Strategy and PC have gone hand in hand for a very, very long time. Since the earliest days of home computer software when we were working out the trajectory of explosive bananas in Gorillas in QBASIC programming on old IBMs, we’ve been taking turns and planning strategically for decades. Strategy, both real-time and turn-based are just a thing that translates extremely well to the macros and mouse clicks of a personal computer interface.
This genre, in turn, has flourished and evolved heartily upon the PC format. Some of the greatest experiences in gaming have occurred in our favorite strategy games. We look to these games and draw fond memories of days gone by. We see modern hits that introduce new ideas and leave promise for the continued evolution of the strategy genre well into the future. More importantly, we see our identity in our form of leadership, treachery, diplomacy, or economics in these games.
Strategy games are as varied as snowflakes and there are an enormous wealth of them out there. We’ve collected a few of our favorites from across decades of play to present to you, along with the information you might use to partake in them yourself. After all, there’s some pretty fantastic single player experiences in each of these titles, but more often than not, some of the best strategy games are best shared with friends.
Last Updated: 20/03/2017 (included new purchase links)
Fans of Total War games and fans of Warhammer games have something very much in common. Both have been burned on sub-par offerings in the past, so when Creative Assembly announced the intention to take on the Warhammer franchise, alarms may have been appropriately raised. That said, by all accounts, Creative Assembly went at the Warhammer universe with gusto, harnessing it under the elements of their Total War structure while bringing a multitude of elements to it that make it distinctly different and distinctly Warhammer
Players enter the strife-riven world of Total War: Warhammer under the banner of four different legions. Players build their forces with resources gathered and expand their territory as they see fit. From the outset, internal and external affairs come under the Total War style of management that fans will certainly be used to. This all changes drastically when it’s time to actually go to war and true Warhammer elements come into play.
Factions play far more differently from one another than they ever have in a previous Total War game due in no small part to the vastly different styles of each race. Greenskins utilize fast and aggressive tactics where Dwarves value defense and Vampire Counts use zombies shock troops before unleashing a clean-up crew. This is strengthened further by the addition of flying units, but more importantly heroes, who can not only bring unique abilities to the battlefield, but can be leveled-up and geared up in quasi-RPG fashion. Total War and Warhammer have given us varying flavors over the years, sometimes unfortunately bitter, but Total War: Warhammer has the ingredients of a very sweet marriage of the two franchises.
As Paradox Interactive has continued to weave comprehensive worlds and systems in the realm of grand strategy and 4X fun, they’ve become quite proficient at it. From Europa Universalis to Crusader Kings, the developer has wowed its audience with experiences that have built franchises and fan bases around the world. Using all of this experience, Paradox’s next project, Stellaris, would take to the stars, inviting players to a far more grand theater of play than ever before.
Stellaris is a highly customizable hybrid of real-time strategy and 4X strategy. From the very beginning, you customize your intergalactic nation from their appearance, to their flag, to their very philosophy and demeanor. This is the kind of customization you get to play around with a lot in Stellaris. As you explore nearby planets and systems, research greater sciences, expand the reach of your race, and engage and interact with other races, Stellaris moves from its own somewhat slow start into a vast and comprehensive race for control of the universe.
The game doesn’t forget where it came from in the least. Stellaris borrows socio-political and economic systems from other Paradox titles in forcing players to balance internal strife just as much as outer influence and pressure. It can be played perfectly fine solo, but a place where all of this shines most is when it’s put together with the multiplayer. Playing online against friends and enemies is a grand time that really expands Stellaris into hours and hours of fun that just might never play the same way twice.
One of the more modern offerings to come out of the Warhammer 40K licensing has been Tindalos Interactive’s space ship tactical RTS game, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada. Forgoing the ground game of previous Warhammer 40K endeavors, Armada takes players to the stars to battle against interstellar foes in a desperate game of active chess and it’s an amazingly good, if not somewhat highly punishing time.
Working from the standard Warhammer 40K lore, players will take control of a human fleet of warships in the single player campaign as you journey through a story that has them going head-on against their usual adversaries, the Chaos Undivided, Orks, and Craftworld Eldar factions. Survival in combat depends on timely use of real-time tactics, aided by a slowdown mechanic known as the Tactical Cogitator. Inbetween, it’s your job to use all of your resources to arm and customize your ships to put out the best performance possible for your tactics.
In addition to the single player, the multiplayer mode allows you to use numerous ships from the different factions and engage others in multiplayer skirmishes. Each win and loss in single or multiplayer nets you renown to use in your upgrades and improvements and losing in the campaign in particular has effects upon your progression in the campaign. Armada has a bit of a brutal learning curve, but it’s one of the most interesting and comprehensive Warhammer 40K experiences on the market and a stellar tactical ship RTS in general.
The original Age of Empires has a right to be on this list itself. With it, Ensemble attempting to blend the best aspects of Civilization management and Warcraft combat into one game. Many will say it didn’t quite reach that goal. Although being a pretty great real-time strategy game, Age of Empires attempted to be both those games at once, but didn’t quite capture the full desired feel. That said, it established a formula that would most certainly be refined in its glorious sequel: Age of Empires II: Age of Kings.
