Someone Make This: Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Three Brothers of Shu

Liu Bei (left), Guan Yu (middle), Zhang Fei (right)

Written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century, Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a two-volume historical fiction written as a serial. While video games have been made based on the story, it’s time that this classic novel gets a reboot in a major way.

The story follows the fall of the Han Dynasty, the rise of the warring kingdoms (eventually narrowed to three), and the establishment of the Jin Dynasty. Although based on historical fact, the historical records at the end of the Han Dynasty never illuminated events for the common Chinese man.

In a nutshell, a written account explained how a situation began, a picture showed the event, and a final report listed the aftermath. Luo Guanzhong was a record keeper in the court and used his access of the ancient scrolls to craft an epic and mystical tale of action, betrayal, and magic.

Now, it’s time to look at what makes the previous video games bad, and by understanding how others have done it wrong, a new game can be developed to capture the epic that is Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms

Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII Screenshot

Romance of the Three Kingdoms VII - PS2

The first major franchise of video games based on the Warring-Kingdoms period is the on-going turn-based tactical strategy games. Players choose a kingdom and then try to conquer China through military and political movements.

The franchise is for the more intellectual type. Rather than controlling characters, players become the rulers. The games feature several of ancient China’s districts, characters, and battlefields.

The game feels like an RPG version of Risk. Like the classic board game, a player’s goal is total domination of China. However, during each turn, the other generals are making alliances, attacking districts, or growing their military might.

Players must make alliances of their own, receive great generals and items, and take crucial districts as quickly as possible.

This franchise is the best of all the games based on the classic novels. However, modern releases are not likely to come to North America. Also, the games never allow players to live the experience. Being an armchair general does not compare to wielding a blade or bow, mounting a horse, and attacking the enemy, like the next game.

Dynasty Warriors 7 screenshot

Dynasty Warriors 7

Dynasty Warriors

The next bane on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story is the on-going beat-’em-up. However, Dynasty Warriors is the closest to the perfect adaptation of the novel so far.

Beginning with Dynasty Warriors on the PlayStation in 1997, this 3D fighting game was a cross between Tekken and Soul Calibur, featuring three fighters from each kingdom and Lu Bu as a bonus character. The game was all about skill. Fighters had two attacks and two blocks. A player could play conservatively and use the back button to block attacks, or if a player could perry an attack, he could knock the opponent back for a free attack. At the end of the story modes, players watched a cinematic of the characters’ most famous moments, like Xiahou Dun’s arrow to the eye during a battle (to inspire his troops and prove to himself that he wasn’t dead, he pulled his eyeball out of his socket, ate it, and continued leading his troops).

Three years later, Dynasty Warriors 2 launched on the PlayStation 2, completely changing the series from a fighter to a beat-’em-up. The game featured several stages for 28 characters to navigate and battle through. 23 characters were playable in the story mode, and the last five were unlocked for the free-play stages. Players could improve the characters by defeating generals or Gate Guards and collecting permanent power-ups. The game was a great hack-‘n-slash, but with a four-attack limit, repeating stages, and no customization, the game did lose its appeal.

Dynasty Warriors 3 launched on the PS2 in 2001 and the Xbox in 2002 with almost twice as many characters, many more stages, and weapon variations. The gameplay was largely the same, but some stages were only available for specific characters, and not every battle was a huge, half-hour skirmish. The game featured four weapons for each character and several extras to explore. The game was nearly perfect with loads of variety and interesting storytelling.

Then, the black stain on the franchise launched: Dynasty Warriors 3: Xtreme Legends. You know it’s cool because they spelled “extreme” wrong! The expansion featured a few other stages and story modes for the other characters. The most interesting element was adding a fifth weapon, but it accomplished little more than modern-day DLC at double the price.

Since then, the game has introduced several spin-offs and expansions, including Empires (a cross between Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Dynasty Warriors), Hyper (a PC exclusive with improved graphics), and Gundam (a futuristic, giant-robot game). While Dynasty Warriors 5 was able to add many new modes, characters, and features to the experience, most Dynasty Warriors games are carbon copies of the last game. What showed so much promise with DW3 has become the most repetitive franchise on the market.

