It's very difficult to talk about Crusader Kings 3 without launching into reminiscences about the amazing adventures your characters had, or the crazy things they did or had done to them. Because first and foremost, CK3 is, like its predecessors, a procedural narrative generator. For a game so filled with numbers and statistics, it doesn't really want you to care about numbers too much. They're just a framework upon which the rich tapestry of medieval life is hung, with all of its violence and intrigue and atrocity and tenderness and tensions.
An example: Playing through the tutorial, I was a serious-minded and able Irish warchief, seeing to the fortification of my towns even as I undermined the legitimacy of my neighbors and balanced the fragile egos of my wayward vassals with my own ambitions. Suddenly, in the course of two days, my heir was cut down, and then I myself was run through by the ravening hordes of my northern neighbors. My dynastic plans began to topple.
Who was next to the throne? Why, it was a six-year-old girl from an obscure branch of the family, now thrust into the terrifying limelight. And just like that, the game changed entirely. It changed in focus, from warfare and politics to cats, puppies and - shortly thereafter - breathless crushes on the knights at court. Depending on who you are, and what you're trying to achieve at any given time, the stories that Crusader Kings III wraps you in seem appropriate and engrossing.
Paradox knows this. They know that the Crusader Kings games show their sparkle best of all when eager players discuss their stories together. So engaging with those stories - and understanding what the heck is even going on - has been overhauled and enhanced in almost every way.
Graphically, if you zoom all the way out you'll see kingdoms, with your bit outlined. If you zoom in a bit, you'll see duchies and the outline of any war objectives you're currently aiming at, as well as all of the armies you're aware of, color-coded to make them make sense. Zoom in more and you'll see the individual baronies, cities and bishoprics in the county. Clicking on a character shows you a character model for them, which can be handy particularly at first, as you can now see that this enemy commander has only got one arm and one eye, and so will probably not be quite such a threat on the field of battle. Or you might notice that your liege is a leper, or that your enemy's marshal is a giant...
Aside from these graphical enhancements that make things easier to grok, the pages and pages of data that traditionally make up a game of Crusader Kings have been clarified significantly. Information is presented in a way that makes sense, tooltips are clear and easy to use, and in general information makes it easy to quickly get back up to speed. When you're at a banquet and a vassal throws up on your shoes, it's important to know if he's the weak-chinned kid from the south who is terrified of you or your robust, antagonistic half-brother from the west who is forming a coalition of lords to overthrow you. In CK2, this could be a challenge. In CK3 it's super easy. Barely an inconvenience.
This is very important. Crusader Kings can be like a really complicated soap opera. If you're messing around on your phone and watching Wolf Hall, and you look up and someone is carrying on with someone else's wife, and you ask "Wait, who are these people?", it's handy to have someone who can tell you "Well remember the guy earlier with the weird metal mask? This is his bisexual concubine and his steward who has the lover's pox..." Crusader Kings 2 never really did a great job of helping you out like that. Crusader Kings 3 seems designed with these helpful reminders in mind. Characters are often accompanied with the most crucial information right after their name ("Prince William, your half-brother, vassal, chancellor and rival" for example). As shorthand for their traits, and as a cue as to the way the AI is likely to behave, each character's sheet will give you a two-word description such as analytic atheist and evil ravener.
That's not to say that everything is instantly clear, of course. This is a Paradox grand strategy game, after all. As the Duke of Transylvania I spent an embarrassingly long time trying to besiege enemy territories before I realized that they were at war with my liege, not with me. Similarly, I thought I was at war with someone for a certain title, but only after the war had dragged on for six years did I realize it was actually for a completely different province.
These are small issues, however. Once you work out what you were doing wrong, you'll never make that mistake again, and another piece of the matrix falls away, revealing the tapestry behind. This exploration of the complexity is all part of the fun as well. It gets easier the more you do it. Naturally, there are still many, many subsystems within the game I'm yet to fully understand, and I doubt I'll get them all straight before the inevitable DLCs hit and the goalposts get moved.
It's not just tidier than CK2 though. It's richer and deeper. Whereas Crusader Kings II added a plethora of interesting new options for players through their DLCs, the AI was often reluctant to adopt these systems itself. Now, with the game being built from the ground up you can expect the AI to be involved in all of the same cheeky shenanigans that you're up to yourself.
