As I sit perched atop my throne and welcome another throng of unwashed petitioners to track mud across my brand-new Persian carpet, surely bringing with them all manner of trivial frustrations to waste my time, one thought sits at the front of my mind: where has this been all my life? Royal Court is the first major expansion for Crusader Kings 3, and between a full 3D throne room that puts you in the world, to the return of the inventory system from Crusader Kings 2, to wonderfully customizable cultures, everything feels like it was meant to be here all along.
While the base game of Crusader Kings 3 was already a masterpiece, it’s remarkable how incomplete it would feel to go back to it after playing Royal Court. Some recent expansions to Paradox’s older games, like Europa Universalis IV, have seemed like the devs are just looking for stuff to do at this point. But not Royal Court, which is full of new features which add more personal involvement and an empowering level of control over how your society functions. It’s a bit painful that you can’t access most of it when playing as a duke or a tribal ruler, which had previously been two of my favorite types of characters and seem like a perfect fit for the kind of intimate, less expansion-focused playstyle having your own court allows. But the intrigue and excitement of the court itself are too good to pass up.
Paradox games have been jokingly called “map-staring games” because of the amount of time you spend gazing at your empire from miles in the sky, so this zoomed-in view of a single room is a big departure: leaders that rank as kings and above of feudal and clan societies now preside over a full 3D court that takes one of four distinct styles, depending on what region you’re playing in. The somewhat Spartan but cozy Western European, airy and bright Mediterranean, lavish Middle Eastern, or ornate Indian aesthetics all look fantastic. The level of detail on the architecture and textures is impressive, though moving between camera angles still chugs even on my fairly beefy PC, and there are no dynamic shadows for characters, which seems a little odd in 2022. Still, it’s up there with Stellaris‘ epic space battles for the most visually impressive a Paradox game has ever been.
Maintaining a court means keeping up with grandeur, a new stat representing how absolutely lit life at your court is. Hiring flavorful and period-appropriate new positions like a Court Poet or increasing your spending on servants and fashion raise grandeur, and it’s not all just for bragging rights. The bigger your realm is, the more grandeur you’re expected to have, with penalties to your prestige if you fall behind. This serves as a smart check on very large empires, since having to balance the court budget against your army and infrastructure soaks up enough excess resources to help with some of CK3’s late-game snowballing problems.
Hearing petitions and making decisions, like which town to favor in a bitter rivalry between two mayors, adds a lot of new and welcome story generation. It’s especially nice during moments when you don’t have any wars or backroom schemes going on, and breaks up long periods of waiting for a claim to be fabricated or anything else that could previously slow a campaign down. My biggest critique is that hearing petitions always locks you into a camera angle looking down on the proceedings from on high, which feels too static and doesn’t let me look my subjects in the eye when I tell them, “This sounds like a you problem.” But it’s great to feel like I’m making a difference in the lives of the average people living in my kingdom nonetheless.
Just having a physical place in the world my characters can hang out in leans into the RPG aspects of Crusader Kings 3 – which is where it really shines. And bringing back the inventory system, first introduced in Crusader Kings 2’s Monks and Mystics expansion, delightfully furthers the sense that I’m playing a character and not an abstract idea of a country. Forging a family weapon that I can hand down for a dozen generations creates a strong sense of continuity across a playthrough that can take hundreds of years and put you in the shoes of a dozen different monarchs. It’s purely awesome to take your late-medieval empire to war with a spear that’s been in your family since the Viking Age.
Crusader Kings 3: Royal Court Screenshots
Royal Court introduces new and rewarding ways to leave your mark on the map, too. CK3 launched with an excellent custom religion system that allowed you to create your own heresy, selecting everything from the bonuses it gives practitioners to its teachings on, for example, homosexuality or witchcraft. Now, we can do the same thing with our entire culture as well. As the head of an existing culture you can swap out or add pillars, from adopting Roman-style standing armies to becoming horse nomads who completely ignore attrition on the windswept steppes. If you’re not the culture head you can choose to diverge from your parent culture, and if you have more than one prominent culture in your realm you can create a hybrid culture of the two. It always felt disappointing before when I would lead my viking armies to conquer part of India, but I couldn’t combine aspects of both the conquerors and the conquered, as often happened in actual history. Now I can!
And if I’m not feeling like going on some grand outing to found new kingdoms and give rise to new cultures, I can pay someone else to do it for me. Inspired characters now show up at court to ask for funding to go on thrilling adventures to far-flung corners of the world, and these kick off some of my favorite event chains in all of CK3. As they evaded bandits, hunted wild beasts, and discovered legendary relics, I looked forward to every thrilling dispatch from my adventurers. One of them even brought me back Excalibur! I mean, it might not be the Excalibur, but anyone who says otherwise is going into the dungeon.