Age of Kings sets players in the Middle Ages with the availability of thirteen different civilizations and five historical campaigns to play through. It runs on a 1,000 year timeline running through the Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age, and finally the Imperial Age. Players are tasked with advancing their civilization while building conquering and destroying rival nations. The game contained many units which adhered to five types, each with a weakness and strength and everything was supported by careful gathering of resources, construction of new tech and buildings, and creation of new and more powerful units as players advance through ages.
Age of Kings not only contained one of the most difficult and comprehensive single player experiences in strategy, it also allowed grand multiplayer battles across various scenarios. Players could either play a preset map, allow the game’s map generator to build one for them, or try their hand at crafting a strategic map in one of the most fantastically tooled map editors available. Not every game can take the core ideas of two established products and blend them together into a quality experience. Even the original Age of Wonders didn’t do it without hiccups, but Age of Kings built upon its predecessor’s goals in stellar fashion, giving players one of the best 4X/real-time strategy crosses ever created.
Here’s a well-known fact: Supreme Commander is great, comprehensive, and grand-scale on a level few other games can cohently achieve. That said, we can’t talk about it without talking about its spiritual predecessor: Total Annihilation. In fact, we don’t talk about SupCom in this list in even its own entry without bringing up Total Annihilation. It’s simple really. Without lead designer Chris Taylor and Total Annihilation, you simply don’t get the amazing formula that would eventually lead to Supreme Commander’s creation.
When we look back at Total Annihilation, the cogs are already in motion. From the establishment of the Commander unit that runs base construction and is essential to player survival to the grand battles with terrain taken into account, the beginnings of this iconic design are already in motion. Even the story features a somewhat similar war between factions of pure humans and human/technology symbiotes between the rebellious Arm resistance and the hive-minded Core machine.
Even so, Total Annihilation did more than just establish the groundwork for Supreme Commander. It was a trend-setter. Total Annihilation is the very first known real-time strategy game to feature 3D units and terrain in-game. Where in previous RTS, players could field around 100 units altogether. Total Annihilation started at allowing 200 units per player and would eventually increase the cap to 5,000 a piece, practically inventing grand-scale warfare in strategy games. Supreme Commander is certainly a refinement of everything Total Annihilation created, but Total Annihilation simply cannot go without commendation for its many refinements of the real-time strategy genre as a whole.
Developer: Activision & Big Boat Interactive (Redux version) Purchase fromGreen Man Gaming
When the news broke in 1998 heard that there was a new Battlezone on the way, fans of the arcade were probably stoked to see the new spin on Activision’s vector graphics classic. How could they have possibly expected a game like Battlezone 98? And we’re not just talking tanks with actual textures and filled in environments that aren’t built out of digital wireframe. We’re talking about a game that almost seamlessly blends action combat elements with real-time strategy resource management and army command.
Battlezone 98 tells an alternate history of the Cold War, in which meteors containing bio metal descended to Earth. The US and Russian superpowers scrambled to savage every last piece they could and when Earth’s supply was used up, they turned their attention to other worlds. Two campaigns set players on a journey through the Milky Way as they battle for the US or Russian forces to control the lion’s share of bio metal and ancient technologies on different worlds.
Battlezone 98 isn’t just a reskinning of a classic or an action game with gimmicks crammed in. It’s an active strategy/action dance that flows in a way no other game handles quite the same way. The use of different pilotable vehicles and defensive and utility structures lends facets to personal control over strategy and command that any fan of the genre would be
Squad-based tactical gameplay has an interesting evolution and somewhat spotty record. Whether you’re looking at the small squad setups of XCOM or more grandiose designs, there are a ton of things that can have to be considered from development to release, especially when you take away the cushion of turn-based tactical gameplay that favors chess-like decisions. It’s not that good real-time tactical strategy games didn’t happen and there are actually a few examples on this list, but one in particular must be praised for its very commendable use of 3D environments, real-time strategy, and terrain control. A good look at Ground Control reveals just how much groundwork it laid for future 3D strategy/tactics games.
Ground Control takes place in the far future after much of humanity’s infrastructure has been obliterated by a third world war. The remnants banded together to seek out new worlds to colonize under affluent organizations. The game focuses on the Crayven Corporation and the religious Order of the Dawn as they vie for control of a distant world known as Krig 7-B. Players take on the role of officers in each faction through the campaign.
Before each mission, players are offered choice of which units of four categories to load squads with between vehicles, support, aircraft, and infantry. Each unit could be loaded with specialized equipment and on the battlefield, working the squads proficiently through the terrain with consideration of strengths and weaknesses against flanking and enemy types would allow players to work with a tactical strategy not seem with such proficiency in many other titles at the time. Ground Control may be real-time, but it comprehensive use of squad customization, combat, and environmental tactics offered a fantastic standard which could be felt in the 3D strategy games that would come after it.
