The Crusader Kings games are titans of PC gaming. These grand strategy role-playing games task players with guiding a dynasty of rulers down through the ages through diplomacy, statecraft, the manipulation of the weird legal system of the Middle Ages, and a little bit of backstabbing and intrigue. It’s complicated and baroque, with dozens of fiddly subsystems, and takes hours to learn.
It is perhaps surprising that Crusader Kings 3, the newest entry in the series that launched on Windows PC in 2020, is coming to consoles — PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X — on March 29.
I have to admit that my first thoughts about playing this game on console was an absolute, unvarnished skepticism that this would be a good use of anyone’s time. Crusader Kings 3 offers a playable map that extends across a significant portion of Asia, a large chunk of Africa, and all of Europe. Due to its agent-focused gameplay, where each little person in the world’s desires and actions are being simulated and acted out constantly, it is regularly pulling a player’s focus across wide spans of space in microscopic detail. Sometimes it really matters what some peasant lord across the continent thinks about your heir, and my initial thought was that there would be exactly zero way this would translate to the TV, couch, and controller setup that console gaming is all about.
I was more wrong than I thought I would be. Put simply, Crusader Kings 3 on a console not only works, but it is playable and enjoyable. Stunned silence is appropriate.
It is clear that the developers of the console versions of Crusader Kings 3 had to introduce some key features to make this notoriously detailed game workable with a controller. The vast majority of decisions are made in contextual menus that, when clicked with an analog-controller cursor, open up more contextual menus. Sometimes I would have a shockingly dense amount of visual information on the screen, and I am not sure how someone who does not have 500-ish hours into Crusader Kings would take that tidal wave of words and images.
This granularity of what you can see on the screen is a key to these games, but it is obviously a problem in a practical sense. The contextual menus for actions work well most of the time, meaning that if you can select a character on the screen you can generally see all the possible interactions you can have with them in one fell swoop. A couple button presses let you know whether or not you can murder, kidnap, marry, seduce, or declare war on another character, and that list gets longer and more broad as the game goes on and certain player character traits unlock other actions. This all works as well as it could.
This does mean, however, that the flow of a game of Crusader Kings 3 on console is quite a bit different than one on PC. Without the use of a mouse, player actions are extremely deliberate, and I often had to make my way around a few menus to actually remember how to access the thing I wanted to see. For me, Crusader Kings 3 on console turned far more into a turn-based game than it ever is on PC. Every action I took was accompanied by pausing the game, checking some relevant info, making the typical decisions that make up a fun session of the game, and then resuming the game. While I had to do this during the most action-packed parts of intrigue or warfare on PC, it was a basic requirement of just navigating while playing on my Xbox Series X.
Another critical transformation in the game is simply giving up some control. The console version of the game contains all of the same information and systems as the PC version, but my capacity to really evaluate it all and make fully informed decisions degraded as the sheer number of game actions I took increased. I simply got tired of having to hold so much in my head at one time.
The developers obviously recognize this and have implemented systems to alleviate it. The ability to automate armies when in warfare works well, although they do not seem to win wars as decisively or aggressively as I would have wanted. There is a new bar of information at the bottom of the screen that shows schemes, plots, and basically anything with a counter on it, meaning that there is now a way for players to keep track of all of the irons they have in the fire. Additionally, the alerts and notifications from the PC version remain, but I found myself relying on them and their suggestions much more than I would have in the PC version, given that I just did not want to scroll halfway around the world to decide who was going to marry my daughter.
I was worried about performance on console, given that playing Crusader Kings 3 on my PC causes it to sound like it is going to take off into orbit, but everything worked well without any slowdown. I did encounter a few bugs, like certain options not being selectable for no discernible reason or the simulation giving me the wrong names in certain situations (my heir marrying himself, for instance, happened more than once). I feel confident that these can be ironed out.
I do not think that a console and a controller is the optimal way to play Crusader Kings 3. I think that the PC version is more enjoyable and that a mouse interface gives a player the best way to engage with this game as it is designed. But if you really want to play it on console, or you really want to check it out and this is your only way to play it, then it is a totally fun experience that captures the essence of the franchise. You lose some of the jagged edges, and I found it harder to keep my dynasty’s “storyline” in my head as I worked through the mass amount of interface commands, but it still produces those magic moments in the way that Crusader Kings always has. Now a whole new group of players will get to experience the joy of your own brother taking your kingdom and vassalizing you.