‘Crusader Kings III’ review: a superb sequel that welcomes new players to the joys of grand strategy

In making grand strategy accessible, Paradox has brought hours of absurd joy to a whole new generation of gamers

If there’s anything you take from this review, I hope it’s that you never neglect your children when you’re playing Crusader Kings III. In my first playthrough of the latest instalment of Paradox Interactive’s famously Daedalian grand strategy series, I’d extended beyond the tutorial as green as the hills of Munster in which I was based, fumbling my way into a surprising position of power.

I’d just formed the Kingdom Of Ireland after years of attrition, and though I sent many of my children to fight and die for the title as knights, I still had many heirs and was ready to settle into my role as a royal and preserve my precious dynasty. I did lose my wife to leprosy, but I had married my eldest daughter to the King Of England! For every cloud, there’s a silver lining.

Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Yet, as I turned the game speed up to its fastest notch and tabbed out for a spot of doom scrolling, I was hit almost instantly with a humbling notification: I was dead, and my reign was over. Despite theorising that I would have many comfortable years of collecting taxes and stacking levies in my future, the lack of conventional medicine meant that old age took me mere months after my ascension to the throne. What’s worse is that the title I’d worked my whole life to build was now passed to the runt of my large litter.

You see, I’d spent most of my life courting and conquering Earls, sucker punching them with sway before hitting them with the haymaker of deception. Butin doing so, I hadn’t given much thought to the education of my busy brood. When I was prompted to navigate their frequent yet petty childhood squabbles, I’d rush through them in annoyance, seeing their development as a distracting hurdle in my path to power. So my heir apparent, Lorcan, devoid of his father’s famous facial hair, sat in the seat of power with all the confidence and tact of an unexpected fart.

Soon, my empire was reduced from Ireland to Dublin, and I received notification of several factions keen to unseat Lorcan, with the most powerful cabals fronted by his many siblings. All of my neglected children hated each other, but they were united in delight to see their meal ticket of a father kick the bucket. My game started to unravel like a bad episode of Game Of Thrones.

Who could blame them for such dishonourable behaviour? They were simply copying their deadbeat dad. This unexpected parenting lesson served me a sobering mug of stone-cold reality and helped me acclimate to the captivating complexity that underpins Crusader Kings III.

Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Sprawling anecdotes like that of the doomed dynasty above will be familiar to any veteran Crusader Kings player, but such detailed storytelling is most likely alien, or perhaps surprising to players unfamiliar with the genre. Playing a grand strategy game like Crusader Kings III is a lot like reading a thick, revered historical novel. Both serve the user with granular, rewarding narratives full of intrigue, but summoning the strength to tackle them in the first place can be tricky. This is because they have a reputation for being obtuse, and often require heaps of contextual research in order to truly understand their importance.

The last game in the series came out in 2012 and many of those who tout its excellence have spent hundreds, often thousands of hours over the past eight years building and destroying dynasties in it. They’re usually history boffins who prefer games with spreadsheet complexity over engaging visual aesthetics or fluid gameplay. I am not one of their kin – my serotonin-starved brain needs to be seduced by stimuli, so my strategy game experience had only extended to more user-friendly titles like Civilization and XCOM, nothing more.

I was eventually peer pressured into playing Crusader Kings II, but after 10 or so hours its stoic systems and uninspired art style put my brain into Safe Mode, and I had to go to my fainting chair. Which is why I’m so surprised at how much I’m enjoying Crusader Kings III.

Here’s a game that actually respects new players with a dynamic tutorial and tooltips galore. You can hover over every difficult word in the game (and trust me, there’s a lot of them) to receive a terse explanation of what it means. You can then lock the explanation to your screen and hover over the difficult words inside of that tooltip to understand what they mean too. It’s marvellous for those of us unfamiliar with Old English nobility vernacular and is part of Paradox’s push to make the game more accessible to newbies.

Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Characters are now fully 3D and animated, so you can see congenital traits come to the surface and affect your dynasty in real-time. The new lifestyle tree grafts a set of RPG skill paths into the game which provides a strong sense of purpose on a macro level and ensures you don’t get lost in the sauce.

You can also accumulate Dread to spread fear into the hearts of your enemies, level up your dynasty as you play to give it a personal touch and fight off stress as you make decisions that reflect your personality. You can also tinker with the rules to instil inverted gender equality and acceptance of all sexualities into the historical world, changing the rules of yore and simulating the results.

All of these systems make Crusader Kings III feel more like a game and less like an Excel spreadsheet, putting emphasis on player autonomy and roleplaying, while sanding down some of the hard edges so that players can live absurd realities and enjoy the narrative. Of course, incredible systemic depth is there if you want it, but for the first time, your average player can now pick up Crusader Kings and have a good time without feeling like they need to go back to university to understand it.

Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Of course, with such a plethora of new features on offer, a few things need to be worked through beyond launch to ensure the game is balanced properly. Trying to instil a foreign culture or build an empire without a single heir designation feels brutally difficult. By all means, it’s supposed to be, but it also gets in the way of some of the fun when you’re trying to build a dynasty.

Nurturing an heir without offensive factions in the early days is so tough, and makes continuing with your offspring quite off putting. You can’t upgrade direct holdings if the culture is different within their boundaries either, which is a good mechanic for hampering your growth but is very tricky to remedy, and it often leads to frustration. You also seem to plateau too quickly if you’re dominating and accrue too much cash and soon run out of things to invest in eventually – although you can always swap to another struggling empire if you’re that bored.

The Cultural Innovations system feels half-baked as well – I never felt like I was really in control or benefitting from this aspect of the game. Though, I imagine all of these problems will be worked through as hordes of players pile in and chew the game out. I also ran into some issues with the map, trying to click certain holdings can be quite tricky, and when several notifications appear at once, the screen becomes super busy and can be overwhelming. You also can’t really tell if the game is paused or not at times when events crop up – I definitely think the developers need to tinker with the UI to make it more intuitive beyond launch.

Crusader Kings III
Crusader Kings III. Credit: Paradox Interactive

Yet, there’s so much hijinks to be had in Crusader Kings III3. Beyond its own suggestions, the game rewards crafty behaviour: blackmailing emperors, imprisoning heretics and sowing the seeds of doubt in a powerful opponent’s court all constitute such an exclusive thrill, one I’m yet to become tired of. The random events that keep the game interesting are always flush with well-written flavour text, forcing you to pivot into different styles of leadership, renege on old alliances and break ancient oaths.

There really is no right way to play the game and no real victory conditions, you simply get out of it whatever you put in. If you die, you can just pick a new character anywhere on the planet and try to build something out of the ruins of the world you left behind. I can’t think of many games that afford the player so much agency.

‘Crusader Kings III’ is available now for PC and Linux via the Paradox Store, Steam and the Microsoft Store.

Our Verdict

Crusader Kings III is an amazing sequel that has finally made grand strategy accessible to the average player, and in doing so unlocked hundreds of hours of fun for players unfamiliar with this niche genre. If you play games like Civilization but are unsatisfied with the level of autonomy, then this game needs to be on your radar.

Each playthrough of Crusader Kings III feels like writing a gripping novel full of intrigue and excitement, one that is only limited by the player’s imagination. I urge you to look past its set dressing and dig into the absurd, beautiful systems that lay under the hood. Please don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.

Pros

  • Tons of accessibility features cut through the fog of complex mechanics for new players
  • 3D-rendered animated characters breathe life into the game’s absurd stories
  • Unbelievable depth and near-infinite replayability

Cons

  • The introduction of so many new features mean it’s going to need quite a few balance patches post-launch
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