Crusader Kings III Review
Ruling by any means necessary
There's been a lot of buzz that Crusader Kings III is the most accessible Crusader Kings has ever been - I don't know if that's true. There is a tutorial now that will teach you the basics of managing your ruler and your realm, that takes what has always been the unofficial tutorial of conquering Ireland in Crusader Kings II, and makes it formal. But there are still a lot of numbers and tricks that are going on in the background, making everything a little confusing. The game tries to explain some of them in an ongoing onslaught of notifications on why weird things are happening in your game, but there's just going to be some sideways action you won't always be able to account for. In some ways, I think that might be the strongest element of Crusader Kings. Because the game only surfaces some information and leaves so much lingering in the background, it's the rare kind of game that can surprise you in a way that last year's Imperator: Rome couldn't. The systems are doing so much work and are so complex that the story is easy to digest, but much like real history, as you begin to look past the simple narrative and parse out the details - things become that much more interesting.
Crusader Kings III is the latest entry in the grand strategy franchise, taking players to the Middle Ages. The scenario can begin as early as 867 AD at the end of the dark ages, allowing you to play as a ruler looking to conquer the lands of established histories and create the countries we know today. You attempt to recreate history; for instance you could begin as a petty king in Ireland, conquer your fellow independent rulers and solidify the Kingdom or Ireland. But what is more interesting is when you start to toy with history. For instance, after conquering Ireland maybe you decide that you're going to make a run at the entirety of Great Britain, instead of the English coming in and messing with your rule. Maybe you start as the budding kingdom of Sweden and conquer all of Scandinavia? What if your pagan religion was as established as Catholicism and people never converted? What if your cannibal lifestyle led to you conquering the Holy Roman Empire and you ate the pope? The stories told throughout this process are those of conquest, betrayal, victory, building an empire, watching it all crumble, and then rebuilding again.
There's no real "win" state for Crusader Kings. You can conquer land and you need resources to feed your power, but as opposed to traditional resources like wood or stone, you acquire figurative resources like piety and prestige. In fact, this is the kind of game that gets better when things go wrong. My Scandinavian empire was starting to flourish when a powerful Scottish nation came across the sea and subjugated my kingdom. My new liege tried to earn my allegiance by giving me a seat of power - but my grudge ran so deep I started a plot to assassinate the king who made me bend the knee - and then, for good measure, I assassinated his son as well. As the world changes around you, your power will grow and shrink, but the way you use that power is what makes the experience interesting.
The gameplay is fairly complex. The management of your domain is most important and frustratingly it's the part that's communicated the least. You need to make sure that your vassals are happy or else you could always be on the cusp of a rebellion as they all seek their own independence. How you maintain that happiness is a little different for every ruler you play as. Some rulers will have a dominant army, loads of riches, a legacy of martial conquest, and have established a sense of dread in their domain that will keep vassals in check - they may not love you, but they definitely respect you. But when you're a younger ruler, you may need a more deft touch using friendship or gifts to keep your vassals happy. Or sometimes it's just easier to start a plot to get them killed. Some of these options are a little obtuse. Creating titles and giving them can be a little complex and I've wasted a couple hundred gold creating titles only to give them away and not get the reaction I was hoping for. The more difficult thing is sometimes understanding why a murder plot will or won't work. After a couple of dozen hours, you'll begin to comprehend how all of the systems tie together - but it can be difficult at first. What I enjoy is that when you figure out how the systems work together, your plots can be Machiavellian. You can use specific strategies and deft touches to hold your kingdom together. Just managing a small realm can feel like a huge accomplishment when you're pulling it off, making the right alliances and being admired by your vassals.
The plotting and scheming carries into expanding your empire. You can claim lands multiple ways depending on your culture and what they perceive as acceptable. You can use underhanded tactics or just outright welcome a willing duchy into your fold. The way that relationships are managed between characters inside and outside of your empire is fascinating. Multiple character traits and stats blend together to determine how people perceive your character and how you can manipulate that perception. Crusader Kings III isn't about the strategy of a battlefield or even that of management - it's the strategy of how people react to you. Do they fear you? Love you? Do they think you're weak or stupid? Are you kind or wicked? Strategy games have a tendency of removing the most interesting things from historical recreations - the people. Crusader Kings III is obsessed with how rulers interacted with each other - how they became friends or enemies. And when you're focused on monarchies, those personalities become important.
