Who of us has not once thought about moving beyond our usually limited power and what we would do differently as the ruler of a kingdom? Get rid of corruption and injustice. Gather the wisest people in a council and listen to their advice. Create a flourishing economy and share the wealth with the people. Bring peace to the country and the world. With the unlimited power of a king we would create a great Kingdom – unlike all these tyrants of history! But could we really?

Many strategy games give us this unlimited power. Turn based strategy games like Civilization VI and Medieval 2: Total War let us command over every aspect of our realm from taxes to the movement of every army. Every order is executed. No questions asked. At most, we have to watch out for revolting villagers (unless we want to abuse such mechanics to create free armies, which I will examine in a later post).

However, in reality no king had such unlimited power. Even absolute monarchs were only able to give orders. They still had to rely on other people to execute these orders. Imagine if we played Age of Empires II, ordered an army to attack a city, and they would refuse the order and declare independence, because they had been marching all over the map and were tired of war. Such a thing can happen in Crusader Kings II, which depicts the limited power of kings very well.

Crusader Kings II is a grand strategy game (or ruler simulator) by Paradox Interactive set in medieval times. Rather than controlling every aspect of a kingdom like a telepathic god, you play as the head of a dynasty, who has to rely on the members of the court to rule. Every province depicts a county, which is ruled by a count and consists of cities and castles, which in turn are ruled by mayors and barons. Multiple counties form a duchy, which form kingdoms. This means that kings have to satisfy their dukes and counts for a stable country.

Crusader Kings II is as much an empire management game as it is a relationship management game. You do not declare wars on other countries, you declare war on other rulers. Depending on the personal traits and history of our and other characters, they like us more or less. Brave people dislike cowards. Zealots dislike followers of different religions. People of the same culture or even family like each other more.

During wars most of our armies are levied from your subjects. How many soldiers they are willing to send depends on their personal relationship with us.
When I started playing, I did not understand this. (The tutorial in this game is horrible, but that is a story for a later post.) I started a war relying on my personal troops and lost many of them in costly battles. Very soon, the subordinates who disliked me noticed my weak army and used this opportunity to declare independence. Additionally to the already difficult war, I had lost a civil war, but gained a deeper understanding of our real world’s political history.

In my next game, I placed relatives into important positions of power. After all, family members like you more than strangers – or so I thought. What I had missed in my train of thought, were the claims my brothers and their sons had to my throne. When my character died and I automatically continued playing as my heir, my now cousins started scheming for my assassination to sit on the throne after my early demise.

Fortunately, in Crusader Kings II you always continue playing as your direct heir. This meant, I continued my game as my killer. I has basically murdered my old self. My new self now had an even better understanding of medieval politics.

Unfortunately, kinslayers are disliked by family members and so I had only one possibility to stabilize my “new” reign. I had to finish the job and imprison or assassinate all other claimants. Of course, I was soon called a tyrant. But I was surrounded by very loyal subjects, who were happy that I had given them freshly vacant positions of power. And history is written by the winners anyway.

When you want to create a memorable experience for your player or teach them a difficult lesson, do not shy back from making it difficult. Power fantasies can be nice, but limited power forces players to think more deeply about your game mechanics. If you recreate a real situation, players can come to understand their important details organically. Coming up with your own creative solutions to unforeseen problems is much more engaging than executing the same unbeatable plan every time.

What are your favorite gaming moments of limited power? Share your experiences! I looking forward to your comments below. In the meantime, I have rewrite history.

(Photo by William Krause on Unsplash)