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Crusader Kings 3 review

Watch out there's a snake attacking that baby

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The way I’d summarise Crusader Kings 3 depends heavily on where you’re coming at the game from. If you never played Crusader Kings 2, but were always interested, then I heartily recommend this extremely long, in-depth strategy/RPG hybrid about managing the successive lives of a dynasty of medieval problem people. It’s very complex, but it does a better job than its predecessor of explaining itself, and offers more rewards along the learning curve. Similarly, if you tried CK2 but bounced off, now would be your cue to come back for another bite of the turkey leg.

If you have played CK2, however, then I honestly don’t know what to say to you. You might find that CK3 preserves the best of CK2, while losing some of the irritations. Or you might find that it has preserved the general structure, while losing the magic. Which end of that spectrum you skew towards will depend on what details of CK2 your particular devils resided in.

I like it a lot. I think there are some awkwardnesses still to be ironed out, but they’re offset by a strong suite of new ideas. I saw what might have resolved into the edges of CK3’s potential a little earlier than I wanted to, in a game of such colossal scope. But I also saw a much stronger starting point for growth than CK2 represented in 2012. It’s less overwrought than its predecessor, and certainly less mentally draining to play. But this felt more like the result of smart design choices than oversimplification. Tonally, it’s in just the same, marvellously dark spot. All in all, and as boring as it is to say, I think Crusader Kings 3 is a lot like Crusader Kings 2, but newer and tidier. And I’m very content with that indeed.

Aerial view of the lands around the kingdom of Jerusalem in the 11th Century. A window shows the progress of a siege; there are catapults.

I’m crusading! And I’m a king!

I started my CK3 journey in 1066 AD (although 867 AD was available), and as Bohemia, because I figured a shrewdly-played early game would give me the chance to take the Holy Roman Empire for a joyride.

The HRE is about as massive and complex as anything gets in the world of CK3, so it seemed like my best bet for testing how various systems performed at scale. It would also, I figured, let me get embroiled in all the classic medieval misadventures: popes and heresies, interdynastic marriages, kinslaying, tons of baffling succession crises, and of course the crusades themselves, plus a whole salad buffet of sordid mitteleuropean border wars.

A big empire spanning from the thin bit of spain to probably Russia, with "Holy Roman Empire" written on it in a nice font.

Holy Roman Empire, Batman!

I saw all of the things I would expect to see, and in general, I found the ‘core’ CK3 experience alone gives you more to do than CK2 did at launch. There’s the 867 AD start date, for literal starters, plus the dynasty mechanic (which I talked about a lot, along with other new features, in my preview), the skill-tree-growing lifestyle system, borrowed and augmented from CK2’s Way Of Life DLC, and of course customisable faiths, plus a long list of smaller new features.

I guess the point I’m making is that, while there’s obviously not as much in it as there was in CK2 after 15 expansions, you’d have a hard time calling CK3 sparse. My second playthrough, for example (which I’m saving for a diary), featured an Estonian clan obsessed with breeding a horde of well-read, horny giants. But there’s room for more, clearly. Will Paradox release more mechanics and systems as paid-for DLC? Of course. Does that mean the game isn’t “complete” on launch? I don’t think so at all.

A big and pleasant surprise was war. I never truly enjoyed combat in CK2, and often played peacefully for the sake of laziness, grudgingly mustering levies for wars of expansion when I’d run out of other grand plans. But all the fiddliness is gone, now. Getting all the lads together for a rampage involves so much less clicking than it used to, and you can have your full hordes muster anywhere you like by setting a rally point, which I enjoy the convenience of. Navies have been binned, but that’s good riddance as far as I’m concerned, again for convenience’s sake.

A rally point being placed, on the edge of what I reckon is probably the balkans?

There are now also types of unit – pole lads, horse lads, etc. – which add a little RTS-style rock-paper-scissors flavour to army clashes, and are implemented sensibly. Any ruler in CK3 has their levies, which are just masses of bog standard fight men provided by domain holdings and vassal contributions. And then they have their men-at-arms, who are sort of like the ruler’s personal army. Satisfyingly, you can even start batteries of siege weapons as men-at-arms regiments, drastically shortening sieges at the cost of not being much use in a field battle. There are also knights, of course, who are characters from the game’s roster of thousands of simulated murderers, and who will actually fight battles embedded in your armies, as well as doing the usual NPC business.

