We played an unfinished build of Crusader Kings 3. Here's what we thought — and when you can play the game yourself!

Crusader Kings 3 Hands-On Preview: Steel Yourself for Battle

We played an unfinished build of Crusader Kings 3. Here's what we thought — and when you can play the game yourself!

Crusader Kings 2 had grown exponentially since the base game released in 2012. It can be daunting to browse through the game’s available DLC and figure out what’s what. With that in mind, it’s high time that Paradox put out a proper sequel. Enter Crusader Kings 3

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The CK series is part of the “grand strategy” genre. It looks similar to Civilization 6, for example, but there are some key differences between the two franchises. The main difference is that in the Crusader Kings franchise, you control a family through the ages, rather than a nation or culture. This means Crusader Kings is all about the long game, setting up your descendants to claim titles and eventually rule the world.

Paradox Interactive, the game’s developer and publisher, recently walked us through what we can expect to see when we get our hands on the game later this year. We also got a few days to take the current build for a spin, utilizing all the lessons we learned watching Game of Thrones in order to conquer the world.

Here’s what we thought of Crusader Kings 3.

Keep in mind, this is the game as it is right now: much of this is subject to change over the coming months. We also found out when the game is releasing, so read on to the end to find out when you can get your hands on CK3.

Crusader Kings 3 Hands-On Preview: Steel Yourself for Battle

Paradox told us right away that CK3 has two central design philosophies: be more character-driven and be more accessible. Let’s start with the character focus, as this is what really sets Crusader Kings apart from other strategy titles.

Rather than helping guide a chosen nation to world dominance, Crusader Kings 3 is initially concerned with a single character. That character may be extraordinarily powerful  the ruler of a massive empire, perhaps. They may also be some meddling Duke on some far-flung rock. Either way, you have a massive map to explore, invade, and eventually annex available from the start: Europe, northern Africa, and regions far into Asia are all represented.

As soon as you begin — before even unpausing the game to get properly started — you have a lot of options at your disposal (which we’ll get into shortly).

You’ll also notice how good everything looks. CK3 has a fancy new graphics engine, with full 3D ruler portraits and all sorts of other neat graphical bells and whistles.

But once you reel yourself in from that, you’ll need to get cracking on your to-do list. And it’s a long one that veterans will find familiar. You should probably get married: if your character dies and you don’t have an heir, it’s game over. You may have some empty spots to fill on your small council, and you should probably figure out who your allies and enemies are. Oh, and you should give your character a quick once over to figure out their personality.

That last part is especially important because it plays a huge role in the ebb and flow of Crusader Kings 3. Your ruler has a set of defined traits, and you can influence these in subsequent generations by who raises your progeny  and how.

You are welcome to go against your personality, but it causes stress if, say, your ruler is kind but you continually torture prisoners. Stress will negatively impact various abilities, meaning it behooves you to generally play to type.

Fit for a King

There are plenty of other ways to customize and influence your dynasty than just your personality. The Lifestyle system adds a massive, branching skill tree to the game, giving you plenty of chances to change your realm. Every five years, you can adjust your character’s lifestyle focus, with different paths coinciding with in-game statistics. As you earn experience in those paths, you’ll be able to add perks to your character.

This helps you plan out your dynasty in the long run. Maybe you have a few different generations featuring characters who are particularly adept with money. As you build your coffers over time and bribe your way to good standing with the right benefactors, you set up your dynasty. Eventually, a ruler comes along who is an impressive battlefield commander. Your previous generations saved the money (using a series of perks to help), and now you’ve got someone who can put it to use conquering.

Again, it’s all about the long game in Crusader Kings 3. 

Playing toward that, there are also special “legacy” upgrades you can earn from particularly impressive feats and having a world-renowned family. These legacy upgrades affect every single member of your dynasty across the game. If you aren’t in good standing with your family down the line, some of the more devious members may come back to bite you using the very upgrades you unlocked for them!

Take Me to Church

Another system getting a major overhaul in CK3 is the religion system, now dubbed the Faith system. As of right now, there are 99 different faiths across the continents in Crusader Kings 3. One of the developers joked that they will try to add one more, just to get it to an even 100, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Faiths have all sorts of systems attached to them  tenets and doctrines that change the way your government operates. They also have “fervor” attached to them, making larger, more cumbersome faiths harder to maintain and more likely to incite heresy. This gives smaller faiths a way to maintain some power and identity, even as larger faiths spread across the globe.

The faith system is yet another way the developers of CK3 want to give power to the players. You can even set up your own religions. If you don’t like a particular doctrine of the faith, you can name your own religion, assign traits to it before recruiting others into it. Just know that you’ll most likely make enemies of your old faith.

You can probably expect to see a “Holy Crusade against the Church of Fart Ass” if you don’t think things through before breaking off.

Easier to Handle

If it sounds like there’s a lot going on in Crusader Kings 3, that’s because there is. All of these systems are layered on top of several other systems, making for an intimidating prospect for new players. Luckily, this difficulty is also at the forefront of the game’s design. The developers want to be extremely conscious of not overwhelming players and making information easily accessible. 

One of the new systems at play is the fantastic “Issues” widget at the top of the screen. There were similar things in CK2, but the Issues section gathers pertinent information into one convenient place. It also gives you suggestions based on your strengths and current placement in the world.

In an early playthrough as a Scandinavian ruler, the Issues section would remind me that I hadn’t sent out a raiding party in a few years. In a different game, it suggested that I fabricate a claim on weaker neighbors to enlarge my empire.

This is a wonderful addition for beginners and experts alike. You can quickly dismiss or turn off these suggestions, but it’s great to get a push in the right direction when you’re still getting your sea legs beneath you. This section also compiles the usual Crusader Kings popups in one convenient place  “Assign a guardian,” “Get married,” “There’s a plot to murder you!”. 

Another welcome addition is the way tool tips are handled. In CK2, if you hovered over your monthly income, for example, you would be bombarded by information. If you already did not understand where your money was coming from, such a system was unlikely to fix that.

Now, hovering the cursor over something will bring up a small amount of info. Often, items inside will show up in bold. Move into the tool tip and hover over the bold options and a new tool tip will appear. You can seemingly fall down the rabbit hole with these tool tips, going as deep into the information as you want, but you’re always doing it at your own pace.

It sounds like a tiny thing, but it’s extremely helpful in learning how the systems all play with one another in Crusader Kings 3.

A New Chapter

We only got a short demonstration and a few days to tinker with a preview build of Crusader Kings 3, so we only scratched the surface of what to expect from the strategy game. However, it looks like this entry already addresses many of the issues players had (and still have) with Crusader Kings 2. 

In that way, CK3 should be able to distinguish itself from other grand strategy games with its focus on RPG elements and the “medieval soap opera” aspects that it’s so good at putting forth. There is a lot more available out of the box, too, so hopefully, CK3’s eventual DLC will be more manageable than its predecessor’s. 

You’ll be able to take over the world when Crusader Kings 3 releases on September 1, 2020. It will launch simultaneously on Windows and Mac and is available for preorder now.

If you’ve always wanted to try out Crusader Kings but never pulled the trigger, CK3 is shaping up to be a great option for newbies and experts alike. We’ll have more on the game as its release approaches, and we’ll definitely have a full review as soon as we can. Check back often, and start scheming now!

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Jordan Baranowski
Jordan has been gaming and geeking since he was a wee lad. He is a freelance writer and content creator, contributing to AMC Theatres, SVG, Looper, and Feast Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter for article updates and Instagram for (mostly) pictures of food and animals.