Welcome to Crusader Kings II, a unique blend of RPG elements within a complex strategy game. This guide is meant to get first-time or beginner players into the game with an idea of what to do.
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, read the manual and 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on various websites, such as the Paradox forums, are also informative, however these vary wildly in quality and may be outdated due to changes introduced in patches.
Selecting a Character
There are many options for playable characters (some are unlocked by DLC), and it can be overwhelming trying to get started.
Here are some suggestions on characters to look for, or at least to avoid:
|Independent medium Duke or Count in the Isles in 1066||King Murchad of Mumu, Earl Murchad of Dubhlinn||Few and weak vassals, isolated (do not turn on Sunset Invasion DLC!)|
|Vassalized Catholic ruler inside a large realm||Duke in the Kingdom of France or the Holy Roman Empire||Liege protection against outsiders|
|Powerful King or Emperor||King of France, Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire||Complex vassal-liege relations|
|Christians neighbouring other religions||Iberia, Eastern Europe, southern Italy, Byzantine Empire||Frequent holy wars|
|Small vassalized Counts||Count Eustache of Boulogne||Slow pace at the start|
|Pagans||Frequent successions crisis|
|Merchant republics||Serene Doge of Venice||Slightly more passive/strategic gameplay.|
|Muslims||Mansa Mari-Djata of Mali||Fast paced and offensive gameplay, mechanics hard to master.|
|Zoroastrians or Jews||Satrap Vandad of Karen Satrapy, Khazaria||Few allies and deadly neighbours|
While it can be tempting, it is not recommended to play as the head of a big kingdom or empire for your first playthrough. Though you probably will not be wiped out immediately, a realm facing internal threats and civil war quickly becomes vulnerable. The vassal-liege relations are complex, and 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.
The recommendation is to start as a smaller independent or vassalized count or duke (with a 2 or 3 province demesne). You are small enough so that you don't have to deal with vassals above baron level (who are relatively powerless against you - though they do need to be managed), but large enough (or in a large enough realm) where you won't immediately be conquered:
- For an independent ruler, a remote location or at least not next to hungry large nations is something valuable. Ireland is a good starting location if you want to learn the basics of conquest as most of the landholders there are similarly 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. Island is also a remote 2-province location that nobody usually bothers unless there is literally no other place to expand, though nearby expansion possibilities are also extremely limited.
- 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.
Though you can play a Muslim if you have Sword of Islam, you should save it for an advanced playthrough - the pace is incredibly fast comparatively and there are many things you have to keep track of, and rule variances that if you don't know the rules to begin with will just confuse you. However, they are a very large threat and should be respected as a Catholic.
If you want to go cowboy and pick something off the wall, avoid the following as a beginner:
- Neighboring other religions - hottest areas include Iberia, Eastern Europe and southern Italy.
- Orthodox - more of an advanced choice for various reasons
- Outside Europe in general
- Small independents outside of the Isles - they will disappear quickly
Here are some general recommendations that tend to apply at the start of most games:
At the Beginning
- Independent 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 Is 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 and then to the Marry Character button : this will open a list of brides, sorted by a general sense of desirability (rank and prestige), though you are able to marry anyone you choose if her or his lord permits it.
- For your first marriage, avoid any landed brides as this has complications that you are at this time unaware of - these will have various thickness of rings around them. It is important to note at this point that alliances in this game are solely from marriages and being the same dynasty. If the flag is not greyed, then the marriage will bring an alliance - if you recognize any of the names such as the Duke of Next Door then feel free to target that. However if it's Baron John then it probably will be of no consequence. Don't feel obligated 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.
- In general, target a bride that does not have any bad congenital traits, preferably with high attributes that complement yours (specifically Stewardship and Diplomacy), preferably with good congenital traits, and has the same religion. If you can find one, Lustful characters make excellent wives - they have a bonus to fertility, and having many children early in the game gives you a good foundation for building a mighty dynasty. All characters are considered adults at 16 and women can only conceive until 45, so younger is better, though don't expect a 16 year old to immediately give a child as they tend to have children starting around 19-25. Most of them will be 16, though, since that is the starting age of an adult and most of them are generated so that is fine.
You can take the Get Married ambition, for a quick +10 piety gain.
In case you already have a dynastic heir and he is not married, you will get an alert Unmarried Heir. You should find him a suitable bride, in a similar way.
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 Collect Taxes
- 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 Uncover Plots 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.
Starting a game in 1066, as most people do, the game will be slow: most dynasties are small, technology levels are low and most of the holdings are not upgraded at all, 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 unpausing the game (Space), you can increase the speed a bit (+/-), as the default speed of 1 is very slow. For instance speed 3 when at peace and speed 2 when at war is a good balance.
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.
After some time, and when children from your dynasty turn 6, you will see the alert Children Lack a Guardian, and you 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 screen (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. 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. Upon achieving your goals, simply set new ones. If you end up 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 and some prestige, 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.
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 of your courtiers with good attributes. Only give titles to characters with the same religion and culture as you. Look for the Content trait and avoid Ambitious characters at all costs. 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. 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.
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.
When you cannot easily expand, you should upgrade the buildings in the holdings you own directly, and in priority in your capital. Construction allows for more income (or troops if you feel threatened), 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 per ruler lifetime, you can increase crown authority, and you should do it until you reach at least Medium crown authority. Try to do it after a long reign, as it will upset your vassals.
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 Tanistry. 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 Military Organization (military), Castle Infrastructure (economy), Improved Keeps (economy), Majesty (cultural), and Legalism (cultural).
Dealing with succession
The few years after a succession are the most 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. It's recommended to 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. However, always remember that asking a vassal to stop plotting is always an option if you have a good spymaster who can discover the plots and the vassal has positive relationships with 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.
- bribing or imprisoning the most powerful faction members
- letting the revolt break out if you think you can crush it (refer to the faction tab to see the rival manpower)
Your dynasty is what the game centers around. Though you play individual characters within that dynasty, it is extremely important to remember that at some point, maybe tomorrow and maybe decades from now, you will die. And that's okay and should be expected. You may currently be playing a genius character who is good at everything and everyone loves but his son may be awful and everyone hates him.
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 just the classic dagger in the back.
CKII is a sandbox game and has no strict winstate: as long as at least one landed member of your dynasty survives, 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.
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.