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Twelve Warlords. Three Kingdoms. One Land.

"At fifteen I joined the army on expedition, Only at eighty did I finally return."
—Beginning lines of At Fifteen I joined the Army on Expedition
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Total War: Three Kingdoms is an RTS game developed by Creative Assembly and published by Sega. It is the latest of the Total War series; set during the Three Kingdoms era. The era has been popularised in operas, folk stories, novels and in more recent times, films, television, and video games. The best known of these is Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The year is 190CE (the first year of the Chu Ping era), and Emperor Ling had just died the previous year. China is in turmoil, as the Han Dynasty crumbles before the child-emperor, Liu Xie. He is but a figurehead; a mere puppet for the tyrant warlord Dong Zhuo. It is a brutal and oppressive regime, and as Dong Zhuo’s power grows, the empire slips further into the cauldron of anarchy. But hope yet blossoms.

Three heroes, sworn to brotherhood in the face of tyranny, rally support for the trials ahead. Scenting opportunity, warlords from China’s great families follow suit, forming a fragile coalition in a bid to challenge Dong Zhuo’s remorseless rule. Will they triumph against the tyrant, or will personal ambition shatter their already crumbling alliance and drive them to supremacy?

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The crucible fizzes. Allegiances shift. The fires of conflict stoke opportunity. Only one thing is certain: the very future of China will be shaped by its champions. Total War: Three Kingdoms is the next major historical strategy game in the award-winning Total War series.

Listening to player feedback after the controversial shift in gameplay Total War: Warhammer and Total War: Warhammer II introduced, Three Kingdoms offers two modes which drastically alter the character of the game. In Romance Mode, Three Kingdoms takes on more aspects of Luo Guanzhong's story as well as Wuxia and heroic fantasy - generals are larger-than-life heroes who can cut through entire units on their own and unleash near-supernatural abilities to aid their soldiers and win the day. By contrast, Records Mode dials things back into a more grounded and historical experience reminiscent of the older Total War entries - generals and their bodyguards are still powerful battlefield assets, but you can't just run them through an army and hope for the best.

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The game was released on May 23, 2019 for PC, with the Yellow Turban factions as Pre-Order/Day One DLC.

The first expansion pack, Eight Princes, was released on August 8th, 2019. It covers the War of the Eight Princes that led to the downfall of the Western Jin Dynasty and the second division of China, just over a decade after the conclusion of the Three Kingdoms period in the year 280CE and a century after the events of the "Three Kingdoms" campaign. note 

The second expansion pack, Mandate of Heaven, was released on January 16th, 2020. It adds a new start date: 182CE, the year of Sun Quan's birth and two years before the historical start of the Yellow Turban Rebellion. It adds the Zhang brothers as Yellow Turban warlords, and adds 3 sub-factions to the Han Empire, led by Emperor Liu Hong note , Prince Liu Chong note , and Lu Zhi note  respectively. Tao Qian would also be made playable as part of the free patch accompanying the DLC, and owners of Mandate will be able to play as Liu Chong in the 190CE campaign. note  The DLC also adds unique new campaign mechanics, events (including the Liang Province Rebellion), and objectives, along with new battlefield units and new unit abilities.

The third expansion pack, A World Betrayed, was released on March 19th, 2020. It adds a new start date: 194CE, the first year of the Xing Ping era. The expansion focuses on Lu Bu and Sun Ce. For Lu Bu, it has been two years since he killed Dong Zhuo, and he is about to have a showdown with Cao Cao over Yan Province. For Sun Ce, he has just broken free from Yuan Shu, historically his father's former liege, and is about to embark on his own quest to conquer Jiangdong, a feat which historically earned him his moniker of Little Conqueror. At the same time, Liu Bei succeeded Tao Qian as governor of Xu Province. Yan Baihu, a native warlord of Jiangdong, would be made playable as part of the free patch accompanying the DLC. The free patch also adds unique mechanics for the bandit factions, events and objectives, along with new battlefield units and new unit abilities.


Total War: Three Kingdoms contains examples of the following:

  • Adaptational Badass:
    • Yuan Shu, who is commonly depicted as a scheming warlord rather than a powerful general, is given combat abilities, a marked departure from his real-life personality.
    • Kong Rong leads a playable faction and can charge into battle just as anyone else can. Historically, he's famous for being a descendant of Kong Qiu/Confucius, a very clever child, his literary style, and being executed (probably) by Cao Cao for being incredibly rude.
    • Same goes for Zhuge Liang, who even in the novel for all of his military strategy was a Non-Action Guy, whereas here he is a competent enough fighter. Jia Xu, another capable (if often underrated) military master strategist, but definitely not a warrior somehow got turned into a Ninja-esque Assassin with the title "Blade in the Dark". And let's not even get started on the females, who all can participate in combat just like everybody else...
  • The Alliance: The Rise of the Warlords campaign starts shortly after the anti-Dong Zhuo coalition falls apart. Factions can form new coalitions with other factions and possibly, alliances which are more tightly-binding. It should be noted that coalition and alliance members' territories count toward the 95 counties required for victory.
  • Amazon Brigade: In Records mode, Sun Ren comes with an all-female bodyguard unit. note 
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Some characters in Romance mode are portrayed with anachronistic equipment to fit their image in the popular narrative, like Guan Yu's yanyuedao glaive and Lü Bu's plate mail armour and trident ji. The Records mode replaces most of these with period-accurate equipment.
    • The main siege weapon shown in the game is the counterweight trebuchet, which didn't appear anywhere in the world until much later in history. This was most likely done for gameplay purposes and ease of animation.
    • In Zheng Jiang's trailer, there is a scene where some farmers are seen growing rice. During this era in Northern China, the staple food of the era was millets as rice wouldn't be introduced to Northern China centuries after the Three Kingdoms era. This is accurately reflected in-game, as farms in the north produced grain while those located in the south produced rice.
  • An Adventurer Is You: Non-Yellow Turban factions have five different types of Generals available to them, while YT factions have three:
    • Commander: Golden-clothed leaders of men, connected to the Earth. They act largely as a Buffer for your forces and grant bonuses to melee cavalry in particular. They also increase satisfaction for other characters in their army. As administrators they reduce corruption and give Public Order. Their traits emphasize the traits of the wise and benevolent ruler. Their Stat is Authority.
