Crusader Kings 3 promotional art with king, queen, and thief

Crusader Kings 3 Review: Medieval Roleplay Refined

Crusader Kings 3

Crusader Kings 3 is an RPG/grand strategy game in which you play the ruler of a medieval dynasty. Expand your power, land, and lineage using diplomacy, warfare, scheming, and your family bloodline.

The game simulates the medieval world of cultures, religions, and rulers across a map that includes Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Indian subcontinent.

Crusader Kings 3 Paper Map of Medieval Africa, Asia, and Europe
Image Courtesy of Paradox Interactive

You can choose to play one of two starting maps: 867 and 1066 AD. Each map suggests significant individuals to play as, but you can play any ruler. Every character has their own statistics, personality traits, religion, culture, and history.

In a nutshell, it’s a Game of Thrones simulator in which crazy and hilarious things are likely to occur. The game can be so fun and engrossing, some of the biggest fans of the previous title, Crusader Kings 2, have played thousands of hours.

Paradox Interactive, the creator of Crusader Kings 3, has put out 49 development diaries explaining the many features of the game. Covering them all in this article would not only be difficult but exhausting to even consider. Instead, this article covers the new and most salient features, along with my experience playing the game over the last week.

Related Article
Crusader Kings 3 Dev Diary Index
If you want to look up any topic on Crusader Kings 3, use this index to quickly find the Dev Diaries that cover that topic.

Art

When you start Crusader Kings 3 you’ll be absolutely awed by the loading screen. I don’t know how many pieces of art there are, but I have seen several now and each one has been breathtakingly beautiful. Not to spoil the experience, but behold this loading screen. Obviously, it’s even more brilliant when viewed across whatever huge, hi-def monitor you might have.

Crusader Kings 3 Loading Screen - Castle, Countryside, and Horsemen

User Interface

The new interface is a vast improvement over the previous game. The off-black and blue-gray windows have a suitably stately look and dark-mode feel. Hints of color contrast against the backdrop. Words and icons have ambient space to breathe. Information on windows is organized, delineated with separate panes. Overall, the interface is modern and aesthetically pleasing.

The game is willing to help the player learn. The text provides helpful prompts in places. For example, the text beneath a character model may say this is “you” or this is “your son.” Some events suggest how you might handle a situation. The Advice Tab, which you will return to over and over, makes connections behind-the-scenes and lets you know what you may want to do next. In addition, clicking on advice automatically opens the relevant window for you.

Crusader Kings 3 Council Window

Sound Design

If I understand correctly, for this new version of Crusader Kings the developers hired a professional Sound Designer who could establish an Audio Vision. The game clearly benefits from the added talent and capable care. The audio vision, as stated in Dev Diary #32, was 1) a focus on storytelling, 2) a map that feels alive, and 3) a calmer soundscape.

The sound effects and music are fairly understated as to not make a spectacle but rather accompany the play experience. If you pause to listen, you hear gorgeous ambient music and sounds of the ocean. If you start building a new holding, you can hear the laborers carrying out your plans to exact specifications. Raising your levies means raising the brass instruments and adrenaline. It’s all quite lush and likely a comfortable sound-space for hundreds of hours.

Character Models

The new 3D character models truly give the game personality by not only being larger and more prominent in your field of vision, but by also providing visual queues regarding the character’s thoughts, emotions, and physical characteristics. For example, the relative age of characters is readily apparent due to character aging. If a character is deep in thought, elated, or saddened, you can see that expressed during events. If the character is a giant, albino, scarred, or has the bubonic plague you can tell.

These visual queues provide feedback for our actions and make the characters feel more alive. It may not cause us to feel more empathy or stop us from imprisoning and torturing certain characters (that would be crazy), but the 3D models do look somewhat lifelike, which helps us invest in characters for roleplaying purposes.

Crusader Kings 3 Family Tree
Image Courtesy of Paradox Interactive

Where Paradox stepped-up the simulation is the implementation of the DNA system. The characters have dominant and recessive genes! Children inherit their parent’s genes, which informs their appearance and traits. The most obvious example is a child inheriting the large nose of a parent. The result is that physical traits are not just textual descriptors on a character sheet, but they are embodied in living, three-dimensional characters. This simulation of genetics is exciting to see happen across the limbs of your family tree.

Tutorial

The tutorial consists of popup windows with text and checkboxes with instructions for interacting with highlighted portions of the interface. The text is focused and kept to a minimum; far less than one finds in the Victoria 2 tutorial, for example. The tutorial is also fairly brief and does not overwhelm with all of the finer details. For example, it does not cover the strengths and weaknesses of various men-at-arms or the finer details of succession laws.

