Review Copy provided by Paradox Interactive. Reviewed on PC.

Curiosity has been a driving force in the world of invention. It is one of the many things that has induced man to move forward, maybe even create the world’s first computer. But no matter how much headway we make in the technology race, in this day and age people always yearn to return to the olden days, amid natural groves and retreat back into the arms of ancient civilizations where life thrived in sprawling urban centers, or sometimes in solitude far away from the hubbub of the city-states. Then there are those who don’t want to live as mere subjects, for imagination as far-fetched as it can be would naturally sway them to be ambitious, wishing out of all the wildest possible ideas, to live like a king or a blue-blooded youth of an exalted family from the middle ages. A few years ago, that would have seemed like a pipe dream. The ability to live out the medieval aristocratic fantasy in the garbs of a dreaded monarch, wielding absolute power, is now within our grasp. I am, of course, talking about the much-awaited Crusader Kings III, the rare gem of medieval grand strategy simulation. The wait is finally over!

In scope and scale, no other contender has been able to get the better of the Crusader Kings series. That is true for Crusader Kings III as well. Even the mightily overburdening Hearts of Iron III, with all its micromanagement-packed gameplay elements, pales in front of it. It is the crème de la crème of the pack, a hard to grasp but easy to master game that strat-fans would love to chomp down with delight. It is most definitely an outstanding creation that took many a deft hand and perhaps an eternity to sculpt.

Crusader Kings III is a whole new game in its own right but it certainly does not shy away from tributing the ancestral formula of humor and downright cruelty. There was much to learn from the second game; and seeing how the lapse between its release (and thereafter, the multitude of DLCs that were encashed) and the announcement of the third game in the series had rewarded the developers with ample time, there was room for correction — and they do make fair use of that time. It is everything that an imagined Crusader Kings III should have been, if not better. It is in every way a natural evolution that does justice to the series.

In this here game, options abound aplenty. One could assume the role of an insignificant count and rise to kingship through petty battles or be a sadistic king whose ambition knows no bounds. The map covers huge swathes of land — all the way from the fringes of western Europe to China. It also covers parts of Africa, Asia, South Asia and parts of South East Asia, though, disappointingly, the magnificent city of Kyoto or the tribal metropolises of Tenochtitlan and Manchu Picchu remain vastly out of our reach. These locations could have made excellent additions given their historical importance eludes not even oriental historians of our time. The addition of new territories would have given the game a significant pull factor, enriching it with more diversity and educational value than one can imagine.

Anyway, nations are defined best by their uniformity; forcing people to conform to the predominant culture or faith of the region is something that despots have done for centuries. This is simply putting that grim reality on the big screen. Diversity is a recipe for disaster, as you would often find holding on to your realm increasingly difficult with your borders expanding and your coffers filling to the brim with the spoils of war. This game is about control, even if it means getting your hands dirty. Sitting idle is not an option. It is about creating your own story, and as the years go by you are wont to reshaping history in a manner that will ensure your survival. My story began in the Indo-Gangetic plains in modern-day Bengal, in the shoes of the Buddhist monarch known as Maharaja Narayanpala. The reason I opted out of the heartland of Christendom is not because of the restrictions imposed by Christianity but because I wanted to try something new, something closer to home. Finding myself back in my homeland, I felt more devoted to my roots than I had ever before. I realized that finding a deep connection with your language and identity is not limited to mediums of academia, that even entertainment can land you at the very doorstep of your ancestral land. It encourages you to learn more but the best thing about it is that you have complete control over what happens; you can fashion the destiny of this tiny piece of land and alter the course of history in a way that has never been imagined before. You sit and watch it happen before your eyes — this little stretch, a fledgling kingdom vying for power with other mature kingdoms in its immediate vicinity and you decide how it will grow, who will be its enemies, who will give it succor and how it will manage to withhold its achievements in the times to come. I felt powerful knowing all this, but the way ahead was laid with many obstacles, but upon venturing I found that the cornerstone of an empire, that was soon to be, was yet to be laid. There was much work to be done.

As a King, you will have vassals underneath you. They, in turn, will have vassals underneath them depending on their rank according to the pyramidal social hierarchy of the feudal age. In this case, your direct vassals will only answer to you, they are mostly dukes and counts. You can never fully control the entire realm by yourself. That being said, you can only own up to a certain number of counties and holdings (castle towns, temples/churches/mosques, and cities). If you control more holdings than you are allowed to, you will face severe diplomatic penalties, your vassals will shun you or even rise up against you. As opposed to that, a king can command any number of dutchies, though in most cases you are going to have powerful dukes with large territories under them. The bigger your kingdom, the more vassals you are going to have.

