Crusader Kings III Double Take

Mollie L Patterson
Last week, Michael and I got to go hands-on with a preview build of the upcoming Xbox version of Paradox Interactive’s Crusader Kings III, which marks the first time the series will have seen release on consoles. We both came at the game from very different perspectives, which I want to clarify before we talk about what we experienced when playing.

For me, that series wasn’t ever really on my radar until (I believe it was) last summer, when Crusader Kings III was featured as part of an Xbox showcase. Ever since I first played its games back in the 8- and 16-bit days, I’ve loved Koei’s historical sims, especially the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition franchises. So, seeing that trailer for CKIII, it seemed like it might be a different take on those same kinds of ideas, but with a more expanded look into the lives of the people ruling the land. As someone who’s always been a console-focused player, the idea of the series finally coming to a platform I can play it on only helped to get me interested. And thus, knowing absolutely nothing about what I was getting myself into, I dove head-first into the game once we got preview code for the Xbox version.

How about you?

Michael Goroff
I played the PC version obsessively for a couple of months back in 2020. I never really got into historical sims or even real-time strategy games, but a friend of mine who loves those kinds of games told me to check out Crusader Kings after I built my PC, and since it was on Game Pass, I had nothing to lose. Crusader Kings III was like nothing I’d ever played before; I quickly got hooked and would lose hours at a time playing it. It actually ended up on my top 5 list for 2020. I really love this game, so I was really interested in what it would play like with a controller.

I’m curious to hear what you thought about the game, since you hadn’t played it before. Was it what you were expecting?

Well, so, I don’t know if it’s something that’s come as I’ve gotten older, or was an element to my personality that’s always been there, but I have a love for setting up complex human relationships and then watching with glee as they start to crumble. Whenever I play The Sims, I try to make things turn as chaotic as possible, and in asking around about the Crusader Kings games, it sounded like there was a lot of drama that players could get their rulers into. One of the things Koei’s historical sims often lacked was that deeper human element, as more of the focus was on leading the country in terms of stats and numbers. So, my hope was that plus wacky royalty hijinks.

What I thought about the game is—well, a bit complicated, because of a very early factor of Crusader Kings III. But, before I get into that, since you already went into the game knowing what awaited, what was it that sucked you in initially on PC, more specifically?

The first thing that really sucked me in was the fact that I’d never played anything like it. I’ve briefly dabbled in the Civilization series and would watch friends play stuff like Total War, but I’d never personally experienced a strategy game like Crusader Kings III. So I think the novelty, coupled with my interest in this period of history, was what initially hooked me.

But as I dug into it more, I thought all of the different systems blended together really well, and the consequences of actions I took would often surprise me. I really liked the “intrigue” aspect of it, where you could set up schemes, and I got really obsessed with marrying off my kids to form alliances, as weird as that might sound. I just really liked that I was playing a strategy game that was all about interpersonal relationships and the ways that the developer turned these historical methods of people using them to gain power into a game.

That’s exactly the kind of game that I wanted—but I’m still not sure if it’s the game I got or not.

In terms of actual impressions on the Xbox Series X/S version of Crusader Kings III, you’re going to be way more valuable than I’ll be, because I spent a huge chunk of my playtime not really being sure what I was doing. If this was a case of me just buying the game and putting time into it here or there, I know I’d get the hang of everything better. But in trying to really get a good grasp on CKIII in the course of a week, I came to feel like the game’s tutorial is absolutely terrible at getting a new player like me into the swing of things.

That’s not to say that tutorial isn’t valuable—it is. But the huge amount of information it has to offer is just dumped onto you in one long string of text boxes and very brief player interaction, and that’s not how you teach someone how to play in a game like this. By the end of the tutorial, I was trying to retain so much information that it just felt like overload. What was that thing about character traits? How did I handle wars? What was I supposed to focus on first?

