Friday, March 1, 2024

Crusader Kings 3 made me understand the eldritch madness of grand strategy games

I’ve always been one to find grand strategy overwhelming. They’re like digital eldritch beasts. When I look at those who understand the ins and outs of Europa Universalis IV, who can coax exactly what they desire from Imperator: Rome, I begin to understand the Lovecraftian sentiment that the more transcendent knowledge you possess, the more your perception will be perceived by others as madness, and the more you’ll annoy your friends with memes about Constantinople.

Grand strategy fans, to me, are like the mad Norse kings of Crusader Kings 2 who sail out into the ocean to single-handedly slay Cthulhu; conveniently enough, the only thing I knew how to do in that timeless classic of the genre. It’s only fitting, then, that playing its much-awaited sequel, Crusader Kings 3, made me understand that madness. And in doing so, like an inversion of the metaphor, I learned how to appreciate its more mundane qualities.

Crusader Kings 3 is still as much of an Old God than its predecessor. It’s a web of intricate and seemingly-infinite systems that exist co-dependently, affecting one and being affected by another. The stark difference between it and CK2 is that the web is laid out before you in all its splendour, instead of lurking in the corners of your periphery. There’s an abundance of tooltips and optional tutorials which manifest organically for a majority of the game’s mechanics. Rather than having a wealth of information thrust upon you and the expectation that you must memorise it all, it’s trickled into your brain like a hamster’s water bottle.

Everything else in CK3 is a lot easier to comprehend visually, too. Holdings appear on the map, landmasses and distinct countries, duchies, and baronies within them are more legible and easier to differentiate. It makes understanding your place in the world a lot clearer, which is essential when judging your chances in conflict. In CK2, I’d often find myself attacking what I thought to be a tiny, independent nation-state, only to be subsequently crushed by an entire empire hiding in the proverbial bushes of a minimised menu.

What drew me into Crusader Kings 3’s inky-black depths more than any of its visual tweaks or more user-friendly menus is its greater focus on roleplay and characterisation; or, at least, it introduces subtle new concepts and recontextualises others in a way that becoming the character you’ve chosen to play comes a lot more naturally.

The RPG elements were already there. For me, they were background-level enough that I often forgot they even existed. The previous Crusader Kings games required a touch of inference from the player. I suffer a lot from executive dysfunction though, and making those features more of an active part of the experience helped me focus.

Source: Paradox Interactive

The Lifestyles feature is a result of this mindset, which allows you to pick one of five lifestyles, swapping them out every five years. Each Lifestyle is dedicated to a different skill, a different area of expertise in the world, and a different trio of skill trees to add a degree of personalised progression. The Martial lifestyle allows you to build into three different skill tree focuses; the battle-oriented Strategy, the control-focused Authority, and the chivalry-centric Gallant.

You can choose any of the Lifestyles regardless of your character, and change them out when different focuses would benefit your Kingdom more. However, depending on your ruler’s traits and life experiences, one Lifestyle will be the recommended choice for you.

That’s the first bit of magic that sucked me into the brain of Murchad mac Diarmata, future King of Ireland; in making his characterisation not only a collection of attributes with modifiers, but making me actively select the Lifestyle that would fit those attributes the most. Choosing a Lifestyle and a focus made me actively consider the traits I possessed, and that meant I paid more attention to where those traits had impacts. In personality matches and clashes, for instance, you and an AI ruler might get a bonus in opinion if you’re both Brave, but if you’re Craven? That other ruler won’t take kindly to it.

Another big feature that helps pull you into the story is the Schemes system, replacing Plots from the previous game. The currency here is in Hooks and Secrets, and you’re using them to purchase blackmail. The secrets of your vassals, knights, and neighbouring rulers can be discovered by sending your Spymaster to any barony you wish, and after an amount of time (and depending on a percentage chance of success) you’ll be able to use them to extort your victims’ gold, throw their dirty laundry out of the window and into the street of public perception, or gain a Hook.

Hooks on other characters can be gained in other ways, like as the penalty for being released from prison. They act like favours owed to you, and you can cash them in to get your vassals to raise their taxes, persuade a rival ruler to approve a wedding between your families, or even force them to aid you in more of your Schemes.

The whole Hooks and Secrets system, knowing all the intimate details of the people who serve you, finding out which one of them has a weird shoe thing, and kinkshaming them into helping you bury the body of that one uncle you really don’t like, is fantastic and scandalous. It feels like real gossip about important people, a medieval Mean Girls. Leveraging all of it against your friends and foes to get a leg-up in the preservation of your Dynasty makes you feel like a properly slimy bastard, and that’s what the olden times were all about.

Source: Paradox Interactive

Of course, there’s something else that the olden times were all about: homophobia. Across the world, from 867 all the way to 1066 and eventually 1453, everybody hated the gays and many still do. It’s a part of history, and Crusader Kings 3 is a historical game. So, by default, most of the rulers you’ll encounter are straight by default. You’ll run into gay kings, though, as well as bisexual queens, asexual emperors, and a litany of other combinations. The range of sexualities is capped to that reduction of four, though, and there aren’t any trans people in sight. Not out trans people, at least. Still, I suppose we can make do with that. Or, we could make it even gayer.

You see, Crusader Kings 3 allows you to create your own religion. By default, you’ll find all the major faiths that were knocking around at whichever starting date you choose. But if you have enough Piety and the support of your local religious leader, you can make your own version of it, and the customisation options are aplenty. Is your religion patriarchal, matriarchal, or lacking in gender preference? How many people can you marry? Are concubines and bastard children free game? What about gay relationships, and equal marriage? What about weird sex stuff?

Crusader Kings 3 gives you the power to make Catholicism even gayer and even hornier than it already is, while the bloody Vikings are still knocking about. It’ll be hard, but if you have enough faith (and lots of siege weaponry) then you can command your Gay Bishop to spread Catholicism 2: Attack of the Queers throughout the land until you’ve conquered the entirety of continental Europe, finally bringing Western civilisation as we know it to its knees.

Crusader Kings 3 is still an Old God, an existential entity strung together by secrets. But this time, Paradox Interactive has provided a handy instruction manual on how to begin to understand the unknowable, incomprehensible depths of that entity. The transformation is complete; now I possess the transcendent knowledge, and I won’t stop sharing memes about Constantinople. But this time, Constantinople is home to a Gay Pope.

Gayming Magazine was provided a code for Crusader Kings 3 via PR

Crusader Kings III can be purchased for a suggested retail price of $49.99/ £41.99/ €49.99 on Steam, the Paradox Store, and other major online retailers.

Astrid Johnson

[She/They] Astrid is a journalist who has an equally begrudging interest in both video games and politics. Subjects of interest include labour rights in the games industry, really weird and artsy indie titles, and adding "but Communism" to the ends of game titles as a means of coming up with ideas for what to write about.