They have personalities and their own modus operandi of handling situations. In most cases, their actions are guided by certain traits they possess. They are also able to hold opinions of you, other vassals, members of your court and foreign nobles. Since they are your primary source of income (other than what you collect from your own holdings), it is necessary to appease them so they pay their dues on time. If your purse has shrunk considerably over years of fast-forwarding, chances are, you have ignored your liegemen for too long and they have grown inimical to your authority. In most cases, if discontent is high, they will form factions against you. During my playthrough, I employed a mixed strategy of appeasement and assassination. Your vassals will always expect a modicum of respect from those who are higher up. There is no denying that having unhealthy relations with them will stir trouble at some point in the foreseeable future. So, for those of whom I deemed fit for my respect, through constant interactions, I made sure that they would receive their due, and those who dared to stand up against me met the tip of the dagger.

That brings us to skills and traits, a core concept that is indispensable to the Crusader Kings games. The character you choose to play will always have certain traits and skills and various effects that accompany it. They are what define you. Skills are divided into six categories — Diplomacy, Martial, Stewardship, Intrigue, Learning and Prowess — each defining what activity you are best at. A character with high diplomacy skills will be able to better interact with his vassals and foreign lords. Martial defines how good you are at commanding an army. Stewardship tells you how good you are with money, apart from being a crucial indicator of how many holdings you can have without brows being raised. Intrigue denotes how familiar you are with the world of conspiracies. Learning is a marker of your piety towards your faith and how good you are at researching cultural innovations. And finally, Prowess indicates your personal fighting skills and how well you will fare in battles.

Traits can be of many kinds. They can define your personality, your physical qualities, etc. If you are a lord who loves their people, you will have the “compassionate” trait. That brings with it certain positive and negative effects, like enhancing your diplomacy skills, reducing your intrigue and dread gain and increasing attraction opinion. That also means that characters (in this case your vassals and foreign lords) with opposing traits like sadistic and callous will naturally have a lower opinion of you and would be harder to negotiate with. Likewise, if you are deceitful you will have lower diplomacy skills — albeit it would not really make a difference if your diplomacy skill is already very high because the negative points will be negligible — and higher intrigue. Some traits may be considered sinful for certain faiths. Disregarding those traits that are congenital, there are others that are obtained naturally by children over time. There was a point when I had ended up in a terrible situation with my primary heir having inherited the “possessed” (which means you are straight up the spawn of the Devil) trait from my present character, compelling me to forcibly remove them from the line of succession (a much-appreciated option). The same thing happened at least two more times with different heirs even when the father did not have that trait. I was forced to make legacy upgrades. It permanently vanished from the bloodline after that. Yes, that is a new feature and I will get to that in a minute.

Stress has a separate meter now with three levels, reaching the last level of which will spell your departure from the world. It is a very interesting mechanic that stops you from spamming interactions, adding an extra layer of difficulty in the face of mounting pressure. You are prone to gaining stress when you are undertaking activities that are sharply contrasting with your personality traits (for example if you are compassionate, you will gain stress when you are performing hostile schemes), training your children, or when you face embarrassment or if you lose someone close to you.

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In Crusader Kings II, lifestyle focus was simply divided into two subsets belonging to the five different skill categories. For instance, the “rulership” and “business” focuses are related to the stewardship skill group and would increase stewardship points and republic vassal opinion; seduction and intrigue are related to the intrigue skill group and are meant to increase your intrigue score, plot power, fertility and sex appeal, so on so forth. I used to set my focus to rulership every time my character had terrible stewardship score and the number of holdings under my direct influence was way over the threshold. In Crusader Kings III, lifestyle focus has been reworked from the ground up. Instead of two, there are now three subsets for each skill group and even better… three whole new skill trees pertaining to specific focuses! Each dot in the skill tree would provide certain bonuses, sometimes granting you new traits, increasing your skill points or even unlocking certain schemes. For the most part, I had my primary heir educated in the art of the cloak and dagger tactic and had the incumbent ruler’s lifestyle focus set to intrigue so I could remove impediments covertly. Intrigue is perhaps the most interesting focus in this game, primarily due to the introduction of hooks and secrets and hostile schemes. That means every time you do something illicit, like indulge in adultery, commit murders, Et Cetra, they are added to your list of secrets. If anyone inside or outside your realm dig them out, they can use it as leverage against you. In my experience, I have had vassals and courtiers using favour hooks to appoint themselves as councillors for a period of time whom you cannot remove until their tenure expires. The consequence of a secret being revealed depends on the severity of the crime. In which case, it is best to dispatch those people who are privy to your secrets. The ability to find secrets is extended to the player as well. Using your spymaster, you can dig out the nastiest secrets that people in or outside your realm would rather keep under their hats. The moment a secret is found it turns into a hook that could be used to blackmail them. If a blackmail scheme fails, the secret is automatically exposed (giving them a permanent trait bearing negative effects) and that person’s opinion of you will worsen. If it goes well, the hook can be used to force the person to do a whole range of things. You can use it to force them to turn themselves over, invite them to your court (if they are residing in a foreign realm), force them to conspire with you in a plot or modify their feudal contract (if they are your vassal). The chances of them accepting the offer depend on the power of the hook. Strong hooks mostly provide a 100% chance of being accepted.

