Total War: Three Kingdoms is the latest instalment in Creative Assembly’s epic turn-based series of strategy games. It’s also the first major return to a historic setting since Total War Attila released in 2015 (if you exclude the light dose of Thrones of Britannia). Much of the developer’s focus in the last few years has been on the hugely successful Warhammer titles. These have featured epic fantasy lore, gargantuan monsters, powerful magics, and legendary lords. For many fans, the Warhammer titles were a breath of fresh air that the series desperately needed. For others, it was a departure from the grounded mechanisms that made the Total War series tick.

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As such, a return to a bland historic setting was always going to be fraught with peril. How do you marry the success of the fantasy titles with the simulated realism of ancient history? Well, you do both – at the same friggin time. Enter the Three Kingdoms period of China, circa 190 CE. You can play in Romance mode (epic, larger than life characters) or Records mode (historically accurate/realistic with removed features). I highly suggest Romance mode as it fits the period so much better, with specialised mechanics that complement immersion in a uniquely satisfying way.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

The ancient Han dynasty is on the verge of collapse and Dong Zhuo, half despotic warlord and half bleeding psychopath, has stolen away the child Emperor in a bid to unite China under his banner. What do you do when a child Emperor is Taken and you don’t have your own Liam Neeson? Blind panic. Across China, warlords formed alliances and rose up to challenge the tyrant. You are immediately thrust into this conflict as one of twelve starting factions. Each faction has its own roster of unique characters to use during your journey to wrest control of China from enemy warlords.

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Your starting faction leader, their family members, and associated characters can serve as powerful generals on the battlefield or as members of your government. Each has unique traits and personalities that shape the way they interact with the world and other characters in China. How does it shape the battle or campaign experience? Let’s say you’ve put two generals who hate each other together in your army or government. Soon they might develop a rivalry or outright hostility, and will start triggering debuff events for you on the map or in battle. In pre-battle loading screens, they’ll also trigger each other, instead of your enemies. Yes, that’s a thing now. Pre-battle loading screens now feature a woke diss battle between the competing warlords. It’s akin to a time saving general speech from the first Rome, but without the gravitas. Damn, I still miss those. 

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These internal conflicts (or alternatively – epic friendships) imbue campaigns and battles with an overarching narrative that really nail immersion turn after turn. You’ll feel each in-game choice as these personalities across China attempt to unravel your plans at every turn. This focus on character development in Three Kingdoms is about as immersive an experience as I’ve ever seen in a Total War game. It’s by and far the most appealing facet of the title, and it’s damn infectious. I wanted nothing more than to capture and execute Cao Cao, another faction leader in the early coalition after he incited multiple proxies against me at critical points in the game. He’s the real tyrant in this game!

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But let’s take a step back. What is the goal of this Total War game? Simple. Proclaim yourself Emperor and unite China under your banner, eliminating any other claimants to the throne. The best way to do that? As usual – a healthy dose of war, duels, and diplomacy. Then throw in a little of the new spying mechanic because who doesn’t love dismantling enemies from within?

I’m looking at you, China

The campaign map of China is unbelievably detailed and gorgeous. I dare say it has more beauty or depth than the Old World, the jungles of Lustria, and Ulthuan combined. There are natural mountainous chokepoints, deep valleys, open plains, and winding rivers to use strategically. All of these details are beautifully represented in the tiniest details (provided you have the graphics card to run the game at ultra settings).

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This is also where do you do a lot of your nation-building. Here you conquer regions, which constitute provinces. In each province, you have one city, and one to three smaller resources that can be controlled. Cities provide a variety of buildings to choose from, and each faction usually has one unique variant building that makes it a little different from other factions. Your provinces can focus on developing food (a vital resource in the game that you can even trade), economy (commerce, industry, or both), military, government, or a complete mix.

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Note that technology has been replaced with reforms, with every faction unlocking one every five turns. The tree seems to remain pretty much the same regardless of who you are playing, but different faction play styles work well with specific specialisations.

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All of the factions also have access to a new mechanic, the spying network. This is where you can send your characters to other factions in the hopes of advancing your domination of China through nefarious means. This mechanic has a wealth of depth and is worth a write up on its own. Suffice to say, you can really take factions over from within (as enemies can do to you) so it’s worth investing in spying with good (loyal) characters early. Your character could even become the heir of another faction and who knows how that could be useful down the line?

Recruitment and characters

You’ll also do a lot of army recruiting on the campaign map. Your army can stack up to three characters as generals, of which each fields a retinue of six units. In total, a single fully stacked army has three characters and 18 units. There are five different character types, each of which has unique talents to buff/debuff units or enable them to be more effective at killing. For instance, the champion is exceptionally good at duelling enemy generals, whereas the strategist is great at buffing your units but is about as useful as a My Little Pony in actual combat.

