Welcome to Crusader Kings II, a unique blend of RPG elements within a grand strategy game. This guide is meant to get first-time players into the game with an idea of what to do. Although an older guide it is still more or less accurate if no extra features (DLC) are in play; if you are using any of these check the relevant pages for details of any changes.
The first thing a new player should do is play the Learning Scenario from the prompt that appears after the game loads. This introduces the basic game concepts and mechanics while allowing you to immediately get some play experience. Later, play the in-game tutorials for further information, although note that updates have left the tutorial with some errors.
After action reports and Let's Plays of CKII posted on various websites, such as the Paradox forums and YouTube, are also informative, however these vary wildly in quality and may be outdated due to changes introduced in patches.
This guide assumes that no DLC is enabled. DLC affects gameplay by adding new options (such as the ability to play certain religions, government types or start dates), altering mechanics and even completely revamping gameplay systems. While some expansions do not necessarily make the game more difficult and can be safely left enabled by new players, certain expansions do task the player with more issues and as such are unsuited for beginners.
Selecting a Character
In CKII, you play as a ruler rather than a country. There are many options for playable characters and it can be overwhelming trying to get started.
Here are some suggestions on characters to look for and to avoid:
|Independent medium Duke or Count in Ireland in 1066||King Murchad of Mumu, Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn||Few and weak vassals, isolated|
|Vassal Duke inside a kingdom or empire||Duke Vratislav of Bohemia, Duchess Matilda of Tuscany||Liege protection against outsiders|
|Powerful King or Emperor||King Boleslaw of Poland, King Svend of Danmark||Domestic threats from power-seeking vassals|
|Vassal Count inside a kingdom or empire||Count Eustache of Boulogne||Slow expansion initially, no bonus to levies from capital|
|Small realms outside Ireland||King Gudrød of Søreyar||Severely threatened by other realms, advanced strategies required to survive|
While it can be tempting, playing as the head of a big kingdom or empire for your first playthrough will likely prove overwhelming. Though you probably will not be wiped out immediately, a realm facing internal threats and civil war can quickly become vulnerable. The vassal-liege relations are probably too much to handle in addition to learning the basics of the game. Remember that CKII is a game about your dynasty and the individual characters within it, not just a map conquest game like the Europa Universalis series. It will be easier to instead start as a smaller independent or vassalized count or duke (with a 2 or 3 province demesne). You are small enough to not have to deal with vassals above baron level (who are relatively powerless), but large enough (or in a large enough realm) that you won't immediately be conquered:
- For an independent ruler, a remote location or at least not next to large realms is something valuable. Ireland in 1066 is a good starting location to learn the basics of conquest as all of its realms are small and the Kingdom of Ireland is probably the easiest kingdom to form. King Murchad of Mumu or Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn are particularly good choices. Small realms outside Ireland will usually be conquered quickly.
- For a vassal, pick a large realm such as the Holy Roman Empire or France, and within it pick a duke or count with at least 2 counties so that if you lose one it's not game over. Though you are protected from outsiders as a vassal (the main reason to be one), until Crown Authority reaches a certain level, you are vulnerable to claims from other vassals within the realm. As a vassal, your bonus levies from your capital is reduced (and will not exist if you're a mere count).
See the Playing as a vassal guide for more details.
Playing a ruler with a religion other than Catholic should be saved for later playthroughs - other religions (including other denominations of Christianity) have mechanical variances that will just confuse you if you don't know how to play to begin with. Additionally, you should be aware of the additional challenges of playing a realm neighboring other religions, which will face holy wars and more complex application of crown laws due to rulers of different religions. For Christians, the hottest areas will be Iberia, Sicily, and the Byzantine Empire.
The High Middle Ages bookmark in 1066 is the safest starting date for beginners: most dynasties are small, technology levels are low and most holdings have had most of their buildings built but few upgrades, so income is low and levies are small. It's a good opportunity to learn the game with few consequences for mistakes before the carnage really starts.
After selecting a character, the Game rules screen will appear. Disabling shattered retreat and Defensive Pacts will make wars easier, and setting assassination to Direct Action allows for more easily dealing with inconvenient characters.
Here are some general recommendations that tend to apply at the start of most games:
- Realms (W) if you are independent, as you will mostly compete with other independent rulers.
- Direct vassals (F) if you are a vassal inside a larger realm, as you will mostly compete with other vassals.
Before unpausing the game, there are a few things that usually need to be done, and which are linked to the circular alerts appearing at the top of the screen
One of the alerts is most likely Ruler Unmarried, though some characters start already married. If you are the only living member of your dynasty, this is even more critical. This is best dealt with before unpausing the game, because most of the other nobles will also be unmarried and good brides will be snatched up very quickly.
