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Crusader Kings 3 - title

In a Nutshell

WHAT I LIKE

  • Gentler learning curve and tutorial than predecessor
  • Highly addictive gameplay
  • Emergent stories of politics and intrigue
  • Strongly encourages role play
  • Hooks
  • Every action costs some resource
  • Allied armies are good at supporting my war efforts
  • Can play as any leader during multiple possible start years

WHAT I DON'T LIKE

  • Still very complicated, with steep learning curve
  • Can't declare a war with multiple claims simultaneously
  • Limited battle tactics
  • No naval battles
  • Pass or fail nature of "Sway" schemes

Overall Impression : A-
Successfully gamifies court intrigue and politics

Crusader Kings 3 - cover

Developer:
Paradox Development Studio

Publisher:
Paradox Interactive

Platforms:
PC (via Paradox Store, Steam, or Microsoft Store)

MSRP: $50 USD

Original release date:
1 September 2020

Genre:
Historical grand strategy role-playing game

ESRB Rating: M (for Mature 17+) for:
Blood, Violence, Sexual Themes, Partial Nudity, Drug Use, Language

Player(s):
single player or online multiplayer campaigns

Official site:
www.crusaderkings.com/

My blog readers know that I'm a fan of historic strategy games. Two of my favorite PC game franchises are Civilization and Total War, and I've dipped my hands into plenty of other historic strategy games ranging from the prehistoric Dawn of Man, all the way to Ultimate General: Civil War and Company of Heroes. But there's one prestigious set of historic strategy games that I've yet to get into. That is Paradox's historic strategy lineup of Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis, and Hearts of Iron. I own Crusader Kings II and Europa Universalis IV on Steam, and I've always wanted to get into them. I have a friend who plays them a lot, and the game looks really fun, but I was just never able to figure either of them out.

I tried booting up both a couple times and was just immediately overwhelmed. I tried the Crusader Kings II tutorial twice, and still didn't feel like I had a firm enough grasp on the game to feel compelled to keep playing. Part of that is because both games have myriad expansions and DLC that have just further complicated the games and repeatedly raised the bar of entry for newcomers. The only one of Paradox's tutorials that I felt gave me a reasonable grasp on the game was the tutorial for Stellaris.

When I saw previews for Crusader Kings III, I immediately put it on my watch list and committed myself to buying it day one, so that I could get in on the ground level in the hopes that it will be easier to grasp before Paradox starts releasing countless DLCs. It seems to have paid off, as I've been hooked on the game on and off since launch, and that addiction has cut into my Civ playing time, as well as delayed many of my blog projects and YouTube content. So for those of you eagerly awaiting new Civ strategies or the next installment of "How Madden Fails to Simulate Football", you can blame Paradox Interactive for the delay...

I am not the state

As someone who was never able to get into the previous game, I cannot say if Crusader Kings III is "dumbed-down" compared to its predecessor. It is, after all, still insanely complicated. But I definitely feel like it has a gentler learning curve and a much more effective tutorial compared to its predecessors. The hand-holding of the tutorial really did help me get a better understanding of how the various mechanics were working, and I've also found it much easier to navigate the revised U.I. and find the information that I'm looking for. I still feel like I have no idea what many of the U.I. panels mean, but I at least understand enough of the basics this time around to actually feel comfortable playing the game.

If you're unfamiliar, Crusader Kings is a medieval grand strategy game in which you play as the king of a small, European (or Middle Eastern or African) kingdom. You engage in diplomacy and court intrigue to increase your wealth and power, fight wars to conquer territory, and manage your growing holdings. But unlike a game like, say Civilization, you do not play as an abstraction of the state itself. Instead, you play as a line of rulers in a single family dynasty. You play as a single king (or queen) character at any given time. This king grows old, and eventually dies, at which point, you take control over you chosen heir and continue playing the game as that character. If you ever get to a point in which you have no family heir to carry on when you die, it's Game Over.

When your player character dies, you take over as that character's primary heir.

As much improved as the tutorial is, I do feel that it has one glaring weakness: it doesn't really cover succession. The tutorial basically puts you in control of a 40-year-old king in Ireland. It shows you how to press a few claims, use a casus belli to press those claims, create a title, deal with vassals, marry off a child, and then it basically just hands you the reigns and says "OK, now keep playing". And yeah sure, these are all the things that you spend most of the game doing. But I would say that arguably the most important part of the game is declaring your heir and setting up your inheritance to maximize the territory that your primary heir retains power over. I think succession is the single most important part of the game, and the tutorial doesn't cover it at all. When it finally happens, there's a tool tip that pops up to explain some stuff, but it didn't really help me all that much to understand what was happening, and a tool tip popping up after the fact certainly didn't help me to prepare for my king's inevitable death and inheritance.

