Build a medieval dynasty in Crusader Kings III

Articles: Gaming
Sep 10, 2021 Written by:Eric Born

I was an ambitious king, wrathful and impatient with my subjects, but a skilled tactician on the battlefield. My wife dutifully bore me seven children, and through two wars I extended my holdings across southern Ireland. The stress of rule took its toll on my mind, however, and in my old age I succumbed to lunacy. Sure that I was invincible, I jumped off a high roof to impress my subjects. I barely survived. I lost the esteem of my vassals, and died of a heart attack not long after.

Thus ended the reign of my first king in Crusader Kings III, a grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive, but my playthrough was far from over. This complex simulation game puts me in control not just of a single king, but of an entire dynasty. As long as I have lands and an heir, the game keeps moving. After the unfortunate if unsurprising death of Murchad, my first king, I continued on as his primary heir, Brian. Part of his father’s lands were granted to his brothers, so Brian faced the challenging task of reclaiming the glory of his father’s kingdom through warfare, intrigue, or alliance.

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The rich simulation of Crusader Kings weaves together so many aspects of medieval life that it’s a little difficult to explain what kind of a game it is. I have armies, and can engage in strategic combat with neighboring rulers, but it's not a real-time strategy game like Starcraft II or Age of Empires. I need to expand and build an empire, but it lacks the turn-based gameplay and victory conditions that define the 4X genre. I have a character with certain traits that govern my choices, but it’s hard to call CK3 a role-playing game because I move from character to character as my would-be dynasty moves forward through history.

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The game really opened up for me when I started to think of it as a story generator, a choose-your-own-adventure tree of astonishing complexity. Ruling a country involves many tough decisions, and those choices ripple outward in ways both predictable and unpredictable. Early on, Murchad had the opportunity to take a neighboring earl under his wing as a vassal. Making him a subject expanded my region of influence and gave me levies to bolster my army, but unintended consequences soured the deal. Kings have a small council of advisors with different areas of responsibility, and powerful vassals expect to be part of that council. I had to find a position for the earl or lose his good opinion of me—and likely his vassalage. Unfortunately, this man really wasn’t that talented at, well, anything. He was at least mediocre at stewardship, so I appointed him there. Even with focused assistance from my queen, though, he proved to be incompetent at the job, and my kingdom’s gold supply suffered as a result.

My favorite moments are when in-game events present me a scenario with interesting choices. Once, Murchad’s heir Brian was invited to a feast at the home of his spymaster. A brief yet calamitous adventure followed. In such events, a sequence of windows pops up on my screen like the pages of a book, each with choices that I can make listed at the bottom. These well-written narratives remind me of the text-based storytelling in some of my favorite classic games like The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. While at the feast, Brian got a little tipsy and ended up in bed with the wife of his host. The prudent decision would have been to sneak out of the bedroom and never talk about this slip-up ever again, but as a character with the Lustful trait, Brian would have suffered considerable stress if I had made this choice. So that’s how he ended up with a lover. Not long later, a rival discovered my secret, revealed it to my bishop, and I ended up in hot water with the local church.

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Losing the support of the church proved to be a real problem for Brian’s empire-expanding ambitions. In Crusader Kings III, I can’t just walk my army over to a nearby city and attack it. I need a casus belli, a justification for war. Many arise naturally as my dynasty develops, like when the church excommunicated a nearby ruler and his lands became fair game for righteous conquest. I can fight a war for independence from my liege in the right circumstances. Early in the game, the easiest route to a casus belli is to have my local bishop forge documents establishing my legal claim to a county. This process causes me a small amount of moral discomfort, requires a substantial bribe, and infuriates the county’s current holder, but it’s effective if I have the army to back my claim up.

Warfare wasn’t my only tool for expanding my empire’s influence. Brian’s desire for martial conquest might have been temporarily thwarted, but he had another resource available: his children. Crusader Kings III lets me play matchmaker to my heart’s content, and the relationships I establish can lay the groundwork for future success. Whenever I need a spouse for my main character or my children, there’s a world full of options. Sometimes I hunt for a valuable inherited trait to pass on to future generations. Sometimes I look for the possibility of an alliance. In other situations, I curry favor with a neighboring ruler by proposing a marriage to one of my daughters. Every character has their own mix of positive and negative traits. They can create amusing, beneficial, or catastrophic consequences down the line, so I try to plan each match carefully.

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Crusader Kings III has a lot going on in its simulation of feudal dynasties. I’ll admit that I left its brief yet thorough tutorial feeling a little intimidated by its many systems. Honestly, I shouldn’t have been that worried. Experienced players can micromanage the game to put their burgeoning empire on the fast track to success, but I had plenty of fun when I just relaxed and let the game’s robust notifications system be my guide. CK3 does a great job of directing me to important decisions and giving me the information I need, and there’s no penalty for pausing time as I make a choice. I look forward to taking what I’ve learned from my current playthrough and applying it to a fresh start, but I’m in no hurry to give up on my dynasty just yet.

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Even as a veteran of many strategy and sim games, I was surprised at everything that Crusader Kings III offers. If you have a secret desire to build your own feudal empire, don’t miss out on this game. While it does have a bit of a learning curve, it offers rich strategy and a depth of play that few games can rival. So pick up a copy, start in your favorite corner of the medieval world, and see what adventures await you.