I am King Murchad mac Donnchad of Munster. In my attempts to conquer Ireland, I married a Welsh princess who I then got pregnant during a long-term plan to seduce her that involved getting her brother to help me win her over – I now owe him a favour. She rebuffed me anyway, before our son was born, and whilst I was plotting to murder the King of Connacht (concurrent to falsifying a claim to his land that I want as my own) I discovered he was having an affair with a much younger courtier! Rather than blackmail or expose him outright, I began our war in earnest and defeated his army in open battle. I then chased him across the land until he and his Queen were captured and held them captive as I laid siege to his castle. Thinking it would speed the war along in my favour, I beheaded him but this just made his family and allies pull together stronger than before. Meanwhile, one night, I catch none other than Count Caslav of Zatec trying to sneak in through my castle window! Turns out he’s having an affair with one of my sister-in-laws! So I’m waging war on Connacht, dealing with my newborn sickly baby and being brushed off by my wife whilst juggling plots to murder my rivals and half brothers being cuckolded! It’s all kicking off in the year 1069, I can tell you.
And that was just a 3-to-4-hour gaming session.
Crusader Kings 3 was not an easy game to review. Not because it’s bad or difficult. Not at all. The game is amazing, helps you along with tutorials, guides and tips but, wow, it is a huge time sink and I have an intense day job plus 2020 had more than a few hurdles. Playing Crusader Kings 3 is a hobby in its own right! It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but you will be rewarded for the time you put into it, if not necessarily with ‘success’ then certainly with some immersive storytelling experiences.
To describe the game simply, you could tell someone to imagine a bizarre cross between Risk and Sims with a sprinkling of Civilization, or ’80s classic 8-bit game Defender of the Crown on steroids, and that’s Crusader Kings 3 at it’s simplest. You play a ruler in ye olde medieval times, but your single character is not as important as the longstanding dynasty you hope to rule over via your descendants. The key is making sure that your dynasty survives via lines of succession. As long as the Titles you hold have heirs for them, the game will continue even when your initial character dies. So it goes. Because of this, you have to keep an eye on things like your descendants and heirs, who they’re married to, and what sort of offspring could come from them. One day, you might be playing as one of those characters and living with their strengths and weaknesses! You can spend a LONG time just deciding who to marry your relatives off to, let alone anyone else in your court.
There’s an element of role-playing in a form almost as pure as pen and paper games: your character has traits that you can play by; they affect your skills and reactions. Acting in ways that go against your traits will cause your character stress. All characters have opinions on one another and it can be a fine balance to manage all these relationships. You can also choose, and live by, a ‘lifestyle’ which dictates your day-to-day focus and can earn you further perks. Is this all sounding like hard work? I did say it was a marathon.
Meanwhile, what are you actually doing? Forging a new empire for yourself would probably be the main path most people take and that is covered through good, old fashioned, wars. Or good, old fashioned, often backstabby, political shenanigans. Marriage, politics, and diplomacy will get you far. You can’t just go around waging war on your opposition rulers willy-nilly. You have to have legitimate reasons to go to war and write up a Casus Belli to specify what the war is about. For example, someone might be ruling over land that you should own as part of your own territory and you have a rightful claim on that land. Or, heck, you could just fabricate a claim via your Court Chaplain. Resources help make the world go around and they are covered in the game through gold (mostly collected as tax from your subjects) which can pay for armies, building things and, of course, bribes. Characters also amass Prestige and Piety points which can pay for other, more ethereal, items like declaring war or establishing a new faith.
Game of Thrones much? Well, after all, the initial idea behind Game of Thrones was the very real War of the Roses, which occurred in England from 1455 to 1487. (My beloved home county of Lancashire won that one. Unfortunately, it resulted in all the dragons of Britain flying off into space, never to be seen again…)
Anyway, back to the game: Crusader Kings 3 certainly continues the success of the series – I played CK2 plus expansions back in the days when I had a lot more free time to hand – whilst being more open and accessible for new players than I can remember the older game being. As well as the tutorial (which admits it doesn’t tell you everything before casting you adrift to make your own mark in the world), there are pop-up tips aplenty plus a built-in encyclopedia to help you along. There’s also the “Current Situation” button that helps you decide or reminds you what to do next, like naming a successor, picking a particular lifestyle to live, or to get married. However, you pretty much set your own goals for the game and take it in whatever direction you wish. You certainly don’t have to do what the game advises, though it’s useful to take notice of it when you’re first starting out.
AND THEN… there are mods! Including the immense “Princes of Darkness,” which essentially rewrites the whole game to set it inside the Dark Ages: Vampire / Vampire: The Masquerade universe where you play as an immortal vampire prince. And it is glorious and pretty much a whole new game and mechanics on top of Crusader Kings 3 and completely free. Though, I’ll happily endorse throwing donations at the developers via their Patreon because the task they’ve undertaken is huge and has resulted in an amazing piece of work in mechanics as well as looks. There’s also a “Middle Earth” mod available (unfinished, but playable) and, yep, a huge Game of Thrones mod is on the way.
To wrap up a review that has already blown the word count I set for myself: Crusader Kings 3 is the perfect sandbox for all your Machiavellian machinations. It does demand a lot of your time, but it’s also a lot of fun and, if the previous game is anything to go by, expect developer Paradox to support it with updates and expansions for many years to come.