It’s all going wrong. I’m supposed to be spreading peace throughout Ancient China in Total War: Three Kingdoms, but it turns out that avoiding the ‘Total War’ bit is rather difficult. Last time, my faction leader Cao Cao spent most of his time preparing for an inevitable attack by the enormously powerful Lady Wu, embarking on a series of what I like to call ‘preventative conflicts’.
First, I goaded the Yellow Turban Rebel He Yi into attacking me, so I could defend myself by taking all his lands. I then vassalised the upstart warlord Yuan Shu after he attempted a surprise assault on my northern borders, a decision I was forced into when Lady Wu finally brought the hammer down on my western frontier. This proved to be a huge mistake, as two of my trading partners—Kong Rong and Wang Lang—declared war on Yuan Shu, forcing me either to defend him or declare his independence.
The current situation looks like this. My armies are engaged along my western and southern borders fighting lady Wu, while my eastern border is exposed to assault from both Kong Rong and Wang Lang. Only my northern border is secure, buffered by my vassal Yuan Shu and my two coalition partners, Yuan Shao and Liu Bei.
There’s no way I can fight all three wars at once. Fortunately, I don’t have to. While I’m still a long way from defeating Lady Wu, it seems taking her capital city and a large chunk of her territory has convinced her that peace might be in her best interests. We quickly patch together an armistice, at which point I withdraw from her lands and rush to my eastern border.
Even with all their forces combined, Kong Rong and Wang Lang are nowhere near as strong as Lady Wu. With all my armies disentangled from the larger conflict, it doesn’t take much effort to subdue them. Indeed, it seems Kong Rong doesn’t want to be in a war with me at all. After I smash one of his armies and seize his Confucian temple, I sue for peace, and afterwards our diplomatic relationship has barely taken a hit. With Kong Rong pacified, I then pour all my forces onto Wang Lang’s head, besieging his main city and then capturing it when he attempts to break the siege.
I’m all set to capture Lang’s only other settlement, when Lady Wu decides that, actually, she hasn’t had enough of war yet. Urgh. This is exactly what I feared would happen. I secure my eastern border as best I can by vassalising Wang Lang, then split my four armies into groups of two and send them west and south respectively.
Some good comes from dragging my armies across half of China, though. Taking Wang Lang’s city officially elevates me to the rank of duke, which means my faction has an official title. The ‘Duchy of Wei’. I’m slightly behind on the whole dukedom craze. My coalition partner Yuan Shao already made himself the Duchy of Song by seizing control of the puppet emperor from another warlord called Lu Bu (whose faction was destroyed in the process). I am slightly ahead of Lady Wu becoming the Duchy of Wu, however. As my armies march toward her borders, I hope this means I’m slightly ahead in all other areas too.
What follows is a years’ long conflict involving many hard-fought battles, and one in which it’s increasingly difficult to stick to my rule of not attacking enemy armies. The Total War AI will generally run away from any superior force, and it’s very difficult to chase down an army that’s marching away at full speed. This means I often need to let them take one of my settlements, then lay siege to it and hope they’ll try to break it. I have particular trouble breaking down her armies to the south. Meanwhile, Cao Cao’s own army gets snarled up in a mountain range up to the north, spending years trying to take a handful of small settlements so the northwest edge of our border stays secure.
Nonetheless, it’s a war I’m winning. The Duchy of Wu’s borders are slowly shrinking away, while my own are gradually expanding. Then, all of a sudden, I’m no longer at war with the Duchy of Wu, because Liu Bei, my closest ally throughout the entire game, jumps in and vassalises them.
It’s a genuine shock. Liu Bei (now known as the Duchy of Shu-Han), has in one fell swoop made himself the most powerful person in China by far. He now de-facto controls around half of China, and his territory almost completely surrounds my own. I can’t expand, and all my trade-routes are subject to his whims. I’m also very annoyed. That was my prize. I did all the hard work, and he just swept in and took the reward, like a hawk stealing a mouse off a crow.
I need to deal with this situation urgently, otherwise the Duchy of Shu-Han is on a runaway course to victory. But the only way I can meaningfully affect the situation is to declare war, and even though I’ve been bending the rules like a solicitous Uri Geller, I’m not allowed to do that. Besides, if I did opt for war, I doubt I’d stand much of a chance against Shu-Han in the field.