If someone has become a thorn on your side, you can remove them by hatching a murder plot. On countless occasions, my vassals had formed factions against me to curtail my authority or try their hand at independence. At other times, my siblings were trying to depose me in order to install themselves on the throne, with the active support of my vassals. Seeing how it would escalate into a civil war (which it would if it crosses a certain threshold), I had them assassinated on the sly. The murder plot was not too strong to begin with but soon afterwards, I bribed some people to join in. In another instance, some random woman I had shared a bed with had given birth to my bastard child. Fearing that someone would use it to blackmail me, I decided to get my hands dirty yet again. A few minutes later, a message popped up on my screen telling me that a mangled corpse of a newborn was found in a faraway forest. I held my breath, trying not to giggle through my teeth at the response at the bottom of the message. It isn’t something that you would normally laugh at but the use of wit and humour in this game makes it exceptionally funny. Over the years it has become a selling point which sets the game apart from the serious undertones of other games like itself. It never gets boring and every new message box is a whole new comedy show.

Whenever I had a falling out with someone I’d scheme to sway them to get on their good side, half disappointed at the removal of the option to antagonise someone to pick up arms against me only for them to be taken down in armed conflict and imprisoned (then tortured and thrown into the dungeon probably). This is something I used to do to my rivals in Crusader Kings II when the murder plot wasn’t strong enough. But that did not matter because even when the odds were in favour and the murder plot had a startling 150% chance of success, things would go sideways. Either the target would escape or my complicity in the crime would be revealed despite the person being killed. Something about a snake being traced back to its seller…? Odd but ridiculous, and really… no, I mean REALLY frustrating. So by the time I’d learned about this messed up system, I had fallen into the habit of saving the game every time the plot was executed so that every time things went south, I would be able to load back and trick the system into giving a positive result. Crusader Kings III does not have this problem or even if it does, it would be very rare to come by. The developers found an easy solution for this by capping the maximum plot power and secrecy to 95% and increasing the probability of success. The option to bribe someone to bring them on board to help you murder someone remains (at least with more people wanting to join than Crusader Kings II), along with a new option that lets you force people into plots using hooks, as mentioned before. New schemes that can be performed are: seduction, romance, befriend, fabricate hook, abduct, Et Cetra.

Every character in the game has four primary resources: Income, Prestige, Piety and Renown. Prestige, Piety and Renown have levels now, higher levels of fame, piety and renown will make you more venerable to others. Thankfully, Karma points have been removed from the Indian subcontinent. The whole concept revolving around Karma points or how to gain it was extremely vague. Some important decisions require you to spend prestige or piety or sometimes an entire level of any one of those along with a sum total of prestige point. For example, in order to declare war on a large kingdom, you need a certain amount of prestige. But to apply the “subjugate” casus belli (which can be declared only once by one ruler in their lifetime) upon that kingdom prior to declaring war, you need to have reached the prestige level “Exalted among Men”. And after declaring war, you will go back one whole level of fame. The functional necessity of this system is still unclear to me.

Courtesy of Paradox Interactive

Crusader Kings III is a stunning game. The characters are coded to look different from each other and inherit certain features and traits from their parents, with the occasional impairments caused by inbreeding if marrying within the family is a custom you take seriously or in the case of an incestuous relationship gone wrong. Such malformities bring with them negative trait effects and more often than not, it would make your vassals really mad, would affect that character’s chance of having a child due to negative opposite-sex attraction. They are much unlike the still portraits of the preceding game that sit idly before the onlooker. They feel like real people who move, breathe and interact just the same as you. They appear to be living among us in the world, like real kings and queens in their full regalia. Abrasions and wounds line up their face as they are injured in battle and if they are infected their mortal skin deteriorates to form graphic disfigurations.

