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Key art for Crusader Kings 3 shows a king, dressed for war. Flanking him is his faithful magistrate and his spymaster. The later is hooded, and holds a poisonous snake. Image: Paradox Interactive

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Crusader Kings 3 is more fun when you play it like The Sims

Love and conquest in the 11th century and beyond

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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.

I’m only a few hours into a hands-on demo of Crusader Kings 3 when everything starts to go pear-shaped. Far from my duchy in Bohemia, the Battle of Hastings has just taken place, setting in motion an inevitable slide toward modernity. The clock is ticking, and it’s time to consolidate my power and lay the groundwork for my legacy.

My vassals are happy enough, it seems, and my wife — a Polish princess — has my back, securing the border with her father, one of my most powerful neighbors. So I decide to start a war, and that’s when things come crashing down around me.

I declare my intent to enforce a claim on a neighboring county, raise an army of a few thousand men, and march off into battle. But while I’m out of town my neighbor’s allies sweep in from the north, lay siege to my castle, and imprison my heir. It’s not game over, but it’s pretty close.

The next day, in a Zoom call with the team from developer Paradox Interactive, I arrive hat in hand to tell them of my misfortune. That’s when I learn that I’ve been going about this all wrong.

Rather than playing Crusader Kings 3 like a traditional grand strategy game, they tell me, instead I should be playing it more like The Sims.

A menu shows optoins for beginning a game as the Duke of Behemia, Munster, Toledo, or Apulia in the year 1066.
A pre-game menu allows you to pick from several interesting characters across medieval Europe. The game also allows you to begin from the year 867, before Christianity has consolidated power in the region. The game is still in development, and all images shown here are likely to change.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

The original Crusader Kings was released in 2004, back when Paradox was a much smaller company. Employees — including former CEO and co-founder Fredrik Wester — actually packaged those games by hand, only to see the release marred by bugs.

Over the next eight years the game eventually found its audience, and expectations were high for the release of Crusader Kings 2 in 2012. That launch went much more smoothly, and the sequel received praise from critics and fans alike. The franchise went on to become Paradox’s first internally developed million-unit seller and ultimately one of the biggest, brightest jewels in the company’s crown. With 15 different expansions published over the last decade, it’s also among the most thoroughly supported titles in that company’s history.

Crusader Kings 3 is Paradox’s chance to make a fresh start, and that means catering to loyal fans as well as setting expectations for a new kind of audience — people like me, who have never played the game before.

“One of the secrets to playing Crusader Kings,” game director Henrik Fåhraeus says during our interview, “is to sort of not worry so much about min-maxing and optimizing your game, to be honest. Try to let go a little bit, and just enjoy the experience.”

That’s certainly not my methodology for playing other grand strategy games, especially those made by Paradox. Games like Stellaris and Hearts of Iron 4 are all about taking the field with the most powerful military units available and fighting your enemies in the most advantageous settings. Turns out that Crusader Kings is a far more subtle experience. Social manipulation is just as powerful as the ranks of specialized troops, and every character in the game has to work with what they’ve given. Sometimes that means taking up arms, and other times it means paying bribes.

The team explained to me that the world of Crusader Kings 3 is populated by tens of thousands of AI-controlled characters, and each of them has an opinion of all the others. That opinion is influenced by social rank, but also additional factors like lineage and religion. Using the game’s menus, it’s possible to divine why another character feels the way they do about you. Then it’s simply a matter of putting the correct machinations in place to bring about the outcomes that you desire. There’s no reason to conquer territory, for instance, when you can simply marry into it.

A menu gives a brief description of Crusader Kings 3’s “fervor” mechanic. Behind it, grayed out, are a dozen more menus.
Tooltips within tooltips allow players to find information quickly and easily.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

It’s a completely different gameplay language than I’m used to. When I booted up Crusader Kings 3 for the first time, the only buttons that looked familiar were the ones for waging war, so I hit them as hard as I could. It was only after a few hours of failing to gain a foothold on the edges of the Holy Roman Empire — and a lengthy chat with the developers — that more of the game’s potential began to reveal itself.

The secret was in coming to terms with the game’s incredibly complex menu system.

Paradox games are plagued by challenging user interfaces, and the Crusader Kings series is no exception. This time around, however, the team is trying something new. Crusader Kings 3 features a clever system of nested tooltips, which the team refers to as “tooltips inside tooltips.” By opening the in-game encyclopedia (which occupies a prominent place in the user interface’s lower right-hand corner) I was able to type in search terms like “vassal” and “duchy.” What greeted me was a concise block of hyperlinked text, maybe 75 or 100 words at most. It was just enough information to point me in the right direction, and once I moved my mouse out of the way the text disappeared.