Coming from the mind of industry veteran Steve Fawkner and his successful turn-based Warlords series, Warlords Battlecry was something unlike anything else at the time of its release. It wasn’t just any old strategy game set in a in a sword-and-sorcery, fantasy-fiction setting. It blended strategy gameplay with the creation and progression of heroes that would lead your armies and gain experience and skills through battle. As such, Fawkner would coin a unique term for it to be used by future and previous games like it: the “roleplaying strategy” game.
Unlike the core Warlords games before it, Battlecry employed real-time strategy. Battlecry features nine races, and though you focus on the humans and a few others in single-player, players can play any of them in multiplayer games and skirmishes. Once you’ve started, you immediately go into making a hero to lead their forces. Heroes can specialize in several professions each with several specialties, making for a multitude of customizable options amongst race, class, and specialization.
When it comes down to it, it’s very possible Battlecry wasn’t the first to employ extensive RPG mechanics in a real-time strategy game, but its utilization of the roleplaying strategy moniker it coined would influence and inform similar systems in other games, such as Warcraft III. Though the game may be dated, it helped to lay a foundation of new and engaging RPG elements mixed impressively with the strategy format.
Paradox is a studio that has often prided itself on the sheer complex design of its games. They’re not always revolutionary, but even when they aren’t, Paradox’s games often push familiar mechanics to their prime state and present the apex of their use. A fine example of this is Europa Universalis IV, which is a 4X game following the development of European civilization from the 1400s to the 1800s.
Europa Universalis IV followed Crusader Kings 2 and those who have played both extensively will feel it. The game extensive mechanics based around the legitimacy of your rule, including civil obedience and unrest, coalitions and spying on other nations, and much more. Expanding your technology, religious beliefs, military, and territory of rule comes down to not only your considerate decisions, but also the occasional history event which can either help you greatly or throw a wet blanket on your plans.
A common point of most 4X strategy games is that they follow a common thread of victories in which military, economic, or diplomatic domination are the goals of any given game. The true grit and glamour of a 4X game comes in how it distinguishes itself beyond the standard set up. Europa Universalis IV is such a game that relies dominantly on established mechanics, but the use of intrigue, rebellion, and occasional historical events causing giving boon or unrest to a civilization are what make it quite a bit more than a milquetoast strategy game.
It may not be the most phonetically sound title on our list, but it’s certainly deserving of a place here. Eugen’s second entry in the WarGame series arguably brought their formula to its peak. Some of the greatest real-time strategy games excel in their ability to bring a balanced roster of factions to the field. Airland Battle favors historical accuracy and that’s a lot of what makes it unique.
In particular, Airland Battle explores a space that surprisingly very few strategy games have ever touched upon. It focuses upon the Cold War, and specifically on the period of 1975 to 1986. To this end, the factions present in the game are tied to countries under NATO and countries under the Warsaw Pact. Players can take on any one of the applicable nations from Canada to the U.S.S.R. in several different campaigns and multiplayer modes.
As stated before, Wargame: Airland Battle favors historical accuracy over extensive balancing, and to this end there are over 800 units in the game. Each playable nation features its actual available arsenal in full from the time period. Certainly there are some that are better equipped than others, but players could also build their own custom deck of units for play, making Airland Battle one of the most variety-rich real-time strategy games in both single and multiplayer ever.
Some developers are content to create a real-time strategy game where you fight an enemy in skirmishes to your hearts content and call it a day. They may contain versatile tactics and build strategies, but it really starts and ends on a singular battlefield. Ironclad Games went out of their way to not only say that wasn’t enough. They pushed the boundary of the battlefield beyond galaxies with Sins of a Solar Empire.
In Sins of a Solar Empire, players can take on one of three races, playing against up to 7 AI or player-controlled opponents. The battlefield consists of a web of planets across the entire galaxy. Players are tasked with establishing control over and harvesting resources from multiple systems. In turn, diplomacy, technology development, and anomalies play with the regular flow of the real-time strategy conquest.
For a real-time strategy game to feature mechanics that ran closer to a 4X strategy game was an interesting move. Each game hosts a depth that players would have a hard time finding anywhere else in the genre. Supplying a vast and far-reaching galaxy map that can scale down to situational instances is something that was awe-inspiring in 2008 and is still enjoyable now.
Paradox has had it figured out incredibly well with grand strategy games. They don’t always produce winners, but when they do, it’s something well worth almost any player’s time. Heart of Iron II comes from a time when Paradox was still figuring out the best way to approach the grand strategy genre. The game was minimalistic in some regards and offered almost too much freedom in others, but it was still a grand experience unlike many others at the time.
Hearts of Iron II takes place within the intense period of 1936 to 1947, making the lead up, engagement, and aftermath of WWII. The game requires players to monitor politics, diplomacy, military, and negotiations on a global scale. Perhaps the most interesting part of it is that it allowed for play of any of 145 nations that existed at the time, including custom nations the player could play after they declared independence.
Certainly, there are nations that play much more heavily than others, but that was some of the fun and freedom of Hearts of Iron II. Germany was not going to play the same as the Netherlands. Venezuela would hardly take on the same roles and receive the same troubles and opportunities as the United States. Players were allowed to be a super power, a nation drawn into the conflict, or a minor nation simply trying to survive the trying times.
