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Video Game / Romance of the Three Kingdoms

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A series of strategy games set in the Three Kingdoms period developed by Koei. Though named after Luo Guanzhong's classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in the West, the Japanese and Chinese versions were sold under the name Sangokushi/Sanguozhi (三国志), or Records of the Three Kingdoms, the name of the historical record compiled by Chen Shou.

In terms of historical portrayal, the games are influenced by both Luo Guanzhong's fiction and real history. The series also spawned the action game spinoff Dynasty Warriors, featuring a much more outlandish depiction of history.

The series began with the player as a ruler controlling an entire force. Starting from VII, some installments note  allow the player to play as a character other than a ruler. These can range from a "free" officer with no allegiance, all the way to a viceroy managing several cities on behalf of the ruler.


The platforms which support the various installments are listed below:

See also Nobunaga's Ambition, another Koei strategy game series set in the Sengoku Period.

This game series provides examples of:

  • Alternate History: You can create your own by playing these games.
    • XIII in particular has an Alternate History scenario for anyone who plays through all the historical campaigns of Hero Mode. The POD is upon the death of Zhuge Liang, where Jiang Wei ignores Zhuge's wishes and allows Wei Yan to have control of the army. Shu is able to retain the gains made in Liangzhou during Zhuge Liang's final campaign, extending its control to Anding, Jincheng, and Wuwei. Now, in 239, Sima Yi has accelerated his plots, driving Xiahou Ba to defect to Shu nearly a decade earlier than IOTL. Seeing a division in Wei, Jiang Wei uses this opportunity to drive toward Luoyang, capturing Changan and Hongnong along the way. After the Wei defeat at Hongnong, Sima Yi seizes control of the emperor, dividing Wei in two, with Cao Shuang retaining control of Xuchang, Runan, Wan, Xinye, and Xiangyang. Jiang Wei's decision to capture Cao Shuang's cities before taking on Sima Yi earns the respect of Wei Yan, who accepts Jiang as his superior. With overall control of the Shu armies, Jiang Wei forces a final confrontation with Sima Yi, defeating him decisively at Ye and giving Shu hegemony in China.
    • Again with XIII, the DLC contains two Alternate History scenarios: one where reports of Dong Zhuo's death were greatly exaggerated, and his reappearance forces Cao Cao and Yuan Shao into an Enemy Mine situation; and one where Emperor Xian was killed in the chaos following the death of Dong Zhuo, leading to the emergence of three rival emperors vying for power.
    • IX started the trend with their "IF" scenarios. Perhaps the most prominent was one in which Yuan Shao was victorious in the Battle of Guandu.
  • Artificial Stupidity: In XI, the AI doesn't understand that ports do not provide income (both gold and food) until the port's associated city is under their control as well. Cue troops in ports deserting as there is no food for them.
  • Badass Army/Elite Mooks: In X, Cao Cao (and by extension, his eventual successors) has a special unit that is only available for their forces: The Qingzhou Elite.
  • Berserk Button: Elephant units in X will lose control of itself and will attack any nearby units, friend or foe, if it's attacked by or around the vicinity of a fire attack.
  • Bittersweet Ending: If the game ends while you're playing as low-ranked vassal, it is stated that your character retires, lives a humble common life, and doesn't get as many rewards/privileges (if any) as other high-ranked vassals get from your emperor.
  • Black Comedy/Hypocritical Humor: In X, be a ruler and conquer a city. Then execute any captured enemy general who has in-game family member as officer, who will eventually hold a grudge to you to no end in a You Killed My Father fashion. Then, attack another city where said officer is stationed. If he's captured, try to recruit him but of course since you killed his family before, he will refuse ("Serve you!? You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!! I'd rather die!"), so you will only have two available options left: release him or execute him. If you choose the latter, there's a chance that he will say a Little "No" as if forgetting that earlier he said he'd rather die.