But, by hovering my cursor over each of the links within that text I was able to open up additional tips, which began to fan out on my screen like a series of spiraling flowers. I was able to use these little blossoms to thread my ad hoc research together, and over time some of the information actually sunk in. It’s a tremendously intuitive, profoundly educational system. It doesn’t reduce the complexity of the game in any way, but it does make things more digestible.

Add in a decent little tutorial, and after a few poor starts I was well on my way to actually getting somewhere. What was once an impediment soon turned into a resource, a powerful lens that I was able to use in order to understand the politics and policies of this strange historical world.

All I needed now was to find a character that I clicked with.

“Our other games feature things like nations, their people, economics and so on,” Fåhraeus had told me, “but CK really is a medieval soap opera.”

So I decided to find someone worth telling a melodramatic story about. That’s when I stumbled upon Matilda of Tuscany, a real historical figure and one of the most powerful matriarchs in medieval Italy.

A woman in regal red robes stands in a beautiful palace, the marble floor gleaming in the sunlight.
Matilda of Tuscany in the year 1066.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

In Crusader Kings 3, in the year 1066, Matilda is just 21 years old, and the sole member of her dynasty. She begins the game very friendly with the Pope, which also happens to be her neighbor. Meanwhile, the fragmented pieces of the Roman republic surrounding her are wealthy and rife with corruption. It’s the perfect opportunity for an enterprising young woman to begin a dynasty.

And that’s where the foundational changes in this latest Paradox game actually are. Previous titles have nailed the generational transfer of wealth and power, but Crusader Kings 3 is doubling down on genetics.

Every character in Crusader Kings 3 has a set of stats that change over time, just like a modern role-playing game. Those stats — things like diplomacy and intrigue — impact the probability of everything a character does. Meanwhile, characters also have personality traits. Some might be cruel or just, others greedy or bookish. When they marry and have children some of these skills and attributes can be passed on to their offspring. Characters can also choose how their kids are educated, giving them limited control over the kinds of rulers that they become.

Therefore, in playing as Matilda of Tuscany, I wasn’t simply playing as Matilda. I was setting myself up to play as her entire dynasty. Far more important than my next military campaign was my choice of suitor, and the demeanor of the children we would eventually have.

“There is a big aspect of gardening to the game,” explained designer Alex Oltner, “especially when it comes to your dynasty. And Sims players, as far as I know, really enjoy managing a big family and seeing it grow. That’s something that we have put a special focus on in CK3 with all the dynasty-based mechanics.”

Matilda with her husband, Andrea, and their son and heir, Boniface Canossa. They’re standing in a brightly lit throne room.
Duchess Matilda of Spoleto, Spymaster to the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 1080. To her right her husband and lover, Andrea. To her left her heir, Bonifacio. Paradox says that lots of effort is going into character clothing, with special attention being paid to clipping issues seen here.
Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

After my interview, I dove into a brand new playthrough as Matilda. By 1069 (nice) she had managed to win the favor of Domenico II, doge of the Republic of Venice. With that loyalty came the hand of his son, Andrea Contarini — along with the promise of a matrilineal line of succession. Any children that she had would go on to be part of Matilda’s dynasty, not Andrea’s — a hard-won concession, negotiated brutally behind the scenes with no small amount of blackmail. Thanks to Andrea’s lustful personality quirk, her husband soon became her lover. Before long Matilda had given birth to a male heir and, because of Paradox’s elaborate new 3D character models, the baby even looked like her. It’s a likeness that will be passed down for generations.

With Andrea at Matilda’s side, they became a force to be reckoned with. While her friend the Pope looked the other way, Matilda began snatching up counties in northern Italy and was soon on her way to forming the kingdom of Italy ... all before she had reached the age of 35.

By the year 1080, Matilda’s fame had become so great that Emperor Heinrich IV invited her to join his court and become the Spymaster of the Holy Roman Empire. With a good court physician she’ll likely live to a ripe old age, at which point I’ll be able to take over the dynasty that she began by seamlessly switching to play as one of her heirs.

Of course, just as things were getting good, Paradox turned off the demo. Crusader Kings 3 is not quite ready yet, and won’t be released until Sept. 1, but I’m already excited to see how Matilda’s story plays out — and to inhabit her dynasty for generations to come.

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