Crusader Kings III Review — A True King's Legacy Has Been Born
Crusader Kings III is a one-of-a-kind experience that mixes intrigue, the ambrosia of victory, and the devastating bitters of defeat.
Crusader Kings III
Review copy provided by the publisher
Crusader Kings III is that rare sort of game that immediately takes your breath away. The goal is a simple one: to elevate the status of your dynasty in any way you see fit. But the sheer breadth of ways to achieve that goal make for a genuinely new experience each time, even within the same campaign.
It’s the kind of title that promises near endless possibilities and actually acts on it. As the player you feel empowered to make any decision, to abide by or deviate from history — at times encouraged to seek alternate paths to victory — and create a legacy that’s meaningful for you.
“Crusader Kings III is that rare sort of game that immediately takes your breath away.”
After choosing from either the year 867 or 1066, you take on the role of a noble or ruler from a domain of your choice whether that be a kingdom, tribe, country, or city-state. Each ruler is shouldered with the burden of their entire dynasty’s future on their shoulders with the end goal not only its survival but that it thrives and establishes a legacy that will last through the ages. As the player, you must ensure that every decision will positively influence yourself, your subjects,, and the kingdom at large.
You’ll notice immediately Crusader Kings III‘s menu design, which appears clunky and overly-complicated at first. However, as you play, it becomes apparent how well organized the layout truly is. The amount of information available to you is staggering and the UI does an exceptional job at organizing such massive amounts of game data to track at any given moment. Aiding in that is the immensely vital Issues tab located at the top. Issues is a treasure trove of valuable info that helps players better focus and delegate important tasks such as who needs to be married, what wars can be declared, displeased vassals, and much more.
The developers also devised an ingenious mechanic called the Tool Tip, which disseminates large quantities of information about the various terms used in the game. Essentially, a light blue word(s) indicates that you can hover over it, which summons a pop-up box defining the term. Within that box may be more words, which can also summon a pop-up once ghosted over without dismissing the previous boxes. It’s non-intrusive, informative, well-designed, and optional.
While the menus relay all this valuable intel information about the current status of your kingdom, there are several stats that you should pay attention to that are vital to your progress.
The first is Fervor, which governs how devoted your subjects are to the current religion. Smaller religions have more fervor while larger ones (such as Catholicism) are vulnerable to heresy, which means a ruler decides to create their own branch of a given religion and tries to convert other subjects under them. Fervor can be traded for favors from the religious head, can be used to change the tenets of your religion to create a heresy, a means to measure control in your territories, and a way to declare war on foreign city-states and countries to increase the size of your own domain.
Second is Renown, one of the most important stats. It’s a measure of how far your reputation precedes you and can be used for random events that require you to throw around said reputation for your benefit or others. It’s also used to change your level of Crown Authority, or the sovereignty of your dynasty’s rule, as well as to permanently increase certain dynasty traits that makes your overall campaign more effective. And as you gain more Renown, you increase its ranking.
And the third is gold. This valuable resource is the driving force of most things in game, as in real life. You need money to consolidate your titles, declare war, buy new troops, build up military bases and infrastructure in your capitals, and maintain your army’s supplies. You also need it to bribe nobles, curry favor in your court, hire head court physicians, recruit visitors to your court (which is a great way to accumulate powerful knights and talented council members), host feasts to reduce Stress, increase Crown Authority alongside Renown, and most other things. You generate gold primarily from ensuring a steady stream of revenue from taxes as well as from raids, ransoming or releasing war hostages, as a payment for an arranged marriage, or bargaining for money from your religious head.
Your player character also generates Lifestyle experience points naturally over time, which go toward Lifestyle Perks. You choose from several Lifestyle Focuses and then unlock Perks that grant your ruler special effects that make things like war, diplomacy, or family affairs much easier to handle. And since there are so many Perks to choose from, even if you stick with a Lifestyle that suits that ruler’s specialty, your player character will be guaranteed to pass on before you unlock everything. This means that the choices you make on what to focus on are extremely important since there’s simply not enough time to learn everything available. It also creates a true sense of identity and emphasizes that the best way to rule is by what that ruler is best at, with no “one truth path” that tends to crop up in strategy games like this.