- Click on your portrait. Before searching for a spouse, first pick the Get Married ambition for a quick +10 piety gain. Then click the Arrange Marriage button . This will open a list of potential spouses sorted by general desirability. As with the character finder, it is also possible to sort by other criteria.
- Always choose the type of marriage that will result in children of your dynasty: a regular marriage when playing as a man or a matrilineal marriage when playing as a woman.
- Half of your spouse's attributes are added to yours, so target a bride with high skills. A high Stewardship is particularly useful as it will increase your demesne limit, although high ranks in any skills other than Learning are useful.
- Avoid marrying anyone with any negative congenital traits. Try to marry someone with positive congenital traits, especially Quick or Genius which improve everything a character does. Lustful is also a great trait for spouses (and your character, for that matter) - it gives a bonus to fertility, and having many children early in the game gives you a good foundation for building a mighty dynasty.
- Avoid marrying other members of your dynasty. Inbred is rare in marriages between cousins, but its effects are devastating if your children do get it.
- Try to arrange a marriage that gives you a non-aggression pact with a nearby ruler. This pact can later be upgraded to an alliance that lets you call your in-laws into your wars. It will usually be difficult to make your first marriage a useful alliance as at the start most of the brides will be generated characters and not the actual daughters of your neighboring nobles.
- While it is a rare opportunity, marrying a childless ruler into your dynasty will result in a child who is both your heir and theirs. Marrying a childless heir will also put your issue in the other title's line of succession. This is one method of expanding without war.
- Characters are considered adults at 16 and women can only conceive until 46, so younger is better. At this point, most of them will be 16, since that is the starting age of an adult and most of them will have been generated at the game's start. Don't expect a 16 year old to immediately get pregnant as women tend to have children starting around 19-25.
If you have a dynastic heir who is not married, you will get the Unmarried Heir alert. You should find him a suitable bride in a similar way.
Once married, selecting the Have a Son or Have a Daughter ambitions will increase fertility. It is prudent to also marry off other members of your dynasty to expand it. For more details on how marriage can be used to your advantage, see the advanced marriage guide.
Five councillors are here to help you manage your realm. Initially, the best suitable characters in the realm will be appointed. You need to assign them to a mission, for instance:
- The Chancellor in your liege's capital or some province of an unhappy vassal, to Improve Diplomatic Relations
- The Marshal in your capital to Research Military Tech
- The Steward in your capital to Research Economy Tech
- The Spymaster's missions are more situational and you might not find an immediate use for him, though if there are any other nobles with a very low opinion of you, send the Spymaster to Scheme in their province
- The Court Chaplain to Proselytize in any counties with a different religion, otherwise in your capital to Research Cultural Tech
When a councillor dies or leaves the council, you will get the alert Open Council Positions, and should appoint a successor as soon as possible and assign a mission to him. You should generally pick the most skilled character, or a skilled landed vassal to please him. Avoid appointing a character that has a negative opinion of you as your Spymaster, as he won't warn you of discovered plots against you and will likely join them. If the best candidate's opinion of you is only slightly negative, award him an honorary title to bump it up into a positive. Honorary titles are an easy way to bump up opinions, so don't leave them unassigned.
After unpausing the game (␣ Space), you can increase the speed a bit (+/-), as the default speed of 1 is very slow. Faster speeds allow things to go by quickly in peacetime while slower speeds make managing wars easier. Speed 5 causes game time to pass as quickly as your computer can run the simulation and should only be used to pass a large amount of time quickly.
Expanding your dynasty
Early focus should be on making sure you have as many children as possible to continue your legacy.
If your character doesn't have children, you may pick the Have Daughter/Son ambition for a fertility boost.
When children from your dynasty turn 6, you will see the alert Children Lack a Guardian and should appoint them a tutor as soon as possible to provide proper education. For small realms, a good strategy is to educate your heir with Stewardship education , for a bigger demesne and more taxes. You can also educate children yourself and will be asked to make some choices via random events.
As your dynasty expands, and depending on your realm succession law, you may get Unlanded Sons alert. As a beginner it might be best to ignore it and take the monthly Prestige penalty, because landing your heir means losing control over him, and landing your other sons means giving power to the future rivals of your heir.
Expanding your realm
There are two main ways to expand your realm - marriage and war:
- Marriage is usually a more complicated way to expand, that involves marrying your heir within the line of succession of a title, and then trying to get to closer via intrigue to ensure one of your descendant one day either inherits the title, or gets a claim on it.
