Crusader Kings III Is a Worthy Heir to the Franchise's Dynasty
While Crusader Kings III may be in the same genre as other strategy games, its focus on dynasties and inter-personal relations sets it apart.
You are the ruler of a small country in Europe, and only 10 years old. Your parents are dead and your younger brother is under your charge, with both loyal and treacherous relatives surrounding you. As a child, you must navigate the complex and oft dangerous court in order to survive and emerge as a proper king of your land.
You’re a chieftain of a tiny territory in North Africa and the last of your antiquated rulership. You have a husband from the Middle East. Your current half-sister heir leads to a dead-end and your only son is just as closely tied to your husband’s court as your own, endangering your future family line.
You are a king destined for rulership filled with lost battles and failure, fated to die by the hand of someone close to you. You can either play into your tragic destiny or take the chance to change that and become a powerful king with a dynasty that will rule for centuries to come.
These are just a few scenarios players may find themselves in as they play through Crusader Kings III.
Crusader Kings III is the latest installment of a strategy role-playing series set in the Middle Ages. You take on the role of a noble or royal leader, either from the provided ones or from any leader in the world map, and try to enhance the reach and power of your dynasty through the centuries. You can use military power, diplomatic arrangements, royal marriages, and various schemes to increase the status of your royal house.
The main difference between other strategy titles, such as Civilization, is that in Crusader Kings, you don’t control a single city-state or nation as much as you are controlling the fate of a family. This is an incredibly important distinction because while your family line becomes intertwined with the fate of the lands it rules, sometimes circumstances can drastically change. You can lose control of your starting realm or even decide to build a completely different one more in line with your ambitions.
In terms of gameplay, you control a single character and all of their actions and decisions. This includes realm management during both war and peace, construction and development in your lands, alliances, religious development, various intrigues, romances, friendships, and rivalry. Each character accumulates a number of traits over the course of the game, and these will affect the nature and number of opportunities available to them.
If this sounds like a recipe for some deliciously deep and complex gameplay then you’re absolutely right. Because of the focus on people rather than a nation, there is a far more personal touch to all your decisions. You can see firsthand the effects of what your decisions have on your court, family, and subjects and in turn, see how those decisions affect you.
When you start a new game, you choose from several start dates between the late 800s and early 1000s AD. Then you choose from the pre-selected list of rulers or any ruler in the available regions during that time period. If you’re a beginner, it’s highly suggested that you start with the tutorial that has you play as a well-financed and connected Irish ruler. It’s the closest option in Crusader Kings III to an “easy mode.”
But if you’re a veteran of the franchise and are having trouble figuring out who to play as, you can enable observation mode from the title screen. This mode lets you watch the politics unfold in any region in the era of your choice. It’s a great way to scope out the political climate in an area of interest, as well as scout for a ruler to play as.
“Of course, schemes are just one part of the game. Stabilizing and eventually securing the future of your dynasty is what’s vital to the endgame.”
After you choose your starting character you’re immediately launched into the game. The tools are all available for you to take advantage of but there’s no hand-holding; you have complete control over how you play and what your eventual goals are. The UI is complex and takes a while to fully adjust to, even if you played the tutorial level, but you’re ultimately rewarded with a robust system that allows for a wide variety of gameplay styles.
One of the signature mechanics of Crusader Kings III is schemes (formerly known as plots in Crusader Kings II). These are long term plans that the player character may choose to enact against any other characters. This can range from personal schemes (befriending a character) to hostile schemes (murdering another character). You can either do it alone or rope in aid from agents. If you manage to complete a scheme through natural stats or succeeding during random event flags, the objective is fulfilled.
Naturally, this means that others can enact schemes against you as well, whether they try to court you through romance, gain your friendship, or outright murder you. Personal schemes have the option of being denied or accepted, but hostile schemes are only discovered by your Spymaster. Once a hostile scheme (whether it’s one by you or against you) is discovered, the chances of its success dip significantly. After that, the person behind said scheme can be discovered and action can be taken against them.
Of course, schemes are just one part of the game. Stabilizing and eventually securing the future of your dynasty is what’s vital to the endgame. Some of the biggest long-term goals of Crusader Kings III are to unlock Dynasty Legacies and Decisions. The former are specific features that carry over from heir to heir and help strengthen your dynasty. These range from strengthening the quality of your bloodline, becoming more fearsome in war, having better support systems, and more. Decisions meanwhile can run the gambit between changing your entire governing style, founding Holy Orders, uniting large swathes of territory, and much more
But Legacies and Decisions take significant time to accrue. One of the easiest and most viable ways to expand your realm and gain more titles, in the beginning, is to immediately exert your country’s military might and conquer nearby lands. You start with a certain amount of levies, or peasant troops, as well as your knights who lead them into battle. You can also invest in men-at-arms regiments (high-quality soldiers who strengthen your troops), obtain better weaponry, hire mercenaries to greatly bolster your numbers, or even create holy orders once your religious control is at a certain level.
Once a war is declared, you rally your troops at a chosen rally point and control where they march, what battles they fight, and which strongholds in a given territory they can siege and eventually occupy. Every victory adds to your war score until you reach 100 percent, which then allows you to push for your victory conditions. Conversely, taking too many losses means that the enemy can push their own conditions on you, which will cost you dearly. Planning out your strategies, making smart matchups, taking advantage of alliances to bolster troops, and paying close attention to your enemies’ troops are all vital to success.
