadn’t expected that. Cadwgan figured Rhys would one day challenge him on the battlefield like a man. Plotting to murder little girls was despicable (not to say, in CK2, I have never done it — Crusader Kings makes you into a horrible person!). Cadwgan decided that a rival who would stoop that low was intolerable, and even with his zero Intrigue score, the course of action was obvious. He seized the opportunity to publicly accuse Rhys of the murder plot and ordered his immediate arrest. Because Cadwgan had a zero Intrigue, Rhys had plenty of time to flee the county, and he ended up at in the court of Cadwgan’s other rival, the Count of Dyfed. This just made Cadwgan all the more eager to sack Dyfed’s castle and annex his lands. Two birds with one stone, Cadwgan thought.

He still needed more money. Suddenly, a couple of months later, Cadwgan fell ill. It is not uncommon for characters in CK2 to get sick for a couple of months at a time. Outbreaks of disease, from measles to typhoid to smallpox, happen every few years. Characters who are young or old can easily die of these diseases. Cadwgan was 33 years old and had no physical frailties. When he got sick, I didn’t think anything of it. Then he died!

Meurig ap Cadwgan Expands the Realm

Count Meurig, created in 1075 at the age of 2

This is Count Meurig at the time of his ascension at the age of 2. His Martial and Inrigue skills are already higher than his father’s ever were.

Cadwgan had only one son, two-year-old Meurig, who now became the Count of Glamorgan. An underage ruler uses a regent to manage the realm. The player gets to make some of the decisions, but the regent makes others automatically, and the realm is run using the regent’s skill levels rather than the child ruler’s. In this case, even the two-year old was generally more competent than his feckless father, so having a regent with normal levels of skill was positively a boon for the realm. Better yet, the regent was Cadwgan’s (and now Meurig’s) spymaster. He would be on the lookout for future assassination plots from Rhys!

Starting as a very young ruler can be a good thing. Rulers have a score called Prestige, which builds up slowly over time. Prestige affects the loyalty of your subjects as well as all your diplomatic affairs. It starts to accumulate as soon as you come into your title, so a young ruler with a regent has the best of both worlds for a while. He gets to run the realm with the mature skills of his regent, while getting a head start on building up his own prestige.

Unfortunately, Meurig didn’t inherit his father’s claim on the county of Dyfed. Fabricated claims cannot be inherited unless they’ve been pressed in war. All those years of scheming and all that money had gone to waste. Meurig did stand to inherit a claim on the whole Duchy of Deheubarth, which includes both Dyfed and Glamorgan, through his mother, Nest. Nest also had a claim on the Duchy of Gwynedd to pass on. Together, these constitute the entirety of modern Wales. At the time Meurig came into his title, those claims belonged to his mother, Nest, not to him. They were inheritable, but Nest’s death seemed a long way off: she was only 20 years old.

Young Meurig, or rather his underhanded regent, entertained the idea of accelerating that inheritance by arranging an “accident” for Nest. As a player, I concluded it was a long shot, and decided to start over fabricating claims. Meurig sent the court chancellor to Gwent, the county on the east side of Glamorgan and where Cadwgan had originally tried to fabricate a claim. Since Meurig was so young, I decided to amass several claims early. That would let me pick and choose when to press each claim later on as opportunities presented themselves. Meurig’s chancellor completed the claim on Gwent in June of 1077, then sixteen months later, while Meurig was still amassing a war chest with which to take over Gwent, he fabricated a claim on Dyfed as well.