I don’t know if it was the first-glimpse-excitement of getting to play Crusader Kings 3 but I did enjoy playing through the tutorial. You play as Petty King Murchad mac Donnchad of Munster in Ireland, the classic newbie island.

I found the tutorial easier to step through than the one for Crusader Kings 2. There was none of the head-scratching, re-reading, and mouse-clicking required to move troops onto boats and sail them around the coast of Africa. The new tutorial doesn’t require such activity, and even if it did, moving troops over water is simpler in Crusader Kings 3. You just move them from land to water and they embark automatically (for a small fee).

Crusader Kings 3 Tutorial Screen

I did find one typo in the tutorial window above.

TIP: When told to click the “Abandon Scheme” button on the Intrigue window, don’t look for an actual button with those words. Click on the “X” in the top right corner of the scheme’s pane.

Crusader Kings 3 Abandon Scheme

Pick Your Tooltip Mode

The interfaces throughout the game have highlighted words and phrases that the player can click on. Doing so displays a tooltip with additional information about the word or phrase. In Crusader Kings 3 you can click on links found on the tooltips and then click on links found on those tooltips. You get the idea. I suppose Jon Shafer’s strategy game, At the Gates, got so much good press with his implementation, it makes sense that future strategy titles would include such a feature to ease the burden of learning the finer details of game features and mechanics.

The Game Settings has three (3) ways to suspend the current tooltip so that you can click on it without closing.

  • Mouse Tendency – Tooltips automatically lock in place until the cursor moves away
  • Action Lock – Press the middle mouse button to lock and unlock tooltips
  • Timer Lock – Tooltips are locked in place if the cursor does not move for a short duration

So what will be your chosen Tooltip Mode?

Keyboard Input Issues

During my tutorial/Munster game, the map suddenly moved to Scandinavia and I could not get the map to move away from that spot. I clicked the Home button but nothing happened. I had to go back to the Main Menu, then re-enter the game to get beyond the issue.

While trying to decide on a new game with a new ruler, I was unable to move the map. I could click on countries and view information, but the map would not move. Going back to the Main Menu and returning did not help. I had to go all the way to the desktop and restart the game to fix the issue.

I thought it was a map issue, but I figured out that the issue is keyboard input, in general. The mouse worked, but not the keyboard. This is on my laptop so it’s not a wireless keyboard battery issue, and I’ve only had this happen with Crusader Kings 3. I don’t know if this is a widespread bug or if it is limited to certain hardware. Hopefully, it gets fixed soon because this is the one gameplay experience that I found annoying.

UPDATE: I saw on the Steam forums that this is a known issue. The remedy is to update your video drivers. I ran Geforce Experience and updated my video drivers. This will probably fix it. I’ll update the article if I find otherwise.

Warfare

Thanks to the Advice Tab, you are alerted to wars you can wage. Just click on the advice and the Declare War window slides over. Select your casus belli, then click the Declare War at the bottom. The Raise All Armies button appears on the screen. Click that button and you are off.

In general, warfare consists of moving your armies to your enemy’s armies and having them fight. If this is enough strategic depth for you, then that will usually do fine. Just make sure you bring more troops than your enemy.

After the bloody battlefield goes still, move your remaining soldiers to your enemy’s capital castle and siege it down. Both the war and siege windows are good for monitoring the progress.

If you want to go deeper though and employ more strategy you can. There are men-at-arms regiments, siege weapons, and terrain types with modifiers that you can plan for and take advantage of.

Crusader Kings 3 Bowmen

A new feature for Crusader Kings 3 are Champions. These are individuals with names and personalities. Think knights with numeric Prowess values. If you are low on champions you can invite some to your court for the cost of some prestige.

In a pinch, you can hire mercenaries for a three (3) year contract. They come in handy when surrendering soldiers double-back to siege your castle while you are away. Just have some mercenaries there to guard the place.

There are also Holy Orders, which are independent military organizations that defend and expand the influence of their faith. This ups the crusader in Crusader Kings. You can hire an Order to fight alongside you against enemies of another faith.

Stress

Stress is a new mechanic for Crusader Kings. Your character’s stress value represents your character’s mental well-being. When characters act in ways that are counter to their nature or are in situations that are objectively stressful such as imprisonment or torture, their stress level increases. To mitigate stress, there are activities and events that offer a chance to lower your character’s stress level. Going on a hunting expedition, for example, lowers stress.

If a character’s stress level gets too high there is a chance of them having a mental break. There are three (3) levels of mental breaks, with the highest tier having a chance of causing your character to act out with violence.

