Crusader Kings III Review

First of all, I have to say that this review is coming from someone who has never played a Crusader Kings game before, or any other grand-strategy game from Paradox for that matter. I believe that the most complex strategy games that I’ve played were 4X titles such as the Endless series and Sid Meier’s Civilization, but given the fact that I was always told that I should give Crusader Kings II a shot, I took the opportunity that I was given to check the third instalment of this renowned franchise without hesitation.

The main reason as to why I never dared to dabble in the series before is probably the same reason as to why so many other people also never made the jump. The biggest problem that Crusader Kings has is that it has an extremely steep learning curve. The game is absolutely overwhelming to new players and I’ve even been told by other people, who have hundreds of hours in the Crusader Kings II, that a lot of times even they can feel lost. In a way, I’d say that this is certainly part of the charm of the series, because even if you feel disoriented during most of the time in your first dozens of hours or so, every minor success and even the smallest victory can feel quite rewarding. Every playthrough will yield new lessons, you’ll learn something new, and as you slowly commit your time to this game, you will slowly become a strategic mastermind.

To a certain extent, a parallel can even be drawn here. The staggering complexity of Crusader Kings III can probably be equated to how each and every single ruler feels in this massive medieval world, disoriented and unsure if what they’re doing is what’s best for their people but, nevertheless, they must carry on and learn from their mistakes. Despite feeling like I’ve just got a grasp of the very basics, I can already feel that Crusader Kings III is undoubtedly the sort of game that I can see myself spending countless hours failing miserably.

So, what is this game actually all about? Crusader Kings III is a real-time, historical grand strategy game where you play as a ruler of a noble house in one of two starting years, 867 and 1066. However, one of the main key differences in Crusader Kings when compared to other games in the genre is the fact that the death of your ruler isn’t the end. The thing is, you might play as a ruler, but, more than that, you play as an entire dynasty spanning generations and possibly hundreds of years. The game only ends when your dynasty dies out, meaning that for as long as you have an heir your campaign will carry on whenever your character dies, as you’ll just assume control of your heir. In the hopefully long period of your dynasty’s reign, you’re free to play as you see fit. Crusader Kings III is pretty much the closest thing to a complete medieval sandbox grand strategy game, in the sense that there are no objectives. It’s up to the player to define their own goals, whether that is to wage war against other cultures, unite your culture under a single banner, conquer the known world, or to embark on a holy crusade.

Now, the thing is, none of what I’ve just mentioned above is that simple or easy to accomplish. It’s quite possible that you won’t be able to achieve any of those goals in a single life span, it will probably take you hundreds of years and multiple generations just to get off to a good start. This is simply due to how complex the gameplay of Crusader Kings III is. As a ruler during medieval times, I’m sure that you can imagine how tough things could be, and Crusader Kings III doesn’t smooth things for players, there’s a lot to learn and a lot to do. Not only will you be overseeing multiple lands either directly or through your vassals, but you also have to supervise your court and council, and manage your relationships with pretty much every single other character in the game, of which there are thousands.

As your realm slowly expands, you’ll be forced to establish and maintain a network of vassals that will help you govern across the territories that fall under your jurisdiction, but doing so is no simple feat. Each of your vassals has their own aspirations and needs, so you must make sure that they’re relatively happy, or that they just don’t outright despise you, otherwise you might find yourself in the middle of a rebellion or of civil war between your own vassals as they fight for control over each other’s territory. The more powerful vassals might want a seat in your council, but there’s only so many that can be there, you’re bound to have to find some other way to please them, whether that is through bribes or by swaying them through long-term scheming.

Scheming is a big part of Crusader Kings, as it not only allows you to make it so that others have a higher opinion of you, but it also lets you look for secrets in order to blackmail other characters, or you can even attempt to murder or seduce someone. There is also the chance that others might scheme against you, neighbouring rulers or those that would find themselves in a good position to take over your place if you were to suddenly pass away. With that said, these threats not only can come from outside your borders, but also from within your own court. Even those that are close to you, including your own spymaster, can plot against you.

Given the hundreds, if not thousands, of characters that live their daily lives in a Crusader Kings campaign, it’s kind of crazy to think that all of them have their own opinion about every single one of them. This can open or close many doors for you, as people who dislike you will prove difficult to cooperate or deal with, while those whom you happen to be in their favour will surely be much more open to join you in whatever you’re planning. Of course scheming is only one side of the coin, you can also bribe people to gain their favour, or you can also attempt to make it so that your children marry competing or strong houses. If a marriage or a betrothal proposal happens to be successful, then an alliance is formed and then there’s also the possibility that you inherit the other house’s lands further down the line.