I really wish Paradox had given us a tutorial that worked in steps. Go through the character stuff first. Then, drop us into the territory. Give us one simple task, and then just let us play, and try accomplishing that task, and getting a good feel for what we were doing. Don’t have the game paused like the tutorial currently does, but have it running only with that one thing to do, and no threat from other rulers. Once we get the hang of that, give us a section thing to learn, and let us play again. Build up the gameplay pieces slowly, at the pace of the player, so that we understand everything we’re doing. That’s what I want from a tutorial in a game like this, not just screen after screen of text as if I’m cramming for a final or something.

And I know some people will say “well, you can always pause the tutorial and do that,” but it never felt like I was meant to. I want a tutorial that is built around the idea of slowly ramping up what it tells you, not one where you can kinda-sorta make it work that way.

As someone who was jumping back into the game after having not played it for a while, the tutorial was exactly what I wanted: a quick refresher course and an introduction to the buttons. For me, I was able to pick everything up pretty easily, but I can also see how someone completely new to the game might be really overwhelmed. Like, one of the most important things you can do early on is build holdings to raise your tax revenue, but that seems underemphasized in the tutorial.

The tutorial also only focuses on one kind of ruler in an Irish petty king that’s aligned with the Catholic church, but there are so many other characters you can start with. So, I feel like having a more in-depth series of tutorials like you prescribe would also allow Paradox to introduce different religions, cultures, and even the level of power that different rulers can have. There are certain cultures that even I find intimidating to play as, because their succession rules and the kinds of actions they can take are so different from the kind of ruler that the tutorial uses to teach you the game.

Obviously we didn’t have that much time with the game, but were you eventually able to get a handle on it? And I don’t just mean conceptually, but even at a mechanical level, with the controller setup?

No. But kinda yes? Like, I did a number of things. I built up some areas of my land. I got into some fights. I found a bride for my brother. I had another child. I hired a doctor. I was doing a lot of random things, but it wasn’t always clear to me what direction I should be going in, or what I should be focusing on. I think, in Koei’s stuff, that was simpler for me to comprehend quicker. Our country needs rice, because rice feeds soldiers, and soldiers help us keep our territory or gain new. Got it. Manage the basics of the country, and the rest will follow.

I want to be clear, though: I’m not trying to be negative about Crusader Kings III as an experience itself. It feels like there’s a lot to the game, and one of the things you mentioned, the diversity in territories and their people, was an awesome surprise to me. I went in expecting the game to be very Euro-focused, so the huge section of the world that you can access and play in kind of blew my mind.

My complaint is really in how it isn’t easy to come into all of that as a new player, and I think that’s going to be an important element for a lot of people. Being a console player doesn’t mean I don’t understand these kinds of sim games, but I don’t yet fully understand this particular one—and there’s going to be a lot of people like me out there coming to Crusader Kings for the first time. I want those people to know and understand that it might be a really steep hill to climb at first, and to be prepared for that. I thought maybe my knowledge of Koei’s games might transfer over, but it really didn’t, and that might have set me off balance even more.  I think both players and Paradox are going to need to be ready for there to be a lot of overwhelmed people at first, and I’d like to see better official resources for easing us into what awaits. I think a risk is being taken by finally bringing the franchise to consoles, and I just hope the game doesn’t fail to find an audience because of players giving up early.

Of course, there is the other challenge some players will face: getting used to playing Crusader Kings III with a controller. Coming to the experience totally new, I had almost no complaints about how the controls worked. If something wasn’t as intuitive as on PC, I wouldn’t know that, and how the flow of either opening or closing menus worked typically made perfect sense to me. In the same way that I never felt at a disadvantage playing Microsoft Flight Simulator on a controller as a console person, I never felt at a disadvantage here either.

But for you, coming over from the all-mighty pairing of a keyboard and mouse, how was that transition?