My long-term plan was to unite all of Wales under a single ruler. In CK2, every duchy and kingdom has a certain set of counties that belong to it by ancient tradition. These are called the de jure possessions of the duchy or kingdom. Wales is a kingdom that consists of eight de jure counties: the three southern counties in the Duchy of Deheubarth, of which Meurig owned Glamorgan and had fabricated claims on Gwent and Dyfed; the three counties of the Duchy of Gwynedd, to which duchy he stood to inherit a claim from his mother, Nest; and two counties that are not in Wales itself, but in Cornwall: Cornwall and Devon, which together comprise the Duchy of Cornwall. Both those Cornish counties were vassals to the King of England, who was still William the Conqueror. I’ve played as a Welsh count before, and the hardest part of amassing all the territory in the Kingdom of Wales is getting Cornwall and Devon away from England. Fighting England head-on is pretty much out of the question. It’s much too big and powerful. You have to wait for just the right moment, when the King of England is heavily engaged in some other war, or you need a lot of strong allies.

I thought there was a good chance such an opportunity was arise sometime during Meurig’s rule, given that he started at age 2 and rulers typically live into their sixties or seventies. The sooner I manufactured a claim on Cornwall, the more likely Meurig would be to have a claim when the timing was right for war. This does not to say that war was the only way for Meurig to gain Cornwall. It was just the method over which he had the most control.

At the age of six, it was time to choose a tutor for Count Meurig. A noble’s tutor has a great deal of influence over the skills and personality traits he develops. I decided to have his regent, the spymaster Bleddyn, take him under his wing and teach him the ways of skullduggery. A weak Intrigue skill is a real disadvantage in CK2 and I didn’t want Meurig to be the last to know what was going on in his own court.

Meurig’s regent wasn’t the only one who was hatching schemes. On Christmas Eve 1081, Meurig’s younger sister, Gwenasedd, was murdered on the orders of Meurig’s courtier, Mawd. I considered arresting Mawd immediately, but the game warned me that to do so would be considered tyrannical and would hurt the loyalty of Meurig’s vassals. Apparently, Mawd’s involvement in the murder plot was not public knowledge. Meurig’s regent, Bleddyn (not to be confused with Duke Bleddyn of Gwynedd) chose a softer option, and started a murder plot of his own to take Mawd out of the picture. This never came to fruition, so Mawd ended up getting away with murder. All I managed to do was isolate her. When her husband died — and exactly how he died, I never found out — I made a point not to arrange a new marriage for her. So she hung around court for the rest of her life, but never tried anything major again.

Count Meurig at age 16.

Count Meurig upon his majority at age 16. He has decent scores in Diplomacy and Intrigue, but is terrible at everything else. His personality traits are hardly more appealing than his father’s: Underhanded Rogue, Craven, Arbitrary, Content (lacking ambition), Temperate, and Proud.

In November 1083, Meurig’s chancellor, who was trying to manufacture a claim in Cornwall, was murdered. This had nothing to do with intrigue within Meurig’s court, and everything to do with the Count of Cornwall wanting to hang onto his title. It’s an occupational hazard of being chancellor to a grasping upstart. I chose a new chancellor and sent him right back to Cornwall to continue work on fabricating a claim.

Around this time, Meurig was approaching the age where he could rule in his own right. The first order of business was to arrange a marriage for him so he could produce heirs and secure the dynasty. It turns out that there was a duchess, Ecgwyn, in England who was only a few years older than Meurig and held the duchies of Hereford and Lancaster. In other words, she had huge tracts of land! Better yet, her regent agreed to the match. Meurig’s heirs would inherit substantial English titles through their mother, which would advance my ultimate goal of taking over all of the British Isles.

Succession Crisis in Gwynedd

Meurig’s grandfather, Duke Bleddyn of Gwynedd, died in 1085. His heir was an underage boy and Meurig’s mother, Nest, had a weak claim to the duchy. Weak claims can only be pressed under certain, restricted circumstances, and apparently a regency is one of those. A helpful notification icon popped up to tell me Meurig had an opportunity to press his mother’s claim on the duchy to the north. “Pressing” a claim is a polite term CK2 uses for declaring war over it.

