Crusader Kings II is easily the most played game on my main Steam account, rushing ahead of Mount & Blade: Warband, Civ V, Elite Dangerous, and other notoriously ‘heavy’ games.
There are reasons, of course. The game is essentially a sandbox medieval simulator with no defining win conditions. The player’s role transcends the life of any single noble to instead focus on dynastic legacy. Crusader Kings II has received a mass of new updates and content packs in the five-and-a-half years since launch; with those it covers a massive slice of the world across nearly seven hundred years, as well as allowing play as non-Christian rulers in non-feudal roles.
Given that the game’s launch predated the existence of this website by over four years, and that it’s most definitely a live-and-kicking product, we’ve always struggled to find a time and place to start the conversation about it. Jade Dragon, the latest expansion — which introduces a highly influential off-map faction for the first time in the series — has recently launched and seems a perfect place to start.
It’s hard to truly quantify the impact of the changes brought to the Eastern side of Crusader Kings II’s map with Jade Dragon and its accompanying free update. Players who have familiarised themselves with Rajas Of India’s playable India, or Horse Lords’ playable Eurasian Steppes, are directly impacted by their new neighbours’ arrival: both off-screen China and the occupants of the Tibetan Plateau. The Silk Road trade route is also shaken up a bit, with new routes expanding out from its pre-update paths.
New events, as well as rebel generals and adventurers, come from the East, directly offering support or new threats to those who have opted to straddled that edge of the map. Since the pre-Jade-Dragon game is designed to encourage hordes to sweep efficiently across the steppes (although some would argue a lot less so than before), the impact of having the Chinese Emperor either alongside your or, essentially, against you, is enough to completely change up gameplay — whether you were planning on playing defensively or as an expansionist.
Interaction with The Emperor is done through a little tab, found bolted to the side of the UI’s map. Through this you can send tribute, request gifts and engage in various other interactions, assuming you are within diplomatic range. Tribute ranges from sending cold, hard gold, through to sending off courtiers to become eunuchs and setting off to visit The Emperor yourself, which triggers an event chain similar to pilgrimage-style events.
In return for racking up favour, characters can request specialists, imperial marriages, improved trade relations and military favours. Interestingly, the worth of your gifts can be amplified and nerfed by racial and regional favourites of The Emperor: a twist on every other character in the game, whose racial and religious tolerance is based off tech levels and their own religion and culture group. That said, gifts are only useful if the dynasty remains in power. If the country changes hands, players will have to start building their relationship anew.
Finally, in the last way you can directly interact with China, players can attempt to push back against The Emperor, forcing the nation open when its policies had it closed, raiding it when it is weak, or plain ol’ invading the nation (by fighting off droves of front-line units which appear on the map) and placing a dynasty member on the throne.
The expansion also adds the ability to set rally points for troops and navies to assemble at when you first muster them; two new religions; a couple of new ways to get artifacts — summoning a smith to make one, or having a tome written; and, most importantly, eight new casus belli, which are extremely useful for early expansion and completely change up early game play.
I can’t understate the changes which the new casus belli bring to the game. An early Ireland start is often lauded as a great place for new players to start out, even in The Old Gods’ early start date — the fact that you are hardly ‘surrounded’ compared to most other map territories, and a lot of counties already share bloodlines, makes it a great place to get to grips with a lot of Crusader Kings II’s mechanics. This was especially true when the game had less expansions — as the inclusion of new start dates and nomadic holding types opened up more options to players, opinions shifted about where the best place to start was. These early, expansionist casus belli, which allow you to push on neighbouring regions even if you lack a legitimate claim (you can push back based on borders, or ducal claims without titles, as well as to make permanent tributaries, among other excuses), work excellently in areas with great concentrations of independent nations and are a fantastic tie-in to the recently added threat level. As such, Jade Dragon definitely makes Ireland ‘Tutorial Island’ again.