I think if I had designed the tutorial, I probably would have started the player off with like a 60 or 70-year-old king with 2 or 3 sons. Press a few claims, do some court intrigue stuff, then turn the tutorial's focus on selecting an heir and divvying up your titles between your heirs. Then script the tutorial such that the player king dies and the player takes control of the primary heir. This way, the player gets to experience the succession mechanics in a controlled setting, and hopefully be more prepared for it when it happens in a real game. As a side-note, it might also have been nice if the tutorial had covered how to fight in a crusade, considering that the crusades are part of the game's namesake.

I wish the tutorial was more comprehensive about succession and inheritance rules.

In any case, I completely botched my first succession because I had no clue what I was doing, and my heir lost most of his predecessor's holdings, and I had to fight tough wars against more powerful siblings in order to take that territory back. So I actually restarted the tutorial and played it a second time, using the knowledge from the first failure to put myself in a better position when the succession would finally happen. So despite the improved tutorial and gentler learning curve, don't be surprised if you still end up going through some trial-and-error save-scumming to figure out how everything works.

Scheming your way to success

While Crusader Kings III is a grand strategy game about managing a country or empire, the character-driven nature of the game also gives it a strong role-playing game (RPG) flavor. Your character's personality, relationships between characters, and the various intrigues that go along with them are as much a part of the game as (and probably more than) the warfare and conquest. Yes, you will be managing troops, invading other countries, and vassalizing rival kingdoms; however, you will probably be spending even more of your time and effort on developing relationships with other characters, building alliances with other rules (usually through arranged marriages), improving the skills of your ruler and the members of his or her court, engaging in selective breeding within your family and court, and other more "personal" activities.

Every character has knowledge and skills.

Every character in the game has his or her own set of knowledge and skills. Every character in the game has a complicated matrix of relationships with every other character in the game. Every character is also potentially engaging in one or more schemes to increase their own power or wealth, or to increase the power or wealth of their liege (the ruler they are loyal to). Many of them might be plotting against you!

You have to decide which characters to trust, which characters to develop friendships (or romantic relations) with, which characters to keep at arm's length, and which characters to keep close tabs on. Every action that you take in the game will cost some resource and/or time. Nothing comes free. Most actions will also have an effect on your relationship with one or more characters. You'll need to keep your friends and allies happy to prevent them from turning on you, while simultaneously using spies and moles to dig up secrets about your rivals that you can use to blackmail them and keep them in check. Or just flat-out murder them.

To give you an example of what kind of game this is, I had a situation in which my player king died, and his lands were split between his two living sons. This gave both sons an equal share of the inheritance, which gave them equally-powerful titles. Neither son had a superior title compared to the other. The result was that my player heir lost half his land to his brother. But since my player heir was first in-line to inherit all the lands of my brother, I hatched a scheme to murder my own brother, even though our kingdoms were allied. My agents successfully poisoned my dear brother in such a way that it looked like a natural death, exculpating me of any responsibility in his death, and re-uniting the lands of my father under my sole rule. So yes, fratricide, patricide, and maybe even filicide are a big part of this game's ... um ... "diplomacy".

Don't be surprised if your siblings (or children) try to murder you -- or vice versa.

One big pet peeve of mine is the "pass-or-fail" nature of the "sway" scheme. This is a scheme designed to improve your relationship with one other character, and it often takes a year or two of game time to complete. And sometimes, it completely fails! That's a long time to invest and get nothing in return. I really feel like two years' worth of effort trying to be nice to someone should yield some results, even if it's not as much as you'd like, and if it's just not working at all, your character should be able to recognize that it's not working, and give you the opportunity to abandon the scheme without further penalty. I feel that the opportunity cost was penalty enough.

Personally, I wish the mechanic worked in the following way: rather than having a percentage chance to pass or fail the scheme at the end of the duration, you should instead have a percent chance of improving the relationship a small amount each month that the scheme is active, and maybe also a very small percentage chance of damaging the relationship in a given month (a "critical failure", so to speak). The percent chance of success for the next month could even be slightly adjusted based on the result of the previous month.

A year and a half is a long time to waste on a scheme that completely fails.

This alternative proposal has several benefits. First, it makes it almost impossible for the scheme to yield no results whatsoever. It also means that you start getting partial returns on your investment sooner. Alternatively, you can recognize sooner that the scheme is having no success and cancel it in favor of another scheme, instead of wasting more of your precious lifespan on a fruitless endeavor. To prevent the player from abusing the system by just swaying someone for a few months to nudge their opinion above some threshold (for example, increasing your court priest a few points so that he endorses you, then swapping to a scheme targeting another character), there should be a large penalty if you terminate the scheme early, since the target should recognize the cold shoulder and feel like your attempts were disingenuous. There could maybe be an exception in which, if the scheme fails for so many consecutive months, your character should recognize that the target is just not warming up to you, and you should have the option of terminating the scheme without further penalty.