This was a bit of a dilemma for Meurig. He had amassed enough money to hire mercenaries and prosecute a war, but this wasn’t the war he had been planning. Once you’ve paid the up-front cost of hiring mercenaries, you can keep them in the field indefinitely as long as you can pay their monthly upkeep. Whenever a town or castle gets sacked, somewhere from 5-20 gold worth of loot makes its way into the attacker’s treasury, meaning mercenaries can pay for their own upkeep if you use them wisely. Money was no longer the problem: the problem was that there was only one small-sized mercenary company available for hire, and it was coming off a contract and was down to only 1700 men from its full strength of around 3000. The up-front hiring cost hadn’t changed, so at this particular moment, Meurig’s hard-earned gold could get only about half the usual number of mercenaries.

Then there was the question of future succession. Meurig was Nest’s oldest son, but she was still young (about 29). If she won her duchy, she would leave Meurig’s court and would be free to remarry. If that marriage brought her more sons, would Meurig still be first in line to inherit, or would succession law favor children born to the husband she chose for herself? I had no idea. Under the circumstances, I decided to go ahead and press Nest’s claim anyway. Fortune favors the bold! The opportunity for advancement of the dynasty was too great, and the least I stood to gain was a grateful ally anchoring my northern border. It took two years of fighting, during which time William the Conqueror died in England. The neighboring realm plunged into first a succession crisis, then a general civil war. This is great news for anyone in Wales: a weak and divided England is in no position to expand into Welsh territory. With the English king fighting to keep his throne, it also becomes easier to press claims on his vassals’ territory, like the one on Cornwall I was working on.

Meurig’s war of succession in Gwynedd dragged on for two years. At the start, Meurig was using the full strength of his forces: mercenaries plus his feudal levies. The longer you keep your levies raised, the more annoyed your vassals become. I ended up sending the levies home before the war was done because they were only a small portion of Meurig’s forces and I wanted to keep his vassals loyal. The mercenaries were enough, but the fighting was hard on them. By the end of the two-year campaign, the band of 1770 mercenaries had been worn down to only 780, probably as much through desertion as through combat casualties. In the end, Meurig was victorious: his mother, Nest, assumed the Duchy of Gwynedd.

She immediately became an ally of Meurig’s. I had kind of expected she’d be friendly to Meurig after he put her in power, but I had no idea how friendly. Nest had a +50 loyalty bonus toward Meurig for being his mother, and another +100 because he had fought for her claim to the duchy. The scale of loyalty goes from -100 to +100, so as far as Nest was concerned, she would remain a trusted ally even if Meurig went on to become a kin-slaying heretic.

Mercenaries: Use ’em While You’ve Got ’em

Meurig still had the sad little remnant of his mercenary army and he still had claims on the neighboring territories of Gwent and Dyfed. It is a lot more cost effective to keep mercenaries in the field than to repeatedly raise them, then disband them. He pressed both claims, declaring war on and conquering Gwent and then putting the remaining mercenaries to work against Dyfed.

While he, or, rather, his army — Meurig is no fighter — was at war, Meurig arranged the marriage of his only surviving sister, Sibyl, to a Danish duke. My main thinking was to get her out of Wales so her claims on Meurig’s territory would become impractical to press. I also obtained an alliance with a Danish duke. That looks good on paper, and might carry a bit of diplomatic weight, but I didn’t expect it to ever yield practical benefits. Denmark was too far away and a duke has too little territory to raise a substantial number of troops on his own.

The Count of Dyfed also styled himself Duke of Deheubarth (southern Wales). He had allies of his own, and called in the Earl of Argyll (in Scotland) to help him defend his lands. This tipped the balance against Meurig, even with his mercenaries, so he called to his mother for aid from Gwynedd. She eagerly sent troops and deployed them to cut off Argyll’s reinforcements. This was the third war Meurig had fought with his mercenaries, paying their wages as he went, and by now the treasury was getting very low. As it approached zero, Meurig ordered his mercenaries to storm the castle in Dyfed: mercenaries can turn against you if they’re not paid, but they don’t desert from taking casualties, so the player’s incentive is to throw their lives away in a dangerous assault rather than hold them back. As I’ve already mentioned, CK2 turns you into a horrible person! Fortunately, they succeeded in the assault and gleaned enough loot to pay the survivors’ wages. Meurig annexed the county of Dyfed and sent the last four hundred mercenaries home.