City and installation building has always been a light element of most strategy games, real-time or otherwise. When you get more into city simulator territory, it becomes a bit trickier as developers try to balance strategy elements with the city sim mechanics. Tropico in particular is a series that had fair success with this, but the series arguably came to the height of its powers with Tropico 4.
Tropico 4 used a lot of what impressed fans about Tropico 3 and pushed hard in that direction. Factions, imports, exports, and interactions in world event became much more of a factor in Tropico 4 than they had ever previously been in the series. As a dictator seeking to control your island, you continued to strike balances between maintaining control and adoration of your citizenry, all while keeping a good face about yourself in negotiation with world superpowers.
It’s not often you see a city simulator with such engaging and charming missions and strategy elements. Just as well, it’s not often you see a strategy game with such intricate and diverse attention to citizenry, city customization, and politicking outside of world events. Many games in the Tropico series served to push the needle towards a more and more perfect union of city sim and RTS. Tropico 4 is the point where they hit the mark.
It is the real-time strategy game that launched a movement. Where on Earth does one start with the game that practically started one of the original and still fiercely competitive eSports scenes? Do you start in the vibrant and interesting characters of the story mode? Perhaps you talk about the sheer difference of the three factions? Maybe you talk about the years of balance that went into making the game the tournament ready powerhouse that it has been for several decades.
StarCraft tells the story of an intergalactic war between Terran (human) forces, shaman-like, high-tech Protoss, and savage, high-mind Zerg. From the original game through its Brood War expansion, players were treated to a lengthy campaign that spanned six chapters, offering two for each faction. Players explored themes of capitalism, dominance, revolution, love, betrayal, destiny and sacrifice through the stories of characters that are mostly iconic to gaming history as a whole.
Of course, one of the biggest things to come out of StarCraft was that of the multiplayer setup which allowed for versatile LAN and online parties supporting up to eight players. The uninitiated were quickly broken in as veterans separated themselves from the fray and rose through the ranks. The game is not easy if you don’t know what you’re doing, but it’s not unfair either. Metas and dominant strategies have been adopted and scrapped as each hopeful player has devised their strategy for this active chess game. For all these things, StarCraft: Brood War stands the test of time as one of the most amazing strategy games of all time.
A long time ago, when Westwood Studios was a master of the real-time strategy format, they asked the question, “what if there was no Nazi Germany?” The scenario they portrayed in the original Red Alert was a bleak one in which Soviet Russia seizes power and makes an unhindered run at conquering all of Europe. The original set a high bar, introducing two amazingly varied sides, each with a wicked arsenal, a heavy techno/metal soundtrack, and a cinematic story told in full-motion video between missions. The second game in the series didn’t just pass over that bar, but set it higher than nearly any other Westwood Studios game would ever reach.
Red Alert 2 followed the idea that the Allies defeated Stalin and his Soviet forces, installing a puppet government. Unfortunately, the Soviets don’t take the humiliation too well. They rebuild their forces and attack American soil on all fronts. The game might be a little farfetched, but it paints the backdrop to an incredible escalating series of campaigns for both the Soviets and the Allies, complete with a slew of impressive technology for both.
If that wasn’t enough, you could go online, challenging up to 7 of your buddies to battle in several different modes. The game allowed each player to take up a nation, each with its own special unit adding an additional facet of strategy to each skirmish. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 wasn’t the swan song of Westwood Studios, but it was arguably the studio’s magnum opus. There would be other good games after Red Alert 2 from the studio, but nothing quite captured the spirit of Westwood at the height of its powers like the second Soviet/Allied wargame RTS.
When it comes to the Sid Meier’s Civilization series, it can be argued that Civilization V breathed new life into the series that was accessible to veterans and new players alike for its novel and enjoyable approach to the turn-based strategy franchise. The game introduced novel changes to the already comprehensive system, allowing for new options when it comes to combat, technology, and diplomacy. This made for an almost entirely fresh take on world domination and diplomacy with our favorite leaders and nations.
Perhaps one of Civilization V’s biggest changes came in the form of the revamped map. Ditching the square spaces for a hexagonal grid, Civ V allowed for a slew of new tactical options when it came to unit placement, combat, unit support, and flanking. Tiles could only house one military unit at a time, but the changes to embarking on water, ranged attacks, being able to swap adjacent units allowed for multi-faceted strategy. It could be argued that in the core of Civ V, combat evolved more than anything.
Not that other facets of the game weren’t still interesting mind you. Racing for a technological victory in the space race or a diplomatic victory through peace was still a fun process. Cultural victories weren’t quite as easy, but this would change with the addition of Civ V’s stellar expansions, Gods and Kings and Brave New World, in which religion was revamped and tourism was introduced respectively. Civilization V caters to such flexibility in its randomized map-building, variety of mechanics, and wealth of tools for victory that it stands as one of the most fun and comprehensive turn-based strategy games on the market.
