We don’t see many strategy games using historical settings as their foundation here in the good ol’ U.S. of A. It’s not that they don’t exist, we just don’t see them. For instance, the Romance of the Three Kingdom franchise is a series that, for the most part, hasn’t been available outside of Japan. But now, after 35 years and more than a score of previous entries, we can finally get our hands on Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV.
But, should we want to?
I guess the first place to start is by defining what I mean by an historical-setting strategy game. In this case, what we’re dealing with is a nation-building and battle-tactics title that offers you a bunch of real historical scenarios to play through, actual power-shifting events that took place in China between the years of 169 and 280 AD. More specifically, the game deals with the Yellow Turban Rebellion and the conflicts between the kingdoms of Wei, Han, and Wu.
That was a complex era, a time when the Han dynasty was crumbling and every warlord, warlord’s cousin and power-hungry friend of a warlord’s grandmother was jockeying for the Emperor’s throne. If you’re thinking that sorta sounds like a certain other more fictionalized game of thrones, well, minus dragons, it kinda was: Wars, diplomacy, backstabbing and nation-building were subjects on everyone’s minds. So what do you do in this chaotic world?
Depending on the period of time you choose, you play as one of several central characters; govern their land and build things up by increasing their bankroll, populace and armies; defeat any opponents through turn-based battles and diplomacy; continue to seek out new commanders with usable skills and battle tactics; take over neighboring territories; and eventually unify China under your rule. Easy, right?
If that seems daunting, well, we’re just getting started on the intimidation front. The biggest challenge for those just diving into this game of world-conquering machinations is figuring out how to get things moving. The user interface for Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV can initially feel as confusing and terrorizing as wondering into a room full of screaming warlords with their swords drawn.
Players will encounter menus and sub-menus nestled within one another, not to mention screens and graphs and tables, as well as lots of controls and city-management necessities that can, at first, feel really hard to get a handle on. This is a game that wants you to have the power to fiddle with the nuts and bolts of things, to build your birds-eye kingdom from nothing to glory. But it can feel pretty overwhelming to the uninitiated. There’s no ease-your-way-in Civilization game entry here. And if you’re the type who usually skips the tutorials, you’d best rethink that strategy.
Fortunately, there are a solid handful of in-game tutorials that gently walk you through the basic concepts, the mechanics and controls, and some fundamental strategies of play. It’s not completely intuitive: Even figuring out how to switch everything from Chinese to English requires some random button punches right out of the gate. But after the first few hours of hunting and pecking, it all starts to click into place. The anachronistic elements begin to fall in line, the controls start working for rather than against you. And from there, you’ll find that there are many things to do and a huge amount of content to play through.
Speaking of “content,” that’s another area where this game works, for the most part, in your favor. There aren’t a lot of problematic arrows to dodge in this category. There are battles to be sure, but the decisive factors boil down to formation, tactics, terrain and supply lines, not blood and guts. The clashing skirmishes—featuring tiny yells and sounds of swords clanging—are between groups of teeny combatants that disappear when bested.
Some mischievous machinations do creep into the mix, though, including the use of pretty female agents sent out to woo important commanders to your cause. But we never see the agents apply their charms or put any other more deadly skills to work. The worst language I encountered was a fuming warlord’s written-out use of the word “b–tard.” And the poorest behaviors ranged from an underling being hotheaded or lazy to talk of a person being punished for drunkenness.
Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIV can be, then, a strategy game worth your time. It may not be easy. And romance certainly isn’t a word I’d apply to gameplay. But with diligence and patience, this game can be a fun mixture of history and grand strategy that you might just come to love.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.