September 21, 2023

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Crusader Kings III is the Middle Ages Grand Strategy Game Par Excellence

By Matthew J. Theriault

An indepth look into Crusader Kings III, which is being released to the Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5 this March.

“The sense of affinity to the liege lord at every stage in the hierarchy, the association of the land with fighting power, the acceptance of the Papal authority in spiritual matters, united the steel-clad knights and nobles over an ever-widening area of Europe. To the full acceptance of the universal Christian Church was added the conception of a warrior aristocracy, animated by ideas of chivalry, and knit together in a system of military service based upon the holding of land. This institution was accompanied by the rise of mail-clad cavalry to a dominant position in war, and new forces were created which could not only conquer but rule.”

Churchill’s quote here from The Birth of Britain is – unsurprisingly given its provenance – one of the most succinct yet sublime summaries of mediæval feudalism. Given the fidelity with which Paradox has depicted the era and gamified all of its essential and emblematic elements, the lines are an equally apt description of most games of Crusader Kings III. Paradox’s latest entry in the Crusader Kings series is the Middle Ages simulator par excellence. Though the history always plays out differently, in any given game one is often contending with subject vassals and the number of levies which their landholdings can support; with a veritable Round Table-full of knights who can turn the tide of a battle against overwhelming odds and numbers; with a Roman pontiff who gives common cause to the otherwise feuding feudals in his calls to take up the cross and perform penance through physical prowess on the battlefield; and the challenge of not only crusading and conquering, but governing former foes as well.

The Crusader Kings series – like all of the franchises from Paradox Development Studio – belongs to the subgenre of strategy games known as Grand Strategy. These differ from the previously explained 4X strategy games in several notable ways. Firstly, in the spectrum of gameplay styles ranging from the highly abstracted “board game” style on one end to the “simulation” style on the other, they tend toward the latter, and this informs many of the design decisions.

Image courtesy Paradox Development Studio

Secondly, because they weigh the accuracy of the simulation as more important than all factions getting a similar start to one another or an equal chance at achieving their aims, Grand Strategy games are highly asymmetrical. In a 4X like Civilization VI, whether one plays as the Scottish or the Byzantines hardly has an impact; each may be better suited to pursuing specific strategies and different victory conditions, but neither is more likely to win than the other. Contra Crusader Kings III, in which the Byzantine Empire starts with more territory, troops, and technological and cultural innovations than the Scots.

Thirdly, Grand Strategy games place little to no focus on two of the four Xs. Exploration is ignored entirely in Crusader Kings III, as the full map is shown from the start. Exploitation is limited to constructing certain buildings within each holding, and instead of gaining specific resources, these mostly grant an increase to tax or levy sizes (mines, for example, instead of being built specifically to extract silver, or copper, or iron, all simply offer two to five extra gold in monthly tax revenue). Finally, Grand Strategy titles tend to be themed around the subject of history even more so than 4X titles. Out of Paradox’s recent releases, only Stellaris is science fiction; Europa Universalis IV, Hearts of Iron IV, Imperator: Rome, and the upcoming Victoria 3 all tackle specific periods of the past.

“I do not think that the reader or the maker of fairy-stories need even be ashamed of the ‘escape’ of archaism: of preferring not dragons but horses, castles, sailing-ships, bows and arrows; not only elves, but knights and kings and priests.” -J.R.R. Tolkien

The Past in general – and the Mediæval Era in particular – hold such a strong sense of sehnsucht, such romance, because they are an escape from being imprisoned in the Present and the parochialism of its perspective. But many modern media that purportedly portray earlier eras either imports modernity into its Middle Ages or is merely a thin veneer of knights and nobles over twenty-first-century stories. They’re like traveling overseas only to ignore the local cruising in favor of American fast-food chains. Against these Crusader Kings III stands out, taking the Mediæval Era on its own terms without apology.