All of this adds more tactical depth to campaigning, and because of the reduction in micromanagement I spent less war-time micromanoeuvring my armies, and had more time to think carefully about things like river crossings, terrain types, unit counters and embedded characters. After a few extremely successful campaigns, however, I began to wonder whether my triumphs were entirely down to having more mental room for tactical thinking. Was I just suddenly much better at war in Crusader Kings 3? I found that hard to believe, so I started to really pay attention to AI troop moves, and began to notice some odd decisions.

Because now only the castles in a territory need to be captured to bring it under your control, invasions are far less grindy, repetitive affairs. But the knock-on effect is that blitzkrieg conquests have become extremely viable. Indeed, if you can kite enemy forces away from core territories, you can gut enemy realms virtually overnight, and I don’t think the AI is quite aware of the danger. I took to sending my main force on a beeline to the border nearest the enemy capital, only to have it sit tight while a smaller force scampered round to the opposite border to besiege some inconsequential territory. The enemy would invariably send all their troops rushing to the aid of Mount Bumnose or whatever, leaving my main force free to hop over the border and take the capital.

Two enemy armies dither between potential attacks on two of my own armies, on either side of their home country.

Look at those poor Byzantine armies playing a frantic game of piggy-in-the-middle as my two armies alternate between sieges on either side of them.

There’s an argument that this was just, y’know, me doing strategy in a strategy game. But then, I executed many successful variations on it in different crises, all founded on the fact that the AI seemed to 1) ignore any armies not actively besieging something, like a Jurassic Park T-Rex but with vision based on trebuchets, and 2) react to any siege by immediately rushing every available soldier directly to the fight, leaving none in reserve elsewhere. Maybe I just got lucky, but if it was a failure of imagination on the AI’s part then I should stress that it didn’t actually dampen my enjoyment of wars much at all. It made me feel quite clever, really. But it did make me wonder how easy the AI might be to bamboozle.

I do love the dynasty mechanic, which invests your progress in the development of a family legacy that persists (complete with perks) through the deaths of successive rulers, as much as I had suspected I would. As well as giving you another slowly-ticking dopamine release timer to feel satisfied by as you play, it gives you all the more reason to roll with the punches and stick with a campaign after some cock-up in your understanding of succession rules leaves your empire shattered after your ruler’s death, and you find that all the juicy bits have gone to your new character’s arsehole cousin. Whatever happens to you individually, you’ll still be playing the dynasty game – there will still be bonuses that apply to you, and the aforementioned arsehole cousin will still at least be working towards the same broad goal as you.

A narrative window describing the outcome of a successful murder plot.

And of course, if you beef it on a succession and end up with a family member who inherited all the good stuff, there are always solutions…

And yes, make no mistake about it: unless you’re a genius, then there will be times when you’re utterly confounded by all the complex legal spaghetti at the heart of the game. It is more succinctly explained in CK3, with a wealth of tooltips and UI navigation aids, But it’s still not what you’d call simple. In my Holy Roman Empire run, there was one ruler death that I deliberately savescummed back to no less than twelve times, as I couldn’t figure out for the life of me why the Carpathian Empire kept appearing out of nowhere in the middle of my realm, and not belonging to my heir.

I figured it out in the end. But only through inference, based on trial and error, of game rules which were hinted at in one section of one tab in one window, but which were for all practical purposes completely hidden. That’s not something I’ve got too many complaints about, though. Like, the word ‘byzantine’ is named after a vast medieval state for a reason, you know? I think if you made a simulation of medieval succession politics that wasn’t confusing at times, it wouldn’t be a very good one.

My mouse cursor is pointing to the section of the screen from which I had to infer where that pesky Carpathian Empire kept coming from when my ruler died, and I can’t even begin to explain the chain of deduction that led me to a solution.

And besides, given the sheer amount of critical information you need to access in a game of CK3, it’s a wonder that so much of it is exactly where you want it to be at any given time. The redesign of CK2’s UI was always going to be a nightmarish brief, but it’s been tackled admirably, and on the whole the new layout is both intuitive and pleasant to look at (which it needs to be, given that you spend way more time in menu windows than you do actually looking at the pretty new 3D map).