Emergent story generator

In addition to providing compelling court intrigue, Crusader Kigns III provides plenty of opportunity for role playing, and rewards that role play with some relatively compelling emergent narratives. As mentioned before, each and every character in the game has skills and traits and relationships with other characters. These skills, traits, and relationships will allow or disallow certain actions, or provide different outcomes for the same events or actions. If you role play to the character's strengths, you'll generally be more successful at whatever you try to do, and your outcomes will differ considerably compared to trying the same actions with a different character with different skills, traits, and relationships.

Playing out of character will usually apply "stress" to your character, which penalizes certain actions and makes your character less effective at everything from management to diplomacy to warfare. Stress can also trigger additional long-term penalties, depending on how you chose to cope with that stress. A character may drown his or her stress in booze and become an alcoholic. Another character might become socially withdrawn, affecting your relationship and effectiveness of courtiers, councilors, and vassals. Yet another more social character might seek consolation in the arms of a friend or lover, and actually improve your relationship with that chosen confidant -- possibly even to the point that the confidant is granted some additional power and responsibility in court. Some characters may even become suicidal.

In one case, the king and queen of Ireland had never been particularly close, and even resorted to cheating on each other, with both acquiring the "lover's pox" from their illicit affairs, and having to wonder if any of their children were legitimate. But as they grew older, they started confiding in each other more, found common interests in their religious studies, fell in love, and devoted themselves to their strained marriage. During this time, their eldest son (and heir whom the king had personally groomed for leadership) died from an infection of a wound sustained in battle. The king and queen consoled each other and grew even closer, and both rejected the temptation of further love affairs.

The double-whammy of losing his eldest son and then his wife, sent the high king into a spiral of grief.

Sadly, they would not be able to console each other for long, as the queen became ill and died less than a year later, while the king and queen were still in grief over the death of their son. The double-whammy of losing both his son and recently-re-devoted wife (less than a year apart) sent the king into a spiral of despair from which no one in court could provide him solace. He became withdrawn, ill, and contemplated suicide, spending much of his time in isolation with books about faith. When the Pope called for a Crusade to Jerusalem, the king, feeling he had nothing left to live for, donned the holy cross and sailed across the Mediterranean to personally lead an army in battle. He died in a hopeless battle against an overwhelming force in Egypt, while single-handedly holding off that force from relieving its Muslim allies in the siege of Jerusalem.

In yet another game, Princess Ludmilla of Bohemia became cursed to be a widow. She was married off to the prince of a neighboring kingdom to form an alliance, only to have that prince be slain in the ensuing wars, fighting alongside Ludmilla's father. She would remarry twice more, to two other neighboring princes, only to have the her new husbands also similarly killed in battle.

War and peace

The large focus on characters and politics means that one of the biggest weaknesses of Paradox's grand strategy games is that the actual military action is a bit dull to play. Basically, you just have a giant army, and you throw it at your opponent's giant army, and wait for dice rolls to decide which wins. Win enough battles and sieges to increase your war score, and you can force the opponent to surrender. There's very little room for bold military tactics or complicated maneuvers. About the most complicated that you'll ever get is splitting your army to try to lure a larger opponent army to go after your smaller force, then hit them with a pincer attack from your detached reinforcements. Even then, you don't get bonuses for flanking or surrounding your opponent, it's still largely just a game of who has more soldiers.

Better trained armies with more skilled leaders can defeat larger armies,
but warfare largely comes down to which side has the larger stack of levies.

There are some additional factors that can sway battles. You can recruit permanent men-at-arms regiments that have specific bonuses in certain terrain types. You can also recruit a set of knight characters to lead your armies and fight. Each knight, being a game character, has his or her own traits and combat prowess, and they can swing the battle one way or the other.

For example, you might train a bunch of archers and light footmen regiments that have a bonus towards fighting in hills and forests, then attach a knight with a trait that further improves his army's bonus in forests and/or hills. If you are successful at forcing all your battles to happen in the favorable hills and forest terrain, then you'll likely be able to defeat armies that are considerably larger than your own, especially if those enemy armies have debuffs such as being low on supplies, having recently disembarked from the sea, or not having formidable knights of their own.

Knights are characters that provide bonuses to your armies,
but can be hurt, captured, or killed in battle.

