This is a guide to my preferred start, which is almost always as a count or as a small duke in 1066. But if you start out as a vassal, your first goal will probably be to take over your liege's lands, so if that's not the direction which you want to go, an independent start might be better. Note that independent counts get a +50% bonus to their levies in their capital, while vassal counts do not get any bonus. In addition to the capital county bonus, independent dukes and above get a +25% bonus to levies in their holdings within the capital duchy. (For vassal dukes and kings, the bonuses are +25% for capital, and +15% for capital duchy).
I tend to go for ahistorical conquests, as radically different from history as possible. To that end, a couple of interesting vanilla map starts in 1066 are the Count of Napoli, who is the only Greek Orthodox in Italy and Lübeck, which starts nestled between three incredibly strong powers and a single county with a claim next door. There are obviously quite a few more but these serve as good examples since both of these are extremely difficult to survive, much less do well with, so I pull out all the stops as I will outline below. Be warned that some of these tactics are quite gamey.
- 1 Day 1
- 2 Consolidation of power
- 3 Building a new council
- 4 Using your new court
- 5 Preparing your realm for long-term survival
Before you even consider unpausing, you have a laundry list of things to do.
Evaluate rival realms
Are nearby realms stronger than you? Do they have CBs against you, especially ones that would usurp your titles rather than make you a vassal?
If you are independent: would you be safer if you were to swear fealty to a higher-ranked neighbor or de jure liege? Beware, though, that you may be attacked before you get a response! Also, as mentioned above, your safety would be bought with a reduction to the levies you can raise.
You want to find a wife on day 1 because most of the AI are also unmarried and will very quickly start snatching up the best wives. Focus on genetic traits, fertility, and stewardship (to increase your demesne limit). The ideal wife is young, , , , and .
You can use the marriage rings to try to find a high stewardship wife. If you can find one that is of the same culture, then even better. Your future wife will have to be of your religion group, otherwise the AI will never accept the marriage. Go to your character finder and just look for unmarried women, sort by stewardship. Due to stat boosts, Genius (the best genetic trait) and Midas touched (the highest-fertility education) should float to the top. You can enter searches such as "genius" or "midas" if you want.
Consolidation of power
Reign of Tyranny
Start a reign of tyranny in which you imprison all vassals and seize all their titles. If your neighbors are eyeing your land, do this on day 1, before they evaluate your strength and decide whether to attack you. If you have sufficient piety, go all the way down to baronies.
If you can wait before executing your reign of tyranny, it will be easier, because you'll have a chance to gain the councilors and piety needed to make it go smoothly. Your vassal mayors and bishops will also have more cash for you to seize, and you will have more troops in your capital (from the "train troops" marshal mission) in case they rebel.
You might not start with enough piety for a full reign of tyranny on day 1. Do the imprisonment, send an indulgence (Catholic) or Sadaqah (Muslim and your sect has a Caliph), and finish with the banishment when you get your additional piety.
Hold onto all titles for now, ignoring any "wrong holding type" and "over demesne limit" alerts.
Dropping Dead Weight
In getting rid of your crappy/high intrigue courtiers who now hate you, you have 2 options - you can matrilineally marry them off (not available for Muslims), which I like to do with the high intrigue ones since attempting to imprison them may just end up having a high intrigue guy in another court doing nothing but perpetually plotting to kill you, or simply imprison/execute them. With the marriage option, their new wife/court couldn't care less about you so it will be more likely they focus on their new surroundings. When matrilineally marrying any courtiers you want to get rid of initially, try and pick landed women (obviously especially Matilda) - this prevents the AI from getting early inheritances before you even have a dynasty and keeps them independent at least for another generation. They won't thank you for this but when you're not facing Denmitaly in 20 years, you'll thank yourself.
As far as who to keep, basically any courtier who you cannot replace with a higher stat. Generally, 15+ is my 'ok I'm keeping this guy' breakpoint. Obviously this does not apply to spymaster as a -100 spymaster is just begging anyone who has even the slightest reason - or even none at all - to murder you to have a guaranteed win via plot. Also remember to get rid of any women who hate you - the high intrigue ones will contribute to plots against you. Usually family members and women don't care about tyranny but sometimes they do - I'm not sure the exact qualifications as I haven't tracked it down, anyway just marry them off if they do - we're going to try to get superwomen asap so go ahead and get rid of the crappy ones too while we're at it. As with matrilineals, I try to marry them to the highest rank landed male I can find - by taking some random girl from my court this prevents them from gaining alliances/inheritances. It's a small thing but so are you.
Choosing a capital
Now that you personally hold every county in your realm, you should decide which to make your capital.
It should be in this preference order: any province you have with more than 1 castle, any province with more than 3 holdings, or the highest legalism progress you have. If you have a province that has a whole level or 2 of legalism higher than it may take precedence over the others. Theodosia in the Crimea area for example starts with +2 legalism which is incredibly good compared to the surrounding areas.
Don't actually click the "make capital" button until you've given away excess counties -- you might get lucky and not have to press it at all.
