You don’t quite play as a person in Crusader Kings III. There is always, of course, a designated player character, a Medieval ruler over a domain that ranges in size from a small county to the entire Holy Roman Empire. All the decisions directly involve that player character, too — who they romance, who they plot to murder, who they appoint to the all-important governing council, and who gets mad at them in particular when any such decisions backfire. But upon death, control passes to the designated heir (if there is one), with inheritance determined by whatever arcane succession laws you finagled into place during the life of their predecessor.
With a new player character come new challenges — old relationships fray, and areas of expertise might differ from their parents’. A friend of your old man might now seek to depose the son, who is too squeamish to order any of the casual, convenient murders that dear old dad was known for. The game feels like playing as some nameless, outside presence nudging a ruler in one direction or another while tiptoeing around the particulars of their personality.
More than any specific character or dynasty, Crusader Kings III essentially casts you as the whispering ghost of ambition itself, the lingering itch in each successive ruler’s brain that demands riches and renown, by war or by subterfuge or even straightforward diplomacy. Behind the scenes, I am the poisonous voice of more, the embodied desire to zoom out on the map and see the size of my designated domain grow, the lines that divide individual territories melting away into the single glob of color that represents the realm. It’s the equivalent of being able to see your house from space.
And if nothing else, it’s a nice way to forget that absolutely everyone hates my guts because I’ve murdered or imprisoned their heirs and am actively fabricating claims on some outside county to keep expanding my influence like a feudal virus.
The brilliance of developer Paradox’s historical simulation is how successfully it gamifies a particular mindset, a calculating point of view where most human beings are anonymous numbers to be used. They are faceless taxpayers, they are interchangeable bodies for your armies. The only people who get proper character models, who seem to actually count as people in your eyes, are other rulers and the people who associate with them: their families and the other members of their court. With hundreds of characters at starting points of either 867 A.D. or 1066, Crusader Kings III is the jumping-of point for any number of delirious alternate realities, all of them unified by one constant: the self-interest of wealthy rulers across the globe, some of whom you will directly control.
There’s no concept of ruling well where the average citizen is concerned; there’s only what’s best for you and your legacy, and sometimes what’s best is to give your powerful but incompetent vassal a spot on your council just to shut him up and hope your spouse can pick up the slack. What’s best is to distribute titles and riches to your relatives because they are your relatives and so they are the most reliable means to carry on your will, the main assurance that the things you’ve done will continue to matter throughout time because blood ties are not easily unbound.
The intermingled systems of Crusader Kings III are fascinating not just in their complexity but in their unabashed ugliness, myopic privilege modeled in considerable detail. The characters all have opinions of one another modified by personality traits that clash or click, by secrets that are or are not public knowledge — people known to engage in things like murder, incest, or witchcraft tend to be looked upon unfavorably by all except those who do the same. The things you’ve done for people lately, whether you’ve tortured their cousin or written them a bad poem or revoked their title, affect their perception of your character, and there are additional relationship factors that always generate some level of tension.
People with a claim on your title, for example, always have a negative modifier, as though there is an inarguable friction due to this unspoken conflict even among ostensible friends, a pervasive knowledge that what’s yours could easily be theirs. Xenophobia is the default, with modifiers quantifying characters’ skepticism of different cultures and faiths. Such divisions might lead to strained relationships or tax penalties from a populace that does not totally embrace you, so it is in your interest to surround yourself with the like-minded, and to force others to adopt your beliefs and your culture.
The Whims of a Ruler
Which isn’t to say that Crusader Kings III boxes you into playing a specific way. The game’s breadth of options is staggering and intimidating; you can rule by fear, by taking great pains to make sure your vassals like you, by ordering murders from the shadows, or by strategic marriages that place malleable family members in courts around the globe. And as your characters live within these systems, they learn how to bend them, too.
At first, many of the rules seem ironclad, complicated sets of guidelines for determining who can rightfully wage war and who can raise taxes without incurring an opinion penalty. But as your character acquires lifestyle experience, you unlock new options and mitigate whatever penalties once deterred you. Depending on where you focus, you can lower costs for building structures, no longer lose piety for executions, fabricate evidence to blackmail people, kidnap characters, or break truces with impunity. A character who gains the “open-minded” perk has a better relationship with foreign cultures, while someone who actually decides to wash their damn hands becomes more resistant to disease.