Any ruler worth their salt doesn’t rule alone and Crusader Kings III understands this as well. Divvying up your court responsibilities are the members of your Council: your spouse (if they aren’t a part of their own court), the Religious Leader that precedes over the religion of your region and monitors heresies (the title name varies based on the culture and religion), the Chancellor in charge of domestic and foreign diplomacy and affairs, the Steward who governs treasury and property, the Marshal that maintains control in all your territories and armies, and your Spymaster who protects you from hostile schemes and keeps your own schemes a secret.
“Any ruler worth their salt doesn’t rule alone and Crusader Kings III understands this as well.”
Each position is governed by a particular stat, so the obvious choice would be to appoint the best person for the position, right? Unfortunately, as the game so perfectly demonstrates, your vassals or those who rule smaller territories under you expect to be handed positions of power regardless of their actual competency. So you must wrestle with the difficult options of having the best person, which ensures your city-state is running smoothly, but also deal with the constant threat of mutiny, or appointing someone possibly ill-fitting to keep them happy but at the cost of sloppy ruling and a much higher risk of disasters.
War is one of the biggest parts of Crusader Kings III, as it’s the primary means to seize new domains and titles to pass on to your heir. There are several kinds of wars such as ones that require a claim to a title (or you could send your Chancellor to fabricate one), a Holy War based on religious differences, a vassal or peasant uprising due to lack of control or other perceived injustice, a war of defense against an invading threat, or a call to action from an ally embroidered in their own war.
War is complex and requires careful management and planning. Not only do you need to understand how the main components of your army — levies are the main mostly peasant force, knights are the commanders, Men-at-Arms regiments bolster the power of your army, and siege are for breaking down reinforced walls of a capital — but you also must become familiar with terrain and its effects. Learning how to utilize rally or summoning points to concentrate your army in the most effective start points, when to split up your army, if conquering or stability is the best course of action, and whether you have the manpower or funds to start a war with another domain in the first place all come into play.. It’s refreshing to see this title establish that while war is an important and often inevitable part of rulership, it’s just as vital to know when to wait and when to choose peace instead.
Once you acquire new lands, it’s your duty to properly build on, manage, and protect them from foreign attackers. You must also keep an eye out for the level of Control you have within separate capitals of your domain. If it dips too low, you might have a peasant uprising on your hands that needs quashing (though you could allow for this and forceably recruit the leader as a powerful knight). And while cultural diversity is important, sometimes it can serve to fracture a kingdom and weaken it, also contributing to a lower Control. This means that you must ensure when conquering areas with different cultures, you must invest time into converting them to your belief system. This balancing of expansion and stability ensures that once you expand your empire you actually put in the work to properly maintain it rather than simply collecting new plots of land with no consequences.
There are other ways in Crusader Kings III to expand your empire other than war, such as forging alliances with other nations through peaceful negotiations, marriage (which is its own complex system of combining positive Congenial traits, avoiding negative ones, ensuring compensation, etc.) or assassinating rulers and other nobles who stand in your way of succession. And though war remains often the easiest and most effective method, there are plenty of ways to avoid conflict as well.
The signature gameplay mechanic of Crusader Kings III, and what really sets this title apart from other strategy titles, are Schemes. Schemes are essentially plots that either yourself or other members of your court can carry out. These can range from Personal Schemes such a fostering a friendship or simple goodwill between two people, or the more devious Hostile Schemes that involve seduction or murder. When your player character is carrying out a hostile scheme, you can recruit people in your court to aid in it and increase the chances of success. Of course there’s always a chance that the scheme could be discovered or you could be found out as the perpetrator, either of which comes with the risk of imprisonment and a reputation that follows you to your grave. Conversely, others can plot against you and members of your court, with the only protection at your disposal being your Spymaster and your own quick wits.
Schemes are honestly such a darkly fun and refreshing mechanic to work with thanks to that constant sense of danger at being discovered or failing, as well as being able to commit acts of adultery and murder freely for whatever petty reason you choose. During my own playthrough, I felt a rush of adrenaline at being able to assassinate one of my own council members with no consequences. Or at least no immediate consequences.
“War is complex and requires careful management and planning.”
Once you successfully pull off a hostile scheme, you now have a Secret. This secret can be discovered by a member of your court and used as blackmail against you, resulting in a Strong Hook. Hooks are divided in Strong and Weak, with the former a result of something illegal or illicit and the latter more of a small favor owed. And while weak ones are one and done deals, strong ones last a lifetime and means that you can be manipulated. Conversely, you can and should seek out hooks to utilize as well, since they can help smooth out arrangements and create unexpected allies. For instance, during my playthrough, I found out that my mayor was a cannibal and gained a Strong Hook on him after some blackmail. This also meant that he could never oppose me no matter how disgruntled he became, which is also an extremely handy effect.