Redistributing your realm's holdings
By now you have every barony (or a couple rebelling vassals we will deal with after we unpause if not) and dropped, one way or the other, everyone who hated you that wasn't incredibly useful in some way. If you are over your demesne limit you will need to create some vassals. This may also, if you are lucky, save you some time in finding new courtiers to fill your now desolate court. More than likely though they will be just as crappy as the last ones. These new ones will not only not know that they are plucking the keys to their new barony out of the corpse of their predecessors but also have a +20 from granted baronies.
Account for your future wife's stewardship bonus before determining if you need to drop baronies. Dropping baronies should be done in the following order:
- Temples outside your capital
- Cities outside your capital
- Temples in your capital
- Cities in your capital
- Counties outside your primary duchy, non-culture/religion counties
Muslim rulers will have other considerations: mosques don't have an income penalty and give piety; Jizya significantly increases income, especially in cities (decreasing the penalty); some cities in Muslim regions are significantly developed. It is harder to make a definite order, so use your own judgement and compare income and future potential.
Building a new council
If you are lucky, some of the vassals generated at the end of your tyranny will have decent stats. Probably not, either way it's time to do probably the most tedious work which is to fill your council with top talent. This will become much, much easier later on when many courtiers are claimants eager to leave their current court. Initially, however, you are completely at the mercy of the RNG.
Open up the character finder. Select "men", "adult", "my religion group", and "not ruler". Sort by the stat you want, work your way down. Get a chancellor first, because his boost to your state diplomacy will increase foreign opinion toward you and make bribes much more effective.
It is ridiculously difficult early on to invite someone who hates their liege and loves you and have them accept, and it is one of my pet peeves with this game. Later on the 'unable to press my claims' modifier will make it a ton easier to find people to invite but right now you are out of luck.
A courtier (with no reason to move) is a potential invitee if their opinion of their liege is 12 or lower. You must then increase their opinion of you to be 75 more than (double their positive opinion of liege, or half their negative opinion of liege). Bribes are your main tool here. In some cases, you can abuse the "entrusted ward" bonus. Be sure your bribes will tip them, because your income is probably horrendous despite having a bit of cash.
Hopefully you can quickly find someone with 15+ skill, going straight down the list. Eventually you will find that charitable great steward with the cruel greedy arbitrary liege. If you're incredibly patient, you can sometimes grab unmarried men by suggesting for them a wife who would hate their liege, and then inviting their wife.
Using your new court
Your invitations are now flying through the air via the magic medieval post office. You may also be putting down a rebellion from a failed imprisonment. Luckily, those who witnessed your tyrannical attempt at imprisonment are gone, and by the time you put down the rebellion, you will have a free revoke. If you can't revoke due to Crown Authority then you may end up killing/banishing again but for only one or two with any new vassals starting with +20 it isn't as big of a deal.
Find wives for your unmarried men, focusing on women who will tutor your future council members and heirs. Also consider marrying in high-intrigue, content women so you can plot against other courtiers as needed.
You may wish to leave lowborn councilors unmarried, so that when they die, you inherit back the bribes and salaries you paid them.
The main reason you kept the baronies in your capital is for your marshal and steward to apply their magic. If you own a city, you get -75% to income. However, if you got a decent steward and he applies a +50% it's only -25%. If you have Trade Practices 2 then it's only -5%. With much higher income cities, you will quickly notice your capital city outstripping any castle you have. Temples remain negligibly useful with sub-castle income but I keep them in the capital until I have something better simply for the levies, which brings me to the fact that the marshal job will also increase levies for all your holdings in a county, so the 300 to 375 troops with just the castle becomes a 700 to a respectable 1k-ish combat group. Just so you know, even if you get it to the point where you have no penalty it will always be annoyingly red with the icon up top.
Send your spymaster to Study Technology in a province where key technologies are higher than your capital. Most likely, you want to improve Legalism and Military Organization. The following locations are frequently good: Firenze in Italy (later starts), Alexandria in Egypt, Constantinople in Greece, and Dwin in Armenia.
Your chancellor should probably be sent to Improve Relations with a scary neighbor or a powerful vassal. This is less because the diplomacy mission is secretly useful and more because it has no chance of dying and keeps him from leading troops. The chaplain is probably busy converting but after that just put him on Culture research to improve Legalism.
Preparing your realm for long-term survival
Start upgrading your holdings, beginning with your capital's castle. If you expect to stay in your location for a while, start with economic buildings, so you can upgrade military buildings faster in the future. If you stay put for a long time, it may be worthwhile to also upgrade your city and then your church, even though you only get some of their income. See Holdings#Strategies.
Acquire a coastal duchy. The maneuverability of ships gives you many advantages in warfare. You may even be able to defend against larger enemies, by offloading your army into enemy territory just long enough to distract their army from sieges in your realm.
Once you get to the point where you own at least an entire duchy of coastal provinces without conquest modifiers, you are now officially a monster yourself and unlikely to be wiped out (except by disasters such as a Jihad). I will leave this guide at that point, as you are not a small fish any more and should be able to pursue normal avenues of conquest/expansion.
I hope this guide helps and feel free to post any feedback in the discussion page.