  • Chewbacca Defense: In XI, using the Sophistry option would have your officer throw in a ridiculous, silly statement that gives the opposing officer damage and leaving them confused on what your officer just say. Oh and randomly changes topic.
  • Combination Attack:
    • In IX, when two compatible generals are paired into the same unit, they sometimes both trigger an special attack at the same time, causing more casualties to the enemy forces.
    • In XI, this doesn't happen if the two compatible leaders are in the same unit, but if they're each leading a different unit within attacking range of the same enemy unit. There's a chance that attacking with one will cause the other's unit to run in and do some damage as well, without using up the unit's attack for the turn.
    • In XIII, when a general execute his special ability near another unit whose general has a bond with the first general, that ability will be improved.
  • Continuity Nod: Nobunaga's Ambition (a similar game set in Japan) characters have their portraits available to you in the Create an Officer mode if you beat the game in some versions.
    • Other warlords from other periods in China's history are also playable.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: In XI, your subordinate officers often find free officers in their towns and ask them to join your force. A duel is suggested to see if you're worthy of their services. If you win, those officers join your army, even if you purposefully wounded them numerous times during the duel.
    • Some officers have to be recruited this way, although in certain cases, a debate is used instead of a duel. note 
    • In XIII, you occasionally have to duel with free officers before they'd join your force.
      • Also in XIII, once your Relationship Values with a given officer get to a certain level (80), you are given a quest whose completion will result in being friends. One of the quests is a duel or debate where, if you win, you and the officer become friends. Also, defeating an especially powerful officer Charms many of the other officers in the city, making it easier to become friends with them as well.
  • Downer Ending: If you did poorly on your way to uniting China and choose your strategists and heir equally poorly in some later games, it turns out that your empire may not last as long as you would have hoped.
    • If you play a vassal and unite China in the name of your lord while having a poor relationship with him, you may wind up being executed because the lord fears your great ability. note 
  • Easy Logistics: Especially in the later games, quite well averted. In XI, for instance, you need to take food along with your army on trips, and occasionally gold (if you intend to rest your troops somewhere) to pay your officers. If you don't do the former, then your army will slowly starve to death, and if you don't do the latter, officers will lose loyalty. note 
    • In XIII, things went back a bit. Even though gold and food are kept in each city individually, you only have to click a few buttons and they will be transported to another city instantaneously. A later patch even automates this for you, feeding troops passing through your cities automatically with another city's food.
    • X subverts this a bit by making that gold is only used to built bases (camp, outpost, fort, or maze). Gold is still used to develop aspects of the city such as Tech, Farm and Commerce.
  • Fame Through Infamy: The games have 'fame' for each characters, but what most players may not know that some games also have 'infamy' or 'bad fame'. Unlike fame whose points are usually displayed, infamy is essentially invisible from the players. There are various ways to know infamy exists and is recorded throughout the game. For example, observing military barracks may sometimes let you know that some soldiers gossip something bad about your character. Or if you visited enemy city and attempted to talk to someone in the castle, you'll be turned down and the guard will tell you that you have notorious reputation. What increase infamy points are, needless to say, doing immoral or ruthless things like pillaging other cities, executing prisoners, refusing civilians' request, etc. Naturally, doing benevolent things like sparing prisoners (especially after they refused to join your forces) and helping civilians will decrease your infamy and increase your fame.
  • Fake Balance: One of the most glaring criticisms of Koei's flagship strategy series is how terribly unbalanced the gameplay mechanics can be despite looking practical on paper. In almost every title, there's at least one strategy/character/skill/simple exploit that allows you to steamroll the computer opposition with minimal effort even with the odds going against you. This issue is also compounded by the generally subpar AI.