Depending on the nature or personality traits of your character, they can either thrive in such wickedness, derive no pleasure from it but see it as a necessary evil, or be haunted by the act and cause Stress levels to rise. What’s even better is that other than the Stress mechanic (which at low levels are very manageable but higher levels bring the risk of worsening mental health problems and even mental breaks) the game doesn’t punish you for choosing options that oppose your nature.
For first time Crusader Kings players, the wide berth of options and possibilities of what to accomplish in a single run can be intimidating. Luckily for that, there’s a handy tutorial that guides you through the first major decisions of a campaign in Ireland, as well as most of the features that will become available to you as you continue your playthrough. It’s paced well and does a thorough job of walking you through the major mechanics without holding your hand for too long. As a bonus, as you encounter new scenarios for the first time, an option for more help on navigating it will appear. And the best part is, you can keep playing this campaign until its completion, which is a fantastic way to try out various mechanics and get more acquainted with the game in preparation for an entirely solitary campaign.
One campaign spans across many generations, so it’s imperative that players plan for the present as well as consider about how their actions will affect the future of their dynasty. And for that there are plenty of tools at a player’s disposal. You can navigate menus to view your entire dynasty, spend Renown to unlock Legacies that decide how your dynasty will be viewed by and govern both nobles and commoners, become the head of your culture and decide what long term inventions it will develop, hone the Fervour generated for your culture’s religion and weaponize it for conquests or eventually create your own, and more.
But all this talk about the vast array of gameplay features, mechanics, and inner workings of Crusader Kings III is nothing without the feeling of being in a living, breathing world. And honestly, the world building is the biggest strength of this game. The title spans across Europe, most of Asia, and North Africa, so you can imagine the level of diversity that would have to be layered in. And as I previously outlined in my preview, it exceeded my expectations far beyond what I could have imagined possible.
The most important aspects such as culture, religion, and character models are all extremely accurate to the title and time period. While the characters themselves look like they were beaten with ugly sticks, they have exactly the proper ethnic features and clothing which change as they move up or down ranks and grow old, sick, or injured. Each religion and culture is well researched right down to the obscure tenants and beliefs of each one, and stand out completely from one another. A religion and culture based on Christianity is significantly unique from a Pagan one, one based in Hinduism, and a Buddhist based one. Just scrolling around the watch mode and reading through them is a surprisingly educational experience and shines a fascinating light on how people lived during these time periods.
Adding to this sense of realism are sexual orientations. Just as in real life, every person in Crusader Kings III has an orientation, with the most common being heterosexuality. But there’s also homosexuality, bisexuality — and as a pleasant surprise — asexuality. Though no one is above the duties of nobility to marry and procreate, this feature is far from being merely cosmetic as it determines who you can seduce for a Hostile Scheme. It sounds minor but it’s an interesting touch that makes the title feel that much more grounded and fleshed out — it reminds you that these are actual people with lives, wants, and needs beyond “marriageable meatsack.”
Of course, a PC title of Crusader Kings III‘s magnitude isn’t flawless. You’ll no doubt come across strange glitches that will throw off events and remind you that yes, this is in fact a computer game based on imperfect code. For instance, once I was arranging an important marriage that would grant me an alliance, which had to be approved by a noble in the spouse’s court. However, this high ranking noble happened to be a four year old girl who wrote me a very well written letter of approval after the affair. Another event had a noble in my court express to me their extreme displeasure at another noble’s behavior, who was himself.
“Crusader Kings III is a game that you become completely engrossed in as you play, and obsess over when you’re not.”
Between the amount of rulers you can choose from (which is easily in the hundreds, if not thousands) to all the ways you can augment your kingdom, the options for navigating the royal court and all its personal and professional trappings, who and how you can groom your heirs, the variety of schemes to take part in, and more, there is no truly right way to approach your own playthrough.
Crusader Kings III is a game that you become completely engrossed in as you play, and obsess over when you’re not. I found myself constantly playing out scenarios and strategies for my kingdom, dreaming of the moment that I unite an entire country under my powerful rule, and celebrating the highs while cursing the lows of noble life. Even if you’re not a strategy game fan, the person-focused approach to the genre allows for players to build more intimate relationships with your family, allies, and greater kingdom. Not only is it fun, but it’s impactful and the experience stays with you long after you close down the game after a long session.