Jason recommends: Crusader Kings II: Sword of Islam

Crusader Kings II: Sword of IslamI’ve written before in this space of how much I enjoy Crusader Kings II, the latest historical grand-strategy title from Paradox Interactive, so I won’t bore you further by reiterating the reasons why. But I do want to take a moment to tell you about the release of the first major expansion pack for that game, Sword of Islam, which takes a great game and makes it greater.

The obvious limitation of the original CK2 was that it was a story entirely told from the perspective of medieval Christianity. Islamic kingdoms existed in the game, but you couldn’t play them; they were there solely to provide an Other the game could threaten you with.

Sword of Islam fixes that, by unlocking all the Muslim dynasties for you to play. Now you can fight to defend Al-Andalus from the grim forces of the Christian reconquista, or struggle against the Byzantine Empire as the Seljuq Turks. A whole new range of interesting strategic problems is opened to you.

But the expansion goes beyond just unlocking previously unplayable empires. It also adds new game mechanics specific to Islamic dynasties that make playing the game as a Muslim king a fresh new experience.

CK2 players, for instance, will know that one of the key challenges they have had to overcome to be successful in the game has been the consistent production of quality heirs. When your character dies, your kingdom passes to whomever is your designated heir, and if that person isn’t up to the responsibility, social unrest and long, bloody civil wars can easily be the result. But Christian kings only have one wife at a time, so if your king and his queen can’t produce healthy, well-adjusted children, you quickly find yourself looking down the barrel of a serious Henry VIII problem.

When playing as a Muslim ruler, though, Sword of Islam flips this dilemma on its head. Unlike Christian kings, Muslim ones can take multiple wives — and in fact, the larger the realm you rule, the more wives the people expect you to have. (Take too few, and your prestige slips as people start to wonder if there’s something wrong with you.)

Multiple wives means lots of children, so you’re never without heirs. But now you have a different problem: too many heirs. It’s not hard for an Emir with three wives to pop out eight or ten or twelve healthy male children — and when they reach adulthood, that’s eight or ten or twelve guys you’re going to need to find employment for, because each one of them who sits around unemployed drives up the new Decadence score. And if your dynasty gets too decadent — if your people start to think that all their work and taxes are going to provide lavish lifestyles for a bunch of lazy loafabouts — it’s only a matter of time until some ambitious family rides out of the desert to challenge you for your throne.

The game also has nice touches that connect it to Islamic faith. For example, like all good Muslims, your characters in Sword of Islam are expected at least once in their life to make the hajj — a spiritual pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca. But unlike today, when the devout can get to Mecca (which is located in modern-day Saudi Arabia) from anywhere in the world in safety and comfort in a matter of hours, making the hajj in the Crusader Kings era is a much longer and more dangerous trip. If you’re an Iberian Muslim, for instance, it requires you to travel from modern-day Spain across the entire length of North Africa, through huge, scorching deserts and hostile Crusader states, moving only as fast as a horse, camel, or your own feet can carry you. This makes the hajj an epic journey, long and fraught with danger as well as opportunities for spiritual enlightenment. And it’s one that every character you play over your dynasty’s history must undertake.

So yeah, if you like Crusader Kings II, you should think of Sword of Islam as a must-buy. Thankfully, it’s inexpensive: just $9.95. (Compatibility note: if you have the Steam version of CK2, you should buy Sword of Islam through Steam as well.) And for a little extra atmosphere, you can shell out $1.99 more and get Songs of the Caliph, another add-on pack that adds 11 minutes of new music to the game’s soundtrack that play only for Muslim rulers.

Like I said, it’s a good deal that makes a great game even greater. You should jump on it.