Crusader Kings III just released on PC to rave reviews as a game focused on letting players mold the historical stage of the Middle Ages to their liking. This new addition to the grand strategy franchise from Paradox Interactive, while incredibly nuanced in its execution, exhibits a love for the past not often seen in the larger video game sphere.
In the days before launch, Newsweek spoke with Game Director Henrik Fåhraeus and Lead Game Designer Alexander Oltner to discuss just what it takes to build a world that is both accurate and adaptable to player choice.
Unsurprisingly, a love for primary sources is paramount.
“The culture here is really history-heavy,” Oltner admitted. “Let’s just say that when you’re surrounding yourself with people who love history, it reinforces your own love for history.”
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And so, with two previous Crusader Kings games under their belt, the template for Crusader Kings III was firmly set. “It’s about ruthless characters and they’re interesting interactions with each other down the centuries as you protect the interests of your family and your bloodline,” Fåhraeus described, with Oltner adding that “there are tens of thousands of independent actors pursuing this drama with you in a living world.” In that sense, the story of CK3 is one that exemplifies wider political ambitions and personal touches alike.
In the mind of Fåhraeus, the larger vision of Crusader Kings III encapsulates an air of bendable believability. “We want, of course, to maintain a feeling of plausibility that maybe this could’ve happened in reality, but you can take it pretty far,” he assured. “And we also think that it’s very important that you can shape the world to your liking, which is one of the design pillars of CK3 compared to the previous game, Crusader Kings II.” Which, while the latest installment features true-to-life start dates in 867 and 1066, offers increased customization that allows would-be leaders to completely design their own religions and much more.
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In making these features a reality, however, Oltner made it clear there are sometimes battles between accuracy and enjoyability. “When we have to make a tough decision about making something very historical or fun, we usually err on the side of trying to make it more fun and interesting for the player,” Olter said.
This gameplay-favored design choice is perhaps best exemplified by the existence of a single Cultural Head that embodies the entire complex cultural landscape of your dynasty. “In the game we have the concept of a Cultural Head, which is vaguely inspired by real historical kings inspiring the common folk to adapt to certain ideas. But we give them a more tangible role in the technological progress and innovation progress in the game,” the designer described.
But, Oltner insists there’s still some grounding to keep the gameplay authentic “A real historical example of this would be the royal family of France. When they wanted the peasantry to start eating potatoes, for example, they started doing it and then all the peasants wanted to do it as well.”
More nuanced still is managing the concept of legends in a Middle Ages timeline in which so much remains unknown. In this case, Oltner and his team felt a little more free to experiment by favoring “cool stories” instead.
“An example of this is when I did research for historical rulers for Tibet back in CK2, and there was an area of Tibet that was only briefly described in one story about the conqueror of Tibet going there and defeating a warrior princess,” Oltner recalled. “So in CK2 we decided alright let’s put a powerful princess-led realm there and make it just weak enough to be defeated by this conqueror but strong enough to potentially be put into a saga saying it was a worthy foe.”
And yet, the developers also weren’t shy about taking some inspiration from fantastical dramas like Game of Thrones, too. Just like in the world of the Starks and Lannisters, Crusader Kings III takes place in a time period when, as Fåhraeus puts it, “your dynasty is super important even if they are not loyal. Even if they’re complete bastards you tend to stick up for them because you’ll be playing these characters for centuries.”
Above all, it’s the goal of the team at Paradox to balance sources real, legendary and dramatic in ways that are fun, gameplay-first and absolutely believable.
History in a New Age
With this goal in mind, there’s no denying that Crusader Kings III still manages to keep its eye firmly trained on truth if the facts are there to suggest it. Beyond giving players a multitude of new ways to shape their realms, Oltner sees plenty of top-down historical influence in the map players use to interact with their land.
In a bid designed to “strengthen history,” Oltner and his team “increased the granularity of the map itself and tried to connect the various pieces that we present on the map together in a more cohesive way. You see the interactions between various places in a more visible way,” he said. “And if anything teaches history, I think it’s showing the interconnectivity of the world.”
In Crusader Kings III specifically, those underpinnings are more real and personal than ever before. With features like Vassal Contracts, it’s possible to set different rules and obligations for the Vassals in your realm, mirroring the individual agreements that would have taken place at that time. Features like these help CK3 feel far more genuine than its predecessors.
“The first thing you really feel is just how important personal relationships are with every other character that’s near you, just how present they are in everything you do,” described Oltner of the game’s design philosophy. “Which is something I feel in CK3 that I never really felt in CK2. Sure, they were there, but they didn’t matter that much. They just did what they were supposed to. And here they are more alive, energetic, exciting and they want things from you.”
But, for all the strides designed to make the third entry more grounded and personal, Fåhraeus admits there are still some accuracy flaws with regard to governments in the Muslim world. “Our interpretation of the Muslim world and how government works there, for example, is kind of shoehorned into a feudal system, and we are aware that it didn’t really work that way,” he said, acknowledging that rulers in those areas were appointed for shorter cycles. “Because at some point if you go too far with it, you’re developing two games,” Oltner said with a laugh.
An Eye on the Future
And making multiple games isn’t exactly preferred for the studio that released six years worth of expansions for Crusader Kings II and plans to do something similar with its successor. Both Fåhraeus and Oltner remained tight-lipped on specifics, but it was Fåhraeus who hinted that he’d like to add a new feature fans have requested for a while. “One thing I would like to see in the game at some point is naval combat,” he mused. “A lot of people have brought it up over the years, and at some point we’re probably going to tackle that beast.”
Until that day comes, however, Fåhraeus and his colleagues at Paradox are happy to bask in the joys of two things they love: history and video games. “By now I’ve learned things I never would have expected to know in my life, and that’s awesome.”
Crusader Kings III is available now on PC via Steam and Xbox Game Pass.
Do you think Crusader Kings III is a fair representation of medieval history? What would you like to see in a future expansion? Tell us in the comments section!