I should be clear that this is a Min-Maxing Guide. You may have other considerations when deciding on what to eventually include in your domain, and that’s fine too.
The times they are a-changing.
You don’t need, or even necessarily want to hold all counties in a duchy, even your capital duchy.
Contiguous domains no longer matter beyond a very, very, very marginal increase in defensibility (and even that is arguable).
Holding multiple duchy capitals is better in the late game despite the opinion malus, and if one worries about that, you can simply let the duchy titles remain uncreated.
First, I think we need to address the meta shift from CK2. It used to be that the optimal strategy was holding your capital duchy entirely for the levy bonuses. While you still do get bonus levy for all holdings in your capital duchy, it’s only 10% more and it is no longer efficient to really do this for a variety of reasons.
The Army Rework is chief among them. Levies in CK2 could be relied on to carry you for most of the game as it took a lot of land in order to have retinues that could win wars for you. In CK3, Levies do not matter meaningfully. Men-at-Arms (our retinue counterpart) are available from day 1, can be funded faster (money is generally easier in CK3—see my money making guide A Rough Guide to Economic Development), are available in larger numbers for your average gameplay (retinues only really start to outnumber MAAs when you’re doing World Conquest Runs), and are far more effective. CK3, simply put, is less of a “numbers crush everything” game and that drastically affects the meta. Thus, a 10% increase really isn’t anything too game changing.
What also changed from CK2 is how armies are raised. CK2 raised levies at every holding and had to be grouped manually (or semi-automatically with the rally point update). But proximity still mattered quite a lot as entire wars could be won against larger enemies by simply being able to concentrate a greater amount of men faster! CK3 has largely made this irrelevant as as we covered in above, numbers do not matter as much as quality and there’s zero risk of interception as all levies are raised at rally points instead of from individual counties. The time it takes to rally also does not meaningfully matter anymore as even with sprawling empires it will take 3 months at most (often far less) to gather all your levies. At best, that’s one holding sieged down by the AI, if that (AI is notoriously inefficient, go figure).
With Men-At-Arms also able to teleport, contiguous domains lose their one major advantage from Ck2—being easily defensible in case of rebellions. It no longer matters how far apart your domains are, and with how the AI treats warfare atm and it’s tendency to go after your capital, you can fairly confidently ignore the defense of your other non-capital holdings.
Last but not least, the wonders and special buildings have been reworked so that only a few counties have them now. These buildings tend to be very powerful too, and far outstrip anything normal holdings can offer.
Now if what I’m building up towards is having your domain spread far and wide, doesn’t that mean you’ll go over the 2 duchy limit and suffer an opinion penalty?
Yes, and no. If you’re worried about the opinion penalty, you should note that you only get it if you make the duchy title. Leaving it uncreated doesn’t hurt you. Second, in the extreme late game, you actually want as many duchy capitals as possible stacking to make your men-at-arms shred everything (because trusting your vassals is omegalul anyway, and you can pretty much expect rebellions whenever you have a new ruler, so might as well give them a good reason to rebel).
2) Counties Uber Alles
So if from a min-maxing perspective we’re saying duchies no longer matter, it follows that counties should now be judged on their individual merits over discussions of having “the best duchy” like in CK2.
The only other competitor to the county might be the barony—and arguing that holding multiple barony holdings in one county can compete with holding counties.
The most damning argument against this is that a county can only have one capital holding, which has four slots. The other barony holdings in a county have three slots, which means holding baronies reduces your potential by a whole 25% (not even factoring in the opportunity cost of special buildings).
So, how do we judge the best counties?
3) By and far, the answer is whichever one has a special building. The more, the better.
But not all special buildings are created equal. This post is getting long enough as is, and I can’t exactly give you a breakdown of a sequential list of all the best special buildings. Instead, I’m here to teach you what to look for!
For those unaware, there’s a map with all the special buildings (minus religious sites, but you can check that by going to your faith map mode in game). Map with All Special Buildings
Ignore Tier – It’s perhaps easier to begin with what not to consider in special buildings. This isn’t to say that these bonuses are bad and should be avoided, but that we shouldn’t consider them when we make our choice.
Hostile Raid Time – Raids aren’t a real threat, and with how quickly armies can be raised, buying yourself a little more time doesn’t matter. Either you get raided or you can beat the army off. Rarely is a few more months before you get raided going to matter to the outcome.
Levy Size / Army Maintenance Cost – As we’ve discussed above and in other threads, levies don’t matter. Men-at-arms (and knights to a lesser extent) do. Anything which buffs them thus has little to no value to you other than the immense satisfaction of watching numbers go brrrrrrr.
Prestige – You really shouldn’t be having a hard time stacking prestige (you can just hold multiple kingdom titles once you get any kind of single inheritance system).
Situational Tier – Useful to have, but never the primary consideration. Only for tie breakers, if you should ever run into having such a nice problem.
Advantage / Fort Level / Garrison Size and Garrison Modifiers – Starting off, I should add that this only really matters in your capital holding. The surest way to win a war is having your capital get taken and becoming a prisoner, so for your capital county this is actually the primary consideration. For all your other holdings, meh.
Renown – If you want some extra boosts, these can be nice to have, but aren’t game breaking.
Building Construction time – A fairly weak bonus all things considered. The primary bottleneck for you is going to be gold, not building construction time. By the time you do have enough gold that construction becomes the bottleneck, you’re probably in the late medieval era or can afford to go heavy into stewardship which will far outstrip whatever bonuses you can get for just one holding.
