Peace may be rarer than potatoes in ancient China, but that won’t stop me from trying to play Total War: Three Kingdoms as something vaguely resembling a pacifist. My last attempt wasn’t smooth sailing. I may have started the game at war with the tyrant Dong Zhou and his vassal, the Han Empire, and I may have used this as an opportunity to expand my own borders. I also might have convinced my coalition partner Liu Bei to murder the son of a warlord named Tao Qian. But in my defence, Tao Qian murdered my faction leader Cao Cao’s father and then died before I could exact my revenge. As the saying goes ‘An eye for an eye always leads to peace’.
Fortunately, my latest attempt kicks off in more promising fashion. Dong Min, the adopted son of Dong Zhuo who assassinated the tyrant, assumed his power, and spent most of the early game trying to ‘vassalize’ my faction, finally makes Cao Cao a reasonable peace offer. Not only will Min end hostilities with us, he’ll pay us around 3,000 gold for the privilege. I could use a couple of new farms. Sold to the megalomaniac in the north!
There’s also a little spring cleaning to do from last time, in the form of eliminating a southern warlord named Liu Yao, who boldly declared war on me despite having the all the military strength of a child holding a stick. Yao managed to take one of my trading ports before being killed by my general Dian Wei during a counter-siege. All that remains is to seize the faction’s last remaining city, which Wei achieves with minimal casualties.
The destruction of Yao’s faction marks the first time in my campaign where I’m not actually at war with anyone. Obviously this is fantastic news, but I’ve little mind to celebrate. My campaigns against Yao and Dong Min’s vassal, the Han Empire, have, entirely by coincidence, considerably strengthened my own faction.
Again, this sounds like a good thing, but the stronger you are in Three Kingdoms, the harder it is to maintain affable diplomatic relationships.
Most of my northern border is giving me the stink-eye. On the diplomatic map, the previously friendly Yuan Shu is slowly turning red with warlike anger, while the handful of settlements held by the Yellow Turban warlord He Yi are almost purple with rage. My biggest concern, however, is off to the west, in the form of Lady Wu.
I should point out that at this point in the game, I don’t actually know about Lady Wu. The faction is officially controlled by her son, Sun Ce. But he will be killed in some far-off battle shortly, at which point Lady Wu will assume control of the faction. Either way, the Sun faction controls most of western China, stretching right along both my western and southern borders. They’re not hostile toward me at present, but they are much more powerful than me. If they declare war, I might as well jump into the Yangtze and swim for the Pacific.
All told, central China is one giant powder keg waiting to explode. Naturally, I try to pour water on it, buttering up both Sun Ce and Yuan Shu with a little diplomatic manipulation. He Yi, however, hates me so much that it’s mechanically impossible for him to hate me any further. There isn’t enough Lurpak in the world to grease that relationship. Since I can’t dampen He Yi’s fuse, I decide to try and light it in a way that best suits me. I take my two armies, march them into He Yi’s territory, and just sit there, letting them spoil the landscape like extremely sharp wind turbines. After a few turns of my provincial squatting, He Yi’s bubbling pot of hatred boils over and he declares war.
With only three settlements to his name, I figure He Yi will be easy to pacify. Turns out he’s got three huge armies crammed into his scrap of territory, and what I expect to be little more than a skirmish turns into a fierce grudge match. Cao Cao’s own army suffers a nasty early defeat that almost puts an end to the war before it’s started.
Forced to retreat and rethink, I realise I can’t match the sheer numbers of He Yi’s peasant forces. I decide to invest in technology, recruiting two units of repeating crossbows and two units of artillery for my second army, led by Dian Wei. Wei proves instrumental in overcoming He Yi. Not only do my trebuchets and ballistas cut through Yi’s peasant masses with ease, Wei personally kills several of Yi’s lieutenants in one-on-one duels. The war goes on for longer than I expect, but in the end Yi’s resistance ends with a whimper. He foolishly lays siege to one of my newly acquired settlements with just 400 men, and is cut down by the peasant garrison that was so recently on his side.
Yeeting Yi into the afterlife may have proved more difficult than I anticipated, but it’s also more rewarding than I expected too. During the conflict I earn the title of Marquis and 5,000 gold as a reward, which I spend on improving infrastructure and raising a third army led by Cao Cao’s wife Lady Bian. Originally a general in Dian Wei’s army, Bian fell out with Wei during the war with He Yi. So I temporarily put her on the bench. Now she has a force of her own, modelled after Dian Wei’s mixture of old timey swords and arrows, alongside more modern crossbows and artillery.