Crusader Kings III covers the entirety of the High and most of the Late Middle Ages, and the latter part of the Early Middle Ages as well. This covers the long stretch from the waxing supremacy of castles to their waning against the proliferation of increasingly powerful bombards. It has two possible starting dates, 867 and 1066 A.D. It ends (just shy of the War of the Roses) in 1453 when in our world Constantinople fell – though it need not in a playthrough of Crusader Kings. This timespan leaves off four fascinating centuries following the final fall of the Western Roman Empire. Sorely missed are the periods of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, the sixth-century Scandinavia of Hroðgar and Hygelac, and the proto-Crusades of Charlemange. But the starting dates it does provide were perfectly picked to put the player in the shoes of (or pit him face-to-face against) some of the most notable names from the Mediæval Era. The “Wrath of the Northmen” campaign in 867 depicts Alfred the Great going up against the Great Heathen Army led by Ragnar Lodbrok’s sons Ivar the Boneless, Björn Ironside, Halfdan Whiteshirt, and Sigurd Snake-in-the-Eye. “The Fate of England” in 1066 starts on the eve of the Norman Conquest, with Harold Godwinson at war with Harold Hardrada and William the Bastard.

Each of these historical personalities is simulated with traits appropriate to the period. Characters are ascribed to the Seven Capital Virtues or their opposing Seven Deadly Sins in the appropriate combination. Each of these has a direct mechanical effect on the game in the interest of making the simulation accurate to history, at least to start off initially. Chastity lowers a character’s fertility, extremely useful for limiting the number of heirs among whom the dynastic holding would be split following their father’s passing. Bravery increases a character’s Martial skills, making him a better tactician, as well as his Prowess, strengthening the swings of his sword in personal combat. And of course, the ladies of the court swoon for brave knights, as indicated by an increased Attraction Opinion, but bravely charging headfirst into danger also increases his likelihood of being captured or killed in battle. The Sins are actually tempting, offering mechanical bonuses of their own. Slothful characters suffer less Stress, Wrathful ones inspire more Dread (and thus fewer rebellious Factions), Lustful lotharios are more likely to succeed in their seduction Schemes, and Greedy misers scrooge over their vassals by collecting more monthly income.

These traits, in turn, directly affect one’s Piety. Each and every Religion in the game has a different list of traits that it considers Virtues or Sins. For the many various sects of Christianity, Compassion, Chastity, and Forgiveness can lead to a leader being considered a Paragon of Virtue, whereas Sadism, Lust, and Vengefulness will have him condemned by his head of faith as a Sinner. For the pagan Norse, however, Wrath (and being one-eyed from battle) is a source of religious capital, whereas acts of Forgiveness earn condemnation.

A robust character creator allows the player to make not only a visual facsimile of himself (or whomever else he deigns to start as), but to also include his personal strengths and weaknesses, vices and virtues, from the same pool of traits possessed by the non-player characters from history. It’s easy to imagine how one would fare if put in the same position as history’s heroes; it’s sobering to simulate this test of one’s mettle and be quickly ousted or killed by more skilled players in the game of thrones.

“It’s the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on. Not your honor, not your personal glory, family.” – Tywin Lannister, A Song of Ice and Fire

Nevertheless, in Crusader Kings III one does not play as a singular character; there is no exact equivalent to Leaders like in the Civilization series or Avatars as in Humankind. In fact, one’s current player character can be murdered as part of an assassination plot, or die in a duel, or succumb to severe veneral disease, or even choose to commit suicide, and far from a Game Over screen, in many circumstances, this can actually be beneficial for the player in achieving whatever goals he’s pursuing. But neither does the player take on the role of a civilization or a culture. Trading one’s kingdom for a horse may hurt, but the game goes on without it. Rather, one plays as a Dynasty, and so long as there is a Player Heir to carry on one’s name, the life of that Dynasty continues to play out for the duration of the Mediæval Era.

The above philosophy espoused by Tywin is difficult for most moderns to understand, let alone ascribe to. The genius of the Dynasty gameplay mechanic is that it nudges players to think and behave like real mediæval dynasts, for many of whom kin came before country. Later in his History of the English Speaking Peoples, Churchill explained that “nepotism in those days was not merely the favouring of a man’s own family; it was almost the only way in which a ruler could procure trustworthy lieutenants.” No lieutenant in Crusader Kings is ever truly trustworthy, especially a younger brother or a son who is second in the line of succession. But players will perpetually be tempted to take actions in the interest of the Dynasty above all, which modern man would condemn as the rankest of nepotism and worst still.

Appointing one’s profligate and prodigal uncle to be the Steward in charge of the kingdom’s coin might be the only way to prevent a powerful vassal from attempting to usurp the throne. Murdering most of one’s male heirs might be the only way to ensure that the realm is not divided after the current king dies (as happened to the Carolingian Empire following the death of Louis the Pious). Seducing one’s own granddaughter and secretly cuckolding the impotent son-in-law with whom one has an alliance might be the only way to ensure that beneficial Congenial traits are preserved in future generations of the bloodline.