You also want to be careful about assigning your family members, valuable courtiers, or vassals as knights, and also about leading armies with your own player character. Your player character, as well as any knight characters sent to battle can be hurt, maimed, captured, or even killed in battle. Losing a highly competent advisor or (worse yet) yourself or player heir in a battle can be a devastating setback. In the case of losing your heir, it could potentially even lead to a game over if you don't have another eligible heir.

Crusader Kings also suffers from a problem that plagues almost all grand strategy games: the inability to coordinate battle tactics with your NPC allies. Allied armies do prioritize staying close to your army and fighting in battles alongside you, but there is no guarantee that they will do so. I have not found any way to ask an allied leader to target a specific county, siege a specific city, attack a specific enemy army, or follow one of your own armies. If you're depending on your ally's troops to back you up and turn the tide of a battle, you might get boned if they instead decide to march to siege a city on the other side of the country.

You can assign your own armies to follow an NPC ally's army, which does help to eliminate some potentially annoying micro-management in the event that you are supporting your ally's war.

That being said, I do want to emphasize that the NPC allies are better at supporting my war efforts than the NPCs of other strategy games like Civilization or Total War. They usually have my back. It's just annoying that I don't have more control or influence over making sure that they are where I need them, when I need them.

I'm also annoyed by the lack of naval battles. You can embark armies onto water to sail to other lands (which is necessary if playing in Britain or Ireland), but you cannot have battles between those embarked forces on the seas, nor can you train naval "men-at-arms" regiments. You also can't harass shipping lanes or embargo harbors to deal economic injury to an opponent during war. This means that island or coastal nations like England or Norway cannot leverage their sea-faring expertise in battle.

Armies can embark across seas, but the game does not allow naval battles at all.

I've also had at least one situation in which I was stuck in a prolonged war because my opponent kept sailing around my coast without ever disembarking. Since I couldn't meet them at sea to defeat the army, I didn't have enough war score to sue for peace (not even a white peace), and the state of war just dragged on, draining my money and preventing me from pressing other claims. It was very annoying. It costs a sizeable chunk of money to embark a fleet, but I don't think there's any ongoing maintenance costs associated with keeping your army embarked, so there's little stopping a faction from simply keeping your army embarked and out of reach of the enemy.

Europa Universalis has navies; I don't know why Crusader Kings shouldn't, even if it is much more limited by the actual history being represented. I'm sure that Crusader Kings III will see plenty of expansions and DLC content, and I hope that an expansion of naval mechanics is the basis of one of those DLCs.

Wars can also become tedious and repetitive. As far as I can tell, the game will only allow you to chose a single claim for your casus belli at once. Even if you have claims to multiple counties in a duchy, you can only go to war over a single claim at a time. If you want the whole duchy, you would need a single claim on the whole duchy's title. This can lead to repeatedly fighting boring wars against the same weak opponent over and over again until you've claimed enough counties to give you a de jure claim to the rest of the duchy or kingdom.

I have claims on Carrick and Galloway, but I can only go to war over one at a time,
despite having enough overwhelming force to easily take and hold both.

I can understand that you maybe shouldn't be able to select a bunch of different counties from different duchies or kingdoms for a single war. That could get exploitative. But I feel like you should be able to fight for multiple claims as long as they are at the same level, and within the same parent title -- even if it costs more prestige to do so. This would at least streamline the game by condensing multiple, one-sided conflicts into a single war that can be resolved more quickly and let me get on to the rest of the game.

Gamification of Game of Thrones

At the end of the day, however, Crusader Kings III wants to be more about the politics and court intrigue between the characters than about the military strategy and warfare. In that respect, the game works. Crusader Kings III successfully gamifies the politics and court intrigue that makes shows like Game of Thrones so good and popular, and in so doing, it creates its own similar (but less fantastical) emergent stories. In fact, one of the included scenarios covers the same period of history as the History Channel's show Vikings, with brothers Bjorn Ironsides, Hvitserk, and Ivar the Boneless competing over control of Ragnar Lothbrok's legacy. Vikings was, after all, an attempt by the History Channel to try to replicate the success of Game of Thrones (and is, in my opinion, one of the more successful attempts that any studios have made). And heck, you can even chose to play as any arbitrary jarl of Denmark or Norway, or duke or prince of England, and try to work your way up to toppling the great Viking warlords and crown yourself "King of All Scandinavia". That's how much freedom this game gives you.

One of the scenarios will be familiar to viewers of History Channel's Vikings TV show.

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Welcome to Mega Bears Fan's blog, and thanks for visiting! This blog is mostly dedicated to game reviews, strategies, and analysis of my favorite games. I also talk about my other interests, like football, science and technology, movies, and so on. Feel free to read more about the blog.

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