Absolute Stat Bonuses – Always nice to have, but a flat increase doesn’t affect your gameplay that much.
Knights and Knight Effectiveness – Knights aren’t as strong as Men-at-Arms in the end, but if you are running that kind of build (and it is a viable build to be clear, just not “the best”), this can become a primary consideration.
Men At Arms combat bonuses – The bonuses need to line up exactly with your preferred men at arms build for this to matter (if the bonus affects something you’re not going to use, doesn’t really help you does it?). The only building atm as per the wiki (https://ck3.paradoxwikis.com/Special_buildings#Game%20Information) with a bonus is the Iron Pillar of Delhi which boosts heavy inf / heavy cav. While the cav boost is nice if you’re running elephants, light cavalry remains the single best men at arms at the moment (late game light cavalry even out stats heavy cavalry, AND has twice the numbers AND is cheaper per regiment AND has the best pursuit—which means more casualties and stack wipes. It’s no contest).
Opinion bonuses – These tend to be fairly small, and I don’t like relying on vassals that much to begin with.
Piety – Generally harder to come by, and if you’re running devotion based builds, this can be really good (especially in India. There’s a decision to Become Steward of the Sacred River you can take with each character that increase your devotion level by 1. That means it’s possible to reliably max out devotion very quickly).
God Tier – These are always good.
Taxes – Mo’ money, less problems.
Monthly Development – Development ties to innovation growth.
Tyranny Modifiers / Short Reign Modifiers – Very few things give you bonuses to these, which makes them really powerful.
Lifestyle Experience – Lifestyle perks are very, very powerful. The faster you can unlock them, the more of them you can have, the better off you are. Some perks are powerful enough to entirely change how you play the game. No brainer to get these whenever and wherever you can.
Stat Boosts based on Level of Fame / Devotion – These are some of the best effects out there. Fame in particular can be very easy to stack in the late game, giving you an effective +5 to a stat! Devotion is a bit trickier to reliable max out on, but at the very least it’s easy to get to a +3 with 1-2 pilgrimages. If you’re surrounded by infidels or holding a juicy crusade target, you can reliable get to +5 by slaughtering infidels en masse.
There are quite a few special buildings which deserve recognition, and to save you the trouble of looking for the best ones and comparing, here they are.
All the special universities (Cairo, Baghdad, Siena, Pataliputra, Tirakka) give stats based on fame AND lifestyle experience. Baghdad is in the running for best county in the game because of that, being the only one that’s pre-built. All the generic universities are also priority domains, but given they’re locked behind 40 development, can be a bit of a pain to get.
Notre Dame in Paris is one of the few that gives Stewardship(!) bonuses based on Fame. This essentially means having one extra domain reliably.
Rome / Constantinople / Granada / London – All these have significant fort level and garrison buffs that make them excellent capital locations. Laugh as the AI takes years to siege down your capital.
But Halt, what if I don’t have enough holdings with special buildings to fill out my domain limit?
For everything else, there’s
mastercard objective measures.
Defensibility – This applies only to choosing a capital holding. Having it be on the mountains or hills and inland is useful for restricting access. If you don’t really have trouble winning battles, defensibility isn’t an issue with teleporting men at arms and you can ignore this. You can also ignore this for non-capitals.
There are three other things we can look at when comparing counties.
-How much money can they make
-How much initial development and development potential is available
-How much military bonuses they can provide
For money, and initial development, the answer ends up being the same.
We want holdings adjacent to the sea (for the tradeport line of buildings). Farmlands are best, followed by plains, floodplains, drylands, wetlands in that order.
For development potential, we look at the number of baronies in a county, and the number of baronies adjacent to the sea. An empty barony adjacent to the sea is worth two empty baronies as it allows the harbor building line (which matches the guild building line of cities in term of development bonuses).
For military bonuses, assuming you go by my recommended light cavalry build, the best terrain is
Floodplains and oasis (for the camelry building line, the single best military building in the game). While deserts and desert mountains also avail this, the opportunity costs in terms of gold and development make me discount them.
Hills, jungles, plains, steppes, and drylands all allow for the hunting ground / pastoral lands combo which buff light cavalry. Though if one has to choose, hunting grounds are better than pastoral lands.
Now taking all of this into consideration, if one still wants my opinion on the best “duchy” in the game (despite how we’ve established holding contiguous duchies isn’t optimal), I would actually go with
Baghdad (5 counties, all floodplains + house of wisdom)
matched closely by a two for in Duchy of Delta / Duchy of Cairo (4 and 3 counties respectively, all floodplains + university in cairo and the pyramids in gizeh. Bonus points: an orthodox faith has alexandria nearby which is a holy site).
Thrace (Constantinople is an amazing site, and in the late game can earn a whopping 50 gold by itself).
4) Cordoba / Granada duchy pair (while the terrain hurts this a bit as well as being far from the seas, they have two special buildings between them, and Granada is possibly even better than Constantinople once built up in terms of defensibility because it’s in the mountains).
5) Valois (7 counties, mainland france, many of which are farmlands. Plus it has Notre Dame. An absolute money maker).
6) Essex (5 counties, near the water, has London special building).
7) Latium (3 counties, all by the water. Have to fight the Pope for it though).
8) Bohemia (has a mine, 3 counties with six holdings).
9) Pandya Nadu (7 baronies, by the sea, farmland, fairly defensible chokepoint and very high development)