  • Fur and Loathing: Several characters from Northern/Northwestern China such as Liang Province are usually shown wearing fur clothing in their character portraits. Ma Chao's wife Lady Yang being one such example.
  • Implacable Man: Generally speaking, you can create custom officers by maxing out their stats (though they may still suck in certain conditions such as duels and debates if they didn't have powerful duelling or debating skills). Creating a custom kingdom that is filled by these officers? You beat the game laughably easily.
    • XIII and XIV make it even easier with custom events. Create the officers described above, create events for an empty city that maxes out its stats and makes your custom officers friends with your leader, and the game becomes a cakewalk.
  • Joke Character: Many officers who are best known as being incompetent, such as Liu Shan, Xiahou Mao and Han Xuan, have abysmal stats. Especially Liu Shan, who has the lowest overall stat spread in some games.
    • Lethal Joke Character: That being said, Liu Shan usually has one of the best strategies in the game, especially in XIII where his stats have been buffed where he's simply weak instead of being completely useless. His XIII strategy, "Great Rebound", provides a massive +100 morale increase to you and your allies in range, a huge boost to their attack strength and heals their status ailments but costs a full 10-point strategy bar to use.
  • Kill It with Fire:
    • XI allows you to build fireballs that can damage multiple units in a line, as well as multiple structures when fully upgraded.
    • In X, all units whenever they are under command of officers and not "Lieutenants", they are able to use melee fire attack. If an officer with "Missile" skill use Archer unit, they can use fire arrows, or alternatively, use any unit that is equipped with Siege Tower.
  • Morale Mechanic:
    • In X, units require high morale to move quickly and will retreat if their will is depleted.
    • In XI, unit morale is used for special attacks.
    • In XIII, unit morale will be reduced if it's pincered. If depleted, the unit will be confused and unable to fight for a short while.
  • Tactical Rock–Paper–Scissors:
    • In XI, Spears defeat Cavalry who defeat Pikes who defeat Spears. Archer units are equally affected and equally affects either. Swordsmen are free but they are weak against every other weapon types.
    • In X, Horses beat Foots, Foots beat Archers, Archers beat Horses unless they are directly near each other in which the Archers will use melee attack instead and in this situation, Archers and Horses are roughly even.
    • In XIII, Spears beat Horses, Horses beat Archers and Archers beat Spears.
  • Video Game Cruelty Potential: In later games, when you capture the last city held by an enemy force, you capture every single officer in that city; sometimes it can be over 30. You can put them all under the sword. Some officers take the news of their upcoming deaths in dignity; others don't.
  • Video Game Long-Runners: The first game came out for MS-DOS, NES and other systems in 1985, and has run on for over 14 games in 35 years. The latest in the series, XIV, was released in 2020.
  • Video Game Tutorial: In XI, XIII, and XIV:
    • XI's main game tutorials mainly have Liu Bei as the protagonist and has him learn the ropes of the game (along with the player, and with laughs thrown in).
      • XI's Powerup Kit also added tutorials to explain the expanded mechanics.
    • The early stages of Hero Mode are XIII's tutorials; once the player reaches the scenario as Cao Cao during Guandu, that and subsequent scenarios are advanced tutorials meant to hone in the player's ability to win battles and plot strategically to overcome time and resource constraints.
      • Similar to XI, XIII's Powerup Kit added some new Hero Mode stages that functioned as tutorials for the expanded mechanics.
    • XIV has four brief tutorials that introduce you to the game's mechanics. If you click Start New Game for the first time without playing the tutorials, the game will suggest finishing them first.
      • As with XI and XIII, the expansion pack added two additional tutorials to explain the expanded mechanics.
  • You Killed My Father: It's generally a bad idea to execute an officer who still had relative(s). The more relatives he had, the more bear grudges against you and attack you when you randomly met them.

