Remake: Alternative European History as Simulated by Crusader Kings II

Recently, I spent a not insignificant time not playing a video game. Not that I washed the dishes or chopped down a tree or earned a salary or did any of the other boring activities that counts as not playing video games, I actively and with great purpose sat down to not play a video game.

Let me explain.

The game that I didn’t play, Crusader Kings 2, is a strategy game set in medieval Europe where the player, if he/she so chooses, gets to war, bribe and assassinate their way through the political system of feudal Europe. The game starts in a more or less historically accurate depiction of the year 1066 and then quickly diverts into alternative history with the several hundred AI-controlled characters pursuing their own goals independently of the player until the game ends in 1453.

In a very real sense, the player gets to take part in a grand simulation of European history, which is what made me ask the question: “what if I don’t?”

That is, what if I lean back and let the computerized nobility duke it out among themselves, without my influence? What will Europe look like after four hundred years of artificial lords and ladies marrying their cousins, rebelling against their kings, assassinating their spouses and being general asses towards each other?

Click to enlarge

Political map of Europe in 1066, the starting point of the simulation. (click to enlarge)

I collected data from the simulation in the form of images like the one above. Every colored field on the map denotes an area ruled by one lord. For example, the large gray area over Germany and Northern Italy is unified under the Kaiser of the Holy Roman Empire; the differing shades of brown, beige and red in Finland and Russia are ruled by separate and independent Pagan chiefs. Short periods where realms break up into smaller pieces and quickly back again are periods of civil war.

It’s 1066, William the Conqueror is getting ready to launch his attack on England; the German Kaiser (gray) has unified huge swathes of land in central Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire; The Kings of Norway (bright gray) and Sweden (light blue) are both gearing up to claim and Christianize the pagan lands in modern Finland; the Byzantine Emperor (purple, in modern day Turkey) is bracing for Muslim attacks from the southeast and in modern day Spain the local Christian kings (yellow) are trying to push Islam out of Europe.

I could just look at that all day, hypnotized by the political state of a fictitious history fluttering by as hundreds of AIs with different goals and allegiances live out their simulated lives, civil wars flying by in the blink of an eye, kingdoms conquering, being conquered and coming back to conquer once again.

Enough with the romanticism, let’s take a look around and see what world the simulation has left us.

Europe, fictional 1453. (click to enlarge)

Political map of Europe in post-simulation 1453. (click to enlarge)

Sweden seems to have grown a lot, as has the Byzantines, the Muslim world seems splintered, there are Germans all over England and Mongols all over eastern Europe. Lots to talk about. Let’s start with the Mongols.

In every game of Crusader Kings there is a scripted event where the Mongol steppe nomads will start pouring out of the east to wreak general havoc. They come in two hordes, a northern Golden Horde (yellow), and a southern Il-Khanate (dim green).

Europe at the peak of the Mongol invasion, ca fictional 1310. (click to enlarge)

Europe at the peak of the Mongol invasion, ca fictional 1320. (click to enlarge)

In the south, the Il-Khanate apparently pushed both Arabs and Christians out of the Middle East, but converted to the Shiite faith (one of the two main branches of Islam) in the meantime. Meanwhile, the northern Golden Horde got as far as Denmark, crushing Russia, Poland and Lithuania on the way and successfully managed to break apart the Holy Roman Empire.

Pain and death all around, but as the Mongol invasion stopped and the conquered lands started to slowly fall apart from internal struggles and lack of bureaucracy, the Byzantines (that historically faded into non-existence during this period) and the Swedes were there to pick up the pieces.

Some 130 years later, the Il-Khanate only remains in parts of the Arabian Peninsula and the Golden Horde is slowly falling apart. However, the aftereffects of the Mongol invasion still shows clearly in a cultural map:


Cultural identity in Europe, fictional 1453. Orange fields mark areas where the populace consider themselves Mongolian, purple fields mark Greek culture.

Looking at that culture map, let’s take a zoom in to the British Isles where by 1453 the Scottish king rules over all of Ireland and England is a German province.

Cultural belonging in Great Britain, fictional 1453. (click to enlarge)

Cultural identity in the British Isles, fictional 1453.

Those living in blue regions consider themselves Scottish, light blue Irish, red English and gray German. England seems to have been under German rule since about six seconds into the time-lapse video (somewhere around the year 1130), perhaps a German duke happened to be the cousin of a childless king of England and won the resulting succession war. However it happened, both English and Welsh culture and language has been almost eradicated, replaced by hard v:s and umlauts.

In Scandinavia, Norway grew majestically under the first century of the Simulation to fall victim to civil wars and be forced to witness the rise of the once close-to-be-eradicated Sweden as the dominant power of the North.

Also, if you had your eyes open in the video, you probably noticed the century where the south of Norway was colored bright white, indicating the personal realm of the pope in Rome. Your guess is as good as mine on how the pope started to own land in Norway, perhaps a pagan lord came to control these regions after the breakup of Norway causing the pope to launch a full scale crusade to bring these lands back into christian hands. However it happened, it had an interesting effect on the cultural landscape of western Scandinavia:

Cultural identity in Southwestern Scandinavia, fictional 1453.

The blue colors represents different cultural shades of Scandinavia while the Yellow corresponds to parts that are culturally Italian, presumably after reforms made by the popes delegates. One can only imagine the regional cuisine, Tuscan herbs alongside freshly caught salmon.

The Iberian Peninsula (modern day Spain and Portugal) is by 1453 a crazy melting-pot of countries, cultures and allegiances.

Political map of the Iberian Peninsula, fictional 1453.

Political map of the Iberian Peninsula, fictional 1453.

North to south: deep blue areas are under the control of the French King; the white province in the west is directly controlled by the pope in Rome; the small yellowish/brownish province in the northeast is what remains of the Basque Kingdom of Navarra; the yellow and brown areas are the culturally Spanish kingdoms of Castille and Aragon; the gray area in the center of the peninsula is ruled by a German duke and a part of the Holy Roman Empire, and the green areas are ruled by a culturally Arab but religiously Catholic character called “Mubashir III”.

While politically crazy, Iberia is at least religiously consistent. In fact, the Catholic faith has been so successful and spread so far into northern Africa that the Sunni faith (the most common branch of Islam in the real world) has been completely eradicated, the only remains being a heretic branch called Zikri deep in western Africa (dim green in the picture below).


Religious spread in Europe, fictional 1453. (click to enlarge)

Beige is Catholicism, spread to northern Africa and parts of modern Israel; brownish is Orthodox Christianity, spread by the Byzantine Empire; different shades of green mark different shades of Islam, primarily the Muslim Mongols in the east; the blue fields in Denmark and all over the northeast is another heritage of the Mongols, widespread worship of Tengri, the traditional Mongolian deity.

I could go on forever, but 1300 words has to be deemed enough, I do have real work to do. I can’t spend all my time not playing video games.