Hands on with Total War: Three Kingdoms’ characterful campaign

It’s been quite a long wait for a new historical Total War game, but with Three Kingdoms there’s the added excitement and intrigue of a whole new part of the world and historical period. What adds to this is how Creative Assembly are working to build on some of their ideas from Total War Warhammer, combining them with both historical and fictionalised accounts of the period to create something that feels more unique.

In many ways, Three Kingdoms is defined by the time, the place, and the culture of ancient China. Though there were rival faction vying for power, they were hardly set in stone, and notable people could find their allegiances easily swayed by personal and political factors. It’s for this reason that hero characters and your relationships with them will provide are a real cornerstone of the game.


Mimicking the Chinese concept of Guanxi, every action you take, the company you keep, the alliances you make and wars you embark on affect your own lieutenants as much as they do the other factions. You need to pander to them, to a certain extent, to keep them happy and engaged. Simply giving someone a governorship of a Commanderie – AKA a province – isn’t good enough if they then get bored and their dissatisfaction starts to spiral. It might not be long before they decide to up stakes and leave, or even kick off a civil war. Thankfully, much like the diplomacy system in general, this is all numbers based and you can dig in to see exactly what each of them needs and the relationships that they themselves have cultivated.

It’s a fascinating new layer, and also feeds into the rest of the game. In particular, you can use your most trusted followers as spies to fake dissatisfaction and head to another faction on your behalf. Initially they might simply play as the eyes on the ground, feeding information back to you, but they could eventually grow to command an army or even be named in the line of succession to lead the faction. The perfect time to order an assassination and bring all their territory into your control!

These characters aren’t isolated on the campaign map or in battle, but come with a retinue of military units that they call their own. It makes armies modular, in a way, and you can specialise their troops around the kind of character they are. A strategist is better marshalling troops from the back, perhaps with archers and pikemen to create a solid, unbreakable base, but a Vanguard is better to charge into battle, leading the line with cavalry. There’s thematic elemental links embedded through the game’s visual style, drawing on the five elements of Wu Xing and how they interrelate. Military elements are bound together through red and fire, but they’re fed by buildings with the turquoise of wood, for example.

When playing in Romance mode, which takes inspiration from the accentuated heroics of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel, they are heroes that can battle entire regiments on their own. Better yet, they can challenge enemy heroes to a duel and, should they win, break the enemy morale. It builds on the hero characters and ideas from Total War Warhammer, and strong play with your heroes and their abilities can easily turn the battle in your favour, even if you’re vastly outnumbered.

Total War: Warhammer’s influence can also be seen in the faction specific gameplay. Liu Bei, for example, was a great unifier in the wake of the Han Dynasty’s collapse and the yellow turban rebellion. He might not actually start with any territory to his name, but a strong army and two fearsome lieutenants make him a strong character to pick. He builds up Unity over time, which can be used to stabilise regions in your control, or quite simply lay claim to Han dynasty territory and seamlessly take it over.

However, while some of this might sound like it dispels some of the historical and grounded nature of the Total War series, don’t worry. A Classic mode lets you play with all of the character politics and none of the battlefield heroics, and there’s renewed depth to many of the campaign and battle mechanics.

One key factor is food and supplies, which can seriously impact how far and wide you can spread your growing empire. An army has a supply meter that fills in friendly territory with enough food to spare but drains when in enemy lands, giving you a limit on how long they can spend marauding. It can force your hand when besieging a city and push you to attack before you’re truly ready, lest your soldiers starve and you find your army too weak to win anyway.

As you grow and spread across China, you eventually reach the point where you can declare yourself emperor, which triggers the titular event as your two greatest rivals at that point do the same. Now we’re in the end game. It’s a fight to the death for dominion over China, and while perhaps not the most imaginative win condition that we’ve seen in a grand strategy game, it should provide focus and direction on your path to victory.

There’s a lot of new ideas and changes that have been thrown into Total War: Three Kingdoms, evolving the game in an interesting direction. With both the Records and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms providing the inspiration, the new focus on heroes and how they interact in the campaign and battlefield puts a great new twist on the classic Total War series.

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