Primarily, it is in event options that you’ll see the stress level icon and need to decide what to do according to numeric increases or decreases in stress. That means there are more variables to consider when making decisions, which can have the side-effect of adding more shades of gray to event options.

The stress mechanic is another great addition to the game to mirror human cognition. It adds flavor and realism for roleplaying and it’s not surprising that it has become a staple mechanic of survival RPGs these days.

Stress Issues

There are some aspects of the stress mechanic that I found counter-intuitive. For example, Count Areindama of Pegu, a maxed-out Theologian, Theravada Buddhist, gained no stress at all by raising troops and attacking a nearby duchy, or by going hunting and ostensibly killing animals. In fact, as mentioned above, hunting actually lowered his stress.

Regarding first impressions, I’ll add that determining the current stress level was not obvious for me when I started playing. At some point, I wanted to determine my current stress level before making an event decision. Naturally, I clicked on my character to view my character screen because I assumed it would be there. However, I could not find the stress icon there. I opened the Encyclopedia and searched for “stress.” The stress-related entries do not state where to find the current stress value on the interface. Needless to say, I was feeling a bit…stressed. Eventually, the next day, I did find it. Guess where it is. It’s over on the lower left side of the screen next to your portrait.

Crusader Kings 3 Interface Diagram
Image Courtesy of Paradox Interactive

Now that I know where it is I can see that it is readily available and easy to find; it just wasn’t obvious to me at first.

Lifestyles

Crusader Kings 2 introduced a feature in their Way of Life DLC that provided the means for players to choose a focus for his or her character, such as rulership, seduction, or war. The goal for each focus was to eventually gain a lifestyle trait. In Crusader Kings 3, the focus mechanic is expanded and made more interactive with the new Lifestyle mechanic.

Player’s choose to focus on one of five (5) lifestyles, which correspond to the character stats of Diplomacy, Marshal, Stewardship, Intrigue, and Learning. Next, the player chooses a focus for the lifestyle. Each focus has a perk tree that you unlock over time.

Crusader Kings 3 Learning Lifestyle Perk Trees

The perks can be quite powerful and can really change the game experience. Consider the following perks:

  • From the Stewardship lifestyle, the Administrator perk, Large Levies, gives you a +20% levy contribution. This a great when preparing for imminent war.
  • From the Intrigue lifestyle, the Seducer perk, Home Advantage, give you +50% Seduction Scheme Success Chance against your own courtiers and guests. Seduce your whole castle!
  • From the Diplomacy lifestyle, the Diplomat perk, Forced Vassalage, allows you to use the Forced Vassalage Casus Belli. Yes, do paint the map your favorite color, please.

The scholar plays quite different from the seducer. The diplomat will be different from the strategist or architect. Lifestyles give you more control to roleplay the type of character you envision or the strategy you want to carry out.

The Lifestyle Button

I was wondering what the crossed swords icon was on my character portrait. I clicked on it and it opened the Lifestyles window. At this point, I could obviously see that the icon depicts the Martial lifestyle and that the icon is a button.

Crusader Kings 3 Lifestyle Button

What the heck is the button doing on my character portrait? This is the kind of extra doodads and screen-trinkets we find in Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis. I think it is unnecessary and is not in keeping with the GUI refinements in this new title.

The character screen should say what my chosen lifestyle is, at least; it does not necessarily need a button. I worry that as future DLCs come out more buttons and icons will get added on top of the character portrait.

Founding a Holy Order and Pagan Reformation

If you earn enough piety and gold you can found your own holy order, your own faith (!). Doing so will allow you to define the tenets and doctrines and give it a name. This is an extremely cool feature that I think will be fun to experiment with, as well as to see what Youtubers create.

Likewise, pagan tribes with enough piety can convert and reform their faith into organized religion. The tribal realm stabilizes and moves toward a feudal entity. Once part of organized religion, the tribe can found a new holy order too, albeit with the same requirements.

Unfortunately, I did not meet both piety and gold requirements to found my own holy order. I could usually achieve one requirement but not the other. I’m sure it’s not too tough given more experience with Crusader Kings 3.

I’m not sure I care for the stiff requirements, though. I can understand wanting to limit such a powerful game mechanic, but for roleplaying purposes, it would be neat to play a small ruler with ideas for a religion in the forest somewhere that he or she could build up over time with every new county conquered. Perhaps the new druids would rise again, with moonlight dancing and human sacrifice. I did notice though that the unreformed Norse, Asatru faith approximates that vision somewhat. Maybe a future DLC will allow us to create secret societies that could become full religions.