    • Champion: Paragons of the people and impeccable duelists dressed in Green, connected to Wood. Champions are hero-killers that duel enemy generals; though they suffer somewhat in large combats. As administrators, they buff population growth. Their traits are connected to decency, friendliness and down-to-earth pragmatism. Their Stat is Resolve.
    • Sentinel: Defiant and rugged warriors and survivalists that can take a punch, just as the Metal they are fashioned after. They lead shield-wielding melee infantry and buff general survivability of the army. As administrators, they add bonuses to industry among others. Their traits are equally immovable, and are concerned with loyalty and willpower. Their Stat is Expertise.
    • Vanguard: The military noble, a wild, headstrong warrior that crashes into danger like a raging Fire. They buff shock cavalry to nasty levels and have many abilities that deal Area of Effect damage. As administrators, they improve garrisons and other military capabilities. Their traits are fiery and passionate, all about following one's insticts and heart - sometimes at the loss of tact or smarts. Their stat is Instinct.
    • Strategist: Wily and cunning masters of plots and tactics, who's plans flow like Water on the battlefield. they give more supplies to the army, and more ammunition to ranged units. They can also Debuff enemy Generals with their wits. As administrators they give benefits to trade. Their traits are all about intelligence, wits and creativity, though also often scheming and underhanded-ness. Their Stat is Cunning.
    • Scholar: A Yellow Turban leader who believes in humility. They act as Sentinels, having higher Expertise with middling Resolve and Authority and low Instinct and Cunning. They are Potters, Jade-Carvers, Brewers, Builders, and Farmers.
    • Veterans: A Yellow Turban leader who believes in frugality. They act as Champions having high resolve with middling expertise and cunning, low to mid instinct, and low authority. They are philosophers, sorcerers, writers, astolgers, and monks.
    • Healer: A Yellow Turban leader who believes in compassion. They act as Vanguard having high instinct with middling resolve and authority and low expertise and cunning. They are advisors, singers, musicians, fortune-teller, and physicians.
  • And Now for Someone Completely Different: Lü Bu's campaign is accessed by playing Dong Zhuo's and letting history take its course.
  • Anti-Frustration Features: Several new changes have been incorporated into the diplomacy.
    • Once you suggest a diplomatic treaty, the player can click on a "Make it work" button that instantly makes the A.I. tell you what it wants in exchange for your offer.
    • A "quick deal" button has been added to the diplomacy screen, showing you a list of diplomatic deals and all known factions, and shows you how likely each faction is to agree to any selected deal. It then allows you to propose that deal, separate from the regular diplomacy menu.
    • Each treaty shows in numerical terms what impacts it has on the trade balance, and a tooltip breaks that number down by contributing factors, removing a lot of the guesswork from diplomacy.
    • Do you have no shame about Save Scumming? Well, you'll be glad to hear that you're now able to just immediately rematch a battle that you've lost instead of quitting and loading the last save.
    • When playing as the Yellow Turbans, after taking over a city, the game will automatically convert buildings within the city to their Yellow Turban equivalents.
  • Annoying Arrows: In Romance Mode, heroes can take entire barrages of arrow fire with nigh a scratch on them. However, it is a different story if it's the defensive towers that are firing at them.
  • Apathetic Citizens: Nope.
    • In the 182 C.E. start date, the sparks are already gathering for the inferno, and players have to either fan them further (as the Yellow Turbans) or extinguish them (as every one else). By 190 C.E., the Yellow Turban Rebellion was barely suppressed a few years prior, and low public order from misrule can re-ignite smouldering embers into a new inferno. It is even possible for a spy to deliberately incite a Yellow Turban uprising.
    • Enforced in Eight Princes, whereby "public order" was replaced by "noble support". note  The most obvious difference is that overcrowding, which lowered public order in the Three Kingdoms campaign, has no effect on noble support.
  • Area of Effect: Most Vanguards and some Champions have access to Herd-Hitting Attack abilities that allow them to kill hordes of enemy soldiers in a single attack.
  • Arbitrary Headcount Limit: A non-unit example. There can only be three kingdoms at once in a single game regardless of how many other candidates out there that can establish their own kingdom. This can lead to a situation where Sun Jian survives well into the later stages of the war, but cannot declare himself emperor despite wanting to do so historically because there are already three kingdoms. The only way for a non-kingdom faction to become a kingdom is to conquer the seat of a kingdom.
    • For some reason, any given army can also consist of no more than three generals leading six battalions each into battle.
  • Artificial Stupidity:
    • There are numerous complaints and examples about how broken and unreliable the autoresolve system in this game is. This is because the autoresolve doesn't take many important factors into account and seems to be biased in favor of other, less important ones like numerical superiority and settlement defenses.
    • If the side of your frontline get routed, instead of pressing the advantage and flank your now exposed side, the A.I will direct their units to attack your remaining frontline at the front, where they are likely get bogged down again.
    • If the AI has reinforcements coming up during a battle, they will often prioritize rendezvousing with the main army above everything else. Like avoiding or engaging the player's units that are cutting them off from doing so. If you can place your own units where the enemy reinforcements spawn, you can essentially slaughter all of the reinforcements free of charge.
  • Artistic License – Economics: The game combines both fiscal corruption and inflation into one statistic, seeing as how better mints and coinage can reduce "corruption". This was probably done to simplify the interface.
  • Artistic License – History: Having Kong Rong as a faction leader who focuses on trade is an odd choice, as he is a descendant of Kong Qiu, better known as Confucius, who was famously against trade and the merchant class. Then again, the the Discourses of Salt and Iron during the early Han Dynasty saw Confucian scholars argue in favor of laissez-faire economic policies that promoted private enterprise, while their opposite numbers argued in favor of government monopolies on salt and iron to better fund national defense efforts against the Xiongnu beyond the Great Wall.
    • The Battle of Xingyang historical scenario gives Cao Cao command of elite infantry units, allowing the player to win against Dong Zhuo's general Xu Rong relatively easily. In reality, the battle was a devastating loss for Cao Cao precisely because his army (like most of the coalition's) was a slapdash host of brigands, displaced peasants and mercenaries, which stood no chance against the professional Han troops arrayed against them.
