The sequel to one of the greatest grand strategy games of all time, Crusader Kings III sees the return of many beloved mechanics not only expanded upon but made more accessible with very little lost in the translation.
Genre: Strategy, RPG, Simulation
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release date: 1 September, 2020
Paradox strategies are probably my favorite games out there on the market. Crusader Kings II was my point of entry for them, followed by Hearts of Iron IV, and finally, Europa Universalis IV. I’ve put far more time into these than I have just about any other game out there and yet I always seem to learn and improve with every playthrough. Stellaris is another that’s become a perma-install in my Steam library with well over a hundred hours of customizing a species and empire while kicking off a purge or two with (or against) so friends. I’ve even put a few hours into Imperator: Rome, a title that gets the short end of the stick with its public image, though admittedly, it does have some distance to go to compete with its aforementioned peers. There aren’t enough hours in the day to put as many hours into these as I want to and now we’ve gone and added Crusader Kings III to the mix.
After putting around thirty hours into this latest entry, I can happily say that it doesn’t disappoint. As much as I had concerns about it requiring DLC to reach the depth of the previous title in the series, I found myself already enjoying it and fully engaged with a game with many innovative improvements over the last with shockingly few losses.
Kings and Queens (Who Are Sometimes Crusaders)
Crusader Kings III is a character-focused strategy simulation of being a ruler during the middle ages. Unlike many others in the genre, you are not the nation that you lead, but the individual at the helm. It has a heavy RPG element where you have personal traits, talents, and relationships that define how the other characters of the world respond to you and you’ll always have just as many enemies at home as you do abroad, if not more. It’s good to be the king, they tell us, but the job will always keep you on your toes.
Depending on who you decide to play as the experience will be vastly different. If you take the reins of a petty king of Ireland, you’ll be surrounded by lords with small domains squabbling over counties that can be absorbed one by one into your lands, either through skilled diplomacy and violent conquest. Conquests will require claims, gained either honestly or through fabrication, as the good lord intended. If instead, you find yourself among the ranks of the Norse, you’ll have vastly different ideological guidelines that will define your playstyle as you pillage, loot, and shamelessly conquer those weaker than you to expand your realm. Diplomacy optional.
Heavy Is the Head
Your ruler is not unique. They follow all of the same rules that every other character does, whether they’re great emperors or nameless lowborn. Their traits are pulled from the same pool, their talent is determined by the same skills, and they die to the same treacherous schemes. It won’t take long before you notice the massive variation between characters though as there are many moving parts utilized in their generation. They may be more or less randomly generated, though they’re also memorable once they find themselves in play.
A character’s personality is determined by their traits and these come in many different forms. A brave character has an increased prowess, or talent for personal combat, though they’re also more likely to get themselves slain on the battlefield. Meanwhile, a sadistic character will keep themselves in a good mental state by torturing, executing, or otherwise using their talents for cruelty to their advantage. A handful of these are generated for characters during their youth but they’re likely to gain more based on their choices throughout their lives. Your choices, if you’re the one playing them.
Skills are the same for every character, though their proficiency in them varies greatly. These are diplomacy, martial, stewardship, intrigue, and learning. Those strong in diplomacy increase others’ opinions of them, making it easier to make deals and less likely that those around them will try to undermine them. A good martial score means a skilled military leader who has a knack for establishing order and control as well as leading troops in battle. Stewardship is used to administer the realm, increasing the amount received from taxes, bolstering domestic projects, and keeping order in a larger domain. Intrigue represents knowledge of skullduggery and a knack for manipulating others from the shadows, whether it’s to off a title claimant that’s competing with you or to seduce and make sweet, sweet love to your wife’s sister. Finally, learning assists with both discovering innovations in your culture’s technology and improving your faith-related tasks.
The most exciting character-based additions are the lifestyle focus trees. There are three trees tied to each skill, each of which is significantly different from the others. For example, the three threes within martial include strategist, overseer, and gallant. Strategist focuses on your military as a whole, including unit combat efficiency, siege speed, and supply maintenance. Overseer is great for keeping or at home by establishing improved control over your subjects and increasing your dread, a secondary stat that deters your subjects from acting against you out of fear. On the other hand, gallant is something of a mixed bag with boosts to your prowess, the skill of your knights, and a handful of benefits for securing and maintaining marriages.