Or not. One is free to act according to the Chivalric code in the face of perpetual temptation to break it, or one can cynically embrace realpolitik. Both types are true to history.

“In the Middle Ages, lords and vassals lived in a futile system.” – Calvin

But blood relations aren’t the only important social dynamic in Crusader Kings. A lord’s relationship to his vassals is of similar importance. At the formal level, feudal vassals are governed by contracts which stipulate the taxes and levies owed to their lord. These contracts can be modified, usually as a result of court intrigue resulting in one of the two parties gaining a Hook on the other. A count that walks in on his duke sitting in a pentagram attempting to summon a horned demon might stay silent in exchange for a change of contract that guarantees a spot on the duke’s Council. Conversely, as the Mediæval Era wanes, a king might impose Scutage on the dukes directly beneath him, essentially allowing them to pay to dodge the draft.

Vassals’ informal opinions of their lord matter just as much as the paper constitutions that are their feudal contracts. Disaffected and dissatisfied nobles will form Factions with one another, attempting to gain independence as a new nation, seize the throne for one of their own, or pull a Magna Carta and force concessions from the crown in favor of greater baronial autonomy. Refusing these demands invariably plunges a realm into civil war. Many games of Crusader Kings come to an abrupt end when the powerful and popular ruler the player had been controlling is suddenly succeeded by a young child without the resources or relationships to inspire loyalty. Without that more intangible fidelity, feudal contracts and de jure titles count for surprisingly little. Even when one puts planning for the future of the family ahead of individual interests or the good of the realm, the best-laid plans often run awry from a White Ship or a Black Prince.

“You can’t use an old map to explore a new world.” – Albert Einstein

One of the chief joys of Crusader Kings III is the fact that the main screen at which the player stares for virtually the entirety of the game is an elaborate map of the Old World. It’s replete with geographical features, historic borders down to the regions of individual counties, and filters with which to see not merely political divisions but also the geographic presence of cultures, languages, and religions. Anyone who has ever stared wistfully at a world map, especially older maps with borders and nations far different than the ones with which we’re familiar today, knows the sense of wonder which they inspire. They beg the context of history to explain what caused such changes to occur. Crusader Kings III allows players to not only draw curiosity from maps and history, but to create their own. Rewriting the narrative of history scratches one itch, and the ability to redraw borders and color in the cultures and faiths as one sees fit scratches another, and the latter proves even more satisfying.

But it’s not just the dynamic nature of the map that fascinates, but its static nature as well. Whereas other prominent historical strategy games utilize dynamically generated maps made out of blobs of hexagons, few of which bear any similarity to real maps, the Ecumene of Crusader Kings III is our world in exacting detail, through which it creates a connection. Ireland, e.g., is not just a collection of cities that share the same mechanical bonuses; it’s the island with which we’re familiar, situated in the same geographical position with which we’re familiar. It is Ireland.

Where the unfamiliarity and freshness come in is contours of the petty kingdoms which dot the landscape – names familiar to those who read history, but made more meaningful through long hours spent staring at where they are in relation to the rest of the world. Bavaria, Hesse, Saxony… these go from being a list of the names of regions in Germany which one can recite to places one can point to with precision. And no matter what one’s prior geographic knowledge may be, there are corners and crevices somewhere, whether Africa, China, India, or elsewhere, in which the most learned students of geography can discover someplace new to them. To play Crusader Kings III is to study an atlas for hundreds of hours without a minute of tedium in doing so.

The first major expansion to the game, Royal Court, only occasionally draws players away from this map screen and into a fully rendered throne room – just often enough to briefly break up the monotony of staring at the map without diverting attention from the core gameplay. In intervals of at least five years a king or emperor can Hold Court. This usually constitutes a series of three or four petitions brought forth by subjects that the liege lord must decide upon. Often they are internecine matters between vassals of which the crown would otherwise have no knowledge, such as debates about whose city is superior. On other occasions a generous courtier can be one upped as a means of buying friends for oneself, or exploited as a means of making a quick buck. More interesting is when the petitioners are clearly reacting directly to previous decisions made by the player. This seems to happen almost organically when interacting with the other new systems introduced in the expansion pack, such as Court Languages and Court Positions.

