Romance of the Three Kingdoms (ROTK) is my Civilization, the tactical strategy game I poured hours of my life into without regret. As my parting article for my run as guest editor today, let me tell you why I love this series so much.

Worldbuilding

I grew up with the book on which the game is based, the epic multi-volume series written by Luo Guanzhong with the same name (which in turn was based on the historical records from the Records of the Three Kingdoms). ROTK’s influence in Asia is comparable to Shakespeare here. I loved following the struggles of Liu Bei and his two blood brothers, Guan Yu and Zhang Fei, as they established the Kingdom of Shu with the brilliant adviser, Zhuge Liang. Cao Cao, who is traditionally vilified, is a powerful commander whose ambition is only matched by the ruthlessness with which he carries out his battle campaigns. With the gentle Sun Quan to round out the three kingdoms, I’d read the book multiple times and even watched the Chinese TV series. Playing the game gave me an all new understanding (*while I’ve followed ROTK since its early inception all the way to the later iterations, it’s part IV on the SNES that has come to be my favorite and the one which I’ll be talking most about).

Even with the simplistic representation of China’s geography ROTKIV, I found out quickly why a city like Hanzhong was so strategically important to the Shu Kingdom because of its position as the entry point to the rest of the valley. Spotting Xiangyang’s position between the three kingdoms, it made sense why it became such a contested battleground, leading to the death of one of the most important characters. Individual stats for all the generals and warriors was fantastic, as was finding out details about side characters that were mostly relegated to single references in the books.

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There’s a lot of complexity in the game mechanics and it takes a bit of time to master. But once you do, it is super addictive. You can distribute how much gold goes into farming, dams for flood control, the economy, and technology to build military equipment. Higher farming points means more food for the soldiers. You can draft more troops, train them, reward officers with gold and gifts to increase loyalty. Natural disasters can hit, wreaking havoc. Some generals die naturally from disease or old age. Officers can betray you. As ruler, you can engage in foreign espionage, make alliances, try to sway enemies to your own side, and recruit talented officials who don’t have a ruler yet. You can also delegate management to the individual cities so you don’t have to micromanage every decision.

Battle has always been the weakest element of the series. The macro scale of the chess-like pieces on a grid has never felt satisfactory, even with all the improvements in the latest iteration, ROTK13. Considering that it’s Koei that’s makes the series, I would welcome them incorporating elements from the Dynasty Warrior series (which is also from the same universe). At the least, infuse something more dynamic to make it feel like actual combat, not just a digitized representation of Chinese chess, xiangqi.

Alternate Paths

I cherish the ROTK games because they put me in the shoes of my favorite characters. I always favored Liu Bei in the early stages, mainly because he’s the one who goes from poverty to the ruler of Shu Han. It brought me so much joy to not only have the Five Tiger Generals on my side, but recruiting enemy officers like Lu Xun, Zhang He, and even Cao Cao himself. I’m not just reliving history, but rewriting it.

In the book, the great Tiger General, Ma Chao, died of illness. In the new ROTK session I started playing for the article, Ma Chao not only survived, but is leading the charge against the Wei forces, demolishing city after city with Jiang Wei to advise him. Zhang Fei is next to him, no ignominious assassination to impede his path. The ultimate goal is the complete unification of China, and it’s an incredible feeling to achieve it with my “dream team” forces.

What’s ingenious is how the game makes the history so entertaining. It’s less about memorizing every officer and more, a gameplay necessity to know who is who and what their stats are. When I was growing up in the States, there were actually very few people around me who knew about the books. I felt so disappointed I couldn’t talk about the saga of the Three Kingdoms because it felt like I had access to this whole different world that no one else knew about it! Fortunately, some of the other students in my school played the ROTK games and I loved getting to share the stories with them (I still remember them asking, you mean they’re based on real characters?). The ROTK games were my way of bridging the gap, unifying interests, and sharing the epic series.

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In 2012, I actually took a trip to Chengdu, China, the old capital of Shu Han. I visited Liu Bei’s grave, the Huiling Mausoleum, which is also very close to the Zhuge Liang Memorial Temple. It was a solemn moment as I stood in front of the mound surrounded by a bamboo grove and reflected on the history. For a moment, I wondered to myself, would Emperor Liu Bei and Zhuge Liang have believed that two-thousand years later, there would be a whole video game series based on their lives?

Photo Credit: Angela Xu

Unification

I’ve always loved games and making them. When I switched over to working in movies, I was thrilled (and of course, making films is great), but I also missed working in games a whole lot. As my Saturday stint as guest editor wraps (the awesome Ben Bertoli will take over tomorrow), I want to thank Kotaku and its readers for giving me this wonderful opportunity to share my thoughts about some of my favorite games and to connect with so many gamers. And as I’m wont to say, may all your alternate histories be glorious.