Waging an utterly gruelling campaign to unite China in Three Kingdoms which feels only marginally less difficult than doing it in reality.
I was last of the Three Kingdoms to declare my bid for Emperor, not having played the game this far before I had no idea how much of an escalation that claim brings with it, you are provided with an Imperial Court which has about 5 x as much administrative power to enable your economy and military to adapt to the demands of Imperial claimant.
It was only at this point that I realised that the upper hand i thought I had against my Southern opponent was vastly miscalculated, given the infastructure he had been able to call upon for much longer than me, and soon enough multiple armies of super powerful Imperial Household troops began to pour out the Jungle.
I crated a Vassal State with another powerful kingdom and former coalition member to try and make up the numbers and open up another front to the East to nibble away at the Southern Emperor’s bread basket, as without food his armies and cities would not be supplied and go into revolt. My ally attacked the East as requested and I conducted a Guerilla campaign in the south, pulling apart heavy troop concentrations and then taking them one by one at choke points. It barely made a dent militarily speaking but it worked well enough in disrupting their advantages and after several years of this allied initiative the Southern Kingdom had lost about a third of its initial territory at the start of the war. I was using proceeds of victory to fund better armies in my heartlands and momentum was shifting.
Then my Vassal’s lord, a reliable and honourable warlord with whom I had built an excellent relationship over decades, was killed in battle, to be replaced by his son, a roguish individual who craves dominance. His kingdom turned on me instantly. Before I had chance to react, he took a huge swathe of farmland, reducing my supplies and capacity to wage war.
I had to sue for peace with the Southern Emperor. All of my gains were lost in the treaty. All of my new armies were diverted North, to contend with this new threat which, thanks to the war which I had directed it in, was now only marginally less powerful than I was.
In order to pay for this war in both food and coin I had to raise taxes, and the unrest it caused eventually lead to multiple rebellions from both characters within my faction and Yellow Turban fanatics. Meanwhile formerly negligible duchies and bandit tribes of meagre power were being called into the war by my erstwhile ally and hacking away at my underbelly.
My power base was splintering. I was, personally speaking, quite upset. Everything I had accomplished in an already very testing campaign was falling to pieces.
But I was also enthralled. This is what 4x games never get. Political dominance is rarely won through perpetual motion. For most actions in historical conquest, there has been a reaction, there is a reason Empire’s rise and then fall. In my instance, it was the classic problem - overstretch. I had reached the limits of what I could effectively administer while waging war against another Imperial power. Decline was the inevitable consequence.
So I made myself a cup of tea and sat and I genuinely strategised about how I could salvage my campaign, as though it were real.
I came to the conclusion that while I could now back myself against any one opponent I had to make sure I was only ever fighting on one front. I also recognised that a prior dash to claim the Capital of my Imperial opponents was also borne out of a sense of vain glory and dynastic paranoia. I wanted to win it with Cao Cao, the initial head of my faction. He was a powerful general but well into his 70’s at this point, as was his wife, another able commander. Heir to the Throne was Cao Pei, who despite my best attempts to train him up, was not made of the same mettle. I did not trust in the future he presaged. But the Empire would have to.
Cao Cao’s final years were thus spent consolidating his gains by wooing two further key vassals and directing proxy campaigns against any free state who refused to join the Empire. Any opportunities for enemies to augment their wars with their own potential vassals had to be erased.
In this time the Southern Empire issued an Ultinatum for the Port which controlled access to the North and South and was really the Threshold to any invasion in either direction. I refused and so was in defacto war with them, although they were content to expand methodically against my vassal. With my aid we just about managed to keep them from gaining enough to gain an advantage, but any initiative we took was also quickly lost. Stalemate again.
Initial attempts to pacify the treacherous former vassal through politics were reneged on when they again defected from the Empire. Cao Pei spent the first few years of his new reign all but eradicating them from the
World in response. With their wealthy farmlands conquered, new armies were raised and then directed at the weaker members of my opponent’s Empire. Finally, a decade or so after Cao Cao’s, I have managed to gain a foothold in the vast Jungles of the South, meaning I have a degree of logistical power, can resupply armies, they can move more freely etc. At this point it feels more like Hearts of Iron or something, the number of armies and supply chains I need to consider. Never played a strategy game in which my dominance feels so palpable, so earned, but also so fragile.
One of the best things about Three Kingdoms is the transparency of the Diplomacy, as it numerically weights different factors that relate to important decisions and faction’s relationships-war, peace, treatment of allies, trustworthiness etc- in order to help you know how you can sway their mind. The current screen tells me I am only a few well-won battles away from the Sourthern Emperor finally abdicating his claim and accepting my mandate.
This was an especially crucial consideration when the other dormant and effectively benign claimant to the Throne Liu Bei died, to be replaced by his son who unlike his father had no interest in just watching the conquest be decided between two his two rivals for the position. His declaration was not so sudden as my vassals betrayal had been, but rather a gradual decline in relationship with myself, despite my best efforts to bribe him and keep him on the sidelines. Anticipating a war coming, I positioned my vassals to his borders, and sure enough when it came, they bore the brunt of the assault and his massive armies. The terms for peace with him were enormous, requesting multiple wealthy regions distressingly close to my empty hinterlands. But the knowledge that my old enemy was almost ready to surrender was too powerful a stimulus. I couldn’t send my armies back North, not for a third time. Momentum had to hold, I couldn’t do this again, not now, I’m spent. This fued needs to end, finally.
Experience tells me that will be harder to accomplish than it currently looks, but it finally feels like end game, albeit two full decades after my initial euphoric ascension to Emperor and naive assumptions that consolidation of my Imperial opponents would be little more effort than a victory lap.
It is an incredible achievement that Three Kingdoms has given me all the tools and mechanics to experience this epic, without any manipulation required on my part. I am well acquainted to doing things in Strategy games to make things more interesting or to try and simulate the kind of intrigue on show here, but not only have I not done any of that in this campaign, I’ve had to actively fight and wrestle and think and strive to overcome those issues emerging organically and really work out what the best move is, not the “fun” one. I have been in the struggle of my gaming life
I’ve punched walls and called bullshit, which if this were any other Total War it would be, in those instances theres no way out when the diolomatic webs fail and Doom Stacks from all angles start to roll. But with the core of the game being what it is in 3K, when I’ve calmed down, I’ve looked through the multiple tools available to me and yes, if I get this guy to poke here, if this guy can help me here, if I can marry this person into this faction, curry favour with x by doing Y etc, I can see a way out.
The calculations required have felt monumental at times but the drama and thrill, the cut and thrust, the hubris and nemesis of the whole thing, it’s been a simulation of Statecraft like no other I’ve played.