As with each of Crusader Kings II’s expansions, an extensive free patch was released to ensure that the game’s new mechanics suited players who didn’t decide to buy the new content. The free update, as ever, includes map changes: populating Tibet, which was previously labelled as wasteland; altering county borders around the map; and noticeably shaking up the Tarim Basin by adding a further five counties. As one ‘wasteland’ leaves, though, the Syrian Desert is added in, changing the way regional conflict in the area plays out.
Religion and cultures saw tweaks and deepening, with the introduction of a Zorastrian heresy, the Assyrian Culture (with historic characters too — Fertile Crescent modded play anybody?), and most notably a massive enrichment of the Manichean religion with added festivals, holy orders, holy sites and the creation of a religious head. Also of note, the Pope is now far more likely to grant excommunications, so much so that it’s very noticeable, with my three-hundred year sprint pocked with extra opportunities due to it. It’s a stark contrast to my normal games, where the button may as well have been completely removed.
Several noticeable quality-of-life features have been added as well. For a start, clicking on ‘leading troops’ or on a councillor’s council action will (the same as a double click on a character avatar) send the screen whistling over to where they are on the map; players can destroy artifacts, should they no longer want them; and, among the many minor, honorary titles available is a new one called Teacher, which denotes a character who will automatically take on tutoring the children of the lands should you fail to assign them guardians.
The teacher role has been much needed for some time, and also comes with an option to restrict marriage and betrothal propositions to those made by the current dynastic liege. Great for stopping floods of requests when you have a dense family tree. It does, however, beg the question of why is the child focus tree not allowed to be automated as well. Not that leaving kids, or their tutoring, to automation is really the best technique for guiding future generations — especially as tutors naturally tutor in their image, meaning you could be condemning a court of children to initially unintended sins and traits.
Interestingly, for all the automation and removal of notifications the patch addresses, more messages replace those which no longer pop up. Several large AI changes — including teaching adventurers how to hunker down once they have a grip on their goal, teaching AI to be more aware of friendly battles, and teaching AI vassals to draw up alliances with one another — lead to messages at different rates than before, but probably just as often. If you have a kingdom or empire with a bad (respectively) ducal or kingdom structure, then you’ll see times of turmoil approaching as tens of alliances form up under you. This makes it all the more important to be delicate with how you discipline any wildcard vassals.
There were some more tweaks to the family and court experiences in that players can restrict marriages for children and grandchildren (including any who have been rulers for less than 10 years), which will stop the AI from deciding their matrimonial fate. Events can still dodge around this, however, which seems to happen a lot more often than I previously realised.
Decadence has also undergone balancing, although I’m not quite sure of the extent of it, as I only had a brief run as a Muslim leader while experimenting with the Silk Road mechanics.
But, most importantly (in my opinion) the trait Kinslayer has undergone major changes, with the previous system broken down into three distinct tiers: Kinslayer, Familial Kinslayer, and Dynastic Kinslayer, grading the gravity of your murders with the distance of relation. It’s a step in the right direction for the game, and hopefully we’ll see changes to the way characters associate self-defence, or certain event-led kinslaying in future.
Dedicated fans of the series will have, doubtless, already bought the expansion. It’s very much one tailored to those who play in the Eastern areas made accessible by post-launch expansions, adding depth to the Asian, Indian, Middle-Eastern and Eastern-European areas through the trade route system. That said, even if you’re not interested in playing around with that area of the world, the repercussions of the free patch can be felt all the way across the map, and this will be more than enough for occasional gamers.
I (naturally) recommend Jade Dragon, however find myself in a strange situation where the DLC relies upon other DLCs (Han dynasty can only be accessed from Old Gods or Charlemagne starts, Eastern regions are only accessible via Rajas and Horse Lords) in order for it to be truly engaged with. Unfortunate, but few games can count over half a decade, with over a dozen expansions to their names. Jade Dragon’s China-led Eastern map is a wonderful place to play, and a brilliant time to return to the series for lapsed fans. It also makes that area much more friendly to novice players than the expansions which operate in that area.
A code for the DLC was provided, at request, for the sake of this review.