Writing a “standard” review for a game like Crusader Kings III would be difficult, purely because Crusader Kings III is no sort of standard game. It’s a strategy game for sure, but you don’t play as a leader, nation, or individual – you try to establish, manage, and perpetuate a dynasty. It’s developed by Paradox and is a sprawling, dynamic and intricate game of intrigue and subterfuge.
There is no story to Crusader Kings III other than the narrative you create. The best way to talk about it is to walk you through what happened in my first playthrough. There are so many detailed mechanisms involved in Crusader Kings III that even though I had played Crusader Kings II, I still felt the need to start as the Petty King of Munster, in Ireland – AKA easy mode, or at close to it as Crusader Kings III gets.
There are counties, kingdoms, nations, and empires. Most of the action takes place at the county level, where you vie for control of the land to expand your territory, influence, and renown. It takes place on a politically and historically accurate world map, and you can start at either 867 or 1066AD.
When I began my dynasty, I had a modest setup. A few counties made up Munster, and I had a claim on Desmond. I had a wife and two children, a son and a daughter. Having a daughter meant that my first priority, before making a move on Desmond, was to change the laws regarding my successor, meaning it was no longer a male-only inheritance, and should the situation demand, my darling daughter could become my legal successor. After establishing a very progressive move for a ye olde Catholic nation, I lost the support of my bishop and had to get him back on side again. Whilst setting up a sway scheme on him, I married off my children and set to war on Desmond. Hired a bunch of mercenaries and took it no problem. From there on, I fabricated claims on other counties and swallowed them into my petty kingdom. But, there were problems brewing…
On the one hand, three of my vassals were not part of my dynasty and the English were invading to the north. On the other hand, I fell sick after an attempt on my life, and relations with Dublin were fraught. I died. But the thing about Crusader Kings III is this is not a game over but a chance to change direction as one of your children. I was now no general, thus, I was now playing as a more diplomatic leader. I had to charm Dublin to keep them at bay and try and mend the tension that my father’s military goals had created. I took the County of Athlone, but not soon after Dublin fabricated a claim and declared war on me over Athlone. I lost and quickly realized that I did not have the resources to enter conflict with Dublin. I handed one of my counties to my son in order to preserve the lineage, but he lost it to Dublin within a year and came running back to daddy for a position on my council. I consolidated my counties and formed the Kingdom of Ireland, meaning I was no longer merely a Petty King. This brought the attention of England to my doorstep and there was no way I could compete with them without at least getting Dublin out of the way. But their influence was expanding rapidly and they were fabricating claims on my Kingdom left, right, and center.
Meanwhile, in Desmond, my vassal died and the county was passed down to a leader outside of my dynasty. Dublin took another county and seemed to be forming an alliance with Norway. Well protected against my advances and England, I began to look to the Scots for help, attempting to arrange marriages for my children with wives and husbands of Scottish counties. But it was for naught – my glorious Kingdom was held together by threads. Dublin and England were making gains and I was cornered, with little influence locally or within the Catholic church. The economy was shrinking due to contracts I had taken out with mercenaries and reduction in taxes from the lost territory. Ireland was a shell of its former self…
As you can see from my short biographical account of my Irish campaign, the gameplay in Crusader Kings III is extremely complex. There’s a lot to manage and think about. You can pause the game and change the speed at which months progress at the press of a key. In times of war, slowing the game down is advisable, whereas in times of peace, or at least quieter periods in history, speeding it up can be useful. As a leader, you manage your family, kingdom, council, court, and military. All of this all requires careful management of your various relations. What’s impressive about Crusader Kings III is how intimately everything is tied together, and your dynasty is like a line of dominoes – stable for the most part, but never too far away from that one push that will bring the whole thing collapsing down.
As mentioned, the game takes place on a world map that’s geographically, historically, and politically accurate – it’s rather reminiscent of the board game Risk. You can cycle through different map modes, such as terrain, political, cultural, and religious all of which look considerably different but give you an insight into the climate and the various things affecting your reach and progression. There are various scenarios and characters to interact with, some of which are minor and others which are more pressing, like correspondence with other leaders and the unveiling of plots against you or relationships forming in the shadows of your own nation. How you deal with these is handled through a series of dialogues, all of which have different, sometimes unforeseeable effects.
You see, Crusader Kings III is more than a strategy game – there are elements of an RPG here. Your choices fundamentally affect the outcome of your dynasty and there are a number of ways to earn points and unlock perks in a skill tree to make your leader more adept in one way of life and nation management or another. What’s great is that you can try them all and essentially “roleplay” with different styles. I started off as a military-minded leader with an eye to expand quickly and reap the rewards.
That expansion created a mess that a more diplomatic approach would be more appropriate to clean up. So after my first leader died and my son took the reins, I tried to build relations, send gifts, find my children the best waifus and husbandos and sweeten the Catholic church. These are all important mechanics, though of course marriage is extremely important, as is educating your children. This will dictate what kind of leader they will become when you eventually kick the bucket and have to play as them.
The landscape is always changing, new movements, religions, titles, and influences are always forming, and your task is to use the game’s multitude of extremely detailed mechanics to form your dynasty and ensure its survival in a rich and dynamic setting. War is unavoidable though, and Crusader Kings III sees you build an army out of levies from your counties and contracts with mercenary groups. Once your army is strong enough, you enter a siege, which, depending on the city and how well it’s protected, can last for many months. But events don’t stop taking place just because you’re at war and it’s easy to become overwhelmed with what’s going on. That’s why the ability to slow the game down to a speed you’re comfortable with is very useful.
Is Crusader Kings III for you?
One thing is for sure: Crusader Kings III is an intimidating, oftentimes chaotic game, with such deep and multilayered mechanics it can be hard to achieve success on your first playthrough. However, Crusader Kings III isn’t necessarily about success, but about survival – in that sense, keeping your dynasty going for as long as possible is the aim of the game is the true success. That said, whilst the in-game encyclopedia will tell you everything you need to know to get by, it cannot prepare you for how nuanced and varied the game becomes. There comes a point where you feel like your kingdom is spiraling out of your control and you’re literally watching chunks of it fall apart because of choices you have or haven’t made in previous years. It can, as such, become difficult to monitor every aspect of your dynasty and prepare for all eventualities – something will catch you out.
Crusader Kings III is a punishing but accurate look at founding and managing a successful royal family. To be sure, it’s complexity is also one of its drawbacks if you want a simpler game. But if you’re looking for something cerebral, something challenging, something with variation and depth, Crusader Kings III will do you right.
On another note, the game performs really well. I currently play on a 1080ti and never ran into any issues whatsoever. I had one crash and that was on the back of a seven-hour session. It’s beggars belief it didn’t happen sooner. Therefore, I can honestly say the performance was never an issue. It’s well optimized, responsive, and has an intuitive UI.
My time with Crusader Kings III has been a blast. Sure, it’s had its challenges, but on the whole, this game had me hooked very quickly.
“Just one more move!” I kept telling myself. It was never just one more move because before I knew it, I was embroiled in a new conflict, plot, or scheme. Crusader Kings III is endless. It comes with a steep learning curve, but never overstays its welcome. A terrific example of how a strategy game can transcend the tropes of the genre and become its own beast entirely.
CRUSADER KINGS III IS HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
Many thanks go to Paradox Interactive for a PC review code for this title.
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Damien (dkpriory) has grown up gaming, from the humble days of the Atari all the way through to modern PC gaming. Unafraid to let a game steal his life for a few months, he is passionate about playing something immersive but also yearns for something to take him back to his childhood. Sadly no longer a member of the NookGaming team or creating content, but check out his archives on Youtube here.