I look for some other solutions. Espionage is out, as I don’t have a spy in Shu-Han’s ranks. I do have one inside Lady Wu’s ranks, but he isn’t really in a position to take over the faction or anything. I could encourage the Duchy of Wu to declare their independence, but this means declaring war on Shu-Han anyway, so that’s out too. I do have enough Credibility points to trigger a proxy war, but there’s nobody nearby except for the Duchy of Song, and I can’t get them to fight Shu-Han because we’re all in a coalition together. Unless...
I gather the coalition together and call a vote. Who’s up for kicking out the Duchy of Shu-Han? The Duchy of Song eagerly agrees, as does our other coalition member who I won’t name because they’re way off to the west and frankly we’ve got enough names to work with. It’s settled. Shu-Han is officially out of the coalition. The moment this goes through, I press the Duchy of Song to declare war on Shu-Han, with the hope of buying myself some time so I can increase my own military strength.
I’m genuinely saddened by this turn of events. Liu Bei was my pal. He helped me exact my entirely peaceful revenge after a warlord named Tao Qian murdered my father. Little do I know that I’ve just lit the touch-paper to the mother of all gunpowder barrels.
The very next turn, everything goes to shit. It starts with my vassal Yuan Shu, who announces he doesn’t want to be my vassal anymore and declares war. Also declaring war is Liu Cong, son of a long-time semi-ally I had called Liu Biao. On top of that, some guy called Ma Chong declares war on me for reasons I can’t seem to comprehend. Then comes the real kicker. The Duchy of Shu-Han declares war, and with them, the vast expanse of the Duchy of Wu.
Now literally every inch of my border is seething red with war. As if that wasn’t a big enough problem, this mass declaration of war has also severed half of my trade agreements, which instantly bankrupts me. To get back into the black, I have to disband one of my armies and raise taxes across all my territory. This causes a drop in public order that, under normal circumstances, would lead to rebellion. The way things are going, however, I’ll be footnote in the history books long before that eventuality arises.
As Liu Cong and Yuan Shu deploy their forces, and another massive army belonging to the Duchy of Wu appears right on my southern borders, I reckon this might be it. But hell if I’m going to go down without a fight. I deploy my remaining armies as best I can, and hope the situation doesn’t get any worse.
As it turns out, fortune hasn’t entirely abandoned me. When Lady Wu’s Army clashes with my own, the game announces that my spy inside the Duchy of Wu dynasty is leading a retinue of the army, and that I can extract him from the army and use his retinue as reinforcements. As a result, rather than this battle being potentially the pebble that starts the landslide, I crush Lady Wu’s forces and buy myself a little breathing space.
Not all that much, though, unfortunately. Both Liu Cong and Yuan Shu’s armies are already nibbling at my territory. I need to put an end to at least one of these wars now. I hit the diplomacy screen. Neither Liu Cong or Yuan Shu are willing to settle for peace. But miraculously, the Duchy of Shu-Han actually is. Admittedly, they want one of my cattle farms as reparations, but they’ll also give me 5,000 gold in exchange.
Frankly, it’s a far better deal than I could reasonably expect, and I eagerly agree. This puts an end to my wars with both Shu-Han and Wu, meaning I only need to deal with the far smaller forces of Liu Cong and Yuan Shu. As I turn all my forces toward these two enemies, I lose a Jade mine to Liu Cong, but Yuan Shu suffers an embarrassing defeat by one of my settlement garrisons despite having the superior force. Next, Cao Cao comes down from the northern mountains and shockingly wipes out my former vassal Yuan Shu. Liu Cong follows shortly after, perishing in the jade mine he took from me not three seasons prior.
Peace in pieces
My re-seizure of the jade mine also sees Cao Cao elevated to the rank of King, at which point he declares himself Emperor of China. He isn’t actually emperor yet, as both Lady Wu and Liu Bei also declare themselves empress and emperor at the same time. But now The Three Kingdoms of Three Kingdoms are officially in place.
But I think we’ve come far enough for me to tell you exactly what I think of peace. It sucks. Even if you can call the horribly manipulated bastard version of what I’ve done in this series peace, avoiding overt aggression in Total War is really, really hard. The new campaign features, such as advanced diplomacy, espionage, and trade do help you avoid directly attacking people to a certain extent, but they’re far too curtailed in the early game for you to make much use of them.
The later game enables more powerful diplomatic options, such as confederating other states into your own empire, but if, like me, you ended up at war with seemingly everyone despite your best efforts, the other factions will hate you far too much to consider becoming part of your empire. Besides, the battles are just too much fun, particularly later on when you unlock more bespoke units and character abilities, at which point Three Kingdoms’ battle mode reveals much more of its own personality.
Frankly, you can take your peace and put it in the bin. From here on out, I’m all about war baby.