I say “on the whole”, because there are gripes to register. One annoying, surely fixable issue is the notification banners about trivial things that appear at the top of the screen, over windows that you’re trying to interact with, and that can’t be dismissed with a ‘close’ button. Waiting for them to fade on their own doesn’t take long, but when you’re doing tons of marriage admin and the like, it can get annoying. Marriage admin, by the way, which lacks a “back” button to duck out of the arrangement of rules-impossible unions, so you have to set up a whole new suitor search after each aborted betrothal. Another thing: when you’re scanning your vassal list to check for potential problems, you can’t sort your people in order of who hates you most, which is often vital.

My biggest gripe, however, was the apparent concealment of stress. Stress is a hugely important statistic for your character, and is affected by a huge range of actions they’ll undertake in the course of their rule. But despite the immense volume of information tracked in your character portrait window, nowhere in that whole melee of numbers and symbols could I find how stressed they were.

A character information window fills the left hand side of the screen. There are many bits of information; none of them concern stress.

Spot the ‘stress’ indicator.

There are bugs, too. I noticed more of them when playing my Estonian run – perhaps because I was more familiar with the game by then, and perhaps because I imagine a lot of core systems were built with the commonly-played nations (like the HRE) in mind. In which case, it’s no surprise that edge cases involving Baltic giantfuckers will run into more wrinkles in the game’s fabric. Still, there was nothing catastrophic, and I suspect a lot of what I thought were bugs may well turn out to be features involving rules I hadn’t worked out yet. I was confused, for example, by a son who was still betrothed to a woman when they were both 26, until I realised it was because he had become the leader of a mercenary company, and so couldn’t marry (I presume?). This stuff is very, very welcome.

And the UI irritations are certainly fixable. So easily fixable, in fact, that I’m fully prepared to feel mortified if I’m told there is actually a stress tracker that I missed. But then, if I missed it after 25 or so hours of play and several committed searches for it, then that’s a bit of a design issue in itself. Same goes for the bug/feature issue, if I’m honest – a “your dude can’t marry because he’s a mercenary captain” flag would have saved me a lot of head-scratching.

Note after publication: Yep, there was an easily visible stress tracker. Ah well. But to be fair, it was on the main screen rather than the character info window, and I managed to miss it for a long, long time.

I mean, in my defence, it doesn’t hit the eye like a hammer, does it.

There are so many more little good things about Crusader Kings 3 that I’d like to talk about. So many strange little intricacies, and delightful, unexpected moments of satisfaction, of the kind CK2 delivered so well. And that’s the thing. Because if this game came out of nowhere, with nothing like it having graced the PC before, I would be speechless at its ingenuity. But of course, Crusader Kings 2 has been gracing our PCs, for eight years now, and it’s a bloody hard act to follow (you have to realise just how hard it is not to swerve into a concluding metaphor about royal succession here. Rest assured, I’m not going to do it).

In truth, there was no way that Crusader Kings 3 was ever going to live up to what every different camp of CK2 fans wanted from a sequel. And in all honesty, how can you make a sequel to a game which – even though it was a sequel itself – is widely acknowledged as having been a true one-of-a-kind?

If such a thing was possible, I guess, then the best form for it to take would have been a sort of iterative remake of CK2, taking the best simple concepts from its many expansions, and easing out some of the more forbidding elements of its information architecture. It wouldn’t have been perfect, and it would have had to make a few compromises in order to provide any innovation beyond the purely visual. But it would have been a damn solid game all the same, with the potential to eclipse its source material in time.

In fact, thinking about it, I just described Crusader Kings 3. I think I’ll need another year of playing it to work out exactly what I think of it. But that’s another way of saying I want to play it for a year, so it must be pretty good.

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Who am I?

Nate Crowley

Reviews Editor

Nate Crowley was created from smokeless flame before the dawn of time. He writes books, and tweets a lot as @frogcroakley. Each October he is replaced by Ghoastus, the Roman Ghost. You can email him at: nate.crowley@rockpapershotgun.com

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