As much as Crusader Kings III is a game about intrigue and deceit, it’s also a game about long-term resource management and warfare. There are four major resources in Crusader Kings III, gold, prestige, piety, and renown. Gold is passively collected through taxes, which scale with the importance of your different holdings and what buildings they have, but it can also be earned through ransoming and looting, and is used mainly for army upkeep and constructing new buildings or establishing new land titles. Meanwhile, prestige can be used for things such as summoning allies during wars, as it represents how respected you are within the world and you can gain more prestige by not only gaining control of more lands, but also by marrying to families of higher status than yours, as well as by fighting in wars. On the other hand, piety is obviously related to religious matters and how you’re perceived by your religious leaders. Finally, renown works kind of like prestige, but instead of reflecting how you’re perceived and respected, it instead represents how your dynasty is viewed. Once you have enough renown, you can use it to unlock dynasty legacies, which are long-term goals that upon completing, provide you with significant bonuses, such as increased monthly resource production.

Carefully managing each resource and deliberating each decision, where you have to spend each of them, might make all the difference in some cases. In the early game, gold can often be scarce, so if you carelessly spend all of it and find yourself in a war, you might end up in a tough spot when the maintenance cost of your army increases since it’s now deployed. However, when going to war, the maintenance cost of your army isn’t the only thing that you have to worry about. In Crusader Kings III, war can only be declared if you have a casus belli against the other party. What this means is that there needs to be an occasion for war, which in the case of Crusader Kings III is a claim on another ruler’s territory. This might be a legitimate claim inherited by any means, but it might also be a fabricated claim.

Once war is declared, it’s then time to raise your army and prepare for all out war. In Crusader Kings III, the bulk of your armies is mostly composed of levies, poorly armed soldiers that are graciously donated by your vassals as a form of manpower tax. Still, there are also men-at-arms groups, which are specialized regiments that can be bowmen, horsemen, even siege weapons, amongst many others, including culturally specific unit types. Although these are much more expensive to maintain compared to levies, they do provide significant advantages in combat, especially if your men-at-arms happen to counter the enemy’s own men-at-arms groups. Besides that, the prowess of your knights and your commander, as well as terrain type, also heavily influence the outcome of each battle, so battlers aren’t just a case of numerical superiority. With that said, I certainly would’ve liked to have seen a more fleshed out combat system where you could actually directly affect the outcome of each battle, instead of just watching as armies fight each other, but I guess this would probably turn Crusader Kings III into the sort of game that hardcore fans aren’t really looking for.

In any case, wars are pretty straightforward as far as victory conditions go. There’s a war score that goes up to 100, and whoever reaches this score first gets to enforce their conditions upon the enemy. This war score isn’t simply gained by just defeating enemy armies in battles, but also by occupying the enemy capital, capturing whatever holding you based the war claim on, capturing the enemy ruler or heirs, or occupying a holding by successfully completing a siege. Just like regular field battles, sieges are also pretty simple. Essentially, a siege begins whenever an army surrounds a holding. Then you can see how long a siege is supposed to last, which usually depends on the defender’s fort level, garrison and attack army size. Once the siege is over and if the attacker is victorious, it will now occupy that holding. There’s also a chance that you might capture characters from the opposing side such as vassals and heirs, which you can totally torture, leave to rot in your dungeon, execute, and ransom for gold or a favour.

In Crusader Kings III, there’s about as much resource management gameplay as there is managing the personal development of both your realm and your ruler. It doesn’t matter whether you’re trying to figure out the best lifestyle to pursue, which determines which skills you’ll focus on developing on a monthly basis, thus influencing what kind of perks you can gain in the future in specific areas such as martial arts or stewardship, whether you’re just actively trying to manage your council’s activities and the way that everyone in your court sees you, whether you’re just slowly trying to improve a barony’s opinion of you or its development, Crusader Kings III is a profoundly complex game in every possible way.

I’d be lying if I said that, most of the time, I already know what I’m doing in Crusader Kings III, despite having been granted access to Crusader Kings III two weeks prior to release. There’s no doubt about it, Crusader Kings III is one of those games that you’re either uninterested in or that will hook you for hours on end. If you’re into historical or medieval strategy games and you can get past the steep learning curve, then Crusader Kings III will surely be able to keep you entertained for thousands of hours. As for me, I’m honestly really curious to see how the game evolves in the coming months and years, as most Paradox strategy games tend to. Crusader Kings III is undoubtedly one of the most daunting, satisfying, and engaging strategy games that I’ve ever played, and it just really makes me wish that I had given this franchise a shot in earlier iterations.

REVIEW CODE: A complimentary PC code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to editor@bonusstage.co.uk.

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Crusader Kings III Review
  • Gameplay - 8/10
    8/10
  • Graphics - 8/10
    8/10
  • Sound - 8/10
    8/10
  • Replay Value - 8/10
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Overall
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Summary

Crusader Kings III is undoubtedly one of the most daunting, satisfying, and engaging strategy games that I’ve ever played, and it just really makes me wish that I had given this franchise a shot in earlier iterations.