- War is a much simpler way to expand. There are many ways to declare war, however you must have a Casus Belli (or CB). A CB is simply a valid reason in the eyes of other nobility to declare war.
The simplest way to declare war is to press a claim for yourself . Claims are shown on the character page underneath your holdings. Claims can be gotten in many ways but the simplest is through the Fabricate Claim Chancellor mission.
You should first expand in your de jure realm, and then try to expand in provinces that are de jure part of the title above your primary title. The de jure structure can be seen by going to the title view (F1) and checking the "de jure" checkbox, or by switching between map modes - de jure duchies (I), de jure kingdoms (O), de jure empires (P).
Some of your courtiers or vassals may have claims on titles outside the realm, which you can press on their behalf. In order to vassalize the claimed title, the rank of the claimed title must be lower than yours and the claimant must either already have a title in your realm or be of your dynasty. So you should probably ignore this alert for now.
Once you have a valid CB you can declare war. Before declaring war though, you should first review your enemy's capabilities. Click on the defender's portrait to open the Character Interface for him or her, then check the number next to the Army Levies icon. If you are not outnumbered, next ensure that the defender has no major allies by checking the Allies tab, which displays the names of his or her allies and the ally's relationship to the character. A relationship in green letters indicates that the ally is available to be called to war - though may not necessarily join - while red lettering indicates that the ally cannot be called to war. Then declare war via the Diplomacy View. Now raise all your levies, gather them together, and march into their land. As long as you significantly outnumber your enemy, victory should come easily. If your armies are close in size, however, ensure that you appoint the best commanders you can to lead the army and try to ensure that the armies engage in favorable (to you) terrain. Don't attack across rivers if your forces aren't much larger than the enemy, as that puts you at a disadvantage. After defeating his army in battle, you just need to siege his holdings, and victory will be yours.
Continue this way and you'll eventually forge yourself a powerful realm, and be able to take on more major powers. If you are defeated you can simply start a new game in the same area or another, now armed with a decent understanding of the game. Also remember that if you lose an offensive war, the most you stand to lose is that claim, some Prestige and some Wealth, so it's not game over if you don't succeed.
The effects of a war's different outcomes are fixed, i.e. unless the peace results say otherwise, you cannot gain counties you're not pressing a claim for by occupying them and they will just be returned to their holders when the war ends.
After a few months, the alert Vassal Levies Raised Too Long will appear: your vassals are slowly starting to get angry that you raised their levies; it will slowly improve back once the levies are disbanded. Try to avoid lengthy wars and wait a few years between each war to keep the vassals' opinion penalty to a minimum. Once your realm has expanded, you will not need all your vassal levies at the same time to win some wars against weaker opponents.
Try creating titles whenever possible for more power and Prestige. If you are a count, try to become a Duke, then a Grand Duke (2 duchies), then King. You will need to look at the requirements for the title to be created. Don't hoard titles, as holding more than two duchies causes an opinion penalty among your vassals. Distributing duchies (and kingdoms if you're an emperor) helps keep you under your vassal limit, as only direct vassals count towards your vassal limit. If you are a vassal, you cannot create a title of same rank as your liege and you will need to either to usurp him or gain independence.
Granting landed titles
When you personally hold too many holdings and exceed your demesne size limit, the alert Demesne Too Big will appear. You should give less interesting titles to some characters in your realm with good attributes.
Click the Find Characters button and set it to search your realm for men who aren't in prison, aren't rulers, and have your religion and your culture. Only give titles to characters with the same religion and culture as you. In order to avoid vassals becoming too powerful, don't grant landed titles to characters who already have them—ideally, your counts should only hold one county and your dukes should only hold one duchy and within that only the capital county. (The exception is granting multiple titles to your heir, as they will return to you upon succession.) Giving landed titles to your kinsmen helps spread your dynasty, but be careful about empowering pretenders and those with claims to your titles. Give minor holdings in a county to generated characters by right-clicking on the holding in the Province Interface and clicking Create New Vassal.
Also consider the traits your subjects have, as they affect both their skills and behavior. While deciding on who to land, take note of the following traits:
- Honest - Much less likely to join plots.
- Deceitful - Much more likely to join plots.
- Ambitious - High skills, but their aggression and opinion penalties towards their liege make them generally poor vassals.
- Content - Opinion bonuses and less aggressive AI make it easy to keep these vassals weak.
- Zealous - More likely to proselytize and wage their own holy wars if strong enough.
- Trusting - Less likely to join plots and much easier to assassinate should the need arise.
Consolidating your realm
You need to consolidate your realm, to ensure that all your hard work doesn't crumble when your heir takes over after your death.
