Crusader Kings III PC Review

On top of being excellently executed, Crusader Kings III’s blend of RPG and strategy isn’t often encountered, adding yet another reason to why it’s one the best strategy game ever made.

By RON, Posted 15 Sep 2020

In Crusader Kings III, the player begins by controlling a single ruler and plays through generations of successors, whom all lead and grow their dynastic line over centuries of medieval history. Players improvise their own story based on their rulers’ deeds, and the outcome itself is stretched to something captivating. Like its predecessors, CK3 is far from the usual warfare-focused strategy games, offering a unique RPG twist and gameplay that is full of multiple complex mechanics and random events. Crusader Kings III forces players to dig deeper into its gameplay than any other game in the strategy genre and, when the players get a hold on the game’s systems, it’s all so deeply satisfying.

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The journey begins with a very interactive and rather concise tutorial, something that was missing from previous releases. The good news for both veterans and anyone new to this game is that the tutorial is made up of both its own scenario but also behaves like a built-in feature of the game through the addition of pop-up messages. They appear whenever players are facing a new concept. Considering the depth of the Crusader Kings III and its steep learning curve, integrating tooltips and pop-up windows into the gameplay complements the tutorial scenario which can only cover so much. As helpful as these methods are, the randomness of the game does still often leads to situations where the tutorials don’t successfully explain the more complex aspects of the actual gameplay. Especially in the matter of succession or controlling vassals, experimentation and trial and error will get you the understanding that the tutorials cannot, albeit at the cost of restarting the game or perhaps restart from a previously saved point. During my 50+ hours spent with the game, I didn’t get to explore all that it offers, however, the inbuilt Encyclopedia acts both as yet another source of aid and one that can give you a hint of what you’ve yet to experience.

Crusader Kings III lets you control a medieval dynasty starting with either the year 867 or 1433, move from generation to generation as rulers pass their lands to the next legitimate heir. The frequent events and countless individuals in your court and around you can prove to be quite a major obstacle when starting the play with any dynasty. At the beginning, it might take you a few generations to fully figure out who is who and why they have a part to play in your quest. Managing a dynasty means the family comes first more than its land. Conquering land from other rulers is important for expansion purposes, but one can easily keep on playing CK3 only by simply expanding the family tree and increasing their influence through peacefully inheriting land in other realms. I find this interesting because conquering more land comes with more responsibilities such as managing vassals, controlling counties, and several other factors. That being said, you can also expand your dynasty through marriage and increase its influence through inheritance.

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While the game juggles countless individuals on a broad scale, what matters most is the character that you’re currently managing. The ruler of the dynasty and his choice of Lifestyle decides the development of the kingdom. Each ruler must pick from five different types of Lifestyles – Diplomacy, Martial, Stewardship, Intrigue, and Learning –, each coming with certain advantages. The personal traits of an individual ruler give added benefits when selecting a Lifestyle but don’t force you on a set path. Some of the random events of the realm are, however, directly linked with the chosen lifestyle. For instance, if you pick the Martial Lifestyle, events will mostly occur involving your marshals, knights, or levies, whereas the Stewardship Lifestyle’s events will mostly be related to finance. The decision you take in these events will result in either bonuses or penalties. Certain individuals can gain more opinion of your character, or you can end up earning much needed extra piety or prestige; you can get gold by selling a valuable book or traits that last for a couple of years. Some decisions could even prove fatal in the short term. So, a wise ruler must do a little bit of research before making a decision or take note of previous rulers’ incidents, as these random events do repeat from time to time across generations. As each ruler can choose their Lifestyle when they take control of the realm, you can end up with sudden shifts in focus. As an example, I started with Martial and eventually moved on to Stewardship and Diplomacy lifestyles during the second and third generations of rulers, each choice enhancing certain aspects, leading to different experiences.

A ruler has to manage several aspects of their realm but he doesn’t have to do it alone.  Supporting him are council members who play important roles. These members can be picked from the members of your court or hired by sending invitations. Ideally, you’ll pick them by their expertise, but your powerful vassals will always demand a seat at the council table regardless if they actually suit their position of choice. Until they get one, their opinion on you won’t be too high, which might eventually lead to a rebellion. Players must also manage their Domain that consists of several Counties which themselves consist of multiple Baronies. Baronies act as locations inside counties where buildings can be constructed. But these things change with the number of Titles your character has. Counties grow through their own development, but also the ruler’s control4 and popularity. You can assign your council members to manage these tasks for you while the decision of what to construct remains yours to make.