In addition, VII, VIII, X and XIII provide examples of:

  • Character Shilling: Played with in XIII. While the game uses events from the novel as its base, some details in the original novel which shilled Shu characters like Liu Bei / Zhuge Liang or had characters do questionable/illogical stuff were removed. E.g. Zhuge Liang was not shown using fire attacks at Bowang or Xinye; his first assignment (just like in history) was becoming Liu Bei's emissary to Sun Quan in order to forge the anti-Cao alliance. Liu Bei also did not drop Liu Shan after Zhao Yun's exploits at Changban. On Wu's side, Zhou Yu was depicted as regarding Zhuge Liang solely as a threat to Wu's plans, leaving out the personal jealousy which was rampant in the novel. Lu Su was depicted as a competent advisor, and not the bumbling fool from the novel; Zhuge Liang did not invite him on board the boat during the attempt to "borrow" the 10,000 arrows from Cao Cao, and the whole part where Zhuge provoked Zhou Yu by using the two Qiaos was left out. During Chi Bi itself, there is also no mention of Kan Ze delivering Huang Gai's letter to Cao (which did not happen historically).
  • Cool Old Lady: Wu Guotai, the wife of Sun Jian and mother of Sun Ce, Sun Quan and (in XIII) Shang Xiang, and the grandmother of Lady Sun (Lu Xun's wife, who is Sun Ce's daughter).
  • Doomed by Canon: In XIII, if events are set to follow history, the various Disaster Dominoes will happen (examples are He Jin granting land to the various warlords, Dong Zhuo burning Luoyang and Sun Jian being ambushed by Huang Zu). If playing as the character, the player can of course choose to forge an alternate path.
  • Fat Bastard: In XIII, He Jin and Dong Zhuo. While Dong is at least competent, He is a useless character with mediocre stats.
  • Guide Dang It!:
    • As Zhuge Liang in the scenario depicting the preparation for Chi Bi, not using cavalry to increase your troops' movement speed may leave you with too little time to conquer Changsha and Guiyang. Guiyang has an officer which can be instantly recruited if Zhao Fan (the ruler of the city) is defeated; recruiting this officer is crucial to the first objective of the scenario.
    • As Guan Yu, killing too many troops while besieging Xinye may leave you with too little to withstand the Wei-Wu counterattacks.
  • Historical In-Joke: In XIII, if you become a "free" officer, Sima Hui will appear to inform you of the victory conditions for your Prestige class. In the background, a voice actor will say "Good! Good!" This refers to the fact that Sima was recorded in history as never having a bad word for anyone or anything and frequently saying "Good! Good!".
  • Intrepid Merchant: XIII allows you to play as one, if you are a "free" character. By advancing in rank, a merchant can eventually invest in the various powers, becoming a power broker. The "intrepid" part comes as you or your comrades travel all over China to buy and sell grain for maximum profit.
  • Kid Hero:
    • Possible in XIII, where you can play individual officers. The youngest officer you can play (Cao Zhang in "Three Visits") is 12.
    • In X, the youngest officer you can play is 14.
  • Lady of War: Possible in XIII, where you can play individual officers, you can play characters such as Sun Shangxiang. XIII is also the first game where you can play as (almost) any female character who appeared in the time period.
  • Last-Name Basis: If female characters appear, chances are that they are only referred to as (insert surname) Shi, meaning "Lady (surname)".
  • Little Miss Snarker: In the "Three Visits" event of VIII, Zhuge Liang has a girl servant who, after Zhuge Liang told her that he's too busy to meet Liu Bei, snarks that his "business" is just go fishing with Huang Chengyan (his father-in-law).
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: In XIII, one of the quests you can do to gain a character's friendship is to search for an ancient wine with him/her (after deciphering an ancient riddle on a scroll). Once you are at the "correct" city, both of you end up on a fruitless search. In desperation, it is decided by both of you that an old gentleman would be the last person to be asked before the search is called off. While the old gentleman did have the wine with him, both of you realised that he vanished into thin air just as you were sampling the great wine...
  • Mook Lieutenant: In X, an officer can command more than one unit but they can only directly lead one. Other units under their command will be led by their unnamed "Lieutenant".
  • Never a Self-Made Woman: In XIII, name any female officer whom you can play as, and it is almost guaranteed that their male relatives are more famous than them. A possible exception is Pang E. note 
  • Plot Armor: In X, as long as the story is still relatively on track, some forces (namely, Liu Bei) get attacked very infrequently, compared to how weak their cities are. Reinforced by the fact that, the minute the plot goes off track, they are instantly steamrolled by another force (namely, Cao Cao).
    • In XIII, there is an option to enable or disable this. It explicitly states that, if enabled, AI will try to follow the history.
  • Relationship Values: In XIII, in addition to the game's traditional loyalty mechanic, you can have Rapport with your ruler, fellow officers, or even officers or rulers from other forces.
    • In the installments where you play as a character, such values often determine the mileage and leverage your character gets with other characters.
  • RPG Elements: VII, VIII, X and XIII are all from the viewpoint of one officer whom you control. Other games in the series allow skill point upgrades as well.
  • Secret Test of Character: In an event of VIII, a stranger named Dan Fu visits Liu Bei in his house and claimed that Liu Bei's house is cursed, so he should sell it. He then asked Liu Bei if he agreed with him. If Liu Bei gave the correct answernote  and noted that he doesn't want to sell a cursed house to other people, Dan Fu happily revealed he was just testing him to see if Liu Bei is truly a benevolent man like everyone said or not. The man's true identity is also revealed to be none other than Xu Shu, who would be Liu Bei's first strategist, and he decides to serve Liu Bei afterwards.
  • Sequence Breaking: Can be done in two scenarios in XIII's Hero Mode, with different results. Coincidentally, both situations involve the same city.
    • As Sun Quan in the scenario depicting his first years in power, conquering Jiangxia before fulfilling the first objective (which involves domestic affairs) will allow you to face less troops when attacking the city.
    • As Lu Xun in the leadup to Yiling, conquering Jiangxia early will result in a Game Over.
  • Walking the Earth: One of the possible endings in X if China is unified (by a computer-controlled Emperor) while your character is a free officer.