The series are based on the romanticized Romance of the Three Kingdoms novel and the historical text Records of the Three Kingdoms, the storyline takes place during the Han Dynasty in China with many warring factions that included the Shu Han, Cao Wei and Eastern Wu kingdoms. Gameplay revolves around managing numerical statistics, each representing an attribute of a city or a character. A city is described by statistics such as stored grain supplies, vulnerability to disasters such as floods and earthquakes, treasury funds, domestic affairs and populace loyalty. Characters are numerically characterized by their leadership abilities, melee prowess, intellects and loyalty, as well as special traits or even magical abilities that can be called upon whether during wartime, diplomacy or domestic affairs. Players can increase these numbers before waging war on neighbouring territories or intending diplomatic efforts.
While generally presented as a turn-based strategy game, the seventh, eighth and tenth editions offer role-playing features, allowing the player to play as a rank-and-file character instead of leading a kingdom.
Several years after its Japanese release, Sangokushi received positive critical reception in North America when it was released there in 1988. In Computer Gaming World, the game was reviewed by Dungeons & Dragons creator Dave Arneson, who wrote that it is "a great historical simulation and will keep players at their keyboards for many a night in order to win their empires. It has economics, intrigue, bribery, covert action, diplomacy, war, and more! There are many ways beyond simple conquest to accomplish one's goals." He concluded: "I most heartily recommend Romance to all serious game players out there."
In December 1989, Computer Gaming World readers gave it an average rating of 8.96 out of 10, making it the magazine's 13th highest user-rated game at the time. In 1990 and 1993 surveys of historical strategy and war games, the magazine gave Romance of the Three Kingdoms three-plus stars out of five.