Meurig’s Family Troubles

In 1090, Meurig’s spymaster caught his sister, Sibyl, plotting to kill him! Maybe she was unhappy at being sent away to Denmark. Since she was not at Meurig’s court, his options were limited. There are two ways in CK2 to have somebody killed. The first, and more interesting, way is to form a murder conspiracy. This requires co-conspirators, who can come from either your own court, or that of the intended victim. Conspiracies don’t cost any money, but they take a long time to reach maturity and have a relatively high risk of exposure. They also require diplomacy to get the other conspirators on board, which I think makes them more fun. The other option is straight-up assassination. You pay a hefty amount of gold (usually 250) and a professional assassin goes and makes an attempt on the target’s life. This is quicker, but is very expensive and has a low chance of success. Sibyl was using the conspiracy method, and she got as far as actually making an attempt on Meurig’s life. Someone — I never found out who — slipped a poisonous snake into Meurig’s bed, but it didn’t bite him so he escaped. This is not the most plausible murder plot in the world, but it was entertaining.

Nest, Meurig’s mother and the new Duchess of Gwynedd, did re-marry. She also had to deal with a rebellion from one of her vassals: the Count of Powys broke away for independence. She called on Meurig for help in the war. I definitely wanted to preserve the alliance with dear old mom. She had made a real difference in Meurig’s wars of conquest. Meurig’s treasury was depleted from that war, so I raised his levies and sent them to Powys, thinking they would be enough to tip the balance. They weren’t. Nest was having trouble getting her vassals to commit troop; their loyalty must have been awfully low because she was a usurper, and a woman to boot. Her levies combined with Meurig’s were not enough to outnumber the garrison of Mathrafal, the castle in Powys. Neither did Powys have enough troops to threaten our castles. The war was an impasse for several years. Since Nest had started the war, only she could end it, and apparently she was content with a lengthy stalemate.

Meanwhile, Meurig’s chancellor fabricated a claim on Cornwall. England was still wracked by civil war, so Cornwall was in rebellion. I could attack her without having the King of England rush to her defense. It took a few years for Meurig to save up enough money for mercenaries, but not as long as it used to take: he now had the income of three counties instead of one. When I was almost, but not quite, ready, Meurig fell seriously ill. I remembered what had happened to Cadwgan, and I was worried that Meurig might die and lose his hard-won fake claim on Cornwall. I went ahead and pressed the claim, knowing the treasury was quite a bit lighter than I wanted it to be.

Meurig was still involved in the “cold war” against Powys. He wanted that to end, and he also wanted to raise some more funds for the war against Cornwall. Therefore, I sent his army into Powys to quickly attack and overwhelm first the castle, then the abbey and the city. This took a couple of months but the loot from the victories did net more income than it cost to keep the mercenaries in the field. I was in a hurry, and that meant the mercenaries took significant casualties. You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

The treasury was dangerously low, below 30 gold, when I marched straight from the field of victory in Powys into Cornwall. Unfortunately, the castle and garrison in Cornwall were too strong for a repetition of the quick victory in Powys. The money held out long enough to take the castle and the abbey, but the city was still holding out when Meurig ran out of money to pay his mercenaries. Keeping them on without pay was a fearsome risk: I’ve seen mercenaries turn against their former employers under those circumstances. I had to admit that my gambit for Cornwall had been a little too bold. Meurig sued for what’s called a “white peace” — a peace settlement in which the parties simply agree to stop fighting, without any permanent resolution of the underlying issue. Cornwall was 2/3 conquered by that point, so the Count of Cornwall readily agreed. Meurig disbanded his mercenaries and started marching his levies home, depressed at the waste of money. At least, since he had pressed the claim on Cornwall, that claim could now be inherited by his heir.

