From Virtual to Physical: Materiality and the Crusader Kings Board Game

Curator's Note

Board gaming has grown considerably since the early 1990s (Duffy 2014). With continued year-after-year growth, board game publishers are always hunting for new markets and audiences. Successful board game adaptations such as Fantasy Flight’s Game of Thrones (2011) and Pendragon Studios’ The Thing (2021) are proof that publishers can capture the essence of a movie or a television franchise in a satisfying board game experience, but what about video game adaptations?

At first glance, video games might seem like clear competitors to board games. From a ludology perspective, the experiences are similar: both are games with often detailed rules and complex systems. Both are also frequently experienced in groups and as part of a social experience. Since both mediums are arguably competing for the same entertainment space, why bother adapting a video game property to the tabletop at all?

Free League Publishing’s Crusader Kings: The Board Game (2019) is a good example of the challenges of adapting a complex video game property to the board. Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings (2004) was a grand strategy computer game best described as a dynastic simulator. Set in the mid-to-late Middle Ages, players In the Crusader Kings series take on the role of a ruler and guide their bloodline through the ages, navigating strategic marriages, alliances, wars, dynastic struggles, and many other events. When the player’s ruler dies, they continue to play on through their heirs, passing down acquired and genetic traits. It’s an immersive roleplaying experience that dynamically generates complex narratives. Crusader Kings is also a very long game, frequently lasting 50-100 hours for a single playthrough. Adapting it to the board might seem impossible.

Yet Free League Publishing arguably distills the Crusader Kings experience into a 2-3 hour tabletop game with discrete win conditions. If we consider gameplay as a set of “actions” (Galloway, 2006)—what a player can do in a game to progress the story or action—then Crusader Kings: The Board Game hits all the notes for an adaptation of the Crusader Kings video game. In Crusader Kings: The Board Game, you still take on the role of a ruler/head of a family, marry other nobles, have children, pass on traits, engage in dynastic struggles and intrigue, wage wars, and conquer territory. Great stories are developed through the process, and it’s an interesting experience; yet Crusader Kings: The Board Game is quite limited in comparison to the encyclopedic nature of the Crusader Kings video game. And since the Crusader Kings video game can also be experienced in a multiplayer format, it’s not simply the social aspects of the board game adaptation that explains the appeal.

The answer to the allure of a board game may be deceptively simple: materiality. Researchers have studied the unique importance of materiality (Rogerson et al., 2016) to board games. Although Crusader Kings the video game may arguably tell far richer, more complex stories, it cannot replicate the tactile experience of fiddling with trays of bits, moving miniatures around a board, or drawing cards from a deck.


Works Referenced:

Crusader Kings (PC version) [Video Game]. 2004. Paradox Interactive

Crusader Kings: The Board Game (Board Game). 2019. Free League Publishing.

Duffy, O. (2014, November 25). Board games are back. The Guardian.

Game of Thrones (Board Game). 2011. Fantasy Flight Games.

Galloway, A. (2006). Gaming: essays on algorithmic culture. University of Minnesota Press.

Rogerson, M. Gibbs, M. & Smith, W. (2016). “I love all the bits”: the materiality of boardgames. Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Chi 2016. San Jose, CA, United States.

The Thing (Board Game). 2021. Pendragon Game Studio.

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