Epidemics were a big part of Crusader Kings II, recurring every now and then, forcing you to down your gates and go into seclusion. In this game, however, diseases do not appear as randomly and unannounced as you would think. It is necessary, I feel, as it gives you a much-needed break from the ensuing havoc, the murders and whatnot. But it could be a completely different experience outside the Indian subcontinent, something I haven’t had the time to try during my 30 hours of playing. I should mention, of course, that during my playthrough, my kingdom ever once came into contact with the black death and when it did, there was no option to immediately retreat into the comfort of your palace. As a result, most of my family members started dropping like flies. My court physician tried his best, but nothing would work. It greatly underplays the significance of the decisions tab by removing a major safeguard against the forces of nature. But it is entirely possible that the developers didn’t feel the need to have that as an option since diseases were not as erratic as the second game.

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Real-time events will occur automatically during the playthrough, as message boxes, where you are mandatorily required to make certain decisions by choosing from the pool of options presented. They bear certain consequences, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes both. Hovering your mouse over the options reveals the end result, sometimes along with the probability of which outcome is likely to occur. It does not really matter though. Even when the positive outcome has a much greater chance, the game would act with a bizarre bias and give you a negative outcome anyway. It feels like one big Russian roulette game and you can’t do anything about it. But that’s one of the best things about this game, the tentative hazards of decision-making. It cajoles you into risky experiments, the consequences of which are seldom dire, turning din into a peculiar kind of chaos that one can relish with a peal of hearty laughter.

Army, Men-at-Arms and more

There are two ways of getting more land into your realm: either by conquest or by marriage into other kingdoms. For the former, you need an army. Troops come from your domain holdings. Holdings have different kinds of buildings that could be built that will provide you with tax, levies, or some other bonus effects. These buildings can be upgraded by unlocking cultural innovations, a welcome deviation from the previous game’s overly complicated technology system. A new slot lets you build special dutchy buildings but it requires you to have full ownership of the dutchy title where that city/castle town is situated as a necessary prerequisite. If your holding is in a dutchy that is not owned by you, you cannot build them. Your vassals will also provide you with a portion of their army. Most of your army consists of levies. They provide you with the numbers needed to carry out siege operations, raids, or regular battles. Now, a new feature called Men-at-Arms allows you to recruit elite soldiers, whose numbers can be steadily increased by spending more money to increase their level. Earlier, you had to upgrade your military by spending technology points in order to gain an edge over your enemies in battles. You can hire knights to lead your armies into battle. Their personal combat capability depends on their prowess score. Waging wars require a casus belli, meaning you either need to have a claim on the county or dutchy that you wish to annex or the territory should be a de jure part of your kingdom. Other options that can be availed in case a claim is not present. Smaller kingdoms can be taken over by offering them vassalage. If such a request is unlikely to be accepted, one can always wrest power away by forcefully vassalising them. Larger kingdoms can be subjugated which is similar to forced vassalisation casus belli. Alternatively, marriages can be used to alter the line of succession in other kingdoms. If you are offering up your daughter who is also your primary heir, make sure that the marriage is matrilineal. In most cases, matrilineal marriages are less likely to get accepted by the other party.

Battles are fought in real-time. The introduction of rally points has made it easier to raise the bulk of your army at a single point. You can command a single unit or many, depending on whether you’d like to split from your main force or raise local levies in other rally points separately. All at your will. To engage in battle, you simply ram your forces into the enemy army, which will try to retreat into the cover of tricky terrains or mountains if you have the numerical advantage, to give you a bit of a challenge. That’s it. There are no strategies after that. You cannot see what is happening on the field, nor can you command them like in generic strategy games like the Total War series or Age of Empires. A bar at the bottom of the screen tells you whether you are losing or winning. The defeated forces then route unpredictably, wandering into uncharted territory until it stops abruptly. Then the journey back will ramp up attrition led casualties. If it happens to run into another enemy army while it is routing, no fight will ensue. It acts as a balancing force to stop your forces from being slaughtered without second chances.

Dynasties have gotten a makeover. They are no longer a monolithic entity. As your family grows, powerful rulers from within your dynasty will be tempted to ramify, creating their own cadet branch. Every dynasty has a founding house and the most powerful house head is also the sole dynast. All other cadet branches, on the other hand, have house heads. They wield significant power over other members of their houses or dynasty and have special interactions that cost renown.