Blizzard had a lot of time of silence on the StarCraft front after Brood Wars came out, which was a little ridiculous considering the cliffhanger on which the last chapter of Brood Wars ends. For a long time, they simply let the community go full throttle with the game with the occasional update and balance tweak to keep things fair in the tournaments. When it came to a sequel, the hard question: how do you go about producing a sequel to one of the most beloved strategy games of all time? Twelve long years later, Blizzard had an answer. You take everything everyone loves about the original and push it to the next level.
Indeed, StarCraft II picks up right where the franchise left off. The game came out in three installments, each featuring a full campaign of one of the three major races alongside its iconic multiplayer and a few other interesting additions to the classic formula. Players would join Raynor, Kerrigan, and other amazing characters both old and new in the single player as their tales intertwine to draw the StarCraft storyline to a reasonable close. The multiplayer was just as much of natural evolution and progression, bringing StarCraft into the new generation with streamlined online matchmaking, tier systems, and rankings to go with the revamps strategies the combination of new and familiar units provided.
So where does one go with StarCraft II? Do you start at the beginning with Wings of Liberty? If you want to get the most out of the story, then starting with the Terrans is the obvious choice, but you don’t have to. If multiplayer is your sole concern then Legacy of the Void will provide you with the most up-to-date requirements for playing the game online. Of course, Heart of the Swarm provides the absolute climax in the series and should absolutely not be skipped if you’ve stayed faithful to the journey from the beginning. Blizzard doesn’t pigeon hole you in to buying all three and that’s great, but so are each of the games.
If you were to ask any hardcore real-time strategy fan worth their salt what game has the most comprehensively vast scale when it comes to the strategy genre, it would be weird if Supreme Commander didn’t at least come to mind. The game comes from the legendary mind of game designer Chris Taylor and is widely considered to be a successor to his previous 1997 title, Total Annihilation. Legacy aside, Supreme Commander is more than capable of standing on its own as a masterclass in the blending of resource management and grand-scale warfare.
Players are invited into a conflict in which they can take up one of three sides: The United Earth Federation, the cybernetic human/AI symbiotic faction known as the Cybran Nation, and the Aeon Illuminate, who worship ancient higher alien beings. Each faction brings its own strengths and weaknesses to the table and there’s a wide array of tactics to be employed by each, but everything for each faction centers around a central robotic unit, known as the Commander, which controls production and construction for the player’s forces.
Supreme Commander features a cohesive vastness that very few other games are capable of accomplishing coherently. It’s rare to see another game which can carry intercontinental battles between players as a common occurrence. The game’s mechanics allow players to shift seamlessly from a worldwide view of unit movement and activity down to the very ground where units are tearing each other apart. The game also featured ballistics, which actually factor terrain into the success of a unit’s fired volley: an absolute rarity in most real-time strategy. Supreme Commander might sound like it’s trying to pack the world into one game, and in many ways it is, but few other games tackle such vast concepts as successfully.
Well before there was XCOM: Enemy Unknown or XCOM 2, as successful as those games are, there was a long-beloved cult classic hit that drew fans together all over the world in defense against the alien forces. It was tough as nails, as unnerving as any horror, and had a more comprehensive system of time and resource management mixed with combat than most any other game in 1993, before and even years beyond. We’re talking about the game that started it all: X-COM: UFO Defense, better known as UFO: Enemy Unknown to many.
The original game is still the preferred flavor of many fans that have followed the series and its not hard to see why. X-COM is a stylized classic that had a ton of even the modern games already built into it. Sure, Firaxis’s remakes are gorgeous and quite fun to play, but the original game is a rare instance where it actually felt far ahead of its time. The game introduced many of the iconic aliens we know from the franchise, such as the Sectoids, Snakemen, Mutons, and, of course, the feared Chryssalid, to name a few.
No map was ever the same in UFO Defense The random map generator made sure that every time your ship touched down, you were stepping into a brand new hell that was going to test your tactical prowess to its limits. The game also featured much of the global management as players push to develop a means to combat the aliens globally on their own level while maintaining the trust of nations. With all of this, it’s easy to see that much of the franchise was packed nice and tight into its original outing. The modern games may be prettier, but it’s hard to deny the surprising complexity and completeness of the original.
Amplitude Studios has come out of the ether in the past few years to produce quite a few quality games that build a creative and strong framework for their current and future games. Arguably, the best of these ventures may have been their first released title, the 4X turn-based strategy sci-fi, Endless Space. While it’s clear that there’s inspiration from other strong titles at play, Endless Space isn’t simply a cut and paste model of other games. Rather, it uses those inspirations and weaves them together to carve its own niche and create an overall enjoyable experience.
After choosing one of ten unique races each with their own bonus, philosophy, and playstyle, the player takes up one of many star systems spread out across a wide, randomly generated galaxy. Players are tasked with harvesting resources and developing their colonies and civilization enough to achieve one of several overall victories: Economic, Diplomatic, Expansionary, or Supremacy. Each star system contains several planets that can be explored and harvested and the player can be in a race for their victory with up to 7 other player and/or A.I. controlled civilizations.