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Most buildings offer either levies, gold, or piety, each costing a big chunk of gold, and that’s without mentioning their several upgrades. Even though it’s costly, constructing these buildings does somewhat impact gameplay. That’s because taxation, the number of levies, and their supply limit depend on them in some part. This development process is very slow and quietly takes place across decades and centuries, being important for future generations. Constructing buildings or not, it’s more important to increase the level of popularity of each county. Fail to do so, negative popularity might spread through the entire realm and cause a civil war. If you like to keep your domain small and focus more on diplomacy or intrigue, I suggest you keep the popularity on a higher level to avoid the sudden collapse of your domain.

The matter of succession arises when rulers die. Once you establish Primogeniture, lands will always go to a single heir, creating a transition period with a low risk of your realm breaking apart. Under Partition, which is how most rulers start, you can end up with separate empire/kingdoms/duchies being created and all of your sons emerging as independent rulers. Granting your children certain titles to suppress succession claims can be attempted, however, managing succession remains one of the hardest parts of the Crusader Kings III, particularly in the early game.  Your culture’s progress depends on the development of the realm and enables different options for succession. Until you can switch to Primogeniture which is available once you’ve reached a later point in the game, discovered the proper innovation (CK3’s version of technologies), and set your realm to a certain crown authority level, you must rely on murder plots and schemes to make succession smoother for your preferred son or daughter. Don’t be surprised if the game puts you in the shoes of a cruel murderer who plots the death of their own younger child. The only comfort is that the next ruler will still look similar to his parents – thanks to the powerful 3D portraits that now depict characters – so you don’t feel much of a difference other than the different traits or Lifestyle between the rulers once the immediate succession hassles are gone. Among these hassles, your vassals are a constant headache.

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Yes, your vassals pay taxes and support with their levies during wars, but they also hold their individual opinion of you. If they don’t like you, expect them to provide fewer gold and troops, form factions and rise up against you, or begin murder plots to subtly take you off your throne. Aside from emperors, all kings, dukes, count, or barons can be vassals in a realm. Though it’s a very rate to see Kings as vassals, having Dukes as vassals add a lot to your realm because of the amount of tax and levies support that properly creating and giving away Titles gets you. Having more vassals generates more income is always great but a powerful vassal will always ask for a seat at the council table while you can only have five of them. So, keeping them in check won’t always be easy. Thankfully CK3 has introduced the vassal contract feature that allows you to determine the amount of tax and number of levies that each vassal should provide. You can also sway your vassals to increase their opinion, but swaying can be done only one at a time and it’s not always a successful process. You can also determine special contracts such as Duchy-Tire, Scutage, March, and Palatinate, or religious freedom, or a forcing succession right, etc. If you plan on increasing your number of vassals, I recommend switching to the Diplomacy Lifestyle. Its tree enables you to gain more advantages from your vassals while making it easier for them to like you.

CK3 allows you to scheme against almost every other character in the game, starting from your wife and up to a rival ruler. You can also scheme to lay with certain characters and become soulmates behind both spouses’ backs. Scheming plays a vital role in diplomacy, too. Paradox has introduced hooks in CK3 which come in two varieties: strong or weak. They help you to gain an advantage over a character that can be used to increase the likelihood of a successful plot. For instance, your spymaster can be sent to find secrets in another court, potentially finding out that the county you’re planning to invade next is led by someone that is having an affair with the wife of his strongest ally. You can easily use such a hook to blackmail the rival ruler to do your bidding or break the alliance between his allies. Hooks can also be cashed for gold, with the appropriate perk from the Stewardship Lifestyle. Scheming, however, puts you through a series of events during which you must make the right decisions in order to not be exposed. An exposed scheme will cause a large decrease in opinion and could even lead to an increase in your stress levels. Stress is yet another new feature in Crusader Kings III, keeping rulers in check from steering away from their personality. Decisions that go against it come with an amount of stress. When it reaches certain thresholds, it will cause mental breakdowns eventually being able to cause your ruler’s death. Throwing a feast or calling for a hunt reduces stress but for the cost of a good amount of gold. Alternatively, each breakdown presents you with choices like becoming a Flagellant or visiting a brothel that reduces its levels while granting negative traits and opening you up to new risks.