At first, it was incredibly rough. Crusader Kings III is such a menu-heavy game that I had a really hard time navigating everything with a controller. On PC, you can just left click or right click on the different menus and press the spacebar to pause the game, and you’re pretty much good to go. Playing with a controller, on the other hand, kind of felt like learning a foreign language; I knew what I wanted to do and vaguely how to do it, but I kept tripping myself up and performing actions that I didn’t mean to. Luckily, you can pause time whenever you want, but I felt myself pausing a lot more than I usually do.

That being said, it might have taken a few hours, but I eventually got to the point where playing with a controller didn’t feel completely frustrating. And once I got more used to it and got over my general bias of playing these kinds of games with a controller, I was able to see that Paradox actually did a good job with how it’s laid out the control scheme, and I think they do a phenomenal job teaching the controls in the tutorial, at least. There were a couple of things that need some tweaking—like not being able to just scroll over a ruler’s claims to see what they could potentially call dibs on—but I was actually pleasantly surprised, once I got over the initial learning curve.

I also think that the changes they made to make the game slightly more accessible to console players were great, too. Namely, being able to set your armies to automatic instead of having to manually control them was like the best quality of life improvement I could have asked for.

I know this is a question bigger than Crusader Kings III, but is the game a good example to show why keyboard and mouse needs to be better supported on consoles, or would pushing for that control scheme more just allow devs to not put as much effort into making their games work on controllers? I certainly don’t have experience with CKIII on PC, but from watching the livestream with the dev team, as you pointed out, it does seem like they did come up with some nice controller-specific solutions—which maybe they wouldn’t feel compelled to do if they could just recommend you hook up a keyboard and mouse.

I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive options. You can have better KBM support on console while also giving players a considered controller option. I think the industry is getting there, but it’s still such a touchy subject. In this case, I think they’d want to make the game work on a controller, even if they had the option, but that’s something I hadn’t considered.

What I think is really interesting about this release is that it shows just how much the gap between PC and consoles has shrunk over the years. I think we’re starting to see way more games that would never have made it to console a few years ago come to PlayStation and Xbox (the fact that a hardcore shooter like Hell Let Loose is on console and doing pretty well boggles the mind), and that’s very exciting to me.

My question for you is, do you think there’s an audience for games like Crusader Kings III on console?

I do, absolutely. I’ve always hated the notion that we console-focused gamers weren’t ready for or couldn’t handle this type of stuff—or that we never wanted it in the first place. It’s obviously not the same genre, but it’s funny that the game considered to be one of the foundations of the real-time strategy genre, Herzog Zwei, was a console game. And as I mentioned, more expansive strategy games like Crusader Kings III existed all the way back on the NES in Koei’s games and other releases. The interest, and the player base, has always been there—I think it’s just been, in part, a concern over control options as these games have gotten more complex and menu-driven on the PC side.

Which is why that conversation we just had is so important. Sure, playing controller-only here might not be perfect, but it’s totally workable, and shows that there was no real reason the series couldn’t have come over sooner.

We are (almost) always going to lose one factor of the experience in that move, though, which is the mod support. And I think, of anything, that might be the make-or-break for “traditional PC” games coming to consoles. I’m a little sore on there being no way to mod Crusader Kings III on consoles, because it means I lose out on what seem to be some interesting customization options for the game. In the grand scheme of things, though, that doesn’t break my interest in the franchise being on platforms beyond PC, where it does with something like The Sims, which I find near worthless in its console form due to losing out on mods.

All that aside, I’m really glad Crusader Kings III is coming to Xbox Series X/S and PlayStation 5, even if I never fully get the hang of it or appreciate it on the level that you do. For the same reasons that I’m glad more console-exclusive games are now seeing PC ports. I want people to be able to play games their way, under their terms, on their preferred platforms. Console players are ready to get more games like this, because we’ve always been ready. Stop saying that particular experiences are “PC games” or “console games” and just acknowledge them for what they are: video games.

Crusader Kings III is set for release on PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X/S on March 29th.

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