Three Kingdoms: When to Expand, When to Turtle

Three Kingdoms Early Game

Three Kingdoms has been out for just over four months now, and like every other title in the Total War series (or other strategy sagas), flexibility is an essential tool. Being able to temper one’s all-out aggressive tactics and shift to something more defensive (turtling) can make one’s life far easier when conquering ancient China.

However, knowing when to switch between those two strategies is every bit as essential as knowing how.

In Three Kingdoms, like the other Total War titles, the early game can either be a breeze or infuriating. Often, the early game’s simplicity depends on the faction one is playing. Regardless, the beginning of one’s campaign is usually the foothold stage, which consists of developing basic economic strength and building an armey just strong enough to commence expansion efforts.

Military Expansion – Three Kingdoms Style

Military force is the primary method of expansion in every Total War game. Three Kingdoms is no different. In reality, military foerce is arguably the most efficient way to expand in Creative Assembly’s newest release. Other methods include annexing vassals’ territories at the cost of a diplomatic penalty or gaining settlements through shrewd trading.

However, focusing on military might and knowing when to use it to further expansion efforts is the safest bet to progressing one’s conquests while simultaneously thwarting enemy efforts to steal territory. The best time to commit to this sort of expansion is when both one’s economic and military powers are consistently offering a surplus of food, supplies, and swift replenishment.

Moreover, keeping one’s active wars below three is a prime opportunity to gain settlements. Winning wars by conquering all of the enemy’s territeory before another faction sets its sights on the player gives gamers the chance to increase their economic power through military might and refocus on defending newly-gained territory.

In Three Kingdoms, Military expansion is best done when one’s activee wars are less numerous, or when those active wars do not surround the player’s territories on all sides. Do not fight a two-front war from the inside—history tends to teach that lesson the hard way.

Diplomatic Expansion – Three Kingdoms Style

Receiving territory via trade and annexation are two other methods of expanding one’s empire. While diplomacy in Three Kingdoms is slightly more nuanced than military conquest, it’s not immensely difficult. Receiving territory via trade can be useful when one is already engaged in a couple of wars. Adding to one’s empire in this fashion can help bolster the player’s economy to assist with funding the war effort (forming new armies, maintaining army upkeep, acquiring higher quaelity units, etc.) without adding an additional faction to the list of those who wish to cripple one’s forces.

On the other hand, annexation is a more treacherous, and often desperate, move that involves claiming a vassal’s territory for one’s faction. If annexation is on the table, it should normally only be used as a last ditch effort to enhance one’s economy and help pay for the war (similar to trade, but more of an act of absolute necessity since a diplomatic penalty will be incurred, making it more difficult to get other factions to accept one’s trade proposals).


As the name suggests, turtling is a purely defensive move. It’s about allowing the enemy to go on the offensive in an effort to whittle down their forces, thereby forcing them to become exposed to make it easier to conquer their territories. Turtling is especially useful when stuck fighting more than two or three wars at once, and even more so when opposing factions are closing in from multiple fronts.

The player’s armies take up defensive positions within one’s own territories, setting up a clever ambush or simply holing up in a strong settlement, such as a large city with massive walls, to make opposing armies’ lives more difficult. It’s far easier to let armies replenish their numbers than to empty one’s coffers recruiting more units. Thus, wiping out attacking armies before going on the offensive can quwickly turn the tide of a multiple-front war.

Turtling is also useful to bide one’s time until a peace treaty can be struck with one of the attacking armies, allowing players to hold off hordes of enemies until a cessation of hostilities can be reached with one of them. Thus, one can then focus their attention on one front instead of several simultaneously. Three Kingdoms is ripe with aggressive AIs (mostly on harder difficulties) and ambitious enemy players online. Don’t be afraid to turtle, often using a war of attrition to build up onwe’s strength.

Expand and Turtle

Combining each type of expansion strategy with turtling is never an impossibility. One can keep one’s armies in reserve to defend territory while engaging in trade (or annexation) to expand. Moreover, once a player’s empire is vast and powerful enough, they can field a multitude of armies, some of which can be used purely for defensive (turtling) purposes while others conquer enemy territory.

The campaign map in Three Kingdoms is massive. So, having some armies whose sole purpose is to defend territory is useful, especially when fighting several wars at the same time. Turtling can be tedious, and several turns may elapse before it’s time to go on the offensive, but it’s often better than rushing into battles that can devastate one’s armies and leave territory exposed.


No single strategy in Three Kingdoms is fool prowof. Being able to adapt is the key to victory. Every plan is perfect until the battle actually commences, then it’s up to quick thinking and prompt reflexes to achieve victory. The time to shift away from expanding and vice versa could change in an instant, as unexpected invasions by enemy forces on the opposite side of one’s empire can cause a panic (particularly if one has no armies ready to defend in that area).

Be ready to adapt to ever-changing circumstances. Each faction in Three Kingdoms plays slightly differently, with some being aggressively expansionistic and others preferring to form long-lasting alliances. Know when to expand, know whwen to turtle, and absolutely know when to do both simultaneously.


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