If some vassals are getting too strong, or if you haven't reached your demesne limit yet, you may consider plotting to revoke a title , whenever available. This is more important if you can gain control of a county within your capital duchy through this method.
When you cannot easily expand, you should build improvements in the holdings you own directly, with priority given to your capital. Improvements provide more income or troops, but it can take a while for it to pay off. Your vassals will improve their own demesne as well, when they can afford it.
Once in every ruler's lifetime, you can increase crown authority. You should maintain at least Medium crown authority, which allows you to freely revoke the titles of infidels and prevents vassals from declaring war on each other. Increasing crown authority upsets your vassals, so try to do it after a long reign. Higher crown authority increases the opinion penalty with your vassals, and the benefits may not be worth angering them. Lowering crown authority does not cause the current succession law to be lost if it required the higher crown authority, and a common strategy is to raise crown authority to High to implement Primogeniture, then lower it back to Medium with the next ruler.
If under Gavelkind succession law, you may get the Title Loss on Succession alert. You should try switching as soon as possible (minimum 10 years reign) to an easier and more stable succession law, such as Primogeniture or Feudal Elective. The longer you wait, the easier it should be, because of the long reign and prestige opinion bonus your vassals will have toward you.
After some time, the alert You Should Invest in a Technological Advance may appear. You should spend the technology points generated in your realm to boost specific technologies, while the others will slowly improve over time. The most important are:
- The unit from your cultural building
- Military Organization (military)- Benefits all units, makes attrition more manageable.
- Castle Infrastructure (economy)- More tax income and unlocks buildings for bigger armies.
- Improved Keeps (economy)
- Majesty (cultural)- Reduced short reign penalty makes succession easier.
- Legalism (cultural)- Unlocks more powerful laws.
Dealing with succession
The few years after a succession are difficult as you are weaker: other dynasty members may attempt to claim your title or kill you, vassals don't like you very much and may seize the opportunity to revolt, etc. You should first pause the game and review all the alerts and a few other things:
Look for Demesne too Big alert. Your new character may have a different demesne limit, due to a different state Stewardship: give out some holdings to some unlanded characters, thereby gaining new friends while also reducing the opinion penalty from existing vassals.
In case you get the Righteous Imprisonment alert, check if you can throw some angry vassal in prison without incurring tyranny. Once imprisoned a character cannot plot or join factions anymore, and is no longer a threat to you.
Send your councillors:
- to improve diplomatic and religious relations with angry direct vassals.
- to prepare for a rebellion by training troops with your Marshal
- to discover plots or discourage an angry powerful vassal from joining a faction.
After a few months and despite your best efforts, angry vassals may group into a faction that becomes dangerous. You can weaken a faction by bribing or imprisoning the most powerful faction members. If you think you can crush it (refer to the faction view to see their strength), you can let the revolt break out.
Your dynasty is what the game centers around. Though you play individual characters within that dynasty, at some point, maybe tomorrow and maybe decades from now, you will die. Your top priority is to ensure that your heir always is of your dynasty and is as prepared as you can possibly make him - whether that means removing potential threats or possibly removing the heir in favor of another by succession law changes or even execution.
CKII is a sandbox game and has no strict winstate: as long as at least one landed member of your dynasty survives (of at least the rank of count), the game will continue until 1453 and at the end you will get the same dynasty score screen (comparing your dynasty to some historical dynasties) you would get if you had resigned earlier. There are achievements that can give goals to strive for, but other than that players must choose for themselves where the emergent gameplay will take them.
If you follow the recommendation to start as a smaller count or duke, your first objective will likely be simply to unite the duchy you are in. At the top of the minimap (on the bottom right of your screen) is a series of map modes in 2 rows (you may need to click the "+" button to show the mapviews, but you can then select your favorites and drag them into the boxes to the right of your minimap) - the third button from the right on the top row will show you de jure duchies. If you are a duke, take note of where your duchy is and work on gaining control of any province within it that you don't currently have. If you are a count, aspire to be the duke of whatever duchy you are in. This is more important if you are a vassal; while vassal counts don't get any bonus to levies from their capital, a vassal duke will get a 25% bonus for their capital and a 15% bonus for holdings within their capital duchy.
As your game progresses and you become more powerful and options open up for you, you can take on loftier goals such as becoming the king or emperor of whatever area you're in. When you feel you have a good understanding of the game, you can attempt more difficult challenges such as giving an ahistorical destiny to a historical character (see interesting characters guide) or trying to survive as a realm with a very high difficulty.
- Guides category, for more specific concept-related guides