Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods Review: Vikings And New Start Date Make CK2 Better Than Ever

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NOTE: This article is a contribution and do not necessarily represent the views of Player One.
Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods is available now for PC, Mac,
Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods is available now for PC, Mac,

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods review time! The Old Gods is the latest and largest DLC and the first expansion to Crusader Kings II, which I will punchily call a game of medieval dynasty management. The Old Gods came out last week, on May 28, and it moved the game's start date two hundred years earlier, and added robust new mechanics for pagans -- who are now playable for the first time. We've covered the new features before, but now that I've had some hands-on time with the game, let's talk about how it all feels. [UPDATE: If you're still in love with CK2, like I am, don't worry - more DLC is coming!]

Here's the short version of this Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods review: if you like Crusader Kings 2 already, you should buy The Old Gods right away. If you like strategy games, but haven't tried Crusader Kings 2 yet, you should also buy Crusader Kings 2 and The Old Gods right away. This is the real deal, and the new mechanics add a great deal to what is already the most robust and compelling strategy game since Civilization IV.

First off, this is what I played for this Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods review. According to Steam, I've played about 25 hours since installing The Old Gods. The majority of that has been a single save, starting as Halfdan Hvitserk (Whiteshirt), the Petty King of Jórvik and a son of Ragnar Lodbrok. In those twenty five hours, I've played from the new start date of 867 up until about 1020 (I play on the fastest speed, but pause a lot). And over those two centuries, with major setbacks along the way, House Hvitserk has gone on to become de jure Kings of England, Scotland, Denmark, and Norway, and de facto kings of Asturias, and Ireland.

Just before writing this, I reformed the Norse religion. More on that later.

Norse players can commission Runestones that will stand for all time in Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods. (Image: Paradox)
Norse players can commission Runestones that will stand for all time in Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods. (Image: Paradox)

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods - A Norse is a Norse Of Course Of Course

First things first: Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods is not just about the Vikings. They are a huge part of it, probably the lion's share of the new content, but by no means all of it. Zoroastrians, Tengri, Baltic pagans (Romuva), Slavic pagans, and Finnish pagans (Suomenusko) are all playable now too, and every one of them gets new events and features. But the coolest new features -- raiding, blóts, taking over half of Europe -- are either reserved for the Norse, or more robust for them.

The first thing you'll notice in your Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods review, however cursory it may be, is that the Norse start out very strong, and that their new abilities are a blast. Being able to prepare an invasion lets even a small Norse leader call upon a very large army, often one big enough to take on a state twice its size. And the ability to raid any coastal territory, or (early on) any territory along a navigable river, brings an incredible amount of gold into Norse coffers. So they can run deficits and hire mercs for a long time.

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods - The Norse Are Powerful, Not Overpowered

Norse can also hold great feasts, complete with human sacrifices to Odin and Thor. (Image: Paradox)
Norse can also hold great feasts, complete with human sacrifices to Odin and Thor. (Image: Paradox)

The Old Gods really pushes the Norse into early and constant war; there's a pretty serious Prestige penalty for being at peace for too long. Like Muslims and the other pagans, the Norse have an automatic CB against any neighboring county. But they also have CBs against every coastal county on the entire map, along with the ability to subjugate entire pagan kingdoms. It is very, very rare to find a leader the Norse can't go to war with for one reason or another.

In my longest game so far, as House Hvitserk of Jórvik, the warlike nature of the Norse really shows. By 1020, before the base game even starts, the Norse control, without exception, every coastal county from Russia to France, along with spottier areas after that (Brittany, Galicia, Sicily, the Crimea), and most of the Baltic and northern Germany, coastal or not (weirdly, Russia itself, which was historically united by the Norse, has largely evaded their wrath in this game). Christendom is waning and Catholic heresies are almost as common as Catholicism itself -- as they should be.

But I'm glad I can say in this Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods review that none of this is actually a problem. The Norse are without question overpowered at 867. But they should be, just as the Muslims should be (and are) in 1066. The Sword of Islam DLC introduced Decadence for Muslims, creating essentially a built-in sunset clause for large Islamic kingdoms. By the 1200s if not earlier, Islam is largely on the retreat. In The Old Gods, it works basically the same way. Left to their own devices, the Norse are perpetually locked into Agnatic-Cognatic Gavelkind, and have a larger than normal opinion penalty for short reigns (roughly twice as bad as for Christians).

Combined with their inability to convert individual Christians, their difficulty converting counties, and the inevitable Christian Crusades against pagans starting in the late 1000s, the Norse do not have time on their side. The enforced Gavelkind is probably the most deadly: any Norse polity short of an Empire will almost inevitably fall apart as brother makes war against brother. Once the Christians have some breathing space and the option to Crusade, they can take the fight to Norse-occupied lands while the pagans are weak.

So the Norse don't disrupt the base game; their initial strength, in addition to being historically accurate, ups the stakes for Christian rulers. They'll probably get toned down a little bit in the next patch, as is typical for Crusader Kings 2 DLC. But even now, the Norse are strong, not broken.

That's a little different if a human is playing as a Norse ruler. In that case, you can reform the Norse religion to a more formalized and liturgical religion. This is no idle decision; it requires you to control three out of five special Norse holy sites widely scattered throughout Northern Europe, two of them initially under the control of the massively powerful Carolingians. The AI can theoretically reform, but those are steep barriers for the Norse (it's easier for other pagan religions, whose holy sites are more tightly clustered). Chances are they'll either convert to Christianity or get conquered instead -- which makes sense historically. But human-played Norse will steamroll everyone if they can get out of Gavelkind and feel so inclined.

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods Is Not Just For Pagans

As is traditional for Crusader Kings 2 DLC, much of the content applies across the board, not just to the newly playable group. The Old Gods has many incremental improvements. Only pagans get human sacrifice and concubines, but anybody can now seize a few hostages when taking a castle, and anybody can enjoy the new buildings, and the fear of being raided by pagans.

But most of all, anyone can enjoy the new technology system in Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods. The technology system before was a set it and forget it type of deal, although you'd get by even if you skipped right to "forget it." Now, tech growth depends on your ruler's stats and features a lot more manual control; you choose which steps to invest in. Figuring out how to actually spread that tech throughout your kingdom is another matter, and harder than it should be. But the new tech system allows a lot more control and no longer feels like an afterthought. It's a much-needed renovation to one of the few weak areas of the game.

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods Review Verdict

Here's the long and short of it: Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods is the best addition to the game yet, and well worth its modest $15 price tag. The additional 200 years feature more than enough compelling content and put actual obstacles in the way of Christian consolidation, and it allows for vast new possibilities in this ultimate sandbox game: a Europe without a Holy Roman Empire. Norse England. Even the collapse of Christendom.

Beyond that, this is the ultimate wargame version of Crusader Kings II. Legacy of Rome was ideal for the diplomatically minded. The Republic provided the ultimate builder's game. But The Old Gods is, above all else, about war. And it succeeds brilliantly by making conquering, raiding, and sacking more robust and fun than ever.

Crusader Kings 2: The Old Gods: 9/10

More Crusader Kings II DLC To Come

So get thee to a nunnery -- so you can sack it. And there's other good news, too. Not only is The Old Gods an absolute blast, but it's apparently doing very well. One of the Paradox people tweeted that it has broken all records, and Paradox has said before that Crusader Kings II has done very well. That's fantastic news for us, because they just finalized two more years of DLC for Crusader Kings II. No idea what we'll get, but I can't wait to find out. So I can sack it.

Crusader Kings II: The Old Gods, as well as Crusader Kings II itself, is available directly from Paradox, on Steam and on GamersGate.

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