Sigurd Snake-in-the-eye’s reign began with bloodshed and conquest. An alliance with Opplond’s King Björn Ironside proved instrumental in forming both the kingdoms of Denmark and Sweden, Scandinavia’s powerhouses. But while our first steps in Crusader Kings 3’s rich medieval world were showered in glory, the age of 45 brought leprosy upon the mighty Sigurd. Using the last bit of gold in our coffers to hire an experienced court physician, we held hope that the king would recover; and recover he did, albeit with one caveat: the risky treatment we chose turned him into a eunuch. Had we not had a son before that unfortunate moment, our journey could have been a very short one. Instead, it reinforced one very important thing about Crusader Kings 3: territory and power comes and goes but securing a future for your house and dynasty is what matters most.
Much like its predecessors, Crusader Kings 3 lets you play as any ruler on its vast map, starting in either 867 or 1066, in any place from Iceland to Africa and India. You’re not just given a plethora of cultures and faiths to choose from, but also free rein over the fate of your dynasty. While historical context and various available decisions can suggest avenues of progress – like working to restore the Kingdom of the Danelaw or dismantle the Papacy as a Norse ruler –, you can set off to conquer land in any direction you want, humbly attempt to hold onto one specific title and territory or, indeed, sleep with everything under the sun.
Guide Our Ships, Our Axes, Spears and Swords
Early on, leading the Kingdom and eventually, the Empire of Denmark often saw us planning the next war, overseeing our troops’ movement and composition, alongside helping allies and vassals hold onto land in the British Isles. Under the hood, Crusader Kings III’s combat has seen some changes. The majority of your army is made up of untrained levies while Champions and Men-at-Arms like archers, mangonels or armored horsemen provide decisive power. Good old doomstacks remain viable but having our men-at-arms countered by the enemy’s rendered our numeric advantage ineffective on several occasions, similar to fighting on unfavorable terrain. We quickly learned to pick our battles, catch the opponent’s armies before they link up into one big blob, or aim for their leader, since capturing them instantly wins the war. Naval levies no longer exist, soldiers automatically embarking when reaching a body of water. Troops are now raised at one set point, without the need of waiting for them to traverse the map from their home counties. While these two latter changes feel a tad less realistic, we welcomed the removal of annoying micromanagement.
We’ve discussed Crusader Kings III’s tutorial and UI improvements when we previewed it earlier this year, and everything we said then stands true. The reworked UI drastically increases the ease with which you can obtain information on the game’s many moving pieces. It look gorgeous, its excellent use of color making relevant elements much more readable, while its detailed presentation strikes a balance between telling the player as much as they need to know without overwhelming them. Tooltips, dynamic advice bubbles and the in-game encyclopedia cover all of the game’s important aspects. The advice button also acts as an indispensable aid. These elements work together to create the most welcoming Paradox grand strategy title to date and should, at least to some degree, inform all the developer’s future games.
But war is just one side of Crusader Kings III. Titles define the land over which you rule while granting levies and gold. Have too few and you’ll be easy pickings for stronger rulers; hold onto too many and your vassals will start hating you as you incur penalties to the gold and levies you get. Spreading them out between children and vassals is key to keeping them happy and on your side. Similarly, giving someone too many will make them soon entreat thoughts of independence. The three playable government forms each has different ways of determining the levies and taxes that vassals owe their liege. Tribal vassals contribute depending on your level of Fame – one of several resources you need to juggle. Feudal vassals have their obligations set by individual contracts which allow for a higher amount of customization but are a bit of a pain to micromanage in a large empire. Lastly, as a Clan, you gain levies and gold depending on how liked you are by your vassals.
