PC gaming offers few constants. Despite some strong console efforts - DC Universe Online, Final Fantasy XI and XIV, and Phantasy Star Online to name a few - MMORPGs remain solidly in the PC camp. In like manner, strategy games are still largely in the PC domain. Look no farther than RTS games such as the StarCraft series or MOBA games like League of Legends (which are essentially scaled-down, co-op RTS) to prove the staying power and mainstream appeal of PC strategy gaming.
But few strategy games reach the coveted status of becoming more than games, becoming hobbies in and of themselves. Becoming not just something that you play as a means to entertain yourself, but becoming part of your identity. Browse the forums at boardgamegeek.com, armchairgeneral.com, matrixgames.com or any of a number of passionate strategy gaming communities to see what I mean.
But few strategy games have the balance of depth, character-based charm, and accessibility to make it out of the niche marketplaces and Internet backwaters and into the mainstream. Among the n 2012, Civilization V: Gods and Kings was certainly an excellent strategy game in this vein. But if the mark of an excellent strategy game is one that provides interesting decisions at each stage of your eventual conquest, then perhaps the mark of a truly superior strategy game is one that provides compelling and fun reasons to keep playing even when all your plans blow up in your face. Crusader Kings II is just such a game.
Crusader Kings II is like a music box - it's seemingly simple yet elegant presentation masks its incredible internal complexity. The Clausewitz-engine fueled AI is second-to-none - not only will the neighboring Islamic ruler wait until you and your Castillian counterpart start fighting for the title of King of Spain, he'll wait until you've exhausted both your funds and armies and your Pope took the rest crusading, declare holy war, and sweep in to conquer both you and your former enemy. A steady stream of DLC keeps the eventual (read: weeks later) replay fresh, adding in everything from Islamic rulers, Byzantine plots, and, most recently, nothing short of an Aztec invasion.
One of CKII's master strokes is providing checks and balances - demesne limits and the system of titles and claims prevent your rule from growing (or disappearing) too quickly. Micromanagement is also kept to a minimum - whether you're an English duke or the Holy Roman Emperor, your demesne (the holdings you directly rule) is limited. Your vassals control the rest, but keeping them unambitious and happy is a whole other side of the game.
As a sandbox strategy game, Crusader Kings II has a steepish learning curve - succession laws and rules regarding demesne ownership can be tricky, and it takes a few failed regimes to learn that the game really is about protecting your succession over the centuries despite everything the game throws at you. But as a sandbox game, it's up to the player to set his or her own goals. Before tackling challenging empires like volatile Brittania or the sprawling Abbasid dynasty, new players might want to explore some historical what-ifs like uniting the earls of Ireland into a kingdom that never was, creating a Basque nation, or solidifying Polish control into a nation that can withstand being the good stuff in the sandwich between two land-hungry empires. In the process, you'll learn a lot about the age-old roots of problems that extend to modern day.
With a newly announced merchant republic DLC in the spring and centuries (and continents) of room to expand, Paradox will continue to reduce my sleep time and productivity in 2013, rounding out an already deep, compelling, and charming grand strategy experience. And for all of these reasons, Crusader Kings II is our choice for Best Strategy Game of 2012.