It’s unusual for Paradox to name a grand strategy expansion after one single historical figure. But then, Charlemagne is arguably the single most influential person in European history. The lands he formed under the Frankish, then Holy Roman, banners laid the foundation for the Europe we know today and his impact on law, religion and culture is second only to the Romans themselves. So while Crusader Kings II: The Dark Ages sounds pretty good, it’s understandable that Paradox went with Crusader Kings II: Charlemagne, he was essentially an era unto himself.
What we have here then is another time extension expansion for Paradox’s seemingly never-ending grand strategy king. This time the clock can be set back a further 100 years, allowing players to begin a campaign in 769 AD only a few hundred years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire. Which means plenty of new nations, historical figures and a whole different map layout in terms of national borders. The most noticeable change is the huge Frankish empire that dominates much of western Europe. The game begins with the empire split in two between King Carloman of Middle Francia and King Karl of West Francia, the latter of which would later become known as Charlemagne.
This division is the source of one of Charlemagne’s unique features: the series of events that make up the king's historical campaign. It’s obviously possible to play as Charlemagne and doing so will embark the player on a campaign that’s much more rigidly structured than your typical game of CK2. You’re able to make all the decisions you want as with any other game, but events and narrative elements have a tendency to funnel the player towards certain actions. Eliminating your brother Carloman, for instance, seems like the obvious action to take as doing so will place the entire Middle Frankish empire under your control.
This is an unusual move from Paradox who has typically just provided players with the tools to create their own stories. Playing as Charlemagne feels more like a linear path, and while that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, it could certainly have been executed in a better way. The events attributed to the overarching ‘story’ (for lack of a better term) are interesting and fun, but it’s ultimately far too easy to succeed. Veteran players should be able to form the Holy Roman Empire in a relatively short amount of time - and while that’s actually fairly historically accurate it’s not especially engrossing. Managing the empire once it has formed is more fun, but by this point the narrative begins to tail off.
Focusing on one character or one historical event is an interesting concept within CK2. On one hand it sounds like a fantastic idea that could be applied to so many different events and people, providing loads of interesting campaigns. On the other hand, however, it does somewhat work against the basic principles of the game - total player freedom of choice. It’s certainly cool to follow the path of a historical figure, but it’s much more fun to forge your own nations and empires. If done right, narrative content could well be the way forward for CK2, but Paradox will have to work out how to perfectly balance player choice with linear narrative. Charlemagne doesn’t get that balance right just yet.
Thankfully there’s more on offer in the Charlemagne DLC than just the new start date and character focus. In fact, the expansion features probably one of the single best additions to the game since its release two years ago. It’s now possible to create custom kingdoms and empires outside of the standard de jure laws. While previously kingdoms and empires could only be formed by owning a select collection of lands and titles, the DLC allows you to form an all new kingdom or empire so long as you meet a collection of fun-to-attain titles. Like owning three duchies or three kingdoms. So if you want to create the empire of Cornwall, then it’s now possible. It’s an inspired inclusion, and so good it’s difficult to imagine playing the game without it.
As ever there are a host of smaller changes made in the DLC and within the 2.2 patch that launched alongside Charlemagne. The best of which is a new chronicle system that presents the information previously available in the ledger in a more easily digestible manner. The acts of your leaders and the happenings of your nation are logged within a journal-esque book that can be used to look back on the development of your nation. It’s cool, and comes for free with the patch. A new system for tribal nations is also free, although by changing the way holdings are built in territories this essentially makes a small difference to one of the least consequential and interesting mechanics in the game.
As with The Old Gods, Crusader Kings II: Charlemagne’s extended time frame is the best reason to pick it up. Well, that and the fantastic addition of custom kingdoms and empires. Those two key features make it worth the more expensive asking price, even if they don’t evolve the game in any significant way. The narrative element of Charlemagne proves to be a bit of a let down, but potentially a rough introduction to something similar, but better, later down the line. The very small additions like an overhaul of the regency system and climate/attrition mechanics are all good, even if a lot of players will probably overlook them. It’s a good reason to get into Crusader Kings II yet again, even if it’s not the best addition yet.
Crusader Kings II (Reviewed on Windows)
This game is good, with a few negatives.
The narrative element of Charlemagne proves to be a bit of a let down, but potentially a rough introduction to something similar, but better, later down the line. The very small additions like an overhaul of the regency system and climate/attrition mechanics are all good, even if a lot of players will probably overlook them. It’s a good reason to get into Crusader Kings II yet again, even if it’s not the best addition yet.