Crusader Kings III Preview – a characterful heir to a grand strategy dynasty

You gotta have faith, faith, faith.

Following in the footsteps of your forebears is always a daunting task, whether you’re a new monarch, a famous footballer’s son, or even a video game sequel. They’ve had years to establish their legacy, to which you will inevitably be compared, and you’ll want to make your own mark right from the off.

Seven years after the launch of Crusader Kings II, with a whopping fourteen expansions and countless updates in that time, it certainly feels like the time is right for the next game in line to ascend to the throne.

Henrik Fahraeus, Game Director on CK3 said, “I mean, if it were to go on longer, it would be a sort of MMO situation where we would never get out of it. It would just grow bigger and bigger and bigger and we’d never make a sequel.” And then you’d have fans calling for CK2 Classic, and that would be a whole thing…

Game Designer Alexander Oltner added, “I think it’s impossible to not look back at CK2 with pride, because the state we’re leaving it in is a good one. It’s going to remain a great game forever.”

Still, with such a big legacy, CK3 needs to be able to stand on its own merits. CK2 is certainly no looker, even by the standards of the day – it has Total War: Shogun 2 as one of its peers and let’s just say it’s not aged as well. For Crusader Kings III, it’s now built on the latest in house game engine with fully 3D character models for the first time. That can directly tie into the dynastic side of the game, blending together the visual side of genetic traits, like freckles, and ageing your characters more dynamically. Yes, if you really want, you can breed your medieval characters down very particular and peculiar paths, in the finest of CK traditions.

There’s also a more modern feel to the interface apparent in the screenshots, which are cleaner and far less busy with details, as part of a push for greater accessibility. “The challenge shouldn’t be overcoming the UI or not understanding how something works,” Alexander said, continuing, “but we’d never dumb down a game like Crusader Kings. Its very unique asymmetric start can be overwhelming to some players, so the only way to get around that is to really present what you are doing in the game in a clear and straightforward way.”

And at the core of everything are those characters. Yes, this is a grand strategy game with a map that spans from the western-most coasts of Europe and North Africa, all the way across to India and parts of Asia, but there’s a lot of role playing as a medieval ruler through this. That’s being buried deep within the game.

“It’s characters, right?” Henrik said. “Everything to do with them; the way the look, the way they behave, how they express themselves. It’s all about making characters exist in all the features of the game, because the characters drive the stories, or rather the AI agents behind the character drive the emergent storytelling. That’s super important. […]

“It’s a ‘have it your way’ adventure, where you’re free to do what you like, to play to your own player fantasies. So if you want to paint the map with your dynasty instead of your nation, that’s now actually very viable.”

The Lifestyle system determines a lot about your characters, with five core skill categories and each of those having a skill tree to develop through their lives. As you move through the generations, you’ll be dealt a hand with each heir, but through this system you can compensate for some of their… less desirable traits. Of course, once they’re dead, they’re dead. That progress is gone. So what do you have to show for your efforts?

It’s the expanded dynasties that will dangle one of several end goal carrots during your hours spent in Crusader Kings III, with Paradox transforming it into the main means of progression and rewards. Henrik said, “It’s the lasting thing you have, right? People often say that you play a character in CK2, and you do, but you also play a line of characters down the centuries, and that’s what you really play as. The only thing you’ll always belong to is your dynasty.”

Now you have your dynasty as a whole, with a dynastic head at the top and houses arrayed below them, each with their own head. Perfect for some familial scheming. You gain renown by spreading your influence far and wide, marrying off and into other families, and eventually earning the right to unlock Dynastic Legacies in several areas such as warfare or health and longevity. These provide bonuses for all the members of the dynasty and last beyond the death of any one person.

Another area that’s been revealed is a deeper religion system, which provide many of the rules for what you can and cannot do in life, unless you fancy drawing the ire of the Pope. These work on two levels, with large scale Tenets that make up the overarching religion, and then smaller Doctrines that express opinions on everyday things like divorce or meat consumption. Human meat, that is. Yes, you can be a cannibal.

But what if you could create your own rule book? At a certain point, you can start to consider splitting off from the establishment and creating your own faith, akin to Lutheranism or the Church of England.

“Religions don’t like each other, generally,” Henrik stated, “so if you as a Christian create a new faith, the other Christian faiths will not like you. The Pope and the other Catholic rulers will be really pissed off, so to all intents and purposes, you are now a heretic. If you don’t have a lot of realm, if you’re not the HRE, you’re probably in trouble. You can even be holy warred!”

I’m sure there’s a few members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster out there, eager to recreate their religion, but to do so in the launch version of CK3, you’ll have to found it as a faith within another religion.

There might be all this role playing going on, but there’s still the grand strategy map to deal with, sending your armies forth to defend your honour every once in a while.

Henrik explained, “We are changing the warfare system almost completely, but I don’t think it’s going to feel more complex, it’s just going to feel more coherent and easy to understand. CK2 has this very confusing system with three blocks of troops and these arrows between them in battle, but people can’t really do much, it’s just something to look at.

“What we’re focussing on, and we’re not going to talk too much about this right now, but the idea is that you have more control of the composition of your armies and what that means in the situations.”

Alexander added, “In all fairness, while we will have a competent warfare system, if you’re looking at the medieval era, it was mostly about sieges.”

“You basically armed peasants, right?” Henrik continued. “You put sieges and then you have some special troops, the knights especially. Knights will feature heavily in the new combat.”

For now, we only have a relatively high level glimpse of what Crusader Kings III will offer when it releases next year. It’s not as broad as CK2 and its many expansion, but it’s resetting the foundations with deeper, more rewarding and hopefully more accessible gameplay, so that everyone can live out their scheming medieval fantasies. Most importantly, it’s still going to be Crusader Kings.

“There’s nothing supernatural,” Henrik said, “but there is some crazy deviancy going on which we think is funny and dramatic sometimes. It still has that CK feeling to it.”

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