    • City population increases with time in the game. Maximum population of Imperial cities is 8.5 million people. A census taken in 156 CE placed the population of the Han Dynasty at 56 million plus people. A census taken by the Jin Dynasty in 280 CE had the Chinese population at only 16 million plus people despite all former territory being reclaimed. Mind you, census data only counted people who paid their taxes so tax evaders and corruption made those numbers unreliable, but the actual decrease in population was similarly drastic.
    • Sun Jian and Yuan Shu are also presented as fellow warlords standing on equal ground becoming allies through happenstance. Historically Yuan Shu was Sun Jian's (and after his death Sun Ce's) overlord, precisely because at the time Sun Jian was little more than a mercenary captain called up to fight in the coalition war against Dong Zhuo. The Sun clan abandoned Yuan Shu only when he declared himself emperor.
  • Ascended Extra:
    • Zheng Jiang, a female bandit who is only mentioned on a single line in Records of the Three Kingdoms note , is a full-fledged playable lord.
    • In a lesser manner, He Man. He died in the paragraph he debuted by a minor member of the Cao family, Cao Hong. While he's not a playable lord like Zheng Jiang, he is nevertheless a Unique general serving under He Yi, with a face and traits of his own.
  • Automatic Crossbows: The Chinese repeating crossbow shows up as an infantry weapon. Its rate of fire makes it deadly against unarmoured targets, but the weak mechanism severely limits its range and effectiveness against armour.
  • Automaton Horses: Averted for once. Cavalry units are slower compared to the previous games and tire out faster, with heavy cavalry receiving heftier penalties. This is actually quite true to life: horses of the period were relatively small, and horseshoes and stirrups were still quite limited in use. Played straight with the Qiang cavalry available to Ma Teng's faction, which are immune to fatigue to highlight their steppe nomad heritage.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: The highest tier administration building which reduces corruption has a version whereby the corruption reduction extends to surrounding commanderies. However, the building(s) can only work if the faction has access to jade, which is found only in two settlements in the whole of China. Unless a faction can physically occupy a jade mine, constructing this administration building runs the risk of it failing when trade access to jade is cut off by the faction's trade partner.
    • For that matter, administration buildings which reduce corruption are this as they require fairly-built up cities. In contrast, mints can be built in less-developed towns.
    • Certain reforms have powerful effects, but require the completion of two or more branches before they can be implemented.
    • Lü Bu and Sima Yi are both extremely powerful in their respective battlefield roles, but are notoriously difficult to keep satisfied in your court.
    • Certain factions have abilities and playing styles that are very good or interesting on paper, but are offset by other disadvantages in practice:
      • Kong Rong favors a mostly conflict-free playing style that benefits greatly from trade and diplomacy. Now if only due to his starting position he didn't have to bear the brunt of Yellow Turban attacks on the map and could trade with somebody other than with only Liu Bei for the first 15 or so turns...
      • Liu Bei himself has the very powerful option to peacefully take over Han Empire settlements and starts with a strong army surrounded by two natural allies, Kong Rong and Tao Qian, who will mostly get in your way in terms of expansion the first couple turns.
      • Liu Biao can generate increased character experience for his officers, the only two really noteworthy ones amongst whom are Huang Zhong and Liu Biao himself who are both liable to die sooner or later.
  • Badass Family: Characters who are related to each other can share significant boosts in combat.
  • Badass Long Robe: Averted Trope - unlike the other character types, Strategists wear robes on the battlefield while everyone wears armour. They also are unable to enter duels unlike all other officer types, and die about as fast as you'd expect when they get into combat.
  • Balkanize Me:
    • For 190 CE, the only large factions are Dong Zhuo and the utterly weak Han empire, with warlords peppering the land.
    • In the Eight Princes campaign, while the Jin Empire is not passive like the Han, it too will crumble once the numerous vassal princes (and not just the titular eight) decided that they too want a piece of the real estate.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence: The promotional materials have shown a few, namely Cao Cao's pursuit of Dong Zhuo at Xingyang (190CE) and his showdown with Yuan Shao at Guandu (200CE). note 
  • Big Good: Cao Cao is portrayed as such in the initial trailers, but after the release of 'A Hero's Journey' trailer, it is clear that this figure is actually Liu Bei. In addition, in the campaign map, Liu has traits such as 'Kind' and 'Humble'. Also, he is described as the Leader of the People, reflecting his role in the original Romance (even if this was debatable in real life).
  • Bilingual Bonus:
    • The theme song is "十五從軍征" (Shiwu cong jun zheng - At fifteen I joined the army on expedition), featured as the page quote.
    • The songs heard in Cao Cao's trailer is "蒿里行" (Hāolǐ Háng), a historical poem by Cao Cao himself lamenting the collapse of the Guandong Alliance before they could bring Dong Zhuo to justice, and the fate of his friendship with Yuan Shao in particular.
    • Sun Jian's trailer has the song "The billowing Long River flows east" note , commenting that all heroic or monstrous deeds, after ages, mean little and only linger on in the commoner's gossips.
    • Liu Bei's trailer has ""蜀道难" (Shu dao nan - The Difficulty of the Shu Road) written by the great poet Li Bai during the Tang dynasty describing the treacherous road in the country of Shu.
    • The "Eight Princes" trailer features the "Seven Steps Verse" poem by Cao Zhi, one of Cao Cao's sons. It served as allegory of the ruinous nature of infighting between brothers over petty matters, mirroring the chaos and destruction that the struggle between the princes of the Sima family would bring upon their dynasty.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality:
    • For all the talk of peace and order, all the Warlords during the game are ruthless Generals readily sending thousands upon thousands of soldiers to their death, ostensibly "for the good of the realm". Even the ones who are legitimately interested in decency like Liu Bei, Kong Rong or arguably Cao Cao are still warlords who press the peasantry to their breaking-point to feed their armies and fight their battles, and the Yellow Turbans are little different except that they replace feudalism with an inefficient system of collective management. And that's just the Grey ones! The Black ones, such as Dong Zhuo, Yuan Shu or Zheng Jiang are entirely self-serving and could care less if they have to slaughter the entirety of China to stay on top. It must be said though that, on a personal level, quite a lot of the characters in-game are very good people, who wish to help others and save the peasantry from tyranny and chaos. Only a few characters are legitimately cruel and horrible people, and many are extremely virtuous and decent. Random characters can fall everywhere on the spectrum, depending on their Traits.
