Ten Turns with Total War: Three Kingdoms

By Joe Robinson 24 Jan 2019 0

I first suspected something might be wrong when I realised I needed to sell off one of my provinces just to remain solvent. I’d just inherited the lands of an ally and things were a bit confusing for a couple of turns as I set about organising my growing domain.

I definitely knew I'd gone wrong somewhere when I had to do it a second time.

The Year is 191 CE, and budding warlord Liu Bei is carving out a fiefdom for himself amongst the ruins of the mighty Han dynasty. This period is actually credited with many technological discoveries and innovations, but unfortunately for me accountancy wasn't apparently one of them.

Three Kingdoms Beta 7

Total War: Three Kingdoms is now under two months away from launch and we were finally able to get some hands-on time with the campaign. The build we had access to locked us to trying out Liu Bei – one of the harder starts as he doesn't actually begin with any territory to call his own – and we were only allowed to experience the 'Romance' version of the game.

Technically, we could have played through a whole 30 turns (four turns a season means just over 7 years of game time), but as you may have gathered from above, I let my finances get away from me. After conversing with the devs I think I may not have been paying as close attention to the deals I was making. Somehow, I was losing ~ 300 gold a turn on diplomatic treaties. Given the early nature of the game it was probably Non-Aggression Pacts, but I couldn't figure out which ones and how to cancel them. Read the small print, folks.

Still, it was ten turns with the next generation of Total War as a series and it was very rewarding being able to finally poke and play around with the new systems. Below is collection of thoughts and observations from my time with the game, spread across various sections...

Three Kingdoms Beta 5


Diplomacy has been expanded once again to include a lot more options and trade-able items. Not only can you trade money, but also provinces and collectable 'loot'-like objects known as Ancillaries (a mixture of advisors, horses, armour, accessories etc...).

For the first time to feels like international diplomacy actually means something. Faction relationships are determined by a combination of faction-level interactions and also how individual characters feel about each other. Just because you're BBFs with one faction’s leader doesn't mean their heir will think the same of you when they assume the premiership. It very much feels like Creative Assembly are trying to catch up with a system currently pioneered by Paradox games, but in way that still makes sense within the Total War design. The AI seems very pro-active with offering varied deals to you as well and negotiating (which still comes down to numbers) has a bit more bite to it.


I'll be honest, we only got a very brief experience with this area of the game, and what we saw just made us think of squabbling, pouty children.

The internal political game grows as your fiefdom becomes more prominent. At the start your faction level will be quite low, so you won't have many offices or uses for your characters. Characters who aren’t leading an army can get a bit bummed out by not having anything to do, which manifests as a negative ‘contentment’ number which grows over time. You do have to keep an eye on your character’s contentment levels, as they will leave you if you don’t look after them. Just giving them something to do isn’t always as simple as it sounds though – other characters can get annoyed if they feel someone beneath them has a higher position.

Along with faction ‘jobs’ like Administrator, Prime Minister etc… each character can also have a personal rank, which you can increase or decrease for like 2000 a go. I didn’t figure this out until after I’d clicked this mysterious and unexplained ‘+/-‘ button a few times and realised I’d bankrupted myself by accident.

Three Kingdoms Beta 6

There is perhaps a general point to make about various aspects of the game not explaining themselves very well, but with regards to this areas of the game I think a little bit more information wouldn’t go amiss. Specifically stating who a character is upset with, or perhaps flagging up actions that will upset other characters, might help us navigate the political and social quagmire that is Three Kingdoms China.

Tactical Warfare

SMART FORMATIONS. Seriously, this is probably the only thing you need to know about tactical battles and it will change your life. Instead of manually having to put every unit in a sensible place, locking that formation, and then moving it around, you can instead just select the units you want and move them. The game will automatically put ranged at the back, melee units in the front in a semblance of sensible dispersion. 10/10, would formation again.

On a serious not, unfortunately, we didn't actually get to fight many set-piece battles. One of Liu Bei’s special abilities means he can choose to annex Han territory instead of taking it by force, which spared us a fair few sieges. Since you start the game surrounded by Han territory, it made sense to just ‘purchase’ the province instead of fighting for it. He uses a faction-unique resources called ‘Unity’ to do this action, which is gained through various traits and deeds. The more unity Liu Bei has, the quicker he climbs up the faction tree (and other bonuses) so as a faction he can really steam-roll if piloted properly.