There are enough of these perks that losing them upon a character’s death feels like a real blow, and a successor who specializes in diplomacy or cloak-and-dagger stuff will have to clean up a mess in markedly different ways than their war-mongering predecessor, who relied upon looting enemy settlements to stabilize an economy of vassals who refuse to pay what’s due.
Better still, the game isn’t built on “winning” in a traditional sense — if it’s actually possible to conquer the entire map, it certainly doesn’t seem feasible given the various headaches of swapping rulers on the fly. Your goals start small — the tutorial, for example, nudges you along to rule the entirety of Ireland, and enough sticky situations arise from that comparatively small section of the map, with plenty of irate vassals and sneaky courtiers to keep track of as they form alliances with larger, intimidating powers. In one daring raid, I called upon my nearby alliances solidified by marriage to quickly kick one independent county into submission before that ruler’s terrifying ally, the one-eyed King of England whose son married his daughter, could look up from his other wars and join the fight in earnest.
Some of the most thrilling, hilarious stories will emerge from your own screw-ups, random chance having thrown a wrench into a conquest machine that seemed to be humming along so smoothly; everything seems fine until your brother-in-law tells the world that you’re sleeping with his wife, your sister. Choices reverberate. You don’t have the trait that makes you sleep okay after ordering various child heirs murdered, so you alleviate the stress by frequenting a brothel, where perhaps you get a venereal disease that you pass onto your wife and that disease is inherited by your child, who eventually has to deal with the negative opinion modifiers against “lover’s pox” for everyone who doesn’t have it. You take up a new weapon hoping to become a more versatile commander only to have an accident and wake up with an amputated leg. Being exposed as a serial murderer isn’t the end of the world; sure, you take the opinion penalty, but if everyone already knows how you deal with your enemies, what’s a few more bodies?
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And through it all, in all of Crusader Kings III’s lurid glory, is the thematic cohesion, the way the interface itself conveys the remove of being a petty tyrant. It’s easy to order horrible things because others are doing them for you, a distance depicted by the press of the menu buttons. You are given the tools and the means to shape some small facet of history and proceed to do so in the most petty and self-aggrandizing manner, paying assassins to drop spiders into the cribs of infants or breeding a twisted legacy of inbred dysfunction. You’re not bound by morals so much as whatever upsets your character based on their personality; Duke Briain doesn’t refuse to torture people like his dad did because he thinks it’s wrong, he just doesn’t have the stomach for it. Murder is always one of the first options when you right-click to interact with a character.
Crusader Kings III is a model of a very specific vision of society, and in many ways that vision is pessimistic and horrifying even as its abstracted remove allows it to be darkly hilarious and engrossing. It is a hell where you chase things like prestige and piety because they are quite literally the currency with which you enforce your will. In this, it is much like its predecessors, though this third installment is so much better about honing in on the personal stories and petty grievances that make the series so compelling to even hear about second-hand.
And unlike those earlier games, the barrier to entry here is much lower, without compromising the infamous intricacy of Paradox’s sprawling grand strategy. Explanatory text abounds, the numbers and symbols all labeled much more clearly than ever before. Make no mistake, though, even with the smoothed-out learning curve this is still a game that demands a considerable investment to figure out. Even the handy pop-ups can seem comedically elaborate — you can highlight certain text for an explanatory pop-up, and you can highlight the text within those pop-ups for another pop-up and so on. There’s a tutorial, too, that’s helpful to a point but tends to cover the basics, leaving a lot of late-game stuff to be puzzled out through “advice” pop-ups that aren’t quite the same.
But even the most impenetrable qualities of Crusader Kings III make sense. After all, how convincing of an asshole monarch simulator can it truly be if you, who have been born directly into power and privilege, ever fully grasp the laws that ostensibly bind you? How accurate can it really be if you regard the potential consequences of your actions with any greater certainty than your own grotesque self-interest? Crusader Kings III is a window, its voyeurism as horribly amusing as it is a little depressing, too.