China has also changed dramatically while I was busy fighting Yi. The usurper Dong Min has himself been usurped by the legendary Lu Bu, China’s greatest fighter and bane of Dynasty Warriors fans worldwide. Lu Bu celebrates his new position by declaring war on me, because Lu Bu. I’m not worried by this, Lu Bu’s territory is still a fair way from my own. More concerning is Lady Wu, who is now officially in charge of the Sun faction and has busied herself making it the largest in China.
Meanwhile, on my eastern border where all my allies lie, trouble is also brewing. My council wants me to destroy my coalition partner, Yuan Shao, while my other coalition partner Liu Bei asks me to go to war with Yuan Shu (not Shao) on his behalf.
Normally I wouldn’t dream of this. I’m an advocate of peace, after all. But Liu Bei did me a solid getting rid of Tao Qian after Qian murdered my dad, and he’s also offering a fat purse in exchange for my declaration. Meanwhile, Yuan Shu is getting increasingly frowny at me across the border, so I get the feeling war is inevitable.
I decide to try to deal with all these problems at once. I trigger a proxy war between Lady Wu and Yuan Shao, in the hope they might weaken each other enough so that, when the time comes, I’ll have a fighting chance against either of them. Meanwhile, I decide that I will accept Liu Bei’s offer, but then I’ll immediately sue for peace with Yuan Shu, meaning I can take the money without actually going to war with Shu in a practical sense.
Because I’m a massive idiot, however, I neglect to consider the fact that Shu might not want peace once war is declared. He might, in fact, be well up for a spot of war. No sooner have I accepted Liu Bei’s offer, a massive army from Yuan Shu appears on my borders, led by one of China’s most ferocious warriors, Zheng Jiang.
Our armies clash in a forested area outside a jade mine, and it’s set up to be a near-run thing. I’m outnumbered and the forest makes it difficult to judge how exactly the battle is going and where best to aim my artillery. Zheng Jiang deploys her substantial cavalry contingent and attempts to get around my flanks, but I anticipate the move and send spearmen to meet the horses. Unfortunately, this leaves a hole in the centre of my army and Jiang leads her melee troops into it. Only Cao Cao himself and a few units of swordsmen are there to defend it. Then, I get the message that Cao Cao has fallen.
For a second I think my entire army is going to break. But Cao Cao’s right-hand man, Xiahou Dun, goes into a beserk-like rage and kills Zheng Jiang, which causes her army to break, and I emerge with what appears to be the most pyrrhic of victories. As it turns out, Cao Cao is only wounded, which is good because otherwise he’d have missed the moment Lady Wu finally declares war.
Though I’ve been anticipating this it still seems to come out of left-field when it happens. And it’s an even bigger problem than I imagined, because I’m still only half-done with Yuan Shu. I need to put an end to this conflict now. Luckily, Yuan Shu’s taste of war has changed his mind about peace, and he’s much more inclined to put an end to hostilities. He’s even willing to become my vassal, which gives my northern border greater security and a portion of his income. I’m excited by the prospect of having a vassal, although it will turn out to be one of the worst decisions I make in the campaign so far.
With Yuan Shu pacified, I wheel my armies around and start marching them toward Lady Wu’s territory. The border between us is massive and I have no idea where her armies might be, so I have no choice to dispatch my three armies wide. I send Dian Wei to secure the south and Lady Bian west, toward Lady Wu’s capital of Changsha. Cao Cao’s army is still recovering from the massive fight with Zheng Jiang, so I send him behind Lady Bian as support.
As it happens, though Lady Wu might have declared war on me, she doesn’t seem especially prepared for it. To the south, Dian Wei is able to mop up trade ports, salt mines and other settlements with little resistance. My new model army sweeps aside enemy garrisons. In one battle, the enemy army doesn’t even get to my lines before my artillery and crossbowmen force them into a retreat, and I lose just one man to a stray arrow.
Lady Bian encounters more resistance, entering into a tricky battle on the western shore of the Yangtze. Nonetheless, she emerges victorious, and opens up the road for Cao Cao to sweep in and take Changsha.
The capture of Changsha is my most significant achievement to date. But it turns out to be a poisoned chalice. During the siege, Xiahou Dun is hit in the eye with an arrow, and his new appearance earns him the personality trait ‘Intimidating’. Cao Cao, it turns out, doesn’t like people he thinks look scary, and their relationship now has a wedge between it.
Xiahou Dun losing his eye proves to be symbolic for increasing discord at home. As my cities grow in size, public order begins to plummet, requiring a radical rethink of my urban infrastructure to avoid outright rebellion. But, I don’t have the resources to do it as two of my partners have declared war on Yuan Shu. As Shu’s vassal, I need to respond in kind to defend him, or incur dishonour.
I’m not quite sure how I ended up here. I started out this campaign intent on maintaining peace. Now I’m at war with half of China, and if I’m not careful, I may end up at war with myself.