For the purposes of this SMT, the DW series will be the basis for the next great Romance of the Three Kingdoms-based game.

The Story

Luo Guanzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a 120-chapter masterpiece with hundreds of characters, huge battles, and amazing character development. Unfortunately, all of the games to date have tried to tell the entire story with a handful of stages. Therefore, in the new RotTK, rather than a single game, the franchise will become a series of games telling a single story.

Like Mass Effect, the decisions made in one game carry into the next. The characters who fight with you in one game will grow, age, and die in the next game. However, unlike Mass Effect (and every Dynasty Warriors), players don’t pick a single character throughout the story. Players choose a kingdom and create squads based on the available characters at that point.

If players choose the tragic heroes of Shu, most of the first game and much of the second game will be spent in retreat and in building forces. If players choose the strategic Wu, they will rely on their mental prowess to maneuver through the various political machinations. If players choose the dominant Wei, they will be faced with the largest difficulty of maintaining a kingdom and skirting assassination attempts.

Like Dynasty Warriors, liberties will have to be taken with certain elements of the source material. In the source, Wei wins, but none of Cao Cao’s ancestors are involved with the formation of the new dynasty. In a since, all three kingdoms lose in the end. Therefore, if a player chooses a dynasty, the story will have to unravel and allow for the other kingdoms to win (even if Sima Yan is shown taking power at the end, despite players’ efforts).

The game works best as a trilogy. Each game allows players to explore the land, gather resources, grow characters, complete missions, and further their kingdom. Although major set-piece moments can be tied to the most popular battles, the developers can explore other cultural issues of 2nd and 3rd century-China. The first game can end with the battle at Red Cliff (known as Chi Bi in Dynasty Warriors). The next ends with the Battle of Fencheng and the death of Guan Yu. Finally, the third can end with the end of the three kingdoms.

Just as the novel is told in a serial style, the games can end with a cliffhanger ending to excite players for the next game. As long as the consumer knows that the story will end with the third game, they are more likely to invest in the entire trilogy and devote several hours to exploring the three separate stories and characters.

The World


The believed site of the Red Cliffs

Historical fictions allow for a greater sense of realism than futuristic games or total fantasies. Developers can tour the sites of China, study maps of the battlefield, and attend lectures about what ancient China would have looked like.

The Han Dynasty is considered by many historians to be China’s Golden Age. Technology and art flourished, and the developers can explore these ideas within the game. Just as Assassin’s Creed II allowed players to get a history lesson about key locations, the developers can include major locations and items and explain the cultural relevance.

What’s more, Luo Guanzhong  offered lush descriptions within his work. Artists can see the sites, read the descriptions, and create masterpieces of architecture and weaponry.

China offers beautiful backdrops to this historical game, with jutting mountains, red orchards, and flowing rivers. Developers will be able to use their entire color pallet while making this game, and players will get a sense of depth and beauty as they explore and save the land. As battles rage, players will feel a deep sense of awe and woe at the sight of pleasant villages burning to the ground.

The Gameplay

In order for this game to be great, three games must merge into one: Dynasty Warriors, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Mass Effect.

Players enjoy the fast-paced brutal action of Dynasty Warriors. It’s the only explanation for the series’ continued existence. The game must continue to feel fast and furious as players rip through the battlefields. However, one general cannot conquer an entire army. Zhang Fei may have held Cao Cao’s forces at bay during the Battle of Changban, but he had the help of his 20 horsemen. The game must increase the difficulty to force players to manage their troops in battle.

Mass Effect allows players to lead two other characters into battle and take full advantage of their powers. This game will allow characters to manage and take full advantage of all of the generals available. However, players will be allowed to play as one of the available generals. Where Mass Effect allows players to create one character and see that character through to the end, this game allows players to manage a kingdom and use all the generals available.

