Popular culture tends to depicts the life of nobility through the Middle Ages in one of a few ways. While the peasantry are going about their Monty Pythonesque filth farming, their lords, knights and kings will either be living in glorious excess, display the most conniving intent to grab more and more power, or be the most virtuous ruler out there. The Crusader Kings series has always let you choose which type of ruler you want to be.
Compared to other grand strategy series, Crusader Kings games aren’t really about “painting the map”, but are about leading a dynasty of nobles through the ages. All of your choices and actions are to further yourself and provide the best possible throne for your heirs to come and sit on once you have passed. Of course, you can still seek to paint the world red and conquer all those that stand in your way, but you’re doing this while role playing as a particular ruler. They can be strong military leaders or sickly, bookish and shy, they can be pious to the extreme or philanderers in excess, they can be just and honest or try to stab everyone in the back to get ahead.
Alongside the countless narrative moments that will pop up and demand you make a decision, the role playing aspects of the series have really been pushed to the fore in Crusader Kings 3. Lifestyles have been revamped, giving a progression tree of buffs to unlock as you push your character toward a particular style of play, while your stature and grander actions build up points to unlock Dynasty Legacies, which start to provide powerful enhancements for all characters in your family tree, cementing a legacy of military success, conniving acts or… bounteous loins. Speaking of which, you’ll be playing a game of medieval eugenics as you arrange marriages, carefully select a tutor or guardian with high stats, and even indulge in a little light prolicide, fratricide and parridice to ensure your dynasty’s succession.
Ah yes. Murderous scheming. What could be more Crusader Kings? Well, maybe a few little affairs and blackmail? The new overarching Schemes system ties together the various bits of intrigue and skullduggery you could get up to in previous games, whether it’s a murder plot on a rival, a bit of light seduction, or simply trying to sway a character’s opinion of you. A good Spymaster in your council of advisors will help you ferret out the secrets of others – though you can always make something up with an intrigue-oriented character – to that you can gain blackmail hooks on them and persuade them to support your more devious endeavours. Of course, your own escapades and deviancies can be turned back around on you just as well.
Or you could always just wage wars and conquer your rivals. You’ll need to have a Casus Belli before you can rally your troops and march to glory, but that’s easy enough to conjure up with some forged paperwork. You won’t have a huge standing army, but rather a mixture of men-at-arms and a mass of levied peasants gathered from your lands and those of your vassals. This will typically start to drain your coffers, putting a limit on how long you can wage war for before you run out of cash, and focussing your efforts on embarrassing your enemy or quickly grabbing the patch of land you wanted. The nature of your armies also makes the biggest threats to your rule come from within, with dissatisfied vassals potentially banding together and bringing their full might against you, with your own army diminished through not being able to draw upon their levies. It’s the first years of an heir’s rule potentially the most dangerous of them all.
Pushing you further to actually role play is the new Stress system that nudges you to make decisions in keeping with your current character. Pushing that character’s buttons with your choices will increase their stress and can lead to mental breaks that then add negative character traits to cope, and eventually wildly lashing out. There’s ways to reduce stress periodically through feasts and hunts, but it forces you to weigh up the cost of acting against your character’s nature. Still, it can feel a bit like a straight jacket with certain characteristics. Shy characters can seriously struggle with managing Vassal opinions, as every attempt at a simple Sway scheme immediately adds a huge amount of Stress and they obviously hate hosting big, lavish feasts. A more nuanced time-based penalty here could have felt more appropriate, but it certainly ramps up the pressure effectively.
Scheming and character relations can feel quite straightforward and numbers-based (because they are), but that just the nature of this genre and provides clarity over who likes and dislikes you and why. Still it can initially come as a bit of a surprise to be so thoroughly disliked, forcing you to lean heavily on gifts and Sway scheme within your own realm. It allows you to toy with the system to an extent – I mothered a bastard child with the King of Sweden and then, our infidelity discovered, shipped our son over to the King’s wife to be his guardian. I felt slightly bad for this.
The breadth of cultures and religions represented in CK3 is impressive – it needs to be in order to match huge world map the game ships with. Cultures come with different styles of government, succession rules, marriage, and there are several faiths under each religion’s umbrella that have their own particular rites and rules for how you can embark on pilgrimages to holy site, doctrines surrounding marriage, crime, and so on. New faiths can rise up and you’re given the opportunity to embrace them or declare those that do heretics, but if you’re pious enough, you can create your own and (hopefully) lead your family and subordinates over to the new style of living.
These are also the path to the holy wars of the game’s name. For your basic Catholic faiths, you’ll start to be called up by the Pope to go and capture Jerusalem, and while you can just throw him a few coins to support the war effort, you can also raise and army and send it over to fight. Your reward will depend on your contribution to the war effort, but it’s currently too easy to cheese this by simply laying siege to a few cities away from the main battles, earning a disproportionately high score and seeing the invaded realm (probably Jerusalem) handed over to your chosen benefactor if the war as a whole goes in your favour.
Helping players to learn the ropes of Crusader Kings 3 has certainly been a focus for Paradox, and there’s some great tools included here to help you do just that. The in-game encyclopaedia is great, and it’s allied with the never-ending tooltips that let you mouseover a concept in a dialogue box and get an explanatory pop-up, which will feature more words that you can mouseover, and deeper and deeper. Its default mode is maybe a touch intrusive, but that can be modified. An advice tab at the top of the screen helps you keep tabs on important things like wars you can start, people you can imprison, immediate threats to your realm. It’s a shame that the initial tutorial feels like an info dump delivered through dozens of consecutive text boxes, but a little patience and the game’s core is easy enough to learn and there are enough pointers provided to help you progress.