Stress, and the way it encourages roleplaying, is my favorite new feature in Crusader Kings 3 – a tapestry of warfare and intrigue in which a lot feels familiar. It interacts with a lot of other returning systems in interesting ways, as well. Ambitious was one of the best traits in Crusader Kings 2 as it gave a bonus to all of your stats. It still does, but ambitious characters in Crusader Kings 3 also accumulate stress 25 percent faster as they feel constant pressure to conquer more lands, acquire more wealth, and build their legacy.
A Lasting Legacy
Crusader Kings has always been about the story of your dynasty, and the third entry emphasizes that with new ways to build an identity over time. In addition to a ruler’s personal prestige, dynasties themselves will accumulate Renown, which can be used to unlock dynastic perks that will stay with you across hundreds of years and dozens of characters. Perhaps the most interesting are the “Blood” perks which allow you to choose a certain congenital trait and make it occur more commonly in members of your dynasty. If you want a house of all giants, or all dwarfs, or only extremely attractive people, you can make that happen. These perks take a very long time to unlock in relation to how underwhelming some of them feel, but it is nice to have a progression system on a larger timescale that isn’t just painting the map. And splendor accumulates from every independent ruler of your dynasty, so you will benefit from putting your relatives on foreign thrones even if they don’t recognize you as their liege.
The portrait system will fully reflect any such genetic shenanigans, too. People with dwarfism or albinism actually look the part. A young, handsome count who becomes a lazy alcoholic later in life will gradually develop to be more flushed and heavy-set. And characters of different ethnic backgrounds who have children together will have their traits like skin tone and face shape blended more realistically than Crusader Kings 2’s method of picking the child’s portrait group by saying, for instance, French plus Ethiopian equals Arabian.The other major, new way you can leave your mark on the world of Crusader Kings 3 is the religious reformation system. Building off of the pagan mechanics from Crusader Kings 2’s excellent Holy Fury expansion, founding your own religion allows you to customize everything from views on same-sex relationships to which genders are allowed to be priests to the role the clergy plays in society. As a pagan, you can use this to formalize and refine disparate tribal beliefs into an organized religion that can stand against the heavy-hitters like Christianity and Islam. If you belong to an already-established religion, you can found a new heresy. Rome might not be convinced by your arguments that the Bible supports cannibalism and nudism (Crusader Kings 3 features a toggleable option for full frontal nudity for adult characters including all relevant anatomy, by the way), but if your armies are big enough, they don’t have to.
I See You Are a Duke of Culture As Well
Religion has always been a major part of Crusader Kings, but culture was often relegated to mostly flavor. Not so in Crusader Kings 3, in which technological progress is directly tied to a character’s culture. Rather than individual realms discovering, say, the trebuchet, they will be unlocked when your ruler’s culture discovers them. This can be directed by the Culture Head, who is the independent ruler with the most counties of that culture in their realm. The Culture Head sets a “cultural fascination”, a specific innovation that they will gain progress toward faster.The base rate at which you discover new innovations is based on the average development of counties that belong to your culture worldwide. So the Greeks, who mostly exist in the urbanized lands of the Byzantine Empire, will accumulate progress much faster than the Sami living in the wild, tribal lands of Northern Scandinavia. This also means that conquering and converting vast, undeveloped lands to your dominant culture will slow down your tech progress, so it may make more sense to let your new subjects retain their old traditions and deal with the increased revolt risk from cultural friction.
Certain innovations are locked behind milestones on the calendar, so you can’t just unlock bombards (a late-game, gunpowder-based siege unit) in the year 1100 by spamming development buildings. In the earlier start date, 867 CE, everyone begins in the Tribal Era. Unlocking all the innovations from this era lets your culture start progressing toward the Early Medieval Era – but only if the date is at least 950. The High Medieval Era can unlock in 1100, and the Late Medieval Era in 1250. Additionally, just about every region of the world has some unique innovations specific to them. If your realm is in Northern Europe (either because you started there or relocated your base of power there – you don’t necessarily have to be a native), you can unlock Longships in the Tribal Era that let you sail up rivers. This includes unique military units, like Horse Archers for the steppe and Huscarls for the Nordic and Anglo-Saxon regions.
