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A king and his councilors contemplate war in a piece of key art from Crusader Kings 3.

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Crusader Kings 3 is one of the best role-playing games of 2020

An epic that breaks free of the strategy game genre entirely

Image: Paradox Interactive
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Crusader Kings 3, the latest offering from Paradox Interactive, successfully aligns the desires of its fictional rulers with its real-world players. The player starts by controlling a single ruler, eventually leading and growing their dynastic line over hundreds of years of feudal history. Throughout, the game balances randomness with the opportunity for real improvisation on the part of the player. The result is an elastic storytelling engine that brings into focus the kinds of personal conflicts that make it so fascinating to study real history.

Where other Paradox Interactive games have sought to simulate modern warfare or interstellar exploration, Crusader Kings 3 attempts to simulate people — a goal at which it largely succeeds, through the implementation of multiple complex systems and plenty of hidden dice rolls. The results make it more than just one of the year’s best strategy games; it’s also one of the year’s best role-playing games.

When a leader — the main character — dies, their mantle of leadership passes to the next person in the line of succession, who then becomes the main character. The player’s ultimate goal is to help their family rise up the ranks from small-time lords to wealthy kings or even emperors. Viable strategies include open warfare, noble acts of piety, and underhanded murder plots. To increase the profile of your dynasty, you’ll need to engage in schemes involving all three at virtually the same time.

Three Italian royals pose on the CK3 start menu.
In this latest iteration, Paradox has significantly upgraded the visuals. Your heir will now actually look like a combination of you and your spouse.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

What’s remarkable is the sheer scale of the game. You can enter the fray in the ninth century, when the majority of individual kingdoms are small and feisty. Or you can begin the game in the 11th century, when huge, ponderous beasts like the Holy Roman Empire and the Papacy dominate the landscape. You can step into the shoes of any one of hundreds of different historical figures spread out all across the ancient world, from the British Isles and Africa to India and the Mongolian steppe. Once the simulation is set in motion, just about anything can happen.

That’s not because the game itself is capricious. It’s because where other strategy games tend to say no, Crusader Kings 3 says yes.

Don’t like your wife or your husband? Then arrange for a divorce. Want your neighbor’s land? The game has half a dozen ways to take it for yourself. Don’t like your boss? Then seduce your liege and murder them in their sleep. Meanwhile, every other character in the world is trying to do the same kinds of things. The challenge is in piling up the right decisions in the right order to set yourself — and your children — up for success while not going stark raving mad.

For the first time in franchise history, Crusader Kings 3 models the idea of stress. You can make a good and pious ruler do terrible things, but push anyone too far and they’ll snap. Kings and queens can literally go insane, reducing their ability to rule and setting themselves up for ruin. It’s a delicate balancing act, and one that forces players to understand the characters they have under their control and play them to type — or be prepared to deal with the consequences.

At one point, while playing as Matilda of Tuscany around the year 1100, my own son offered to marry me. Politically and militarily it was the right thing to do, as it would have consolidated our dynastic holdings following the death of my husband. But neither my religious obligations to my faith (the Pope frowns on incest, as you can imagine) nor my ongoing love affair with the Holy Roman Emperor (with whom I shared a venereal disease, by the way) provided an incentive for me to get in bed with my own son. In gameplay terms, the hit to my reputation (both Piety and Prestige) would have been catastrophic. It would also have increased my stress, driving me ever closer to madness.

The war score is stuck at 75% while a massive army bears down from the north in Crusader Kings 3
Wars are extremely simple onscreen. Here, you can see a massive army ready to break a siege, ending the player’s hope of enforcing their demands.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

Morality has an in-game cost, but so does inaction. I did what any other conscientious ruler in the 12th century would do — and murdered my younger son instead.

The game does a surprisingly good job of supporting and allowing the player to pull off these kinds of wild stunts. For a franchise whose previous entries were primarily known for having near-vertical learning curves and an impenetrable user interface, Crusader Kings 3 is a remarkable achievement in transparency.

My greatest resource in learning to play Crusader Kings 3 has been the game’s clever new in-game encyclopedia. Like many other games in the Paradox Interactive library, the game doesn’t have much in the way of a tutorial. What it does have is an informative tooltip system that draws from that larger encyclopedia. The result is an active tips system that is opt-in, one that explains the game’s multiple concepts on an as-needed basis. It’s the only way I was able to come to personal grips with the game’s multiple currencies, its powerful system of councillors, and its byzantine and shifting system of vassalage. Opening up one tooltip will spawn three or four more, each with more new information than the last. What starts out as overwhelming eventually becomes easy to understand, due in part to the fact that it’s all written out in plain language.

But Crusader Kings 3 isn’t simply a bookish pursuit. If you sit back reading the help screens, the game itself will pass you by. The only real way to keep moving your legacy forward is to hatch schemes of your own. And the key to pulling in more money and power is to understand how Crusader Kings 3 simulates personal reputation.

The king asks his queen if she will soon give birth to a bastard son. Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

Click on any character in the world, and you can see a little green number below their portrait that represents their opinion of you. Dig a little deeper, and you can begin to find out why their opinion got that way to begin with. Perhaps you don’t share the same religion, or maybe you have incompatible moral or ethical traits. Could be that you just have more land and more gold than they do.

Root around in the menus long enough and you’ll find a way to make other characters your friend, a reason to threaten them with war, or an excuse to kill them off. The game gives you just enough information to make you truly dangerous — to other in-game characters, and to the very ruler you’re controlling. During one playthrough, I successfully waged a war against a neighbor only to spawn a second conflict for the same territory within my own dynasty. Often, the only way to prevent one good scheme from going sideways is to hatch two or three bad ones, and dealing with the fallout from your own evil actions is more than half the fun.

The only thing missing from Crusader Kings 3, in my opinion, is a way to turn back the clock in real time. Not as a way to cheat or alter recent events, mind you. I just wish there were a better way to keep tabs on things that just happened. Why did my Piety spike? Where did those ships come from? Why is there suddenly a new king in the neighboring kingdom? Even as Paradox has figured out how to give players the information they need to push their in-game narrative forward, the studio still hasn’t sorted out how to let players dig back through what literally just happened.

As an example, at one point the area around my capital city erupted into civil unrest. I found myself cut off from my own armies, unable to even raise them, let along bring them to bear on the rioting peasants. I’m not complaining, necessarily, since I’m sure it was all my fault. It’s just that I have no idea what led up to that particular insurrection, or how I could have been doing things differently to prevent it or even fight against it once it began. Instead of losing control of my favorite character, I opted to pick up a saved game from five years earlier and try to claw my way back.

Regardless, after more than 40 hours with Crusader Kings 3, I still find myself learning more and more about its systems with every passing moment. I’ve restarted my playthrough of the Canossa line three different times now, and each time it feels more and more like I’m coming to grips with how Matilda — and the game as a whole — needs to be played. As with any great RPG, I can feel my grip on the storyline tightening over time. I’m looking forward to the dozens, if not hundreds, of more hours yet to come.

Crusader Kings 3 is now available on Windows PC. The game was played using a download code provided by Paradox Interactive. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.