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Every character in the game follows a faith, with its own set of dos and don’ts. Some things may be considered sinful to some religions while in others, they may be considered virtuous. One can carve out their own religion in Crusader Kings III. In doing so they can decide the principal tenets and doctrines of that religion and law down its numerous laws, with complete power over what may be considered good and bad. Custom building your own faith doesn’t come cheap. The amount of piety that you have to expend is enormous (several thousands in most cases). Normally, it is hard to come by such numbers especially if you keep losing piety in timed events, which is a pure luck factor. Take into account also, that once your character dies and your heir takes over, most of your resources will reset and you have to start over. So maybe, in the later ages, it is doable with proper legacy upgrades.

Dynasty Legacy

Speaking of which, Dynasty Legacy is another new feature that adds permanent buffs to the entire dynasty, sort of a long term investment where buffs are added to your whole lineage. There are seven categories comprising of several buffs and every subsequent upgrade costs at least a thousand points more than the previous one. Some of these buffs are meant to help you gain more resources, improve your vassal opinion or just increase your fame, while others are there to shield your lineage from the spectre of bad genes.

By now, you are probably wondering if this review is overdone. Was it necessary to bloat it with so much info? The answer is yes. It is congruent with the magnitude of the game and it reflects Paradox’s ambition of creating something truly grand. I can say that they have surpassed all expectations so that it was necessary to pull it apart and explain every little thing with as much emphasis as possible. Crusader Kings III feels like a whole new IP that has been burnished to perfection with visual upgrades and a whole new UI that is far removed from the diabolical clutter of Crusader Kings II. You may not be able to anticipate what the future holds for you, but at least you can understand how you are supposed to alleviate the damage. It does away with everything that feels unnecessary, but in the process, some features that were rather useful in the previous game, find no place in Crusader Kings III. I was especially annoyed to discover that the “find characters” tab does not feature “a sort by willing to join court” option.

Crusader Kings III is an extremely challenging game. And it is always on the lookout for a chink in your armour. It will sweat you out till everything you built crumbles to dust. The chaos is too much to deal with, and oftentimes, it exhausts you to oblivion. The dangers it throws your way start to feel way too repetitive. Especially if you are spending most of your time dealing with uprisings and factions every time there is a succession. There is an extreme lack of balance in this front, almost as if the game doesn’t know when to give a breather. It also fails to access the essence of diplomacy. Workaround to problems in the form of negotiations, pacts and agreements, that the widely popular stat series Total War: Rome II had capitalised upon, remain widely unrealised. In a way, it forces you to stick to hackneyed warfare and court intrigue to get the item of your desire. How crazy would it have been to be able to have unique resource types, to trade those with other kingdoms or even have pacts and alliances without having had the need to marry into other dynastic lineages? The glaring lack of innovation in consular politics in Crusader Kings III is utterly visible in Paradox’s magnum opus. It is a major missed opportunity that could have raised a new milestone for grand strategy games in the times to come.

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Something similar happened to me when I was finally nearing my personal objective. I was subsuming every kingdom that stood in the way of me taking over the Indian subcontinent when my character met an unfortunate end. The consequent events were particularly upsetting. As my heir succeeded, my vassals began to clamour for independence, my distant cousin, intent on acquiring a huge chunk of my empire started his own struggle, some disparate peasantry of Assam had started agitating against my rule. In mere moments, the empire that had taken me some 30 odd hours to sew together, collapsed. I watched the mayhem unfolded silently from a distance. There will be no resistance, I told myself. I was too weak, with barely twenty thousand men. My enemies more than a hundred thousand strong, ravaged my lands, sieging all my cities. When they marched into my capital and I knew it was game over. The war score instantly turned to -100%. My dream of liberating Bharata remained after all… a dream. From a growing empire at the zenith of its power to a small dutchy, grappling with the burden of post-war recession, the splinter states warring among themselves. It was not game over but I gave up. Feeling bouts of rage and disappointment and a strange eagerness to try something different, I promised to return one day. I was yet to explore Africa, East Asia and the Middle East. I felt determined, but I was not sad. This parting was only temporary.

It is this unpredictability that makes it such a great and terrible game at the same time. Nevertheless, Crusader Kings III, with the sheer amount of content, will give you the most bang for your bucks. And if you are a challenge-loving bloke, you will love it and you will keep coming back for more because as I said before, it never gets boring. The replayability itself is worth paying for.

Into odd underrated video games.
crusader-kings-iiiCrusader Kings III remains as inscrutable as its ancestor. But it is a whole new brand of fun, folly, and misery.