To keep those in lower hierarchical positions happy, you can also grant them vassals of their own, sway them to your side using multi-step schemes, give them council positions that let them help you directly manage your realm, or marry your family members to theirs. The latter is a powerful option that not just ensures that your house and dynasty persist through centuries. It can also lead to your family eventually working their way to obtaining titles outside your realm or securing powerful alliances. As much as Crusader Kings III succeeds at making its characters feel like actual living beings, many of your sons and daughters will end up being pure currency used to forward your goals or get desirable congenital traits to pass on to future dynasty members. While our efforts of birthing beautiful geniuses that also had the strength of Hercules never quite worked out, halfway through our game as Denmark, marriage got us territory in the southernmost reaches of Africa.
Our Emperor’s a Drunkard, Our Emperor Is Stressed
Arguably the stars of Crusader Kings III, characters are complex individuals depicted using 3D portraits that make distinguishing between them very easy. You’ll no longer have multiple rulers wearing the same face, while diseases like the bubonic plague or wounds are clearly depicted as buboes and bruises on their bodies. Traits and stats determine every character’s personality which you’ll usually find summed up in two words like Content Gentlewoman or Analytic Atheist.
They can be gained as early as childhood, which is when assigning Guardians can shape what children grow into. They not only heavily influence what characters excel or are incompetent at, but also what other traits they fundamentally dislike. A fair few of our Emperors were particularly good at Intrigue which kept opposing schemes and assassination attempts at bay. Learning, on the other hand, was consistently their weakness, which led to us being at the technological tail end of history. Traits aren’t always positive, though. Just ask Emperor Karl II, the melancholic drunkard whose reign lasted a whole 48 days before he drank himself to death; or King Refil who only by loads of luck didn’t plague the entire dynasty with his not-so-lovely Lover’s Pox.
Another vital aspect when discussing characters is the Lifestyle they choose. Tied to one of the five character stats, Lifestyles allow you to pick a focus that grants flat bonuses, after which you proceed to gain experience and unlock perks across three skill trees. These can enable very powerful options like having two hostile schemes going at once (double the murder, double the fun), extra casus belli (reasons for war) or increasing your fertility which, if your character is sterile, can quickly turn things around. Progressing through these trees cements the idea that characters are developing in their chosen field and improving as time passes. In the final years of their lives, rulers feel like accomplished individuals having opportunities and abilities that their heirs will have to work for. Switching a new ruler often resembles a soft restart that always requires you to not just regain potentially lost land or get your vassals to love you again, but also start anew on a character’s personal journey.
High King Björn Kolsson might have inherited the Empire of Denmark and what was arguably the best beard in the entire dynasty, but as a compassionate and patient schemer, his was a perpetually conflicted life. Murdering people was necessary to maintain the empire’s stability and ensure that his chosen son was voted as the emperor of both Denmark and Britannia. As his personality was at odds with ye olde stabbery, this led to repeated crises that triggered Crusader Kings III’s Stress mechanic. Every time a character does something contrary to their principles, they gain Stress. Hitting certain thresholds results in them looking for ways of coping, which often grant negative traits like becoming a flagellant, drunkard on, in Bjorn’s case, leaning towards solitude and becoming a recluse. This made others view him in a less positive light, decreasing stats like diplomacy while letting us continue doing what had to be done for the empire. At Stress level 3, characters can take drastic actions like renouncing the throne or killing themselves, which is as much an awesome roleplaying element as it is a tool to be used if your ruler is a useless idiot.
The council also returns as a vital entity in keeping your realm stable and propagating your faith and culture. The Spymaster, especially, receives a handful of new and very powerful toys in Crusader Kings III. Spying on other courts – whether within or outside your realm – can result in discovering secrets that you can be turned into Hooks. These enable blackmail that you can use to mold the court intrigue in your favor. Hooks can also be gained from a variety of other sources like ransoming prisoners, or events like getting too drunk at a feast and promising a vassal that you’d do them a favor, which they rarely let waste. Whether you use them to revoke titles without being viewed as a tyrant, forcing alliances, or people to vote in your favor during elections, these can save your butt from nasty situations and provide much-needed boons as long as your own secrets don’t spill out.