    • Played straight in the Eight Princes campaign: All of the warring leaders are members of Sima family whose struggle for power is motivated either by a genuine desire to restore order or the plain out ambition of taking the Imperial throne for themselves, yet none of them would have acted were it not for Jia Nanfeng's scheming and messing of the Imperial Order. This also extends beyond the Sima family as the period is characterized by the self-interest and indolence of the nobility and officers at the growing crisis.
  • Blade on a Stick:
    • A weapon favoured by many during this period. Prominent users include Lü Bu (halberd) Guan Yu (The Green Dragon Crescent Blade, a guandao) and Zhang Fei (serpent spear).
    • Infantry units seemingly heavily use spears, alongside large shields, forming up in tight formations for protection against arrow volleys.
    • The ji halberd is also a common weapon.
  • Bows Versus Crossbows: While bow units have more ammunition and access to fire arrows, crossbows have a longer range and are more effective against armoured or shielded units.
  • Butt-Monkey: The Han empire is this, as the faction is unable to recruit troops or build buildings. In addition, any faction who has Liu Xie in their possession can march up to any Han settlement, pay the coin cost and just take over the administration.
    • At the meta level, AI Yuan Shu is treated like this, as his unique Legitimacy mechanic makes him less liked by the other factions. Along with his rather precarious starting position, he's often treated like The Friend Nobody Likes.
  • Caltrops: The Mandate of Heaven expansion adds the ability for units to throw caltrops to slow others down.
  • Cavalry Refusal: A literal example is seen in Cao Cao's trailer. As he engages in battle against Dong Zhuo's forces, Cao Cao spots Yuan Shao and his men on a nearby hill and signals to him to join the fight. Unfortunately for him, Yuan Shao chooses against reinforcing him and rides away, leaving Cao Cao to face defeat.
    • This is a (very dramatized) retelling of the actual circumstances behind the Battle of Xingyang: Cao Cao attempted to rally the Coalition by pressing his own army forwards as a vanguard, but the rest of the Coalition under Yuan Shao remained indecisive on how to best prosecute the war and refused to follow him. As a result of this indecisiveness Cao Cao suffered a decisive defeat and became much more hostile to Yuan Shao, further accelerating the Coalition's demise.
  • The Chessmaster: Cao Cao is a brilliant military strategist (one of the finest of his era), but as his trailer depicts, his true skill is maneuvering himself into greater power. His unique abilities are also themed around this, allowing him extra ways to influence relationships and even incite proxy wars.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Depending on their traits, some faction leaders may be prone to this, and they (obviously) tend to be poor allies or vassals.
  • Civil War:
    • The historical "Three Kingdoms" are the Kingdoms of Wu, Shu-Han and Wei. They all consider themselves to be China. You can imagine this leads to quite a few violent disagreements.
    • In a World Betrayed, the faction formerly led by Dong Zhuo will descend into this as Li Jue and Guo Si fight among themselves.
    • The "Eight Princes" campaign covers the conflict between the eight members of the Sima family that would eventually lead to the end of a unified Jin dynasty and the barbarian invasions of Northern China.
    • On a meta level, you can trigger this if your spy manages to infiltrate the top ranks of an enemy faction. Of course, enemy spies can also do the same to you.
  • Colour-Coded for Your Convenience:
    • The Wu Xing ("Five Elements") are assigned colours for easy identification. This extends to the Reform tree and troop types.
    • Diplomatic stances are also color-coded when the AI factions take their turns. Factions leaders at war with you have a red background around their portraits, allies are blue while vassals are green. Leaders at war with your alliance are marked in pink.
  • Conservation of Ninjutsu: Enforced in Romance mode. If a duel is taking place between two Generals, no one will interfere unless you specifically order the unit to - even when it's a single General vs another AND his five units of Ji Militia.
  • Cosmetically Different Sides: Downplayed among the non-Yellow Turban factions. Each leader has strengths in different fields, and while certain troops are common among them, they usually have unique troop types and buildings. Averted by the Yellow Turbans, who have entirely different buildings and reforms, and unique playstyles. They cannot even recruit officers from non-Yellow Turban factions.
  • Culture Clash: Yellow Turban factions have a heavy diplomacy penalty with other factions and can't offer any treaties initially. Slowly as they gain in strength, they can start making actual deals with factions. At top level, they are legitimized as much as any warlord or governor faction. Then you have a choice of who you pick as your emperor. Seat a peasant child who seems blessed, seat a noble man's son that started supporting you early in the war, or seat yourself. The former and the latter are treated as illegitimate by every other faction. If you seat the nobleman's son, you gain a diplomacy bonus that completely counteracts the initial penalty. It doesn't REMOVE the penalty as you are still an army led by peasants and revolutionaries undermining feudalism, but the other factions respect you for supporting noble lineage. Also, all heros of other factions will refuse to join you. You are stuck with Veterans, Scholars, and Healers are your generals.
  • Darker and Edgier: The "Eight Princes" DLC, which covers the conflict of the eponymous eight princes of the Sima family, is depicted as such in comparison to the main campaign. In contrast to how the warlords of the "Three Kingdoms" era were presented with some degree of heroism or romance, the trailer focuses more in the bitter nature of the infighting between the family members that would ruin the Jin Dynasty.
  • Death by Adaptation: Xun Yu, who was a junior civil servant at the beginning of the game's timeframe, is set up as an Early-Bird Boss for Zheng Jiang, which means that he usually bites it a few turns into the game. Averted from patch 1.3.0 onwards, which turns him into a unique character and places him in Han Fu's faction.
  • Decapitated Army: Retinue units take a large morale hit if their attached commander is defeated and can no longer rally if they break. The same applies to the sub-commanders if the commanding General dies.
  • Difficult, but Awesome:
    • Playing as Yuan Shu is this, as it is not immediately apparent how his Demand Legitimacy diplomacy action really works. As it counts as a benevolent diplomatic action, if a faction accepts his Demand Legitimacy, they get a relationship boost with him, while factions friendly to that faction get a smaller boost with Yuan. Thus, if the player plays the diplomacy game right, it will be easy to build good relationships with many factions with proper use of Demand Legitimacy.
