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Crusader Kings III Keeps Killing Everyone I Love

Crusader Kings III

Legends of the Dead is a big new Crusader Kings III expansion that was released earlier this week. I have been playing it a lot.

While it dabbles in a few smaller tweaks and additions, the expansion is focused on two main things, both in the name. The first is a new system called "Legends", which are stories--maybe based around your actions, maybe just myths, maybe a little of both--that can be spread throughout your lands and beyond, unlocking special buildings and cementing the legacy of not just the ruler who started the legend, but everyone in their dynasty to follow.

Playing as the King of England I could, quite early on, just link myself to the legend of Arthur Pendragon. So of course I did, why wouldn't I? This legend, and my part in it, was soon being spread across Europe, with my descendants later basking in the glory of my (fabricated) achievements. It was pretty cool! I then, uh, proceeded to not touch the Legends system again, because for all its novelty, it was also a bit of faff (one too many layers of boring management), and I would not have much time for faff given what was about to come.

It's very funny thinking of all those Normans and Dutch peasants getting super into the legend of King Arthur, all because I paid the king of France 120 gold to help spread the story

See, I was a LOT more interested in the other half of the expansion's title. Legends of the Dead also introduces plagues, pestilences and pandemics to the game, going way past the old sickness models and presenting the spread of viruses and disease in much the same way the game portrays religion and culture: something that oozes across the map upending everything it comes into contact with. Legends and their ability to add some flourishes to a rule? That frilly stuff is not normally my thing. Drastic shit that changes the very foundations of the world I'm trying to shape? Now that is what I am here for.

For reference, some of my favourite Crusader Kings events of the past decade (across both CK2 and CK3) have involved stuff like Mongol invasions and their fictional counterpart, the Aztec conquest of the West. Jihads, Crusades, the collapse of great empires, anything that flips whatever table the game had been sitting on until that point and causes complete chaos–give it to me. Legends of the Dead sits right alongside those examples because, aside from the constant management involved in containing (or not containing) smaller outbreaks of measles and boils and dancing fever, once per playthrough you can trigger the big one: The Black Death. And it's hell.

All plagues in the game, big and small, work roughly the same. They start somewhere then spread across the map, and as they burn through population groups--smaller outbreaks might only affect a country or two; others might span half a continent--stuff happens. People will get sick and die, of course, but you the player are also presented with loads of choices surrounding the management of plagues, giving you some sense of control over how your realm is able to adapt to and deal with them.

The game's smaller plagues seem to be coming and going all the time, and I found the constant barrage of notifications involved in managing them to get pretty damn annoying pretty damn fast. Like, I'm trying to run a kingdom here, and that involves me making decisions about war, politics, sex, cats, taxes, Popes, the works. I don't want to spend what feels like 40% of my time managing the same plague pop-ups over and over again.

One thing these smaller outbreaks are good for, though, is preparing you for the Black Death by putting it in context. Once per game--you can have it occur in its actual historical timeframe, but I set it to pop up randomly to keep me on my toes--the Bubonic Plague comes to town. When it arrives, you know it's different. It doesn't just appear like the other maladies. You first hear about it through whispers from afar, like the world's bleakest viral marketing campaign, before an ominous splash screen announces its arrival. Then...everything goes to shit.

When this screen shows up, you're in for a bad time

The little plagues get you cocky. Comfortable. They might kill 100 people and result in you losing a flock of sheep and a doctor or two. You might need to spend a few coins afterwards to fill some gaps in the labour market. When the Black Death hits, it hits. One of the real long-term joys of Crusader Kings III is the scale it's able to simultaneously operate at; at one end it's a deeply personal experience, built atop relationships between the player and those closest to them, while at the other end it's also a global grand strategy game where everyone from China to Ireland is connected on the same big map.

The Black Death smashes you at both ends. The world is devastated by it. Your people die in their thousands, bodies piling up in the streets, and it's impossible to do much of anything else while it's raging. And this carnage is taking place everywhere. Every death is marked, at home and abroad, and the whole thing generates a feeling of real global crisis that makes it almost educational.

Once the Black Death hits its stride, nowhere is safe (well, parts of the Holy Roman Empire were safe when I took this screenshot, but they all got it soon enough)

It's just as turbulent at the personal level, because it doesn't discriminate between statistics (your subjects) and people (characters in the game with names and faces and personality traits). As the Black Death spread I lost council members. Vassals. Friends, allies and loved ones. All six of my children got it, from my heir on down, and they all died.

Not even the player's character is immune. While the game includes some protections for the elite--you can isolate both your capital and yourself--it can't offer total immunity, and so at the height of the Black Death, with my family dead and my realm in ruins even King Roger The Handsome himself, the paragon of virtue I had spent decades shaping into England's greatest ever monarch, succumbed. With his entire line wiped out, the rule of England passed to some distant relatives who had been holed up in the Italian countryside for 100 years.

As bleak as that all sounds, I loved every moment of it. Crusader Kings is at its heart a game about endless little decisions; you're always tinkering with something, always poking at the numbers in important relationships, maybe fighting a war or two, settling disputes between vassals. It leads to a situation where you feel like you're in complete control, that everything around you can be bent to your will so long as you're good enough at bending.

So huge, climactic events that upend everything you've worked so hard on are always, paradoxically, my favourites. Having everything go swimmingly is the goal, sure, but it's also ultimately boring. It's a lot more fun when a game lets you build plans then burns them to the ground, forcing me to make new plans in a world totally different to the one I thought I just knew.

Legends of the Dead--or at least the Dead part of the title--really plays into this. It might sound infuriating that something totally outside of your control can just happen, completely wrecking your shit, but that's Crusader Kings, baby. It's not a game about winning. The joy here is the journey, its ups and downs, the more tumultuous the better. And what can be more upsetting to your carefully-laid plans than a plague that kills millions of people, including you and everyone close to you?

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