In my first game after Royal Court released, as the Byzantine emperor I married Hildegard, the half-sister of Charles ‘the Bald’ of West Francia. When he was deposed, he sought refuge in my court. My first decision when holding court was whether to refuse his request, humiliate him by appointing him my Jester, or, as I went with, simply offer him succor, leading to his new nickname, Charles ‘the Footstool.’ Wishing more dignity for my half-brother-in-law, I appointed him to a prestigious position at court, that of Tutor. Simultaneously, in order to promote Cultural Acceptance between the Greeks and the French, I had my wife teach me the language of love. During one of her lessons, she took this literally, and having the Lustful trait, it made sense for my character to take our study session into our bedroom. Not long after, when holding court once again, my Tutor Charles, who I had teaching my very young daughters French as well, reported to me some of the questions they’d been badgering him with. “Tutor, what does it mean… ‘to make love’?” “Tutor, should I be blowing my flute louder, or much louder?” Evidently, the little linguists had overheard our innuendo in the bedroom, and, without realizing, repeated it to my wife’s brother.

My Byzantines later went on to conquer Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Rome, reinstating the Pentarchy and ending the Great Schism. But it is dynamically emerging stories like the incident with Charles that are the most memorable moments in Crusader Kings, even more so than the grand strategy goals one strives for from the outset.

“How does one say it… obtainer of rare antiquities?” – Maj. Eaton

Less successful at driving dynamic narratives are the Artifacts which the latest patch introduces. These are so plentiful to the point of being plethoric, as if the warehouse at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark contained in every box an antique as fabled as the Ark of the Covenant. Though perhaps that’s the point. Shortly after the close of the Middle Ages, John Calvin noted that purported pieces of the True Cross were so prolific that “if all the pieces that could be found were collected together, they would make a big ship-load.” There was certainly monetary incentive for monasteries and churches to claim to possess pieces of the True Cross, and this at least is reflected in especially rare relics such as the Mandylion and the Ark cutting certain costs and increasing income, respectively. Similarly, items such as the Crown of Thorns and the Spear of Destiny come with random effects, possibly hinting at the associating in that age of relics with miracles (though Paradox smartly stops short of making the items explicitly ‘magical’).

Artifacts can be equipped directly by a character or displayed in the Royal Court. Wielding a Weapon or Armor predictably improves a character’s Martial skill and personal Prowess, whereas items such as Crowns, Regalia, or Trinkets are more likely to have an effect on the character’s Prestige or Renown. Sadly, while Excalibur can be obtained, it’s not equippable, instead meant to (literally) be put on a pedestal instead of put through one’s enemies. Worse, my quest to recover the Sangrail is not nearly so successful as that of Galahad or Percival.

Image courtesy Paradox Development Studio

As the III in the title suggests, this is not Paradox’s first foray into the Middle Ages. Crusader Kings II, for all its fervent popularity with those players who were able to wrap their heads around its labyrinthine gameplay systems and uninviting user interface, just as often put off even seasoned fans of the strategy game genre. Crusader Kings III is much more approachable. The mere fact that Paradox is porting it to current generation consoles is proof positive that they realize this installment has much more appeal to a wider and more casual audience, all without sacrificing any of the complexity which makes it an interesting mediæval simulator. But it’s still far from being Fisher-Price’s “Baby’s First Grand Strategy Game.” The very audience who this game is most likely to enthrall and enamour – professional and amature students of mediæval history – are, without extensive experience playing games, likely to find it every bit as inaccessible as a peasant attempting to approach a mediæval monarch. But does that mean they shouldn’t try it?

Throughout the game, windows will randomly pop-up presenting a scenario to the player followed by several possible dialogue choices, representing different reactions and responses the character can choose from. In virtually every case, there are multiple choices. Even when an ally calls on the player to fulfill his oaths and join together in war, it’s still possible to decline. But there is one very notable exception to this, and that is when the Pope calls all the kingdoms of Christendom together on a Crusade. To that summons, there is only one dialogue option available. To the question of whether non-gamer mediævalists should try their hand at this crazy, complex simulation verging on veritable time-machine to their favorite period, the answer is exactly the same: “Deus vult!”

Matthew J. Theriault is a writer from New Jersey who has penned scripts for channels such as Wisecrack, Today I Found Out, and Highlight History, and has published articles in AiPT!, Critical Distance, The Federalist, and The Hub City Review. You can follow him on Instagram.

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Top Image: Image courtesy Paradox Development Studio