Hands On Crusader Kings III – a new era of intrigue, religious wars and grand strategy

Sometimes it feels like it’s better to tear everything down and start again, and it’s tempting to think that’s how big video game sequels work as well, but it’s never truly the case. Developers will always learn from what they did before, whether it’s a narrative adventure or a large open-ended strategy like Civilization or Crusader Kings. Sequels can sometimes be less about rebuilding from scratch and more about refurbishing previous ideas.

I’ve probably not made that sound particularly glamorous, but for Crusader Kings III, a sequel to a game that’s had seven years of continual updates, improvements and expansions, it’s a huge opportunity. This is the same house, it’s got many of the same fundamental characteristics, but on the inside it’s been thoroughly modernised and rethought.

Obviously, there’s a brand new, more advanced game engine powering all of this, capable of standing alongside grand strategy giants like Civilization and Total War in the detail that they provide as you zoom in and pan around. The world map is a big one, stretching from Western Europe to the far reaches of India, from Scandinavia to North Africa. Viewed as a whole, it’s given the appearance of a world map on a table, but seamlessly shifts into a 3D geographical view, covered in towns and cities as you zoom in.

The UI has been cleaned up and modernised as well. A new Issues widget at the top of the screen keeps tabs on the things you can do, like declare wars or imprison people, and can be useful for a quick overview of your options or actively guide newcomers to things they should do, like find a spouse to ensure your succession. It’s handy enough that it could almost work as a tutorial in its own right, especially as separate notices appear when you encounter a new gameplay element, there’s an in-game encyclopedia to search, and the frankly awesome tooltips.

These are now infinite. In any pop-up, there’s key words that will spawn a tooltip if you hover over it, inside which there’s key words that will spawn another tooltip if you hover over it, and on and on. There’s a few ways to trigger this action, either automated by mouse movement or more actively locking a tooltip window in place, but it lets you dive through ideas and concepts pretty quickly.

While many grand strategy games will have you “painting the map” in the colour of your faction, marching your armies forth to conquer all that stand before you, Crusader Kings isn’t really about that. Sure, you can do that if you really want, but some of the best things that came out of CKII were the stories and characters. The absurdity of making a horse your Chancellor, the devilish personal schemes and intrigue that hatch out over the course of months and years as you try to grab power for yourself and your family.

That’s what Crusader Kings is really about. It’s a role playing game dressed up in grand strategy clothing, and PDS have really doubled down on this element for the sequel. As before, you play as a character within a dynasty, starting off with land and a title and going from there. Your first thought should be to secure your legacy with offspring because, once you pop your clogs (or someone else decides to pop them for you), you’ll be playing as one of your kids instead – a neat new genetics system and 3D models means that children will look like a mix of their parents and character change as they age.

Every character in the game (of which there are thousands) has their own particular traits, claims and desires, and it’s these that form the basis of who you play as, building up over the years through tutelage and as a result of actions and consequences in the game. You can specialise your character by selecting a particular Lifestyle and then spending the experience points you earn in these categories to buff that side of your character. Want to be better at murdering your rivals? You’ll want to buff your Intrigue levels.

While it’s fun to think of how you could freewheel and scheme your way through the late middle ages, PDS want you to actually role play, nudging you in that direction with the new Stress system. At a basic level, if you act outside of your character’s traits, they gain stress, leading to a mental break if you push those buttons too many times and picking up more negative personality traits, like becoming a recluse or relying on medieval retail therapy.

It’s an intriguing element to play with, analysing the fallout and trying to figure out how to manage the stresses of the situations you find yourself in. Ezio, the son of my first ruler, was challenged for the throne by his brother, ousting him before I could really try to solidify his hold on the Kingdom of Romagna after the death of his mother. The difficulty in this particular situation comes from how feudal armies were raised and managed.

Instead of having large standing armies, you draw your troops together as you need them, sending out the call and drafting peasants into your ranks, while also feeding levied troops in from your vassals, who will provide a percentage of their own soldiers. While you can create a body of trained men-at-arms to form the backbone of your armies, suffering from an uprising with many active vassals can easily see you outnumbered just through the nature of this trickle-up structure. Life is much easier if you have allies to call upon or are warring with other states.

So, I lost, and naturally sought revenge. First I tried to seduce his wife, but when that didn’t work, I started trying to build a faction of my own to tilt at his similarly wobbly seat of power. However, it was tricky trying to curry enough favour with other vassals, Ezio’s natural shyness making any attempt to sway people and gain their favour would come with an accompanying cost in stress and undesirable traits.

The key, as always, is to surround yourself with people you can rely on. Your council of five includes posts for a Chancellor, Marshal, Steward, Spymaster and Patriach (typically a religious leader), and a seat for your spouse who can actively boost any of these areas with their own expertise. Naturally, you want to have the best equipped people in each position, providing you with strong leadership to reform regions or improve infrastructure, but that won’t stop any of your self-important, jumped up vassals believing it’s the god-born right to be on the council, even if they’re unsuited for any of the roles. Not being included will put their nose out of joint, sowing some of those seeds of sedition, forcing you to keep them sweet with schemes to sway them, intimidation to keep them inline, blackmail or just, you know, murder.

Schemes come in many forms and are your way of forcing events to go in your favour. Sure, random events will always pop up, like invitations to a feast (which will relieve stress in most characters, but increase it in shy ones), or through your children growing up and learning life lessons, letting you potentially teach them a different outlook on the world.

Blood runs thicker than water in Crusader Kings III, even if your brother does stab you in the back, which I’m totally not bitter about at all. You’re really not just playing as a single character, but as one part of the dynasty. Often you’ll be the head of that dynasty, and as you collectively gain renown from your actions – winning wars is one good way – spending that to cement Dynastic Legacies and provide buffs that cross generations and branches of your family.

You also have the revamped tech tree, which is less of a tree and more a set of technologies that can be learnt in a given era. As the head of a kingdom, you set the focus here, learning about coinage, for example, and accelerating its advancement over time. However, your lands can also learn through exposure to ideas from your neighbours. If they’ve learnt about better horse saddles, you’ll naturally be able to glean some of that just from living next door.

It’s not just technology, but also culture and religion, and there’s some real depth to this system. Across the world are several overarching religions, but within that are faiths, like Catholicism being a Christian faith. These form some of the foundational principles of society, but as in real history, sometimes people get a bit tired of a given faith, their degree of fervour lowered as they find that the rules handed down to them are a bit too restrictive. Heretical thoughts can spring up – “what I just don’t want this wife or husband anymore?” –  and outbreaks of different religious philosophies appear.

Now you too can get in on that act, saving up as much Piety that you can to spend on founding your own faith. It’s risky though, because you’ll have to create something that appeals to enough of your vassals and family members to jump into the lands of heresy alongside you. Even then, the other faiths will suddenly view you as hostile, bumping up their religious fervour and potentially leading to wars to stamp you out.

After our hands on time with Crusader Kings III, we’ve really only scratched the surface of what it offers, but it’s set to offer a compelling fresh start to one of Paradox’s biggest grand strategy games. Sure, we’ll be leaving behind seven years of expansions and more, but in exchange, they’re refining a lot of what makes Crusader Kings unique while making it prettier and more accessible than ever.

Written by
I'm probably wearing toe shoes, and there's nothing you can do to stop me!