Hooks and Schemes

The schemes and hooks mechanics are integrated throughout the game. Using Intrigue you can start Schemes to influence events. There are many types of schemes like romance, elope, abduction, sway, and murder. Hooks are secrets that you learn or favors that are owed to you. In various situations, you can choose to use the hook to do various things, such as forcing feudal contract terms and blackmail.

There are Weak Hooks and Strong Hooks. As you can guess, weak hooks are less powerful and more common, and strong hooks are quit powerful and truly force other characters to bend to your will.

As was shown in the Paradox Crusader Kings 3 stream for Iberia, using hooks to blackmail characters can be a good source of gold if you don’t live in glass houses.

Gender Issues

While playing King Murchad’s daughter, Petty Queen Tuathflaith, I noticed what I would consider some issues with playing a matriarch. The first was that when I, the Queen, was pregnant the pregnant event showed my husband, as opposed to me with a distended belly. Now, I’m all for equality and having the husband stay home and attend to children, but this was the pregnant event. Even now, modern science has not managed to make a male pregnant.

The second issue I noticed is that the spouse spot in my Council was empty. That is, my husband was, for whatever reason, unable to help my domain by adding his stat modifiers. He didn’t even show up for Council meetings.

Crusader Kings 3 No Spouse in Council

Female spouses are able to manage childbirth and state, while male spouses clearly cannot. Maybe that’s just realistic.

Crusader Complexity

At first glance, Crusader Kings 3 may appear daunting to someone that is not used to the grand strategy genre. Crusader Kings 3 has a lot of complexity. It is, however, in part, the complexity–the sheer depth of simulation–that makes Crusader Kings 3 fascinating. New stories emerge from the interplay of your actions and the game’s simulation of each New or Continued game.

The game is a big spreadsheet machine with lots of levers and an RPG exterior. It takes time to figure out where all the levers are, which levers to pull, and when.

I put quite a few hours in over this last week and I still have aspects of the game that I still need to figure out:

  • How do I make a non-aggression pact or alliance with another country (besides through marriage)?
  • How do I get allies to support me during the war?
  • What are the icons displayed over settlements?
  • How do I gain better control over conquered lands?
  • What is the Culture window for and what do I do with it?
  • Where is that feudal contract screen again?

Fortunately, there are several ways to learn how to play the game, such as the in-game Tutorial, Encyclopedia, Advice tab. In addition, there are (or surely will be) YouTube videos aplenty to learn from.

Don’t let yourself get overwhelmed. Play on Easy and start small. Maybe read up about your ruler and learn more about the historical period. Enjoy the experience. Most of all, have fun.

Medieval Shenanigans For All

Crusader Kings 3 is a gorgeous refinement over the previous title with engaging new mechanics and improvements to make the complexity more accessible.

I found that hours flew by while playing Crusader Kings 3; it’s simply a blast. The game constantly gives you decisions and actions to make and allows you to direct the type of experiences you want to have, and there are many.

If you play Crusader Kings 2, you will feel right at home here. You’ll be able to interact with the overall game loop with agility and aplomb. No doubt about it. I say this because, in some respects, Crusader Kings 3 is very much an overhaul of the graphics and aesthetics. Much was put into better character portraits, user interfaces, and maps.

The features that were added or expanded upon like the hooks, lifestyles, and faith founding mechanics were carefully selected to heighten player interaction and engagement. This means making the game a little more RPG and a lot more fun.

For me, and I think for a lot of gamer’s that may have struggled to get into the Paradox grand strategy titles, the real success may be in making the game easier to understand and more accessible. New players have a decent tutorial to get them going, and an interface and messaging that provides actionable direction.

I did mention issues that I had with the preview build of the game. It’s quite likely that some of these will be fixed in a day-one patch and you’ll never experience them.

With future DLC releases and the wealth of mods we can expect in the near future, Crusader Kings 3 is a strategic sandbox toy that will continue to give you enjoyment for years to come.

A big congratulations to Paradox Development Studios for an amazing game. Well done.

Genre: RPG, Grand Strategy
Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release State: Released
Release Date: 1 September 2020
Price: $49.99 on Steam, Paradox Store
Platforms: Windows, Mac, Linux
Review Version: 1.0.1
Review Platform: Windows 10 PC

Thank you for reading this Crusader Kings 3 review! I had fun playing the game and learning the various mechanics. With the release date coming I can start working on some achievements.

My sincerest gratitude to Paradox Interactive for providing me with a preview build of the game so that I could write this article for you. I appreciate the chance to showcase one of my favorite games and one of the best examples of emergent narrative.

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Ernest Scribner
Ernest Scribner

Practitioner of games. Caster of words. Shares game wisdom, stories, and shenanigans with fellow adventurers. Emergent Mage like you.

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