Expanding territory isn’t the only way to ensure a realm’s success. Stability and public opinion are also vital to maintaining control in an area. If you expand too quickly, you’ll run the risk of losing your grip on the population in new territories, which is amplified by any cultural or religious differences. Losing control means that you’ll gain a penalty for tax collection and having a low popular opinion runs the risk of factions started against you by peasants or even courtiers.
Marriage also plays a huge role in your realm’s success as it determines the quality of your eventual heir to the throne, traits that can be inherited, and alliances to be forged. The player character’s spouse often helps rule as well and can either give passive bonuses to your stats or specialize in a certain field to bolster efforts there.
“What makes Crusader Kings III so phenomenal is the attention to detail. This is a game absolutely rich with culture and historical accuracy.”
Religion is closely intertwined with a country because it’s directly related to the culture of your people, gives you the right to conquer other lands without other proper declarations, affects who you can ally with through marriage, who can rule and hold titles, what character traits are considered sins or virtues, marriage doctrines, crime doctrines, and more. However, with enough power, you can reform your culture’s religion or even start a brand new one with tenants that better match your playstyle and morals.
Each character accumulates a number of traits over the course of the game, which affects the nature and number of opportunities available to them. For example, a character who is honest and better at diplomacy will have a disadvantage when it comes to hostile schemes. Traits can range from personality traits that develop naturally and from education, to hereditary traits that have positive or negative effects on stats and how others perceive you. While some event flags can influence certain traits, like becoming an alcoholic later in life, for the most part, they are simply things that must be factored into your decision making.
There are plenty of options to improve your player character as well. Lifestyles are a way to learn and customize various skillsets that aid your leadership. These are separated into the game’s stat categories: diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue, and learning. Depending on your education you’ll receive a bonus in one of these, which tends to correspond with personality traits and overall shows what kind of ruler you’ll be.
Outside of yourself is the Council, a group of courtiers from your royal court who help govern your land. Ideally, you’ll want the best people for the job since higher competency leads to a better government. However, politics are messy and players need to contend with,lko;p vassals, powerful people within the court who often own land or titles of their own. No matter how untalented they are, they expect a seat on the council and will have a more negative opinion of you if you don’t. You can either give in to their demands or deal with them in more underhanded ways.
Once your character dies you’ll have control over their heir, assuming they are part of the same family line. This is extremely important to establish because if your family line has no title (county, duchy, kingdom, empire), it can be legally inherited, then your game is over. This can happen if your character dies with no children, descendants, or living siblings or if all of their titles are seized or usurped by rival rulers.
When rule passes to the heir, they become the next player character and you control them in the same way as the previous one. Depending on the succession laws (which can be changed once certain prerequisites are met), you can either inherit all your titles from the ruler before or they can be split amongst other family members with preference given to the heir. Thus the dynasty continues until you either fail or you reach the end of the game centuries later.
What makes Crusader Kings III so phenomenal is the attention to detail. This is a game absolutely rich with culture and historical accuracy. One of my biggest concerns was whether the variety of races, cultures, religions and ethnic groups would be represented with respect and accuracy. Those fears were immediately put to rest once I toured city-states and nations throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Europe, and most of Asia. The amount of research and care that clearly went into this title is astounding and makes the experience that much more immersive.
“The possibilities are nearly endless in how you can approach each run and Crusader Kings III encourages it every step of the way.”
The 3D models for characters are an excellent metric for this attention to detail as well. Not only do their features properly reflect the demographics of their given region but also account for their age, overall physical condition, clothing that alters depending on rank, or any addictions or illnesses. While the models themselves may not be the prettiest to look at, they reflect the diversity of people so well.
Despite the depth of this preview, I’ve only scratched the surface of the features, mechanics, and how flexible each gameplay run can be. I am a novice to the series so I tend to play very strictly, carefully weighing my options to create the strongest dynasty and empire possible. I absolutely found that to be a rewarding approach on its own. There is an inherent thrill of satisfaction when you conquer new lands and overcome great challenges to further your kingdom.
For veterans of the franchise, the amount of ways to deviate from what’s considered proper is manifold. You can create entire new nations or religions, and even take over a continent and unite it completely under a near-invincible empire. You can play underhanded and stay close to a more powerful ruler, then steal their realm from right under them. You can even have fun and figure out the most entertaining ways to lose. You can be a calm and compassionate ruler, a greedy one obsessed with money and prestige, a battle-hungry and ruthless one, and more. The possibilities are nearly endless in how you can approach each run and Crusader Kings III encourages it every step of the way.
Playing through Crusader Kings III lets players truly experience the political intrigue revolving around being involved in the noble circles. At times it can be frustrating as a random event can cause disaster to strike on an otherwise flawless run. But mostly, it’s a logical cause and effect in which appointing competent leaders and making sound decisions leads to general prosperity and success. Conversely making a string of poor or selfish decisions will eventually lead to your downfall in some way, as those slighted will seek revenge and plot against you.
It’s an incredibly immersive experience in the purest form. There were times I sat down to play a session and suddenly three hours passed in the blink of an eye. Even during a peaceful point in your run, there’s always so much to plan for the future. My extensive time with this preview build has substantially whet my appetite and I eagerly await the main course when Crusader Kings III releases in September.