    • Dong Zhuo's starting position in 190 CE is, in a word, precarious: literally everyone hates/is at war with you, your second in command and greatest general is Benedict Arnold on steroids, you're tied at the hip to the dying Han Dynasty which drags you into war after war as people beat on it, and your local stomping ground is effectively Mordor (that is, a desolate wasteland ringed by mountains). However, should you survive the first couple dozen turns, you essentially become forgotten as the other factions turn on each other. Moreover, you realize that the supposed backwater you're sitting on is in fact a gold mine: not only is northwest China replete with mines and horse pastures, you sit astride a major commercial waterway and the frigging terminus of the Silk Road. Dong Zhuo's faction thus becomes incredibly powerful mid-late game, as your economic strength allows you to raise huge armies and roll over your weak neighbors with little to no fuss.
    • Liu Biao and his faction in 190 CE. He starts just north of Sun Jian and south of Cao Cao, which is not an enviable position. He also starts as a rather old faction leader, meaning he’ll die pretty quickly, which causes a loss of satisfaction for all generals for some time. He has access to only one legendary hero at the start (admittedly badass Huang Zhong), and Liu Biao's two sons have a rivalry ongoing. Satisfying your generals especially after he dies will be a problem in the early game. But once he’s dead and his son takes over and enters mid game...things suddenly start to look up. Having two sons means lots of grandchildren and they’re old enough and leveled up enough to take part in operations. Liu Biao's “average” generals also level up rather quickly due to his unique buildings and court system, creating a band of nice high level generals. Moreover, all of Liu Biao's armies have excellent Jing Infantry (spear guards but better) that can be recruited by any general, and since you had to crush either Cao Cao or Sun Jian to survive, you have all the nice resource-rich land between the Yangtze and Yellow rivers to just build up and face all your enemies.
  • The Dragon: Dong Zhuo's adopted son, Lü Bu , is this to him.
  • Dramatic Irony: The use of the "Seven Steps Verse" song in the "Eight Princes" trailer takes a new depth when you consider that the poem was composed by Cao Zhi, a member of the very family the Sima had deposed to establish the Jin Dynasty.
  • Do Well, but Not Perfect: In the Three Kingdoms campaign, the player would do well to remember that as the faction leader rises in rank or power, the endgame becomes closer and closer. Should any human-controlled faction leader reach the rank of King, the game will automatically crown the top three ranked non-governor faction leaders emperors, and the three factions will automatically declare war on each other. Governor factions cannot be crowned emperors this way; they must capture the capital of an existing emperor instead. Inverted with the alignment system in Eight Princes, as the alignments have only bonuses at the lower and highest end of the scale note , but have both bonuses and penalties while being in the middle note .
  • Duel to the Death: A mechanic inside Romance mode, with any general on the field being able to challenge any enemy non-Strategist general to one. Potentially downplayed in that either side can choose to leg it even after accepting, but the morale penalty from doing this anyway just might cost their side the battle too.
    • To be more precise, outright refusing a duel will result in heavy morale loss for the side of the general that refused. if a duel is accepted, a timer will begin. If a general dies, their side suffer heavy morale losses. If a general survives the timer, the duel ends, and if the general managed to survive the duration of the timer desptie the enemy being stronger than them, their side will gain a morale boost at seeing their general hold his own against a superior opponent.
  • Dysfunctional Family:
    • The godfather-godson duo that is Dong Zhuo and Lü Bu. note 
    • Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu, who are often at loggerheads. note 
    • Taken to a new level in the Eight Princes DLC, where all of the eight playable lords are warring members of the Sima family.
  • Easy Logistics: Still there to a degree, but handled more elegantly than in the past. Armies now carry supplies, which recover in friendly territory and deplete when in hostile territory or besieged; low supplies mean attrition. Additionally, new units no longer pop into existence with a full headcount after a set number of turns, instead being recruited gradually over that time much like replenishment.
    • Played straight with the new retinue system: you can recall a general's retinue anywhere in your empire, then deploy it again elsewhere within your territory in the next turn, plus a few turns to muster the units to full strength. This functions as an Anti-Frustration Feature, as moving your armies between fronts would take too long otherwise. Also, you can only field a fixed number of generals per season.
  • End of an Era: Twofold during the "Eight Princes" campaign, the unification of China ten years prior saw the definitive end to the "Three Kingdoms" period and the Civil War caused by the princes would cause the end of the Early Imperial period and the second division of China.
  • Evil Is Bigger: The cinematic trailer shows Lü Bu towering over common foot soldiers, wearing a formidable suit of armour and effortlessly slaughtering several coalition swordsmen in the blink of an eye.
  • Evil Matriarch: Empress Jia Nanfeng serves as the Big Bad of the "Eight Princes" campaign due to her role in the destabilization of the already fragile political order within the Jin Dynasty, which lead to the Civil War.
  • Eyepatch of Power: Xiahou Dun, one of Cao Cao's generals, can be depicted with an eyepatch as per tradition. He will initially have both eyes, until the event that causes him to lose one happens.
  • Fat Bastard: Dong Zhuo has a massive gut, as he's often depicted in media.
  • Foe-Tossing Charge: Generals can get the Mighty Knockback skill which will naturally do this on a successful charge.
  • For Great Justice: By far what most of the Warlords describe as being their main drive. The smallfolk suffers and corruption reaches critical mass - literally with the bloated tyrant Dong Zhuo - which is why most of the Warlords broke with the Han Empire. Their actual drive may differ, however...
  • Freeze-Frame Bonus: None of the Eight Princes of Sima are named in the trailer, however the banners of their armies have the characters of their titles; coupled with a bit knowledge on the events that followed allows one to guess their names. (In order of appearence: Sima Yue, Sima Liang, Sima Wei, Sima Jiong, Sima Ying, Sima Lun, Sima Ai and Sima Yong).
  • Full-Circle Revolution:
    • The Yellow Turbans are open about the fact that they seek to supplant the Han dynasty and its corrupt nobility with a new dynasty worthy of the Mandate of Heaven, and not overthrow the idea of an Emperor. If you achieve the Yellow Sky Mandate, you can even seat your own faction leader as Emperor just to rub it in; alternatively you can seat a random peasant on the throne and completely upset the social order instead.