It turns out that inheritance came sooner than I expected. I had been right to fear for Meurig’s longevity when he first fell ill: he never recovered, and died of his illness on 13 May, 1095, about two weeks after his truce with Cornwall.

Countess Delyth: Gavelkind Succession and Sororicide

Countess Delyth of Glamorgan, another preschooler in charge of a realm.

Countess Delyth at age 5. She’s already a better military leader than either her father or grandfather. and she’s going to get a lot more experience in the years ahead.

Meurig had two young daughters when he died: Sibyl (not to be confused with the snake-wielding assassin from Denmark) and Delyth. No sons, just daughters. Now the other dimension of succession law came into play: Meurig’s heirs inherited according to a kind of succession called agnatic-cognatic gavelkind.

Gavelkind succession means that the titles are divided more or less equally among the eligible heirs. A lot of CK2 players, especially novices, hate gavelkind succession because it makes it hard to accumulate titles from one generation to the next. Some people advocate changing away from gavelkind succession law as quickly as possible. I don’t follow that advice for a number of reasons. First, gavelkind is an accurate reflection of medieval succession law in many parts of Europe. If you’re going to play a medieval dynasty, to really appreciate the experience, I think you should play using medieval laws and customs. If you don’t want gavelkind succession, choose to play a country that starts with some other form of succession law. While it’s true that I planned to abandon gavelkind in favor of primogeniture (succession where the oldest son inherits all titles) somewhere along the road to the Empire of Britannia, I think it makes the game more interesting to deal with gavelkind for a while. Second, gavelkind has the obvious drawback that each generation of ruler potentially receives fewer titles than the last, it also has some very powerful advantages. It provides much weaker incentives for patricide, for starters. It also allows you have a larger demense, which is the territory you rule personally instead of granting it to a vassal. There are a number of tricks to managing gavelkind succession: for example, it combines very well with free investiture (which lets the ruler, not the pope, choose bishops): if you feel you have too many heirs, invest some as bishops, which takes them out of the line of succession. In short, gavelkind is not the ideal form of succession for all kingdoms and all situations, but I was satisfied with it for now.

There was no male heir, so both girls were equally eligible to inherit. There were three counties to distribute: Dyfed, Glamorgan, and Gwent. You might think the oldest daughter would get two counties and the younger would get one. That’s certainly what I expected. But for some reason, which I will not even pretend to understand, Meurig’s oldest daughter, Dyleth, inherited only one county, Glamorgan! The complexities of this situation escape me, but possibly they have something to do with the female line of succession. Dyleth and Sibyl’s mother, Ecgwyn, was a duchess of England in her own right, and the girls stood to inherit her ducal titles later on. I’m just guessing, but maybe because the elder daughter was in line to inherit more property from their mother, the younger daughter inherited more counties from their father. The particulars of succession in CK2, especially gavelkind succession, get very complicated, very fast!

This was a real setback. It had taken Meurig’s entire 20-year reign to amass three counties (partly because I’d let him get sidetracked with installing his mother in the Duchy of Gwynedd) and now his successor was right back where he had started! Worse, the counties of southern Wales were no longer unified into a single duchy. The former Duchy of Deheubarth had dissolved when Meurig defeated and dispossessed the former Duke. Anyone who possessed two out of the three de jure counties in Deheubarth could re-create the duchy. That would automatically give him a claim to be liege lord over any and all of those three counts. In other words, Sibyl verch Meurig could one day form the duchy and claim lordship over my new character, Delyth!