Endless Space established a strong standard of creativity for Amplitude Studios on their maiden voyage. The game doesn’t take an enough risk on the mechanics, but the game is filled with content that will keep players pushing the boundaries of their intergalactic escapades for quite a while. For that much, it belongs here among the greats as a fantastic turn-based sci-fi offering.
Before Westwood was working on the acclaimed Command & Conquer series, they had made a name for themselves producing strategy games for several established science-fiction universes such as Dune and BattleTech. It is perhaps inevitable that the studio would eventually take on a sci-fi IP of their own. The original Command & Conquer would establish a grand formula from which many other Westwood Studios RTS games would build upon, but perhaps the greatest snapshot of the original Brotherhood of Nod vs. Global Defense Initiative campaigns in their prime comes from Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun
Red Alert had already come out, offering Westwood a great deal of experience in upping the visual integrity and bringing a new level of presentation to their games. Tiberian Sun saw a grand update in visuals, bringing new unit styles, a fantastic soundtrack, interactive environments, and an engaging multiplayer to the series. This was the game just before Electronics Arts had taken over, so there was a rush in development that resulted in some features being omitted, but these features would come full circle in the expansion for the game and the vanilla game barely suffered at all without them.
Tiberian Sun marked a shift for Westwood. It was here that they showed they were comfortable with their medium and flexed their creative muscles. Tiberian Sun was a huge turn from Red Alert in terms of unit design and interactable maps that were more in line with the lore of its story. This was where Westwood differentiated the two and established a true sci-fi IP of their own in contrast to the historical-fiction style of Red Alert.
If you had told somebody before 2014 that Hitman was a franchise that would be successfully translated over to a board game style format that could played on iOS and Android devices, you probably would have gotten more than your share of criticism for such a thought. If you’d told people it would translate just as well to PC, you’d probably be called downright silly to say the least. Luckily for the theoretical Nostradamus in this scenario, he’d be absolutely right. Hitman GO is real thing that’s both charming and addictive.
The game follows a simplistic working version of all the regular Hitman themes. The game plays on a series of boards in which you must carefully guide your (quite frankly cute) little Agent 47 figure through the perilous boundaries and guards of the game board. You can find many of 47’s iconic go-to gadgets and tactics, including disguises, hiding places, his Silverballer pistols, sniper rifles, and what have you. Player skills are put to the test as you track down your target, put them down, and escape in each stylish little diorama.
Hitman GO most surprising attributes come from how quirky and charming it is for a Hitman game that started as simply a smart phone distraction. Each level is well-crafted and the game itself gets to be an almost shockingly addictive affair. The world had no idea it wanted to play around with a minimalistic, miniature Agent 47 on a curious little digital board game, but… well, here we are.
If there’s one group of folks that are a picky bunch, it’s Warhammer folks, and perhaps rightfully so. Warhammer in most of its incarnations is a beloved franchise and one that has seen its share of slogging through the dirt in quite a number of mediocre titles. That said, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II does not qualify as anything close to mediocre. It is a rather stellar real-time tactical strategy game.
Taking place in the illustrious science fantasy realm of Warhammer 40K players find themselves taking on the role of one of a few Space Marine commanders as they take on missions either alone or co-op with a pal against the regular Eldar and Ork adversaries. Players pick and choose which missions to go on through the campaign and more than a few times, taking on one warzone often gives up opportunities at another. The player controls several different squads and works to complete different objectives in the chosen missions, resulting in rewards such as new war gear or saving civilians.
Dawn of War II was unique in that it shed the base building mechanics of the previous title in order to focus on RPG elements of leveling up Marine squad members. Marines making kills could level up and gain access to new abilities. Additionally, players could choose to take their squads against online opponents in skirmishes. There are a lot of half-baked Warhammer games in the franchise, but Dawn of War II is a brutal and bloody beacon among the filth of what an Warhammer video game can do with proper development.
When it comes to real-time strategy, there are few games that are as stunningly visceral and visually impressive the original Company of Heroes. Relic Entertainment set out to make a game that married the intensity of WWII battles with strong and mechanically impressive strategy combat. The marriage produced a game that has garnered the attention of millions of fans across the vanilla game and all of its many expansions.
Players control a company of men through the Normandy invasion in the original game. The player must push forward into Europe, seizing control points across various terrain from the deathtrap beaches to the ruined towns and villages. Each control point provides the player with resources that can be spent on upgrading manpower, firepower, and fuel. It becomes a balancing act between being staffed, being armed, and being mobile.
In addition, there are several options for online head-to-head, with players taking on specialized units to attack one another as Allied and Axis players. The multitude of weapons, armor, vehicles, and tactical play made this game one that stands tall on upon the acclaim of its fans even now. World War II may have been a subject that was done to death in video games, but Company of Heroes is an undeniable stand-out classic.
The Total War series is undoubtedly one that has had its share of ups and downs throughout its history. Sometimes you get a good Total War game. Sometimes they end up mediocre. Nonetheless, Total War: Shogun 2 is one of the entries that stands out as arguably the best that The Creative Assembly has to offer. In a community that has been regularly hard to please, the level of turn-based strategy and real-time combat in Shogun 2 is an absolute treat.