    • Zheng Jiang hates the Han and wants to burn China to the ground. However, if she starts expanding, she'll find that she has to leave Han power structures in place and gradually develop into an Empress herself, soon becoming exactly what she was originally fighting against.
  • Geo Effects: Both the Yangtze and the Yellow River form formidable barriers. Unplanned conquests which leave a faction with territory on both sides of the rivers may have some difficulty in defence...
    • Depending on the location, lumber camps either cut bamboo or pine, which offer different bonuses.
  • Good Is Not Soft: Healers in the Yellow Turban factions are described as representing the compassion of the Revolution. However, they specifically have high instinct and mid level resolve meaning that they are fantastic at wiping out whole platoons of soldiers just like the vanguard.
  • Gunboat Diplomacy: An actual diplomatic option is to demand something from another faction which will cause a war declaration against them if it is not accepted.
  • Hard-Coded Hostility:
    • Yellow Turban playable factions cannot engage in the most rudimentary of diplomacy until the mid-game, and are essentially in a state of permanent war with the rest of China until the Three Kingdoms form. The Yellow Turban rebels are at war with everyone who isn't a playable Yellow Turban.
    • This also happens in the endgame. Once a human-controlled faction leader reaches the rank of King, the top three non-governor factions all declare themselves as emperors and automatically go to war.
  • Hegemonic Empire: Strong leaders on their way to unifying China often build this type of empire, by intimidating/bribing factions to become their vassals. Vassals have to give up a portion of their coin income to the hegemon, and have to seek permission before declaring war; they also cannot refuse their hegemon's request to go to war with the hegemon's target. Territory controlled by vassals count towards the territorial requirement part of the victory condition. However, hegemons are duty-bound to protect vassals from attacks. Failure to do so will allow the vassal being attacked to become independent and damage the hegemon's reputation.
  • Idle Rich: By the time of the "Eight Princes" campaign, the nobility has become detached from the political sphere unless they have something to gain out of it, making the Jin Dynasty strong on paper and weak in practice. This extends from the powerful clans to the new "gentry" class.
  • Impoverished Patrician: Downplayed.After the Emperor abdicates, there is a chance he'll appear in your court as a Commander. However, he is no longer being held as a political pawn, so it's not all bad.
  • Kill It with Fire: The best way to deal with a defender's very powerful towers is to burn them down with flaming arrows or flaming shot. These arrows can also cause a morale penalty to enemies hit to help rout them sooner.
  • Kung Fu-Proof Mook: Downplayed by Strategists, who are unable to duel. This however doesn't prevent others from sending just about any melee unit to probably kill them instead anyway.
  • Later Installment Weirdness: Downplayed. Unlike previous historical Total War titles, Three Kingdoms takes cues from the Total War: Warhammer games, such as One-Man Army generals with active abilities, battles focusing on clever use of high-powered actions, and one-on-one duels with Mook Chivalry, but only in the Romance mode. Playing in Records mode removes many of the fantastical elements for a more traditional Total War game.
  • Logical Weakness: The Yellow Turban faction relies on mass peasant support and weight of numbers. While this means that Turban armies can be raised and replenished with astonishing speed, their troops are a bewildering hodgepodge of types and roles, their cavalry support is subpar, and general officers appear relatively rarely.
  • Loyal to the Position: In a marked departure from past Total War games, troops under any individual officer are loyal to that officer only; they cannot be reassigned to another officer's command (unless the officer passed away outside of combat). Also, when the officer leaves a faction's service, the troops they command will also leave the faction with them.
  • Luck-Based Mission: Apart from Zhuge Liang, Zhou Yu and Sima Yi, none of the heroes who aren't on the map from the start are guaranteed to spawn in a given campaign. It's possible, for example, to play as Cao Cao and never come across Dian Wei or Xu Chu throughout your whole campaign.
  • Magikarp Power: The final level of some buildings and settlements introduces benefits which often are considerably more powerful than what the buildings/settlements have been producing previously. For instance, the final level of the Yellow Turban headquarters allows the appointment of one additional Local Leader (when previously the building is mainly about increasing public order). One option for the final level of the copper mine settlement decreases corruption (when previously the building is mainly about increasing industrial coin income).
    • In Cao Cao's hands, grain and rice settlements can be converted into facilities which increases the replenishment of retinues either within the commandery (grain) or faction-wide (rice).
  • Master of None: The Yellow Turban leaders are all like this except for some of the legendary characters. Veterans have the most in common with champions but can act like sentinels or vanguard. However, they're the only class leader in the Yellow Turbans to have any cunning worth a damn meaning they will be forced into the strategist role. Scholars are most like sentinels, but can act like champions or commanders. They are generally forced into the commander role because of their low instinct. Healers are most like vanguard and can act like champions or commanders. Furthermore, none of them can be equipped with armor manually. They are locked into whatever armor they start with and are randomly locked into a slightly better set of armor as they increase in rank. None of them are good duelists because of this and you will often have to interrupt their duels with other units - or refuse to duel entirely. Justified as the Yellow Turbans are a Revolution of the common people. The leaders' roles are downplayed for the betterment of all which is why many of their units are unbreakable. It's not uncommon to lose a battle with your leaders fleeing while the unbreakable units fight to the death to allow them time to escape.
  • Mêlée à Trois: What the endgame essentially boils down to. The moment a human-controlled faction leader reaches the rank of King, the game will immediately elevate the top three ranked non-governor faction leaders to emperors, and the three factions will declare war on each other.
  • Morality Kitchen Sink: The contenders for the Empire are people, with all that entails. Many of the warlords are noble individuals fighting to do what's right for China's people, others are scheming Well Intentioned Extremists, some are motivated by power and arrogance, and there's a sprinkling of downright bastards in the mix (such as Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu).
  • Morton's Fork: Vassals who are hated by factions who have agreements with you can be this when they're attacked by said factions. Should you decline to protect the vassal, the vassal becomes independent and you take a hit to reputation. Should you agree to defend the vassal, your reputation drops as you went to war shortly (immediately, really) after terminating the agreements.