That would never do. Both Delyth and Sibyl were very young: five and one, respectively. As a player, I could not help but notice that Sibyl was much too young to have children of her own, and so her heir apparent was her sister. Delyth. My character. So if something fatal were to happen to Sibyl, daddy’s titles would be reunited under my character’s control. Repeat after me: Crusader Kings 2 makes you into a horrible person! From a role-playing perspective, I attribute this evil plan to Delyth’s regent, who happened to be the hard-bitten warrior who commanded her armies, not the little girl herself. (Kids can be quite mean, but I don’t think their motives are quite that complex!)

Then, things got even more confusing. Ecgwyn remarried, which generally screws up lines of succession. I, or rather Delyth’s regent, Bleddyn ap Cadwgan (not to be confused with Bleddyn the Spymaster, who had been Meurig’s regent), tried to start a conspiracy to murder little Sibyl, but, understandably, no one wanted any part of that. Siblings in gavelkind succession automatically inherit claims on one another’s land, so I realized I could probably take Sibyl’s inheritance back on the battlefield. I started preparing to do exactly that, when suddenly, Sibyl and Delyth’s mother, Ecwyn, died at the age of 28. Delyth inherited both of her late mother’s English duchies: Lancaster and Hereford. She also inherited a hefty purse of gold: about 250.

250 gold, as it turns out, is exactly the price of hiring an assassin. I really didn’t want to have to start all over consolidating the counties of southern Wales. So I took a risk: sent my spymaster to prepare for a couple of months to increase the chance of assassination, and hit the “assassinate” button. That cleaned out the treasury, again. I had only a 33% chance of success, but I got lucky. Little Sibyl, who was now four years old, was murdered in her bed by a hired assassin, and Delyth inherited her county of Dyfed. That secured her against a rival forming the Duchy of Dehebarth.

If you’ve been reading very carefully, you’ll notice that upon Sibyl’s death, Delyth inherited Dyfed, not Dfyed and Gwent. The reason is that Sibyl had acquired a second heir without me noticing. Their mother, Ecgwyn, had remarried before she died. That removed her from my court, so I didn’t receive detailed notifications about events in her life. On the day she died, Ecgwyn had given birth to a daughter, Ingrid, from her second husband. I didn’t hear about that, but since she was a half-sister to Delyth and Sibyl, even though she born into her mother’s court in England, Ingrid went straight into the line of succession. I might have noticed that if I had re-checked Sibyl’s line of succession right before I hit the “assassinate” button, but I didn’t check. Even though Delyth only received one county instead of two, the assassination accomplished its critical objective: Delyth now controlled 2/3 of the de jure counties in Deheubarth, and no one but her could constitute the duchy.

The next order of business was to arrange a betrothal for Delyth so she could get right down to business producing an heir as soon as she was able. Given the life spans of her grandfather, father, and mother, there was plenty of cause for concern that Delyth might not live to see age 30. The King of France had a son, Theobalt, who was unattached and about seven years older than Delyth. The King of France would make a powerful ally against England, even though I had a strong suspicion I would get called into his wars more often than he would answer my calls to arms. That’s the price you pay to be a junior partner in an alliance. I was surprised to see that the King of France agreed to the betrothal even though it was matrilineal: all the children would belong to the mother’s dynasty, not the father’s. (This is necessary when you have a female ruler so your dynasty doesn’t come to an end.)

Somebody — I never found out who, and honestly I didn’t inquire — assassinated Ingrid in 1102, when she was four years old. This time, I had nothing to do with it! The county of Gwent fell into Delyth’s lap.

Meurig’s death and succession was kind of a worst-case scenario for gavelkind succession: multiple heirs and multiple titles, all at the same level. The trick to keeping titles under family control is to have one higher title, such a duchy (a kingdom would also work). Then, while the counties still get divided up among different heirs, they all remain part of the same duchy. The new rulers become vassal to whichever heir received the duchy. Since Dyleth had the good fortune to inherit two duchies from her mother, when she died, all her counties would remain dependencies of those duchies instead of splitting off entirely. The ideal situation is to have exactly one duchy, so all the counties become vassals of the primary heir. Dyleth had two duchies. I expect that, if she had two heirs, her duchies would get divided between them. The way to prevent that from happening is to create a title higher than duke: in my case, Queen of Wales. I’ve done it before. All it requires is to possess five of the eight de jure counties of Wales. Dleyth had accumulated four through luck and one well-placed dagger, so she was almost there at age 12.