Three Kingdoms Beta 3

Apart from this, the only other armies we encountered were small fry, and we made as many friends as we did enemies (unlike PCGamesN's Richard “I may want to conquer you later” Scott-Jones).

In the ‘Romance’ mode, the individual characters are very much larger than life. Watching one of your generals charge headlong into a group of enemies is rather amusing, especially when they turn-tail and run. Visually one person fighting a crowd is quite clunky, but the duals are pretty good. The AI is quite good at challenging you, and you can issue challenges back quite easily. It’s an interesting evolution of character mechanics started in the fantasy games.

Campaign & Strategy Layer

One of my favourite additions to Thrones of Britannia – Military Supplies – is making its official debut in a mainline Total War game. As a feature, it’s been modded into various Total War games for years, and now it’ll be in TW3K.

‘Supply’ is generated at an individual army level and not globally like in Thrones and is generally only generated if you're in your own or allied territory. It will limit how far and how long one campaign outside one’s borders, and it will force your armies to pause every so often while they gather more supplies. Although, you can always subscribe to the old-school style of Total War-fare by reading the works of Richard 'We don't need supplies where we're going' Scott-Jones. He probably still has some men left that haven’t starved to death.

Three Kingdoms Beta 4

Army composition is also quite interesting now – given the increased focus on characters, it makes sense for more ‘key’ figures to be present on the map at once. While the singular ‘Army’ that roams around the campaign is fundamentally unchanged, it’s composition is now quite different. There is a lead general, of course, but also up to two sub-generals. Each general within an army recruits up to six units as part of their personal ‘retinue’. If a character ends up leaving your faction, units recruited to his or her section of the army go with them.

On top of that, every character has a class, and can gain abilities and traits that buff specific unit types, as well as being able to recruit unique units to their retinue. While this doesn’t stop a character recruiting whatever units are needed, it means that you can specialise generals and the troops they take with them. The only thing we haven’t had a chance to experiment with is how easy it is to move generals between armies. I have visions of super-niche sub-armies travelling around where they’re needed.

Economy, Admin & Everything else

Since our new proto-kingdom was in its early stages, there wasn’t a hell of a lot to glean from this interface. Provinces (now known as ‘commanderies’) are split between a central ‘capital’ area and then several resource-generating areas. The Total War series in general as been experimenting with province design for years now, and this particular method is at least fairly clear cut.

You need to control the outer-districts for the raw resources, especially food (which is very important and can impact military supplies). The central stronghold is where all of the production and revenue generation happens. It’s quite easy to capture the resource provinces, harder for the capitals as they have bigger walls. When you control a central province you can assign an administrator to it, and you can also send characters on temporary missions to give specific boosts, like construction times or income.

Three Kingdoms Beta 1

The Research (or ‘reforms’ as it is now known) screen is very stylistic – it follows a multi-band approach laid out along a blossom tree which slowly blooms as you unlock new techs. Reforms happen once every ‘Spring’ turn, so there is no element of developing a research-focused economy.

The Age of the Country at War

The above is just a snapshot of the game, and mainly from the perspective of the early turns. Some words must be spared for how 3K deals with the end-game, which we think is a rather inventive application of the theme.

The goal of the game is to obviously rule China as the Emperor, and to get there you need to conquer your rivals and expand your territory. On top of that, you need to be climbing up the faction ladder, which at its zenith allows you to declare yourself Emperor. The moment you do that, the two next strongest factions also declare themselves Emperor and thus a true ‘Three Kingdoms’ style free-for-all ensues. To win, you have to conquer the capitals of your two rival emperor claimants.

Getting hyped about a Total War game hasn't always ended well over the past few releases, especially if we're talking about the original release of the last historical entry (and game-engine upgrade) Rome 2. Still, it's hard not to feel optimistic about Three Kingdoms. It's a vibrant world, a lot of the systems seem to be there and doing well so far... the really test will be how everything holds up in the mid-late game.

Total War: Three Kingdoms is due out on March 7th, 2019.



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