In Total War: Three Kingdoms, 12 warlords are vying for survival, power, and dominance in ancient China. Each warlord brings unique abilities, strategies, and armies to the table in their quest for superiority and each appeals to a different style of play.
Not all leaders are created equal and some must overcome obstacles and hurdles their competitors may not have to climb.
12 Cao Cao: Strategic Mastermind
Cao Cao is the default warlord of the game and is considered the easiest to play. His main advantage is the ability to manipulate other empires to start wars with each other, leaving them weak for his invasions.
With a favorable central starting position and shady political tactics, this is the ideal warlord to get your feet wet in the game and get a sampling of all types of playstyles.
11 Yuan Shao: Dragon Of Yuan
Yuan Shao is a charismatic leader that can connect with his soldiers in ways other warlords can’t. This grants him the ability to create large alliances rapidly and incorporate military captains and their retinues into his ranks.
His starting area is uniquely suited to this form of play, as he has access to groups he can quickly bring under his banner. He’s a strong fighter, but he shines when uniting other factions to fight alongside him. This ability to outnumber opponents through alliances makes him an easy warlord to play as.
10 Ma Teng: Protector Of The West
A true rags-to-riches story, Ma Teng started out with nothing and fought his way to being a major figure in support of the Han Dynasty, possessing great wealth and power. This scrappy attitude is reflected in his ability to grant bonus supplies to his military and enable his troops to forage for food when encamped.
These perks to military logistics allow him to aggressively expand his empire on a shoestring budget. Given his troops can sustain themselves while fighting abroad, he makes expansion and war a more affordable and forgiving venture for players starting out.
9 Gongsun Zan: Ironfist General
Gongsun Zan is a powerful military leader who takes the experiences he’s learned on the battlefield and applies them to how he governs. He doesn’t have any administrators, and he instead gives those responsibilities to his generals. This military controlled network gives him a 50% reinforcement bonus when his armies are near each other, meaning his men are more likely to have backup when needed.
He also possesses heavily armored shock cavalry, which is brutal in battle. He ranks a tad higher in terms of difficulty because he must always be present in battle to grant bonuses. While his starting position is firm, it’s under threat from Yuan Shao almost as soon as the player starts the game.
8 Dong Zhuo: The Tyrant
Like any tyrant, Dong Zhuo must use brutal tactics and fear to keep his subjects in line. His high levels of intimidation will cut down on corruption that would normally plague other empires toward the end of the campaign.
He’s a little more complicated to lead with because players must always keep his intimidation high or risk the collapse of their rule. The downside to this is that, as the warlord subjugates his own people, the rest of the world will become motivated to band together to take out the despot in their midst.
7 Liu Biao: Gentleman Of The Han
A genius scholar, Liu Biao likes to surround himself with sophistication and nobility. This gives him the perk of boosting the experienced gained for everyone under his banner and unique buildings, such as the Tea Gardens, that further boost the experience obtained.
His focus on gathering experience allows him to recruit generals of higher ranks sooner in the game, which offsets his lack of military bonuses. Players will be well-advised to take advantage of this higher experience gain and capitalize on it, as they’ll quickly be surrounded by hostile forces.
6 Liu Bei: Humble Ruler
Liu Bei is a warlord that seeks greatness but recognizes those who help him along the way. One of the most benevolent and caring leaders in the game, Liu Bei stands apart from the more cutthroat warlords by having strong bonds with his starting characters.
Unfortunately, this humility has come with a lack of recognition. In the beginning, Liu Bei is only able to recruit a single army and doesn’t possess land of his own. He must take down the Yellow Turban rebels to gain the recognition needed for his own territory and a bigger army, making him tough to start with.
5 Sun Jian: Tiger Of Jiangdong
Sun Jian is a beast when cornered or outnumbered. By continually showing his bravery in tough battles, he can recruit mercenaries at a discount, gains increased replenishment when in hostile lands, and boosts his loyal followers' satisfaction rates.
He also becomes a guerrilla fighter in enemy territory and can use his family’s wealthy connections to fund his campaigns from ports. The reason this warlord is harder to play is because his bonuses are only useful when he’s taking risks and behind enemy lines. He also starts deep in enemy territory and must claw his way back home to start building his empire.
4 Yuan Shu: Political Dragon
Yuan Shu is obsessed with being recognized as the rightful emperor and requires a great deal of legitimacy from other leaders. If he gets that recognition from allies, it gives him lots of legitimacy he can use to bring in greater wealth and a good dose of prestige, which launches him up the political ladder.
This political maneuvering and power mongering create many enemies. Yuan Shu has a difficult starting position, as he must contend with Liu Biao, Dong Zhuo, and later Cao Cao, who oppose his claim to rule. He requires constant hustling and makes for challenging play.
3 Kong Rong: Master Scholar
A witty politician and brilliant trader, Kong Rong relies upon economic and intellectual superiority rather than military might to establish his empire, making for pacifist play. His insight into enemies and gift for diplomacy are his shield and sword for dealing with hostiles.
In general, he shines for passive playstyles, which makes him difficult in a game that's primarily designed for war.
2 Zheng Jiang: Bandit Queen
The only female warlord in the game is a strong leader who is hungry for power. Where other warlords obsess over their popularity, she thrives on infamy and eagerly forces others to pay tribute to her. In fact, this infamy is the key to her success. She needs to be constantly picking fights and raiding villages to keep it high and raise her power.
With such high infamy, diplomacy is out of the question, and her remote starting area makes it hard to be aggressive right away. She’s challenging for players because she does not seek allies, as it would require sharing what she’s built.
1 Zhang Yan: King Of Black Mountain
A former mercenary turned warlord, Zhang Yan is the master of ambushes and guerrilla tactics. His troops get a speed bonus in forested areas, which is handy for surprising the enemy or retreating losing engagements.
What makes him so difficult is that he will perpetually be outnumbered and must rely on hit-and-run tactics to get ahead. He also starts in the Yanmen Mountains, where he is encircled by powerful and hostile warlords. With a small band against large armies, it’s a tough start that never gets easier, even as his empire grows.