Note: a DLC for Crusader Kings 2 entails dozens of changes and additions. This review intends to cover them in broad strokes and assess how it changes the game, not the particularities of this or that (for that, check the patch notes linked ahead).
The middle ages were a grim time: the Scandinavians still hadn’t grasped what property exactly meant, a single family, instead of a couple of dozen, ruled most of the continent, and Christians liked to come knocking at non-believers’ doors in a way that would make Mormons swell with pride. There were also diseases and plagues, all of this in an era where a cold could be fatal, in no small part because your court physician thinks infections are solved with goat flatulence (thanks, Einar). The latest DLC for Crusader Kings 2 is now out, and while you can check the objective patch notes here (mandatory what they actually mean), I’ve played it a decent bit and written up what I thought below.
I’ll start off by saying that I think this DLC was long overdue, as diseases in general, and the bubonic plague in particular, played a central role in shaping the late middle ages and what came next. While the DLC has a big emphasis on epidemics and illnesses, with a map mode that lets you sigh in frustration as you see those filthy nomads bringing the plague from Eastern lands, it’s death – in all its shapes and forms – that is the central figure of the expansion. The patch notes have a segment that emphatically says this about the different methods of execution,
“- Burning heretics and witches at the stake.
– Carving your enemies into Blood Eagles.
– Impaling your victims.
– Crushing prisoners with Elephants in India!
– And many, many more!”
and I can only imagine that those exclamation marks represent how happy at themselves the developers were for introducing a death by elephant method of execution.
And boy, they sure worked on sharpening the final horseman’s scythe: from flavor changes to execution, which now has several new, culturally appropriate methods to choose from, all with accompanying, gruesome noises of leeks and celery being crushed, to different traits you can acquire instead of being generically maimed, such as losing an eye, a foot, a hand; and development paths for your illnesses. They’re all accompanied by new stories as well, with trait-specific events popping when I least expected them and several descriptions of your court physician royally botching his treatments. I even admit, to, uhm, purposefully maiming my prisoners just to see how their portrait would change – hey, I had to for the review.
Yet not all’s death and sadness in these ill-named Dark Ages: if you’ve been a good ruler, sparing your people from the strife of conquest and disease, your realm’s prosperity will increase. Peasants will praise your name, Skalds shall toast to your fortune and so on, with each level of Prosperity – there are three in total – granting your provinces bonuses to income and levy replenishment, among other things. There’s a slew of events to accompany said prosperity levels, and exceptional bonuses – such as increasing the maximum number of holdings – can happen if you manage things properly.
Accompanying the DLC is a free patch that includes, among other things, a set of game rules you can alter before starting a playthrough. As a game that’s taken a path of development that not all of its original players enjoyed, the new rules provide a way for you to avoid certain alterations or change back to how the game was before them – such as removing shattered retreats and defensive pacts or bringing back direct assassinations – without necessarily disabling achievements. It also improves on some previous DLC, such as Way of Life and The Old Gods, by adding new traits and event chains for them, among them ability of naming a fierce norse woman a Shieldmaiden, turning her into a warrior and leader.
It’s important to realize that while the DLC makes the game significantly more eventful, specially in regards to death, it also makes it more difficult: losing your children to disease seems much more frequent than before, and an epidemic that breaches your realm can have truly devastating effects. The prosperity mechanism provides incentive toward playing safer or more cautiously, although even if you are a warmonger you can avoid losing your realm’s prosperity by not allowing enemies to besiege your provinces. While I don’t reckon it changes the fundamentals of Crusader Kings, something that isn’t necessarily bad, it does add significant variety and a decent amount of new events, and at a tidy $10 price tag I suggest any player of the game to take a look at it.