A Bevy Of Potential Beliefs
One of Crusader Kings III’s most significant changes targets faiths. Reforming your own requires a good chunk of the Piety resource and control over Holy Sites found in specific places on the map, but you now have unprecedented freedom over how you shape new faiths. From the three core tenets to more granular doctrines that allow defining which genders can be landed, your stance on bastardry, or whether relatives can marry, and finishing with virtues and sins, you can take your faith in vastly different directions. Getting the Gnosticism tenet, for example, lets you see other faiths with the tenet as righteous, regardless of the broader religion they belong to. Tired of monogamy and warmongering? Reform your faith into one that fancies polygamy and pacifism, but don’t expect them Catholics to keep being your chums. Since you’ll only see a few of these options in one playthrough, this is easily one of CK3’s main sources of replayability and there’s plenty of it overall.
Although it played smoothly, for the most part, Crusader Kings III began loading slowly in a handful of instances around the year 1200, with roughly 200 years left until the end of the game. Opening the – admittedly massive – dynasty tree could take up to one minute and a half after which scrolling through it was anything but smooth. Selecting the duchies or kingdoms we wanted to attack within larger realms often tanked our framerate while, closer to the end, certain buttons like the ones for appointing councilors began to have a few seconds’ worth of lag when clicking them.
The AI was also prone to its own hiccups, sending small armies into opposing doomstacks instead of circling around to link up with allies. It also started independence wars with a rabble of 700 peasants against our 16000-strong army. Although CK3’s music is beautiful and varied, most of it takes a step back, finding a cozy place in the background and almost feeling a tinge too subdued. We always knew when a Crusade started but felt that the rest of the soundtrack could have been more present in our medieval odyssey.
Our time with Crusader Kings III began with a simple string of conquests that bloomed into tens, if not hundreds, of different stories starring the characters we controlled and those around them. Some vassals gave us the British Isles which we reformed into the Kingdom of the Danelaw; others brought us close to Italian dukes, Catholicism and the Papacy, which we attempted to dismantle. We spread the Ásatrú faith as far as we could, groomed heirs that held onto the empire’s lands in France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany, but also had children slain in Holy Wars and assassinated, leading to our Empire inevitably fracturing. We rebuilt it, seduced our way into foreign ruler’s beds, and fell prey to obesity after lifelong efforts of losing weight. Goals can definitely grant satisfaction but embracing failure and seeing where the chaos of Crusader Kings III’s medieval world leads is also incredibly rewarding.
Where to Buy Crusader Kings 3
Crusader Kings III will be available through Steam and the Xbox Game Pass for PC can be pre-ordered or bought from the Humble Store. If you purchase anything through these links, GameWatcher may get a small percentage of commission, so thank you for supporting us.
CRUSADER KINGS III VERDICT
As much as it remains a numbers-driven grand strategy game, Crusader Kings III masterfully paints a complex medieval world teeming with living characters that have desires and ambitions. Its mixture of familiar and evolved systems enhances its roleplaying and emergent storytelling potential. The actions that you perform always feel like they’re the result of a process or skill your characters have naturally gained and there’s always something to grab your attention. And so it did, as for 70+ hours we were completely absorbed by warfare, realm management and court intrigue, which, it turns out, we haven’t had enough of just yet.
TOP GAME MOMENT
A tie between having an insane zealot with a burning hatred for clothes as the most capable chancellor in the realm and seeing our empire stretch from Scandinavia to the British Isles, onto a chunk of mainland Europe but also portions of Africa.
Vast potential for emergent storytelling
Best new player experience of any PDS grand strategy, and without sacrificing complexity
Gorgeous map and 3D character portraits
Lifestyles, Hooks and the remainder of new systems feed into a gameplay loop which constantly requires your attention, to some degree
Sound design makes the map come alive reflecting the locations you’re zooming in on
Small performance issues towards the late stages of a playthrough
Occasional AI hiccups