  • Motive Decay: Each Warlord, no matter how dedicated they are to the Han, will not allow Emperor Xian to rule and will turn him into a puppet. Eventually, every faction, no matter their initial intentions, will decide that only they are capable of ruling as Emperor.
  • Nice Hat: All characters don fancy historical headgears.
  • Non-Indicative Name: Strictly speaking, the Three Kingdoms era truly began more than 30 years after the game's start date.
  • Obligatory War Crime Scene: One of the trailers shows Dong Zhuo's army razing the imperial capital of Luoyang and slaughtering civilian stragglers on their retreat to Chang'an.
  • One-Man Army: Generals in Romance mode, who can hold their own against entire units in the right matchups.
  • Only Six Faces: There's a limited number of characters with unique models, and generic characters have very little variance between them.
  • Origins Episode: In the 182 AD start date, players can play the origin stories of characters such as Cao Cao and Liu Bei.
  • The Power of Friendship: The Chinese cultural ideal of guanxi is adapted into a game mechanic, making characters with close relationships fight better when they're together on the battlefield.
  • Promoted to Playable: Dong Zhuo can be unlocked by becoming an Emperor with any of the starting warlords. And when you play his campaign, you will stumble upon an event that allows Lü Bu to usurp him as the faction leader.
  • Punny Name: With names like He Man, it was an inevitability that there would be no shortage of TW3K memes dedicated to Chinese names that hardly fit the proper definition of a name.
  • Puppet King: The child-emperor, Liu Xie, has no real power and is merely a figurehead (and hostage) to Dong Zhuo. Should any faction capture the city of Chang'an from Dong, Liu Xie would then become hostage to the faction and held in the new capital city.
  • Rain of Arrows:
    • Missile units are among the deadliest threats on the battlefield, with showers of arrows and crossbow bolts being able to decimate entire units before the battlelines even meet.
    • In Romance mode, some Heroes such as Taishi Ci, Gan Ning, Huang Zhong and He Man have access to the Hail of Arrows ability which allows them to fire what are essentially shotgun blasts into mobs of enemies. Yan Baihu has an event more powerful variant of this ability as his attacks are poisonous.
  • Redshirt Army: Early in the game, most armies will be compromised of peasants and militias who are likely to die by the thousands. Somewhat averted in that they actually deal decent damage; they just can't take it, which is what leads to such deadly confrontations.
  • The Remnant: At game start, the main Yellow Turban uprising has been put down, but Huang Shao, Gong Du and He Yi still lead local bands of Yellow Turbans and low public order can cause more to arise. If playing a Yellow Turban leader, your main objective is to reverse this state of affairs.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Civilized: The Yellow Turbans are capable of the same brutality as the nobles they oppose, including sacking towns, beheading surrendered enemies and press-ganging foes into their armies. On occasion, they can even come into conflict with local Yellow Turban uprisings. And, of course, ultimately their goal isn't to completely undo the Chinese social order, but simply put a more worthy dynasty in charge. In addition, they struggle with corruption as they do not have institutions to combat corruption; fighting corruption is dependent on Local Leadersnote  or assigning officers to the relevant assignment, which are limited in number.
  • The Revolution Will Not Be Vilified: That said, their factions' creed, technologies and the fluff text on most of their units and buildings make clear that the Yellow Turbans are ultimately motivated by a desire for justice and egalitarianism for China's peasantry; their farms, industrial buildings and housing buildings are collectivized instead of feudal, and all of their Legendary Lords (especially He Yi) are presented as humble and pious characters.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Generals declaring themselves "Oathsworn" to one another gain armour and ranged evasion buffs for fighting on the same battlefield...but if their Oathsworn falls on the battlefield, they/their unit will go berserk. Hope it won't be a Self-Destructive Charge for you!
  • Royals Who Actually Do Something:
    • Any character who crowns themselves Emperor will inevitably be this, having fought dozens of battles and done much to save the realm from chaos and turmoil.
    • The Eight Princes themselves could be considered a deconstruction as their direct involvement in the Civil War is what would condemn the Jin Dynasty to infamy and cost it the Imperial Throne. (In turn, this would be among the reasons for the lionizing of Liu Bei and vilification of Cao Cao in the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms, just to show how unpopular the Jin Dynasty was in later times).
  • The Savage South: Much of southern China is empty and potentially prosperous land waiting to be colonised, though the native peoples there may have a thing to say about the Han's expansionism.
  • Scenery Porn: The campaign map renders classical China, from the Central Plains to the southern karst mountains of Guilin, in breathtaking beauty.
  • Self-Destructive Charge: In Three Kingdoms, polearm units while braced can reflect a mounted unit's charge bonus back at them. You better believe this is what happens when shock cavalry charges into the front of such a unit.
  • Settling the Frontier: Downplayed. While the frontier does exist (in the south) and it is expensive to colonise abandoned settlements, it is not particularly dangerous otherwise.
  • Shown Their Work:
    • In the Sun Jian trailer, the Imperial Seal is shown to be a jade block with one corner replaced with gold. This is true to historical records: the seal was damaged in 9 CE when it was thrown into the ground by Empress Dowager Wang in response to Wang Mang's usurpation of the throne. Wang Mang would later order the damaged corner to be restored with gold.
    • The army banners use not only the correct Chinese characters for the names of faction leaders, but also have them written in seal script and clerical script, which were prevalent during the Han dynasty as the Chinese regular script hadn't been developed yet. One particular detail is Liu Bei's banner, which use the historically-accurate character 'Han' as opposed to the oft-depicted character 'Shu' seen in many other adaptations.
    • In Cao Cao's trailer, the Go game he played with Yuan Shao is reenacting a real gameplay from the Qing Dynasty. The black (Cao Cao) is struggling against the white (Yuan Shao) until it turns the table in the corner of the board, which the white did not see coming.
  • Shout-Out:
  • Sibling Rivalry: As it was in real life, Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu cannot stand each other in-game and can go to war. However, there are random events in which the player is allowed to choose an option that improves Yuan Shao's and Yuan Shu's relationship.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Several characters are shown playing weiqi (or Go).
