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.
This guide assumes that no expansions are enabled. DLC affects gameplay by adding new options, altering mechanics and even completely revamping gameplay systems.
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. There is also a separate set of tutorials that explains some concepts in more detail.
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websites, such as the Paradox forums and YouTube, are also informative, however these vary wildly in quality and may be outdated due to changes introduced in patches.
- 1 Selecting a character
- 2 Before unpausing
- 3 Early game
- 4 Later on
- 5 See also
Selecting a character
In CKII, you play as a ruler rather than a country. When starting a new game, click Custom Game Setup to choose any date and character. There are many options for playable characters and it can be overwhelming trying to get started. Consider the following when choosing your first character:
- The William the Conqueror bookmark in December 1066 is the safest starting date for beginners: there are few major ongoing events, 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.
- Starting as an independent duke or count in Ireland in 1066 is generally considered the best way to learn the basics of conquest, as all of its realms are small and the nearby kingdoms will leave it alone for a long time. Small realms outside Ireland will usually be conquered quickly and require advanced strategies to survive.
- Playing as a vassal of the head of a large realm allows you to be in a more active area while a liege protects you from outside threats. Click the Dukes map mode button. Though vassals are protected from outsiders, until Crown Authority reaches a certain level, you are vulnerable to claims from other vassals within the realm. See Playing as a vassal for more details.
- Within the Holy Roman Empire, two good choices are Duke Vratislav of Bohemia and Duchess Matilda of Tuscany, who are individually powerful and well-situated, but only have two counts to manage and are protected from external realms by the mighty Kaiser. A more confident choice is Doux Michael of Adrianopolis in the Byzantine Empire, who is still safe but immediately poised to expand.
- The head of a big kingdom or empire starts off with a lot of responsibility. Though you probably will not be wiped out immediately, internal strife caused by power-seeking vassals can quickly leave a large realm vulnerable. You have to be prepared for malcontent vassals and the eventuality of a fairly large war with a neighboring realm.
- For beginners, the safest starts as independent kings are King Boleslaw 'the Bold' of Poland and King Svend of Danmark, as they are strong enough to stand up to external threats but have few enough direct vassals for them to not require constant management.
There are 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.
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.
First, consider switching from the default map mode, Terrain (Q), to a more useful mode:
- 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, indicated by some of 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 become infertile at 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 a county 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 in the county of a noble with a low opinion of you or otherwise in your capital to Scheme
- 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.
The character system
A ruler's attributes are added to their councilor's attributes and half of their spouse's attributes to determine the state level of that attribute. The five attributes are:
- Diplomacy affects other characters' opinions of you. It is important for having better success with character interactions.
- Martial affects a character's skill as a commander on the battlefield. It also bolsters levies, making it core to realm survivability.
- Stewardship affects a ruler's tax income and demesne limit, making it important for getting the most out of your holdings.
- Intrigue affects a character's ability to plot and uncover others' plots. It's essential for both increasing your options and surviving others' designs on your power.
- Learning affects technological research. It's beneficial to have multiple vassals with high Learning to improve the spread of technology, but it's not too important for player characters.
Further augmenting a character's abilities are traits. Traits range from small modifiers to complete alterations of how a character works. Mouse over a trait to see a tooltip displaying its effects. These will mostly be modifiers to attributes, opinions, combat ability, and health.
In addition to the displayed modifiers, most traits affect certain events. This sometimes results in a major effect of a trait not being displayed. For example, Craven , while being the opposite of the purely advantageous Brave and having severe negative effects, does have the hidden benefit of making the character less likely to be killed, wounded, or captured in battle.
Each character has an opinion of every other character in the game, based on a variety of factors. Keep vassal opinions high by issuing honorary titles and sending gifts. The more vassals like you, the more tax they'll pay and the more men they'll provide when you raise their levies.
After unpausing the game (␣ Space), you can adjust the speed (+/-), 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
An early priority should be having as many children as possible to continue your legacy.
Your dynasty is what the game centers around. Though you play individual characters within that dynasty, at some point, 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.
If your character doesn't have children, you may pick the Have a Son ambition for a fertility boost.
Grooming an heir
When children from your dynasty turn 6, you will see the alert Children Lack a Guardian and should appoint them a guardian as soon as possible to provide an education. Children will usually get an education trait for the same attribute as the guardian's education trait, with the guardian's other traits also influencing the child's traits. It is best to educate your heir yourself to have more control over what traits he gets.
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 - war and marriage:
- War is the most direct 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.
- 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.
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 counties 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 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.
When you control enough of a title's de jure territory, you can create it. Creating titles grants Prestige and, if the title is of a rank higher than your current rank, increases your rank. If you are a count, try to become a Duke, then a 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 - 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.
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.
When starting as a smaller count or duke, your first objective will likely be to unite the duchy you are in. If you are a duke, work on gaining control of any county within your duchy 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.
Keeping vassals weak
It is important to keep your demesne strong and your vassals in check. If some vassals are getting too strong, or if you haven't reached your demesne limit yet, consider plotting to revoke a title , whenever available. As long as you are under your demesne limit, try to hold all the counties within your capital duchy.
Once in every ruler's lifetime, you can increase crown authority. You should maintain at least Medium crown authority, which 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.
Whenever you have a surplus of wealth, you should build improvements in holdings you control, prioritizing your capital. Improvements provide more income or troops, but it can take a while for it to pay off. Stick to investing in holdings in your demense, as vassals will improve their holdings on their own.
There are three categories of technology: Military, Economy, and Culture. Over time, the realm accumulates points in each category.
When you have enough points to upgrade any of a category's technology, the alert You Should Invest in a Technological Advance will appear. You should spend the technology points generated in your realm to boost specific technologies. 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.
The new ruler is significantly weaker in the first few years after a succession. Vassals' opinions of the new ruler will be low, resulting in fewer available troops and a higher chance of revolt. Other dynasty members may attempt to claim your title or kill you. 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.
- Guides category, for more specific concept-related guides