The player selects one of nine different provincial clans, each with their own land and specializations in warfare and economy. Where the game does employ the familiar sea of soldiers that the game is known for, the game also went a bit more in-depth with leaders and generals, offering a level of role-play not present previously. Players are encouraged to engage not only in outside politics, but also family politics in order to gain the trust and abilities of heroes within the clan.
Shogun 2 also introduced a unique event known as Realm Divide. When the player becomes too strong, all clans will eventually turn against the player in hopes of stopping the player’s absolute rise to power over Japan. It makes the game increasingly difficult in later stages, but also adds a layer of depth to the game as you prepare to not only face bitter enemies, but former allies. Total War games may not always be in the most stellar form, but Shogun 2 was certainly a reminder that The Creative Assembly knows how to put a masterful hybrid strategy game together.
To say Brian Reynolds took something away from his time at MicroProse, working on Civilization II and Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri would be a gross understatement epitomized by the existence of this game. In 2003, Rise of Nations was a grand amalgam of many things that came before. It hosted city, population, and resource management of games like Civilization and combines it with turn-based strategy of games like Risk and real-time strategy of a Total War game.
Players are invited to take on one of eighteen civilizations across eight ages of history in Rise of Nations creating a massive multitude of options for situational and conditional games. Each nation could be played across any of the ages, even in times where they wouldn’t have existed with the game providing lore-friendly units that make sense to what a civilization would have if they had existed at the time. Multiplayer allows players to take on a single-player quest for victory, or challenge their friends or world players in a comprehensive ranking system.
Many games would be bogged down over trying to mix and mesh so many ideas into a single product and there are a ton of games that have failed trying to do it. Rise of Nations not only succeeds in cohesively putting these ideas together, but making them work exceptionally well. If you’re looking for a game that will let you play with some of the best concepts in turn-based and real-time strategy, then Rise of Nations is well worth your consideration.
Developer: Relic Entertainment & Gearbox Software (Remastered edition) Purchase fromGreen Man Gaming
It gets thrown around quite a bit about how one game or another “revitalized the franchise” or “revitalized the genre”. Often, it just means that it was a game that didn’t suck the way others like it did. Homeworld, on the other hand, presented something that had rarely been used in a strategy game before it: The dynamic and enjoyable use of 3D space combat in real-time strategy.
The original Homeworld established an amazing universe in which the last remnants of an exiled race known as the Kushan attempt to make a run across the galaxy to their rightful home. Meanwhile, the tyrannical Taiidan who originally exiled the Kushan thousands of years before seek to stop the Kushan and keep their iron hold over the race, no matter the cost. The single-player game is like if Oregon Trail was set against a tyrant who challenged you to ridiculously flashy and stylish space combat on your way to your destination.
In addition to a great story that established a great franchise, Homeworld featured varied ships, resource collection, fuel management, and trade and barter to keep players on their toes and looking for all optional opportunities between seeking primary objectives. The game featured a serviceable competitive multiplayer full of variable options as well. The best part? You can get the original Homeworld and its impressive sequel, Homeworld 2 in one collection featuring both the classic versions and their remastered updates.
In terms of design, goals, and mechanics, Crusader Kings II may be the most peculiar strategy game out there. It’s not entirely about conquering your fellow nations, winning diplomatic or economic victory, or amassing the largest army. The only technical way to win is simply to live, preserve the rule of your domain, and continue your chosen dynasty’s bloodline.
In a genre often defined by competition, Crusader Kings II isn’t necessarily out of the ordinary. From your position in your kingdom, you occasionally find yourself at odds with other rulers and that sometimes leads to conflict, but Crusader Kings II offers so much more. Taxes and Levy laws, marriage between different nobles, and education and passing of knowledge and skills to children are just a few of the comprehensive intricacies that take Crusader Kings II beyond the regular strategy game.
Paradox Development Studio has a shown a proclivity over its many years for creating unique and releasing unique and interesting games. Crusader Kings II is a perfect example of the studio taking what we know about the standard strategy game and giving it a spin that challenges our intellectual prowess. How do you win? You simply live through generations of fruitful rule, diplomacy, and intrigue.
When a beloved franchise comes under a different developer and the franchise takes on a drastically different theme from those by which the franchise began, fans often cry foul of the franchise being “ruined” by change. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak had a lot to prove when it became clear what it was. That said, only the most bitter of old guard could call this game a bad move for the series. Deserts of Kharak is very different, but it still a wonderful and faithful Homeworld game.
Deserts of Kharak takes place over a century before the original Homeworld on the desert world of Kharak where the Kushan clans fight eachother over precious resources. When an anomaly occurs in the desert, Rachel of the familiar S’jet bloodline leads an expedition to discover what mysteries lurk in the unforgiving dunes. This leads her and her forces into a frenzy of political and religious intrigue as different Kushan factions fight to discover the truth behind the anomaly.