  • Space-Filling Empire: Not the best way to complete your quest to rule all of China. As a faction's domain increases, corruption will increase, which in turn decreases coin income. Deciding whether to hold settlements or commanderies yourself or to parcel them out to trustworthy vassals is a major part of gameplay from mid-game onwards.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Although Anyone Can Die, some characters are scripted to survive events that would lead to their deaths in real life. For instance, when an AI Dong Zhuo almost inevitably gets killed, his brother Dong Min inherits the faction, whereas in reality he was executed as a Fall Guy for Lü Bu's betrayal.
  • Succession Crisis:
    • In the 190 AD start date, the Emperor is still nominally in charge (though whoever is keeping him in their court is the de facto ruler), but once he abdicates, it's every man for himself (and the Dragon Throne). Eventually, the three largest non-governor factions will declare themselves dynasties, and begin fighting among themselves for the right to become Emperor of all China.
    • The spark that starts the War of the Eight Princes revolves around the regency of the Emperor and the tricked disownment of the Crown Prince, which allowed the other princes to make their claim.
  • Tech Tree:
    • The majority of factions utilize a Reforms tech tree that is literally a tree: as Reforms are implemented, they blossom like flower buds while the branches said flowers rest on extends; more complex reforms are represented by branches that intertwine, requiring all previous flower buds to bloom before the reform can be issued.
    • Yellow Turban factions received their own tree with patch 1.4. Their Reforms are gated by the faction's level of enlightenment rather than by previous reforms.
    • Patch 1.5 gave Bandits a unique form of technology. Instead of reforms, they develop connections with bandit groups in each commandery, needing to have an adjacent bandit network to connect to a new commandery, and receiving a research bonus if they control the commandery where their target resides.
  • Took a Level in Jerkass: Cao Cao's wife, Lady Bian, is surprisingly assigned several toxic traits, making her prone to rebelling or not getting along with Cao Cao (and as a Legendary unit, she will always retain those traits). This is a far cry from her historical or novel portrayal, as a devoted, kind matriarch of the Cao family, respected by her sons and Cao Cao himself.
  • Tyrant Takes the Helm: The 190 CE bookmark starts briefly after Dong Zhuo, a cruel north-western warlord, had taken control of the Emperor as his Prime Minister and is now the de-facto ruler of the Han Dynasty.
  • Unfortunate Names: With random name generators, you could end up with someone with the name "Ma Dong" or "Long Wang" or anything that would sound inappropriate if spoken in English language. This is eventually patched that you'll no longer get randoms with such names.
    • Dong Zhuo has been the basis of countless dick jokes even before the game was released.
  • Unstable Equilibrium: Downplayed. While a faction's large domain can bring with it significant advantages, the game does penalize large realms with some disadvantages.
    • Large realms bring with them increasing corruption, which reduces coin income. Corruption can be mitigated, but never fully eliminated once a realm is big enough.
    • Other factions will see a large realm as a strategic threat, reducing their goodwill during diplomacy.
  • Violation of Common Sense: Some of the Steam achievements require actions which can be suicidal if not properly planned.
    • "This is Total War!" requires a campaign win, and having declared war on every faction as soon as you encounter them.
    • "Han Shot First" requires another faction to declare themselves emperor before you. If not playing as a governor faction, this usually means self-handicapping.
  • Vulnerable Civilians: During battles, civilians can be seen wandering around in their settlements or working their farms. They tend to run away with the approach of a hostile force but can actually take up arms. They are very weak in combat though and will die quickly.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: Like what happened historically, the Guandong Coalition that was formed to take down Dong Zhuo ended up collapsing on itself, without accomplishing its objective, because the warlord members all had their own respective ambitions of taking over China. The game begins shortly after the dissolution of the coalition, with its former members duking it out among themselves.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace:
    • The backdrop of the "Eight Princes" campaign. The Sima family was able to establish the Jin Dynasty and finish the reunification of China a decade ago. Unfortunately for them, they had to contend with a feeble grip of power since they reached the throne through intrigue and by exchanging favours with the nobles, the demobilization of troops now that the country was unified once again, and the encroaching of the barbarian tribes in the north, which would become worse once the Civil War started.
    • The core game occurs in the aftermath of the first Yellow Turban rebellion. The Han generals defeated the Yellow Turbans (though there's still multiple remnant factions), but in the process of crushing the rebellion and restoring order, they ended up as warlords controlling large areas of China. This the stage for the rise of Dong Zhuo and the disintegration of the Han.
  • Young Future Famous People: The majority of the featured cast had yet to achieve the accomplishments which made them famous in both the 182 and 190 AD start dates. Cao Cao had yet to defeat Yuan Shao at Guandu, while the Sun brothers, Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang (among others) were only children. Pretty much the only characters who had already made their fame are Liu Biao, Kong Rong note , Dong Zhuo and Sun Jian.
  • You Require More Vespene Gas: Won't be a Total War game without this. Each resource usually has more than one way of obtaining them.
    • Coin: The main currency of the game. Factions earn this via taxation from the peasantry, commerce from inns/marketplaces/trade ports and industry such as mineral extraction or product manufacturing. Coin is also earned from occupying spice depots (found in the southwest) or silk markets (found in the northwest). Coin is spent on the construction of buildings, recruitment of troops and their maintenance. It is also used to pay officers' salaries.
    • Food: Used for increasing peasant populations in towns and settlements. Food surplus is also needed to maintain military supplies for the troops. Low food supplies will result in decreased public order, troop desertions and peasants fleeing. Food can be obtained from farming, rearing livestock or fishing.
    • Population: Population increases peasantry coin income by a percentage, increases construction speed for buildings and allows faster replenishment of depleted retinues, but they also decrease public order. Peasantry are attracted to towns and settlements by food surpluses and high public order.
    • Trade Resources: Mainly used in determining the value of trade agreements between factions. However, various resources enable the construction of special/upgraded buildings which help in the governance of the realm. Trade resources can be obtained via trade agreements or by occupying settlements which produce the resource.
      • One subset of Trade Resources are the various types of skilled labour: Artisans, Industralists and Entrepreteurs. These are acquired by constructing buildings in commandery capitals.
  • You Shall Not Pass!: In his trailer, Liu Bei does this; taking up position at the mouth of a pass and holding off Cao Cao's army with his small force in an attempt to buy time for the civilians behind him to escape.
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