Every time you think you’ve reached rock-bottom as a medieval lord in Crusader Kings 2, Paradox come along and hand you a shovel.
WIth the history of medieval Europe to draw from, perhaps that shouldn’t be a surprise. But the upcoming expansion to Crusader Kings 2, Sons of Abraham, moves us out of the comfortable realm of dynastic slaughter and into slightly more fraught territory as it brings religion and its adherents into sharper focus. Sons of Abraham tackles the religious order, persecution, and widespread heresies that helped shape the medieval world.
Lead designer Henrik Fåhraeus knows Sons of Abraham pushes Crusader Kings 2 into more uncomfortable territory, but it’s consistent with CK2’s overall tone. “Crusader Kings 2 is already fairly dark, in many ways; we let you do some things that you can’t do in other games, so we felt that it could be done. But we’ve been really careful on how this is portrayed.”
One particularly fraught area is the role Judaism now plays in Sons of Abraham. While there is now a Jewish power, the Khazars, most players’ interactions with Judaism will likely be a little more historically loaded. In the Middle Ages, there weren’t a lot of ways for rulers to raise funds once their treasuries ran dry. Sons of Abraham focuses on the various ways rulers could handle that dilemma, from borrowing money from holy orders like the Knights Templar ... or getting the cash from Jewish lenders.
“You can borrow money from the Jews, but then you can expel the Jews from your country as well, which is what the Spanish monarchs did, for example,” Fåhraeus explained. “The English also did this from time to time, and then they let them back. So what they usually did was they would borrow money from the Jews, then they would expel them from the country, defaulting on their debt, essentially.”
Paradox have tweaked the economy in CK2 so that nobles go broke more often than they did in the past, meaning more action will center around the problem of paying for your extravagant medieval lifestyle... and then finding ways to avoid paying anyone back.
It’s also a fine line Paradox have tasked themselves with walking. How do you model some of the Middle Ages’ most complicated issues without also trafficking in some of the very stereotypes and prejudices that promoted so much persecution and strife? And for the player, does exploiting and then persecuting Jewish communities feel as safely distanced from reality as poisoning a pesky Capetian or Plantagenet?
Historical strategy gaming tends to sidestep issues like these, but Paradox don’t always have that luxury. EU4 and Victoria 2 both involve the subjugation of indigenous populations to European colonial powers, and Crusader Kings takes place in a period where religious persecution and sanctioned bigotry were part of the fabric of life.
“It is a fine line, and expelling all Jews from your country is obviously a shameful measure to take, but, unfortunately, there are plenty of tragic historical precedents,” Fåhraeus says. “Ferdinand and Isabella's Alhambra Decree is perhaps the best known, but French kings alone did it at least five times in the medieval period. However, Jews are always portrayed in a neutral-to-positive light in the game ...and there is a very real downside to expelling them from your realm in that you stop getting the benefits of their valuable skills as councillors. Moreover, you and your descendants lose the option of borrowing money from their community. In real history, when Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain, the Ottoman sultan Bayezid II actually wrote them a letter of thanks for all the extraordinary new citizens they had sent him, and that's the feeling we want to give players; failure. They played badly, got into debt and then had to do something that will hurt them in the long run.”