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The mere size of the game is simply stunning. From the ninth to the fourteenth century, you can either control a small kingdom or giants like the Byzantine Empire. There are tons of historical figures to play with and, over time, you’re can change the course of history. This is where warfare steps in, this time being easier to manage. CK3 has portrayed military, war, and battles in a very simple manner. Nine out of ten cases, battles will be won by marshals who have more levies under his command. Certain land types give a special bonus to a certain type of unit. Levies are non-specialized soldiers raised from your counties, while men-at-arms are more specialized troops that can turn battles around. You can hire experienced knights or even mercenaries but all come with a big toll on your gold income. Knights are also part of your court and will have their opinion of you. Experienced knights with a higher opinion will have a good impact on your levies. When a war is declared between two kingdoms, your allies will always ask you to join the battles. Battles are expensive to maintain since they cost gold, especially when your unit travels to faraway lands by sea. You can take prisoners when a siege is won or armies are defeated and ask for ransom in return – either gold or a favor. As a Tribal ruler, you can also raid others for a good chunk of gold and prestige. What I didn’t like about these battles is that most of the time you need to fight till numbers go down to 0 when engaged in any battle. There’s no option for retreat and when facing a larger army and the death of your important knights is imminent. Raising an army isn’t time-consuming but finding good knights and skilled marshals can be. The ruler’s military traits play a vital role too and so does their number of allies. Before declaring war for a small piece of land, checking these facts is a must to avoid risking a loss and even the collapse of your kingdom.

Then, there’s both religion and culture that vastly influence your realm. You can always follow any faith you want as long as your vassals have a positive opinion of you. Switching to another existing faith is relatively easy; converting vassals is rather the opposite. Just like in real life, faiths in CK3 view certain acts as sinful and others as virtues. If you don’t like any faith, you can create your very own deciding which traits are virtuous and sinful, its main tenets and doctrines. Some religions have spiritual leaders who can grant you gold and start crusades.  All cultures can study and unlock innovations that provide access to new laws, buildings, or special units. While religion affects the vassals inside your realm, culture can affect your neighboring kingdoms, just like their culture can expose you to new innovations only they’ve unlocked. There are both rewards and challenges when adapting to a new religion or culture. The best way to keep moving onward is by working on your schemes and adopting to changes no matter whatever the obstacles.

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There are a few things I thought would make CK3 even greater in terms of making it even more realistic. Trading between kingdoms is something I’ve been significantly missing the game. It could speed up the gold income for supporting the construction of your buildings or building up a superior army. One of the many reasons that the game is slow-paced is because your gold income is slow. Yes, you can earn gold from hooks or ransoming characters, but that’s something not taking place in a constant manner. For a smaller kingdom, it takes about a year to generate 100 gold which is the cost of an armory that gives additional levies. And when you’re about to spend that money to raise your armies, an unfortunate event such someone threatening to expose your extramarital affair can cost you half of that gold. Situations like this are always taking place and you’re forced to delay construction projects. Random events in CK3, could benefit from more clearly showing the history that led to them. You suddenly figure out that one of your powerful vassals, who is also your council member, is forming a faction against you. When that happened to me, I could only ask why, as the vassal had a high opinion on me. As I did not lay with his spouse, or threaten him anyway, this left me wondering. A little more detail could have gone a long way to clarify things.

Despite these small issues, Paradox Interactive has made Crusader Kings III easier to understand and certainly more relaxing to play. When I compare the learning curves of both CK3 and CK2 I find CK3’s to be considerably smoother. CK2 was full of features with different tools to master whereas CK3 retains complexity while making its UI easier to navigate. The tooltips and Issues menu at the top facilitate focusing on the gameplay and not getting swamped in wars or schemes. Visually, the characters look much better than the previous game, able to express joy or sorrow during different random events. Though you might be forced to reload the game several times to avoid a certain outcome, it’s the learning that matters as it lets you sink deeper into the captivating gameplay. On top of being excellently executed, Crusader Kings III’s blend of RPG and strategy isn’t often encountered, adding yet another reason to why it’s one the best strategy game ever made.

Sarwar Ron, NoobFeed
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General Information

Platform(s): PC
Publisher(s): Paradox Interactive
Developer(s): Paradox Development Studios
Genres: Real-Time Strategy
Themes: Medieval Simulator, Historical
Release Date: 2020-01-09

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