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Your characters also have access to an inventory, where you can assign them gear and other ancillaries (similar to Warhammer). These also buff your character on the campaign map or in battle. Want a weapon that buffs your stats and makes you better at killing? Just loot one off your enemy after you’ve captured and executed them. That’s a thing now, and it’s awesome. Of course, every time you kill someone you’re bound to upset another faction (or all of them) in China. It’s very much a pros versus cons decision, but it’s one I gleefully ignored for shiny loot every time.

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Units are fairly straightforward and standard fare for a historic title. You have cavalry, infantry, archers, catapults, et cetera. It’s the usual game of rock, paper, scissors with minor differences between factions. Truth be told, that’s a major running theme of the title. There’s little mechanical/stylistic difference in China per faction. It’s rather how you use unique faction resources/currency and characters that provides most of the differences you’ll experience. These are earned and utilised in different ways, and figuring how to effectively use these is imperative.

War, huh, what is it good for?

Battles are pretty much par for the course for a Total War game, if a little watered down. There aren’t as many formation/skill options for units as you’d get in Rome II or Attila, and characters don’t have a tenth of the active skills present in Warhammer. The tempo of engagements are quick, and cavalry seem more important than ever. Archers can likewise do a ton of damage very quickly, especially if they’re buffed.

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Siege battles offer numerous strategic choke points that are difficult to assault or a joy to defend (even when outnumbered). However, once you’ve figured out the AI it gets pretty easy to outmanoeuvre them in sieges and open battles. With better quality troops you can handle overwhelming numbers, but the AI will recruit better units into its armies when it can. Overall, it’s still better than Thrones of Britannia but it isn’t the deepest Total War battle experience.

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The difference? In Romance mode your characters can duel each other on the battlefield. Wait, what? Yep. Also, it works! The entire game, as set around these characters, naturally sets up these duels. When you do so in game, against a particularly pesky foe, you can’t help but watch these characters you’ve nurtured over hours and hours duel to the death.

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Other characters and your army will refrain from getting involved in the duel until its completion. This mechanic is a step up from how lords interacted with each other in Warhammer, and it’s a feature I absolutely adore in this epic romance driven period. If only this had also been available in Shogun 2…

The Art of the Deal

Ah, diplomacy. The Achilles heel of more than a few Total War titles. AI that refuses, even when on the brink of destruction, to capitulate. Or a minor faction with a ragtag army of peasants that declares war on your bristling empire, sans rhyme or reason. In Three Kingdoms the diplomacy seems a little more solid, and since its all flavoured through the lens of characters there is a lot more personality here than ever before.

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Alliances, coalitions, confederation and all manner of diplomatic options are available to you and they all seem to work (to varying degrees) fairly well moment to moment. But, try as you might, you’re never going to get Dong Zhuo to ally with you as Liu Bei in the early game. As the game progresses, and coalitions become more important, regional powers gravitate towards regional powers. By the late game major powers necessarily face off, and this does reduce the gravitas of early game political machinations. Again, it’s all about your character and the relationships you’ve developed. Support allies and they’ll like you (giving you a decent buff to diplomacy with their faction). Kill enemies and those factions (and their allies) won’t even trade stale bread with you.

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Trading food, regions, and treaties are back and are a great way to earn a boatload of income from the myriad factions in the game (provided you’re in good standing with most of them). At one point in the mid-game, I was in the diplomatic screen for more time than I was spending actually fighting, and making a ton of gold each turn to boot. If you want to win at Three Kingdoms, do not overlook diplomacy. It’s more important (and deeper) than ever before. It still has its kinks (as the AI is still the AI) and needs balancing, but it’s going in the right direction.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is an epic period piece that manages to bring characters alive in a way that does the source material proud. It’s an exceptional mix of traditional and fantasy Total War experiences, bringing the best of both to play in a way we’ve never seen before. For that, alone, it should be applauded. There are certainly a few balancing tweaks that need to be made (particularly in spying and diplomacy). In addition, the game could certainly do with more traditional mechanics for units during battles.

Last Updated: May 21, 2019

Total War Three Kingdoms
The real power behind Three Kingdoms is its mastery of character building and immersion, putting explosive personalities ahead of bland empire building. Overall, it's a much-needed breath of fresh air for the series and a satisfyingly complex Total War game to boot!
8.5
Total War Three Kingdoms was reviewed on PC
85 / 100

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