When personalities clash, you could find yourself at war. During this process, you'll need to raise your armies, summon allies, and achieve a 100% war score by conquering lands, capturing enemies, and defeating enemy armies. Armies can be costly and the only way to truly achieve victory as an aggressor is to get a complete victory, effectively ending any chance the enemy has to rebuke. Crusader Kings III acknowledges the importance of war in medieval life, but it's not where its interests lie. It's more interested in the consequences of war than how they were fought.
While you're maintaining your domains and expanding, you'll need to plan for the future. One of the crucial details in Crusader Kings is planning for your heir and the continuation of your line. Marriages are good for ensuring alliances, but they also are key for having children and continuing a line of kings. What you'll often find is that building an empire is only temporary, and with new kings come fractured kingdoms as nobles dispute who is entitled to what. Many times the first few years of a new king's reign are simply re-conquering lands their ancestors already had conquered. I love how Crusader Kings isn't about world domination, it's about how the ebb and flow of time can recontextualize the world you know. What's most impressive is how you'll have an amazing journey with a ruler, filled with intrigue and drama - something you'll have to recount to someone. Then that ruler dies and an even better story is born from the ashes. Dramatic moments that would be the crux of an entire game are just a drop in the bucket for Crusader Kings III.
Managing the realm, extending your reach, and envisioning your future are all supported by your council. Each council consists of a religious figure that is in charge of your domain's education and devotion, a steward in charge of finances, a marshall in charge of policing and military, a spymaster in charge of gathering information and using it against your enemies, and a chancellor who is in charge of your diplomacy. These positions breed their own web of tricky decisions and sometimes putting someone in the right spot can spin off into a story of its own.
And then you have your ruler who is a character unto themselves. Each has their own stats and character traits; these stats help bring the characters to life and playing Crusader Kings III often feels like you are roleplaying as a character, making decisions as they would. The game leans into this by having a stress meter and when you make decisions out of character, the stress increases. So if your ruler is sadistic, but you continue to be kind, their stress will build, and may lead to destructive traits like alcoholism.
One of my favorite things about Crusader Kings III is that in the middle of a game you can pause it and change who you are on the map or even open the game up for multiplayer - so if you're in some wack-a-doo timeline and want your friends to experience it, that's totally an option. The functionality of multiplayer is a little chaotic. Due to the nature of the numbers and difficult decisions, I spend a lot of time with the game paused, researching my options before making decisions - when playing with other people anyone can pause the game, but anyone also can unpause it meaning that if your opponents get frustrated with your slow decision-making, they can hurry you along. The happy-medium is playing the game at a slower speed and not pausing at all so people aren't stuck while you research potential husbands for your daughter. I found this a little stressful, being unable to really play at my own pace. But it is fun to share the strange stories of Crusader Kings in real-time.
The game is presented similarly to Crusader Kings II; however, the static portraits of the previous game have been replaced with animated 3D models of each ruler. It's a nice change and the models are designed to demonstrate the ruler's personality. While the game isn't an aesthetic power house, developers use small touches to drop you into the setting - some of it through musical motifs and background art, but a lot of it through the dedicated devotion to using the specific names, phrases, and flavor text to enhance the world. Crusader Kings has the aesthetics of a board game, but this feels like a game night where there is mood music, decorations, and everyone is talking in-character.
Technically, the game is sound. There's a lot of number generation and programming going on under the hood that creates the random and interesting elements of the game, so sometimes it runs a little slow - but largely, I had few issues with it. Mostly loading in and closing the game was what took the longest.
I love Crusader Kings III. It's a marvel of a video game with so much to manage and so many details going on that it's easy to get lost in all of the little things. That said, those many numbers and details come together to tell coherent and interesting stories that are easy to re-tell to others - which is the most incredible thing about Crusader Kings. I'd spend hours on Discord, just explaining the bizarre stories happening in real-time to my friends, enjoying their reactions to betrayals, the sacrifices, and the wars. The previous game was also good at this, but Crusader Kings III adds so many more details, with a bigger map, more religions, more character traits, and penalties for acting outside of character. All of these things make the rule of your character that much more interesting and dynamic, every offensive has its own mini-narrative, every peacetime feast results in little tidbits of drama, and it all adds up to something that is unique for every player and every ruler. If there's a downside, it's that the game is still a bit impenetrable and requires a few false-starts to get the hang of everything going on. But after a few playthroughs, things will start to click, and as you begin to recognize more and more about the game, the more you'll be wowed by the strange and wonderful stories it's telling. So take an empty weekend, shut yourself away and give yourself over the world of vassals and lieges, war and diplomacy, kings and sultans. Crusader Kings III is one of the most interesting strategy games you'll ever play and you owe it to yourself to give it a try.