Intrigue has always been close to the heart of the Crusader Kings series, and the whole system is more faceted than before. In the past, murdering someone was often a case of choosing a target, then filtering a list of people in the same court to see who would join in. Sure, your spymaster's skill and your wife's ability and so many other factors went in to making the calculation but you rarely saw it or engaged with it at a deeper level. Now you can send your spymaster to that court to dig up dirt on the otherwise squeaky-clean courtiers therein and use them to blackmail you into joining your scheme. There's nothing like learning someone's dark secret by torturing their uncle who you captured on the battlefield, and then using that knowledge to blackmail the character into helping you carry out the murder of that pesky kid who stands between you and the throne.
Sometimes, however, the murky world of secrets and schemes that makes Crusader Kings III so fun still needs another lick of paint. At one point I agreed to exchange secrets with my liege. I let him know of one of his vassals who was carrying out a secret affair with his daughter. In exchange, my king told me of his own secret affair! Of course, I immediately blackmailed him. Weird moments like this are unlikely to survive beyond the first patch, however.
I certainly found it much more fun to be a villain in CK3 than a hero. The new cleaner dread mechanic makes this really easy, as your vassals can grow to be intimidated or terrified by you, and with the right incentive might even pay out more in taxes and levies if they're properly afraid. Choosing to surround yourself with people who are absolutely petrified of what you might do to them if they let you down is a viable tactic and one that feels very on-brand.
Much of the randomness of CK2 has been replaced by measurable timelines. Rather than sending your shaman out to convert the local people to your religion and just sort of hoping that the random 'county converted' event fires, now you know exactly how long it's going to take. If you want to become a master torturer or a master seducer you can work your way through a predictable tree of abilities and perks, eventually reaching your goal in a measured way. That's not to say randomness won't occur - at one point, I'd lost my puppy in the woods, and when I went looking for it I found my enemy, the Pope, had personally come over from Rome just to kill it to spite me - but it's not the kind of randomness that will make you feel like you're not in control of the game.
Battles and sieges have also been expanded in terms of the information you're given. Moving armies over the sea is much, MUCH less fiddly, and choosing which specialist units (such as bowmen and siege engines) accompany your mass of levies is much simpler. Your vassals and courtiers will accompany your armies as knights and champions, and will often fight one another. Wounds and maimings are common, so you might see your heir lose an arm to the attack of a neighboring mayor or a belligerent bishop bashing the brains out of a bordering baron. These interactions make combat feel much more personal and even the most inconsequential border skirmish could cost you one of your most important councilors - or it could serendipitously remove a thorny conspirator from your court.
This at last leads me on to one of the design philosophies that drives the game. Bad isn't always bad. Your marshal dies on the field of battle? Well, if he's also one of your dukes and has been stirring up trouble against you, this could very well be a good thing. If you act against your own traits or see too many of your close friends and family die, you'll accrue stress and could have a mental breakdown, but there are some characters who thrive on chaos and actually perform better during such traumatic circumstances. Often, when playing Crusader Kings III, I saw something and thought "Oh no!", only to realize a moment later "Oh wait... actually that might work out well after all."
I might have mentioned that Crusader Kings 2 was one of my favorite games. All I really want out of a game - any game - is to lose myself in a good story. Crusader Kings 3 continues this line. It is an incredibly deep medieval simulator, which sets its own benchmarks in gaming. This is what all medieval strategy games will be compared to from now on. It delivers intricate stories and interesting characters within it, making it fresh every time I sit down to play. Crusader Kings 3 makes me feel like a Lord in a time of skulduggery and negotiations, where my decisions now can make a difference to a nation, its surrounding lands and my personal dynasty for generations to come.
Some how CK3 is smart enough to not punish you for being good or bad, but manages to keep the game moving along logically, allowing the player to replicate some of the actions of the real bastards we learned about in our history lessons. With all that said and done, this game shines bright because Crusader Kings 3 manages to achieve all of this through a smooth user interface that improves rather than hinders, and that is rare in a game as complex as Crusader Kings 3. And now CK3 comes with a hold-your-hand tutorial that will clear up 80% of your questions. How does the other 20% work? Well, that's great fun to discover on your own.
Crusader Kings 3 is at the start of its own story - I'm estimating we're going to see around 300 DLCs for this beast before it's all said and done - and already through its clarity of interface and intelligent design decisions I can see years of amazing "OH MY GOD, you'll never guess what happened in CK3" moments clogging up Felix's email inbox as I continue on my own journey with this wonderful, wonderful game.