These unique units are part of the new Men-at-Arms system, which gives you more control over your army composition than in Crusader Kings 2. When you raise your armies, they will still mostly be made up of peasant levies – light infantry consisting mostly of untrained farmers equipped with basic gear. They’re fine as meat shields, but pale in prowess compared to regiments of archers, cavalry, and heavy infantry that can be recruited. Unlike Crusader Kings 2’s retinues, they exist off-map when you’re not at war and you pay a reduced upkeep for them until they are called to arms. Each type has a rock-paper-scissors relationship with others. Archers are very good at defeating skirmishers, but do poorly against cavalry. Cavalry are countered by pikemen, but pikemen falter against heavy infantry. Siege weapons also represent their own regiments now, allowing you to bring ever more devastating rock-hurlers to counter the ever more formidable defenses that can be built as time goes on.
Each type also specializes in certain terrain. Horses are great on the open field, but will be at a disadvantage against lighter troops in dense woods and marshes that make up much of the less-developed tribal areas in the earlier start date. There’s a reason the Mongols never conquered Poland, after all. Men-at-Arms are incredibly potent, but also incredibly expensive. Even the modest unit cap in the early game can bankrupt a small or medium-sized realm if you try to use all of it, so you won’t be able to transition away from relying on peasant levies until much, much later on.
Joining the peasants and the men-at-arms on the battlefield are your Knights, individual characters with a full set of stats and personality traits who can be many times as effective as a typical soldier. Your Knights will be chosen automatically from among the most skilled combatants in your realm, unless you expressly forbid someone from the honor. If your best warrior is your genius heir, you may not want them at the front of the battle where their chances of death or capture are increased. Seeking out skilled knights can make a huge impact on the effectiveness of your armies, and later innovations (like the aptly-named Knighthood) can increase their combat effectiveness further.
Are You New Here?
Crusader Kings 3 might be the most approachable of all of Paradox’s historical offerings so far. In addition to a greatly improved tutorial, you’ll have a Suggestions widget as your constant companion at the top of the screen to give you advice on what goals to pursue. As Crusader Kings has always been a self-directed experience, it can be difficult starting out to figure out a set of goals. The widget will tell you, for instance, if you or anyone in your realm have claims to foreign lands that can be pressed in war, if you have uncles or aunts who could be married, when it’s possible to broker an alliance, or how far down you are in the line of succession to your grandmother’s kingdom so you can figure out who to murder.
The tooltip system has been greatly improved as well, allowing you to hover over a concept within a tooltip to open up a new tooltip on top of it. This is complemented by an in-game encyclopedia that lets you search for any game concept you want more information about, something series like Civilization have had for a while but Paradox games have been lacking until now. I wouldn’t say it’s exactly easy for new players to learn, but for a grand strategy game of this complexity, it’s never been easier.
Long Live the King
My preview session ended when Duchess Mathilde’s great-grandson, Eckhard, went on a crusade to the Holy Land. He had secured a very powerful alliance with his liege, the King of France, by marrying his daughter. It wasn’t exactly a loving relationship, though. As a rakish scoundrel, he’d been sleeping his way through the bedrooms of Europe for years and fathered many bastards. Also, during a stressful moment at a feast, he may have told the king off for being a tyrant. A little bit. Members of my dynasty were never renowned for their calm tempers.
Eckhard’s armies arrived North of Jerusalem near the city of Tyre and were almost immediately set upon by a Muslim force almost six times their size. Fourteen survivors made it home, and with no soldiers to protect him, the king took this opportunity to imprison and execute Eckhard. I have dozens more stories like this from the 40-ish hours I played across three days that I had access to the build, and it has confirmed for me that Crusader Kings 3 is taking everything that was great about its predecessor and making it better. It’s not a reinvention, but it’s a beautiful step forward. The roleplaying is richer. The characters feel more realistic and alive. The events present more interesting and meaningful trade-offs. At heart, it’s the Crusader Kings we already know and love. But it’s really, finally growing into the full regality of its office.
T.J. Hafer is a contributor to IGN. Talk strategy games with him on Twitter at @AsaTJ.Summary:
- Stress, and the way it encourages roleplaying, is my favorite new feature in Crusader Kings 3.
- Crusader Kings 3 might be the most approachable of all of Paradox’s historical offerings so far.
- The tooltip system has been greatly improved.
- Crusader Kings 3 isn’t a reinvention, but it’s a beautiful step forward.