Rather than take away strategy in transitioning from three-dimensional space to more flat desert terrains, Deserts of Kharak challenges players to tend to a smaller desert vehicles centered around desert carriers by being tactical and mindful of movement and surroundings. There’s still much to salvage in the desert and balancing the primary objectives with optional ones is still accomplished well here. Faithful fans can cry foul at the departure from space combat if they want, but they’d be missing out on a fantastically devised desert sci-fi RTS that would probably make Dune writer Frank Herbert cry tears of joy.
When Simtex set out to make a new strategy game in 1993, they probably couldn’t have guessed that it would coin a term that would be applied to all games that came before and would come after that were like it. Master of Orion isn’t just any old solid and enjoyable strategy game. It’s the game from which the title “4X” emerged. It’s not that there weren’t 4X games before Master of Orion, but it was the first game that was so blatantly such that it could finally be given a name.
Master of Orion set itself from its contemporaries quickly. Where many other games were exploring turn-based strategy on earth in either historical or fantasy-fiction capacities, Master of Orion ventured to the stars. Players picked between 10 races, each with their own benefits and drawbacks, and were given a starting planet in a wide galaxy, ripe for colonization, development, and research.
Master of Orion was masterful in its use of research, expansion, predisposed biases among races, and random events that would happen throughout the galaxy. It suffered from not having a multiplayer because everything just seemed perfectly there for it, but the single player experience still provided a rich and awesome backdrop, fit for launching this then-new idea of the 4X game.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a pretty darn good game. It was with Enemy Unknown that Firaxis proved that they were more than capable of stepping into the legendary boots that had garnered such a rabid following decades before. However, Enemy Unknown, for all it did to establish Firaxis’s credibility, was just the tip of the iceberg. XCOM 2 is the real deal in practically every way, shape, and form.
Enemy Unknown worked to establish the old fight made new. Aliens are attacking the Earth and world leaders establish XCOM as a means of fighting back and discovering the means to turn the tide against the invaders. XCOM 2 flips the script entirely. In XCOM 2, the aliens have won, the Earth is under their control, and the new XCOM is a ragtag and woefully under-equiped guerrilla force working from the shadows.
XCOM 2’s combat, resource management, character development, and enemy design took all of the established basis and cranked it up to 11. The situation feels appropriate desperate much of the time and players are pushed to a level of tactical consideration in line with the difficulty the original games were known for. XCOM 2 isn’t perfect, but it is a great evolution of the modern XCOM formula that hosts a ton of playability.
You can’t talk about a list of the best PC strategy games without talking about one of the benchmarks in the genre’s history. Warcraft III was many things, none of which to be taken lightly. It was simultaneously the end of an era and the beginning of the new one. It was Blizzard at one of the absolute heights of its powers as a real-time strategy developer. Perhaps most important though, it is easily one of the most engrossing and fun real-time strategy games ever made.
Warcraft III saw us venture among many of the most important characters in the franchise’s history as the war between the Orcish Horde and the Human Alliance reached an absolute tipping point. Leaders rose and fell, Bonds were formed and destroyed, and we got to see it all through a masterful campaign offering unique and amazingly crafted maps and units for each faction.
Warcraft III has never seen quite the publicity of its sci-fi sister franchise, StarCraft in the multiplayer scene, but that doesn’t discount the presence of it at all. There is a ton of options, strategies, and versatility when it comes to creating the most perfect moves in an online match between unseen enemies and close friends. The Warcraft franchise may have given way to its MMORPG iteration forevermore, but there’s no denying Reign of Chaos and its expansion, The Frozen Throne, as the proper send off its RTS incarnations deserved.
Back in the early ‘90s, real-time strategy was a fresh landscape and a lot of developers were still learning the boundaries of what they could do with this format. One of the greatest of all of the pioneers was definitely Westwood Studios. They would carve a swath through the genre for others to follow with their evolving products, but much of it can be traced back to their 1992 sci-fi classic, Dune II.
Dune II was built up like a direct sequel to the original sci-fi novel by Frank Herbert. It hosts all of the staples established by the book. The nefarious Harkonnen clans, the noble Atreides, the sandworms, the Fremen, and the spice were translated wonderfully to this still young format. The game was punctuated by Mentats or house advisors that gave you mission briefings and advice for meeting your goals. Each Mentat gave a deep and meaningful feel to its respective house to really sell the story in the game.
Westwood itself used a lot of the natural elements of Dune to build a common formula strategy games use today. The Harkonnen and Atreides gave the game factions, the spice gave the game resource management, and the varying disciplines of each house informed special units that individualized each side in the war. In many ways, Dune II helped to establish many common factors of the real-time strategy game and push the genre in a rich and meaningful direction.
That’s a wrap for now, but don’t fret if your favorite wasn’t on this list. These are but a handful of the great offerings out there. While they represent a wide variety of some of the best that the industry has given to us over decades of PC gaming, there’s certainly more quality gems that have come out and there are most definitely more on the way.
What’s your favorite turn-based, real-time, 4X, or other strategy game? Let us know in the comments below!