Dynasties also play a huge role in improving your character and those closest to them. Its renown is gradually increased by the number of living members, how many are married to rulers, and most notably, by the quantity of them that are independent rulers themselves. This renown will passively increase the weight of your dynasty’s name and secure many benefits, not the least of which is being able to purchase legacies that grant a wide assortment of permanent bonuses that apply to all in the family line. These range from increasing the amount of dread gained from terrifying acts to improved prowess to a unique and powerful unit to add to your roster of men-at-arms. The head of the dynasty gets several unique actions that can be undertaken by using renown and passive benefits for dealing with relatives. For those more distant relatives that tire of being influenced by their third cousin’s whims, cadet branches can break away from the main family line, allowing the new head of these some perks of their own, though they’ll remain members of the dynasty as a whole.
Cogs in the Feudal Machine
Characters have always been central to Crusader Kings, but the forgotten masses now play a larger role as well. Much like character focus trees, significant depth has been added to the military, culture, and faith aspects of Crusader Kings III. Levies are now the most basic of soldiers that are provided by the lands of you and your vassals. They’re weak but numerous and are likely to make up the bulk of your forces. Your men-at-arms are your professional soldiers and heavy hitters. They come in a variety of flavors, some standard and others based on your culture. Whether they’re heavy footmen, light cavalry, or war elephants, each of these has their own strengths and weaknesses while being a counter to another type of unit. Units like heavy footmen have great damage and durability for winning the battle, but if you really want to bring the hurt to your enemy you’ll want to bring in some supporting light cavalry to chase down and slaughter the retreating enemies to make sure that you claim as many lives as possible. The biggest players in any engagement are your knights though. While they’re extremely limited in number, each is a named character that can add some serious weight to any army if their prowess is high enough.
Culture has always been important, though not particularly deep. That’s now changed as it’s been combined with the technology system to surprisingly good effect. Whereas technology used to be determined at the county level, it’s now attached to cultures as a whole. This means that all counties of the same culture have the same techs unlocked. Most of these are universal, though each age has several that have special requirements for unlocking. I love this mechanic as it means that you no longer have abilities that are unique to a specific culture, your culture just has to have a certain amount of territory where you would expect the tech to be. Yes, the Scots can finally overcome the English with their camel riders as long as some of them are settled far to the south.
Faith is another integral concept that has been deepened this time around. Special abilities, like the Norse being able to raid coastal provinces, are now the domain of faith-based tenets instead of being bound by culture. Three tenets make up each faith and can be used to reform or even create brand new ones as long as you can afford the high piety cost. Ranging from war-like, which allows raiding and claimless conquests, to carnal desires, which makes lustful a virtue instead of a sin as we’re used to with Catholicism, your faith now has a massive impact on your capabilities. Your dream of founding and expanding the influence of a cannibalistic sex cult that refuses to wear clothes can now be a reality!
Recruit a Fellow Ruler! (and Vassalize Them)
I’ve struggled for years with recruiting friends for some good, clean Paradox-based grand strategy fun, but rarely found success thanks to the complicated systems that lacked much in the way of in-game explanation. These titles have always required more investment than most other games and for many, the end product wasn’t clear enough to act as a motivator even if they loved hearing the stories that I told. The good news is that Crusader Kings III has led the way and implemented a strong tutorial as well as tooltips for days that make it much easier for new players to get a hang of things and downright easy for veterans of the previous entry in the series to hop right in. This is aided by excellent music, something that Paradox is no stranger to, as well as visuals that are far more likely to catch the eye of those who haven’t been converted to grand strategies yet. Let’s hope this continues to Europa Universalis V and Hearts of Iron V as well, right?
As a long-time fan of Crusader Kings II, I wasn’t sure how much of a step up III was going to be on release. Sure, with DLC, I was confident that it would be another masterpiece, but I was worried about which feature wouldn’t be making it past the initial cut. Now that I’ve put some time in, I’m completely sold. The latest entry in the series is already the best and I can’t recommend it enough to veterans of the previous title, you’ll only be missing merchant republics and nomads. I can even recommend it to those who may have been put off or overwhelmed by the lack of explanation in it. Crusader Kings III is already the game to play in the series and I’m excitedly throwing money at my monitor for the arrival of our first big DLC.