Delyth’s Wars

Ecgwyn had been engaged in the very long-running succession war in England. When Delyth inherited the duchies of Hereford and Lancaster (which suddenly changed to its Welsh name, Rheged), she also inherited her mother’s role in the war. I didn’t really care who won that war, so the first thing I did was to stand down all my troops and just wait it out.

Delyth didn’t strictly need to create the Duchy of Deheubarth, but she had all three of its de jure counties. Creating a duchy boosts a ruler’s Prestige and makes it easier to keep county titles together. Delyth already had two duchies by inheritance: Rheged and Hereford. Both of those had problems. First, they were both in England, and subordinate to the King of England. Second, Delyth had inherited very few of their constituent counties: one from Rheged and none from Hereford. So, other than providing automatic territorial claims to their de jure counties, these two duchies weren’t good for much. Many of their de jure counties were held personally by the King of England. Prying them away would not be easy. What I expected instead was for the King of England to declare war on my dynasty to seize one or both of those duchies for himself. It would be nice to be able to defend them, but I had to prepare myself to surrender instead. England was tied up in a civil war for the moment, but if it emerged intact (instead of fragmenting into several independent duchies), it would have five times the military strength young Delyth could muster.

I made plans to preserve as much of the realm as possible if England eventually did attack. First, in spite of the very substantial legal fees of 192 gold, I created the Duchy of Deheubarth for Delyth. This gave her a third duchy. She didn’t really need three: the real benefit was that she would now still be a duchess even if she were forced to surrender all her English possessions. Along those lines, I moved her capital from Lancaster to Dyfed. I also made Deheubarth her primary title, so it would be sure to pass to her direct successor. Don’t get me wrong: I had every intention of keeping and expanding Delyth’s English possessions. Experience has shown me that, when playing as Wales, England is a force to be reckoned with, and a war against that larger neighbor can quickly swing in England’s favor.

This full screenshot shows Delyth at 16, just after her majority and marriage. The map shows southern Wales as part of England, a situation I certainly didn't want to continue for long

This full screenshot shows Delyth at 16, just after her majority and marriage. The map shows southern Wales as part of England, a situation I certainly didn’t want to continue for long

On November 7, 1103, a year after creating the Duchy of Deheubarth, the English war of succession finally ended. It had been going on since at least least 1085! King Richard de Normandie, son of William the Conqueror, deposed the pretender and assumed the throne. As soon as peace broke out, Delyth became a vassal of England because her duchies of Rheged (Lancaster) and Hereford were subordinate to the English crown. I hate being a vassal on general principle. As you can probably tell from the rest of this post, I am also deeply suspicious of England in this game. This would never do.

No sooner had the new king been crowned than one of his other vassals, Count William de Brionne of Devon, formed a faction to plot independence from England. Factions are a special form of intrigue that only vassals can enjoy. Every faction has a certain agenda and counts and dukes can join and leave them whenever they want. Diplomatic options can influence another ruler to support or abandon a faction. Every faction has a leader, and when the leader considers the faction strong enough, he presents his demand to the sovereign. The sovereign can either acquiesce or refuse. In the latter case, the faction leader has to choose whether to give up and lose substantial Prestige, or stage an armed rebellion. I was all in favor of armed rebellion against England. Delyth joined the Independence faction immediately.

