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a screenshot from Crusader Kings 3 showing a king with a crown, and woman, and a monk with a snake — with a number 8 superimposed on it Image: Paradox Interactive via Polygon

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Crusader Kings 3 is the rare strategy game everybody should play

Like an AP European History teacher who makes class fun.

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.

In the 1990s, there were two teachers in my suburban Chicagoland high school that everybody wanted to get assigned. One was a chemistry teacher, a squirrelly little man with a biting sense of humor who wandered around school being alarmingly intelligent and blowing shit up. The other one taught European history, and she was my favorite. Let’s call her Ms. Franck.

I’m not sure what the AP Euro curriculum looks like these days, but way back then, it was wide and deep, spanning from the Renaissance all the way through the American Revolution. But the highlight in Ms. Franck’s class was always the French Revolution. That’s when she tended to jump on top of her big teacher desk with her little teacher shoes, raise one fist in the air, and scream, “TO THE BARRICADES!” The lesson was loud, intimidating, awe-inspiring, and just a little bit taboo.

Graphic layout of the words #8 Polygon GOTY 2020

For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!

I think Ms. Franck would have absolutely loved Crusader Kings 3, which is also loud, intimidating, awe-inspiring, and taboo. Note that these are not adjectives commonly associated with strategy games. Like a truly great high school teacher, Crusader Kings 3 has its timeline and its major historical figures down pat, letting it take the time to linger on the true turning points in history — and to dive deeply into its weirdest waters.

The narratives that have emerged from the Crusader Kings 3 player community are downright bonkers. They include strategically placed covens of witches who change the course of history, a mustachioed Henry Cavill look-alike, and entire kingdoms led by groups of wealthy toddlers. My favorite by far is the discovery that one player’s husbands — all four of them — were murdered by a single serial killer, and that the killer was their own evil twin who was secretly in love with them.

Of course, the team at Paradox Interactive was really up against it this time around. Crusader Kings 2 launched in 2012, and had more bits of downloadable content than is frankly reasonable. To turn the heads of an established player community, the developers really had to bring their A-game — and they did, with a mostly stable launch, a whiz-bang 3D world map, and a tremendous set of character models.

But they went even further, adding in a hefty tutorial system that finally — mercifully — actually taught newcomers how to play the game. Take enough time, dig through enough pop-up menus, and you too can go toe to toe with the pope and the Holy Roman Emperor and bring the ancient world to heel.

Or, you can just fuck around and find out what happens.

A closeup of a king kneeling before his bride in a massive cathedral. Image: Paradox Interactive

One of Crusader Kings 3’s best features is the set of pregame toggles that allow you to change the cultural and social mores of Medieval Europe. Would you like to allow women to inherit property and titles, something they couldn’t really do until the 19th century here in the West? What if religious belief weren’t predicated on generations of family history, but instead decided randomly with the flip of a coin? What if homosexuality were fully accepted by Catholics, Muslims, and all the other major religions in the feudal world? In fact, what if types of sexuality itself — homosexuality, bisexuality, and even asexuality — were evenly distributed among the rulers of the world? What kinds of empires could emerge then?

Individual campaigns are deliciously free of consequence, because once you manage to kill off your current ruler, the game picks up with their heir. You can ride and die on your way to ginning up the alternate history of your dreams — or, in the case of the Princes of Darkness mod that includes immortal vampires, the world of your nightmares.

For a company that has hung its hat on grand strategy games since the very beginning, Crusader Kings 3 feels like a new beginning for Paradox Interactive. This is a game for everyone, not because it’s easy, but because it is transparently, unabashedly difficult — just like Ms. Franck’s AP European History class.

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