Finally, to bring strategy into the game, players will jump into an overview map and dispatch orders to the other generals in real time. Here, the game can follow to time modes: realistic or immediate. In a realistic battle, orders take time reaching generals, and if a messenger is sent along a path that is overrun, the message may never reach the general. Also, if the general is defeated before the order arrives, players will be forced to make new strategies. For more intermediate players, the immediate system abandons realism for fast-paced strategy.

Outside the battle, players will take the role of the kingdom’s current leader and manage the kingdom, like Romance of the Three Kingdoms. However, players will not sit dormant in their throne rooms, waiting for the next conflict. Here, players will wander the available lands, solving problems, raising taxes, recruiting young soldiers, or inspiring downtrodden villages. In the travels, treaties will be drafted and signed, and items will be found and used. The side missions occur in this open world, and the strength of the kingdom is determined by the strength of the land.


Unfortunately, as a trilogy, this franchise may suffer from DLC. The largest battles and stories are told in the game, and anything left out of the game proper will upset fans of the story. However, DLC must be made, so here are the awful bits of DLC that will be offered to gamers.

DLC 1 “Horse Armor” – Unlike The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, this will not be an entire rip-off. Players will get new armor for their horse, but the Stable will be opened, a new management tool that allows players to also care for and upgrade the steeds in each battle. The in-game trading system will include horses and horse armor.

DLC 2 “Alternate Costumes” – As players get tired of looking at the same characters in the games with the same tired outfits, they will inevitably want to spend money on a new look. Unfortunately, following the game-changing “Horse Armor” DLC, this will be empty, and most players will avoid purchasing it.

DLC 3 “Custom Character” – To make up for the previous premium DLC, this piece will be a free download, allowing players to create their own characters. However, these characters will not be usable in the game. Instead, they will be used in the Multiplayer mode, released as a patch right before this DLC. The multiplayer mode will go offer several game modes: Strategy, where players only see the map and must deliver orders to their troops; Survival, where players come together to battle waves of enemies; and Battle, where players will fight in a one-on-one 2D match, much like the original Dynasty Warriors. This free DLC will make up for the money spent on the last two pieces of DLC.

The worst part about these three pieces of DLC is that they will all be released for each game, showing that the publishers did not learn their lesson the first or second time.

Who Should Make It

It’s time to take this game away from KOEI and Omega Force. Instead, these three developers will appeal to larger markets and treat the source material with respect.

BioWare – By understanding team management and storytelling, players will have a solid experience with each title. However, the second game will suffer, as BioWare decides to rest on its laurels and not introduce anything new to the game. Years later, a member of the team will state that most of the developers were moved away from Romance of the Three Kingdoms 2 to work on the next Mass Effect game. Fans will only remember how amazing said ME game was and will quickly forget the second installment of the RotTK franchise.

Rocksteady Studios – Proving that they understand how to make an adapted game amazing, this team will spend the most time researching ancient China and understanding the characters of the novel. However, they will spend so much time on setting and character development that the open-world sections will begin to feel somewhat repetitive. Fortunately, the world will be so gorgeous, few will complain.

Volition – After losing Red Faction, Volition is poised to release another semi-open-world, good-guy-wins experience. The team will create a constantly-changing world. If a boulder hits a tree in the forest, that tree will never stand again. If a village burns to the ground, it will take a lot of in-game time to rebuild. The land will be scarred by the ravages of war. However, if the game does not sell over 2 million units in the US in the first six months, the trilogy will die after the first game.

Final Words

Romance of the Three Kingdoms is one of the greatest stories ever told. Unfortunately, the current games telling that story do it a great injustice. If a good studio gets their hands on the games and decides to tell the story as it needs to be told, a new audience will be introduced to one of China’s most important novels.

Have an idea for a “Someone Make This” later? Leave it in the comments below.


About Ben Davis

Ben writes for KWCR 88.1 Weber FM, Studio 76, the Signpost, and and can be contacted on Twitter (@GameTaffyBen) or at!

Posted on December 15, 2011, in Someone Make This and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thanks for this breakdown, Ben. I’ve written an historical fantasy based on Luo Guanzhong’s ROTK and want to market it to the gaming industry, among other places, so these are great insights.

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