The sprawling CK3 is our Best Strategy of 2020. We’ll be updating our GOTY 2020 hub with new awards and personal picks throughout December.
Fraser Brown: Crusader Kings III is this year’s best strategy game, but it’s also one of the greatest RPGs and sandboxy sims around as well. On the surface, it’s not much of a departure from its predecessor, but this is a game with astounding ambition that couldn’t have happened without eight years of Crusader Kings II. It refines and reconfigures so much that, while at a glance it’s familiar, it’s far from a repeat.
It’s been made knowing that the audience for this sort of thing is surprisingly large and broad, something Paradox probably wasn’t that sure of last time, and that means it’s also the studio’s most accessible grand strategy behemoth. It remains endlessly complex, but the abundance of nested tooltips and all the different ways it guides you, subtly and overtly, makes it a lot more palatable, even if it’s still a bit on the intimidating side.
Let it get its hooks in you and you’ll have something that will keep you engaged for the foreseeable future. If you fancy a quiet life managing some small holdings in West Africa, you can take that break, or you take some Vikings to Asia, start a generations-spanning war and establish a controversial new religion where you eat people. Whether you dream big or small, it’s really about the members of your court. Jealous knights, torture-obsessed spouses, kids who keep getting lost in the woods and eaten by bears—you’ll have to keep your eye on them all. They’re maddening and wonderful and I’m really sorry I keep assassinating them.
Rick Lane: I knew I would love Crusader Kings III when I discovered that, hidden within the game’s labyrinth of dynasties, is a House Lane. With the motto of “We Choose Violence”, House Lane comprises a single woman named Debbie who is both a lunatic and a nymphomaniac. Ascribed to no court and with no other family, she exists as an island in the game’s aristocratic ocean.
Once I learned this, I knew I had to elevate House Lane from a horny madwoman living as a hermit into a global medieval power. Self-imposed mission accepted, I married Debbie off to an Irish Duke under a matrilineal marriage, gave her offspring land of their own, then switched over to her eldest son when he came of age. Now King Brian Lane rules all of Ireland, which extends across the Irish Sea, engulfing large parts of Scotland and Northern England (or, as it’s known in my 1066, the Danelaw).
This is the beauty of Crusader Kings III. It lets you spin your own narrative tangent through its immensely detailed medieval world, coming up with ridiculous ‘What if’ scenarios and watching the consequences ripple across hundreds of years of history. A game that lets you become Pope is interesting enough. A game that lets you fuck, marry, kill and eat the Pope is something else entirely.
Robin: Heading into Crusader Kings III, I worried that it was too safe a sequel—too iterative, not bold enough. What I wasn’t seeing was how much seemingly small changes could revitalise the experience.
Take the portraits. The switch from 2D to 3D representations of characters seemed like no big deal to me in previews, a purely cosmetic change that wouldn’t enhance the core experience. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The more detailed, more animated portraits invest a huge amount of personality and life to every backstabber, sycophant, and weirdo in your court, pulling you more deeply than ever into the human drama of its medieval politics.
Smartly, Paradox realised that drama was the real gold they’d struck in CKII—the magic was never in the strategy of waging war or the details of managing your holdings, but in the opportunity to fully inhabit a medieval ruler and live out their strange and eventful lives. Crusader Kings III leans into that all the more in a thousand different ways that add up to an even more immersive and compelling experience. As Fraser says, it wears the trappings of historical strategy, but it’s actually the year’s best role-playing game—a huge, reactive sandbox in which to weave your own stories of honour, love, death, and betrayal.
And the best part is, this is only the beginning. The best Paradox games are as much a foundation for the future as a complete game in their own right, ripe for years of support through DLC and free updates. I can’t wait to watch CKIII get even richer and more expansive in 2021 and beyond.