Delyth came of age in 1106. Her betrothed, Prince Theobalt of France, refused to commit to actually marrying her. I knew a marriage alliance with France was too good to be true! I broke off that useless betrothal and looked around for another nearby, landed, unmarried noble. No luck. Given Delyth’s family history of early death, I wanted an heir right away, so I opted for a different tactic. Instead of seeking a match that would bring more lands and titles, I looked for a husband who would make a good father. A child’s mentor has considerable influence over his future skills and attributes. Injecting some competency and virtue into the family couldn’t hurt a bit. Delyth selected as her mate a landless courtier named Sulein, who was educated, skilled in Diplomacy and Stewardship, and was a veritable paragon of virtue: Diligent, Just, Temperate, Patient, and Honest. If half of that rubbed off on her future heir, the dynasty would be in the best shape it had ever been. Delyth took a substantial Prestige hit for marrying a nobleman with no titles at all, but it was better than marrying some bumbling jerk like her father or grandfather. Finally, my dynastic luck changed: Delyth’s marriage quickly produced a male heir. Iuean ap Sulein was born in June of 1107.

Crown authority in England was low, meaning the King couldn’t get much in the way of taxes or military support from his vassals. It also meant King William wasn’t in a position to prevent a private war between his vassals. Delyth took advantage of this situation to press her claim on the county of Cornwall, which she had inherited from Meurig. Fabricated claims are only inheritable if they’ve been pressed in war, but Meurig had managed to launch an inconclusive war for Cornwall before he’d died. With her four counties (three in Wales, plus Lancaster), Delyth had no trouble raising an army large enough to defeat and annex Cornwall. It takes territory to gain territory. I was pleased to see, she managed to do that without the expense of mercenaries.

That war was well-timed. King William raised the crown authority in his realm to Medium, precluding further private wars. Then he got embroiled in a war with France over one of England’s Continental holdings. In April, 1007, Delyth’s co-conspirator and faction leader, Count William of Devon, saw the time was right to press his demands. For the first time, my dynasty was able to put 1000 levies in the field for this war of independence. Her army began systematically besieging royal castles, working her way toward the English capital in Warwickshire. The campaign was going well because England’s armies were all tied up in France: all she had to do was besiege the castles, one by one. It was still slow going because Delyth had to actually starve out each garrison instead of sending hordes of mercenaries swarming over the walls.

Then the peasants in Lancaster staged a revolt. Delyth’s army was tied up in a siege, which she didn’t want to lift halfway through in order to put down a peasant uprising. Instead, she hired mercenaries again, who handily crushed the peasants. She had plenty of other uses for those mercenaries, now that she’d paid to raise them. First, there was the Earl of Chester. Chester is a de jure part of the Duchy of Lancaster, meaning the Earl of Chester is traditionally a vassal of Lancaster (a.k.a. Rheged). The current Earl of Chester was, instead, a direct vassal of the King of England. That bothered me. Delyth pressed a de jure claim, not to grab Chester for herself, but to assimilate it into her duchy. Chester’s overlord, England, was no protection because Delyth was already at war with her.

England capitulated in August 1109, making Delyth an independent duchess again. Delyth’s mercenary army handily defeated the Earl’s castle garrison, and she gained her first vassal by force of arms in June 1110. Along the way, she had fabricated a claim on the County of Gwynedd, which was still held by her grandmother, Nest. (Since Nest had remarried, she had heirs from her second marriage, just as I’d suspected, so the only way to get it under my control was by force of arms.) She declared war and began marching her mercenary-swollen army into Wales.

The Future of Wales and the Empire of Britannia

The next step in Delyth’s rise to power is to amass enough Welsh territory (and enough cash) to create the Kingdom of Wales. If she can do it in her lifetime, it will unite all three of her ducal titles and her heir will keep them together. After that, it’s hard to say: there may be opportunities to grab more territory from England, but Scotland is an easier target and Ireland, composed of many independent counts, is easier still. I’ve described as much of this game as I’ve played so far. I may be unable to resist a future post narrating more of Delyth’s exploits, and those of her kin.

If you have read this far, then you certainly have enough interest in Crusader Kings 2 to give it a try for yourself!