Crusader Kings 3 Review
Medieval Europe has been portrayed in countless strategy games, but never like this. Crusader Kings 3 is the latest entry in a long-running series of genre-bending PC games. The latest entry does some of the things you would expect. The graphics are much, much nicer. The user interface has been improved. But CK3 has a clarity of vision that makes it more than the sum of its parts and elevates it past anywhere the series has gone before.
The Petty Kingdom of Wessex
Æthelstan was the Petty King of Wessex in the late 9th Century. He joined his northern neighbors in the fight against the Viking sons of the great Ragnarr Lothbrok, but the fighting was far enough north that the lands of Wessex were spared from the worst of the pillaging. The Vikings won the war, but Æthelstan held on to his lands. Too many lands actually, his vassals viewed him as a greedy tyrant. So Æthelstan quickly granted lands to the wisest and mightiest members of his court. By chance, one of the newly made nobles was a learned Jewish traveler from the Holy Land, who became the Earl of East Seaxe.
Though King Æthelstan was smart and courageous, he struggled with social interactions. He was shy. Talking with people one on one stressed him out, so much so that it had adverse effects on his health. But the Jewish Earl was kind, and they became friends anyway. Then one night the conversation turned to fierce debate on the nature of religion. Before the year was out, King Æthelstan had converted to Judaism. Not only that, he became a passionate defender of the faith converting his family, and then the other nobles of the court.
Æthelstan was not much of a warrior himself, but he sent armies to conquer neighboring territories, including Cornwall and parts of Wales and Mercia. He grew in wealth and esteem and had the chance to become the first King of England. That’s not what he did though. Instead he formed a new kingdom, and called the whole thing Wessex. The south and west of the British Isles became one of the wealthiest kingdoms in the world. Still there was one small Welsh county that eluded him, controlled by the Swedes after they landed their longships there.
So Æthelstan battled to complete his kingdom, facing the young Swedish King in battle. Though the Vikings were fierce, they simply couldn’t match the numbers of the Wessex armies, or equipment. Victory seemed certain. Until something odd happened. The Swedish King offered to surrender under a peculiar condition. He would keep that county, but turn his back on Odin and embrace the teachings of the Rabbinate. He would become the first Jewish viking.
Such is history in Crusader Kings 3. It is a complex RPG and grand strategy game. But more than either of things, it is a history simulation. And more than that, it is an engine for storytelling. Stories may be long or short, some are quiet and some are chaotic. But every time you take on the role of a medieval dynasty, something different happens.
For the Initiates
If you’ve never played a Crusader Kings, the series is actually pretty wild. It started as a fairly straightforward grand strategy game. You play as a medieval European (or African or Asian) monarch (or mid-level Lord) and manage things like your treasury, armies, and most importantly your titles. But as the series continued to expand it became something akin to an RPG, unlike any other RPG you’ve ever played.
In Crusader Kings you don’t play as a character, you play as a dynasty. When your character dies, you continue on as their heir, and you keep continuing on until you run out of family members. There’s no predetermined win condition, you just keep on scheming and fighting and building and dealing until 1453 or your whole family dies, whichever happens first. There are ways the game tracks your score, but the game has grown to be more of a story simulator than a strategy challenge. Take one part Civilization, one part The Sims, a helping of Game of Thrones, and then remind yourself that losing can be as fun as winning and you’ve got the basic recipe down.
What makes CK3 such an important step forward for the series is that it knows what kind of game it wants to be from the beginning. Previous entries in the series were clearly built to emphasize the strategic elements, but expansions and DLC put the focus on the roleplaying. This meant that a lot of big moments and important mechanics got buried deep in clunky menus.
Not so with Crusader Kings 3! This game was designed from the ground up to be what it is. In Crusader Kings 2 you’d need to scroll through a long menu called “Plots” to organize assassinations, the founding of new kingdoms, religious rituals, and jousting tournament. In this new sequel, menus are much more logically organized and your most frequently used commands are much easier to find. Not only that, everything is hyperlinked like a well-run wiki, so you’ll have an easy time jumping from character sheets, to legal and cultural menus, with pop-up boxes explaining all the terminology and gameplay mechanics. I can’t say that it’s not overwhelming at times, but it’s much more approachable than the series has ever been.
For Those Exalted Among Men
It’s impossible to pare CK3 down to one significant improvement. Nearly all of the game’s many interacting systems are based in part on something that came in an earlier installment. But everything is tighter, better presented, easier to understand, and more fun to play with. Let’s look at how the new way stress is tracked as an example.
In Crusader Kings 2, ‘stress’ was a trait your character could obtain that worked just like ‘lustful,’ ‘generous,’ or ‘one-eyed.’ Stress would negatively impact your stats and could evolve into the more serious ‘depression.’ In CK3, stress is now tracked on a meter like HP would be in other games. Your character’s main source of stress comes from acting against their other traits. So if you send a shy character on a diplomatic mission, that will build stress. You can try and force your sadistic character to show kindness to their family, but you better have another outlet to blow off steam because that’s going to stress them out.
By turning stress into an ever present concern, the game makes all decisions more interesting. More than that, it forces you to roleplay in a way that CK2 never did. You could opt out of tough choices and play the game as more or less yourself. Now you really need to think about who the characters in the story are. CK3 doesn’t feel like a strategy game with RPG mechanics grafted on. Nor is it entirely an RPG. Instead, you are playing something unique, a genre of game we don’t have a word for yet.
For the Stewards and the Chancellors
For better or worse, Crusader Kings is one of those series with loads and loads of expansion packs. Some of these were minor, like an expanded collection of character portraits. Some of these added new mechanics, like family heirlooms. And some of them completely changed the game by adding in new rules for pagan rulers. This is a new sequel, starting fresh, and as happens with games like this, some things made it in and some things got cut. When The Sims 4 was released, many lamented the loss of pools. I don’t know what Crusader Kings features will be most missed by long time fans, but I thought the choices were smart.
First and most impressively, the map hasn’t shrunk a jot. It stretches from Iceland in the far northwest down to Ghana in the south, over to India and Tibet in the East, and portions of Mongolia and central Russia in the northeast. Different cultural groups play as distinct from each other, with unique mechanics for different pagans (Vikings are especially fun this time around) Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus. Each religious/cultural group has variants, and you can further define your people through major reformations.
One thing that’s missing though is a lot of the wilder customization options I had grown used to in CK2. In 3, you can’t make your own ruler from scratch, you can’t even give them a haircut. You also can’t ‘shatter’ the map, a feature I grew to really enjoy in the last game. This isn’t a dealbreaker, but it does change my approach to playing. Maybe this is something to be added back in the future? Who can say? I am confident in asserting that CK3 feels very complete, and that I eagerly anticipate seeing it expanded further. That’s to say nothing of mods (which are supported from the jump) and features I haven’t even considered.
It’s clear that Crusader Kings is not a game for everyone. It’s dense, complex, at times slow, at other times overwhelming. But there’s a magic here, a storytelling generator that you won’t find anywhere else. It’s a series that already has a lot of fans, and I think those fans are going to agree with me when I declare Crusader Kings 3 the best Crusader Kings yet. There are also a lot of people who may become fans, and to them, I declare this game as easily the most accessible Crusader Kings. Not only is it a strange and wonderful experience, but it also promises to grow more exciting with future updates. You can’t get your Crusader Kings fix anywhere else, and Crusader Kings 3 takes the series to new heights.
***PC game code was provided by the publisher***
- Improves the user interface in every way
- Major graphical update
- Remixes the best features of previous games
- Some customization options are missed
- Soundtrack repeats a lot
- Can be overwhelming