Total War: Three Kingdoms
Total War: Three Kingdoms, the latest historical entry in the series, takes a few nods from Warhammer, which you’ll find elsewhere in this list, giving us a sprawling Chinese civil war that’s fuelled by its distinct characters, both off and on the battlefield. Each is part of a complicated web of relationships that affects everything from diplomacy to performance in battle, and like their Warhammer counterparts they’re all superhuman warriors.
It feels like a leap for the series in the same way the first Rome did, bringing with it some fundemental changes to how diplomacy, trade and combat works. The fight over China also makes for a compelling campaign, blessed with a kind of dynamism that we’ve not seen in a Total War before. Since launch, it’s also benefited from some great DLC, including a new format that introduces historical bookmarks that expand on different events from the era.
Crusader Kings 2
Crusader Kings 2 is a dynastic strategy game spliced with an elaborate RPG. It’s as much about who your imbecilic niece is marrying as it is about leading armies into battle. Every landed character is simulated, and each one has goals and desires. It’s complex—you can blame the feudal system for that—but offers clear and immediate drama on a personal level. Its simulation corners you into desperate situations and encourages you to do terrible things to retain power, like killing off your rubbish child to ensure the smart one takes over when you pop your clogs. Conveniently, the base game is completely free, but there are a lot of expansions.
Total War: Warhammer 2
The first Total War: Warhammer showed that Games Workshop’s fantasy universe was a perfect match for Creative Assembly’s massive battles and impressively detailed units. Total War: Warhammer 2 makes a whole host of improvements, in interface, tweaks to heroes, rogue armies that mix factions together and more. The game’s four factions, Skaven, High Elves, Dark Elves and Lizardmen are all meaningfully different from one another, delving deeper into the odd corners of old Warhammer fantasy lore. If you’re looking for a starting point with CA’s Warhammer games, this is now the game to get—and if you already own the excellent original, too, the mortal empires campaign will unite both games into one giant map.
Europa Universalis 4
Paradox’s long-running, flagship strategy romp is the ultimate grand strategy game, putting you in charge of a nation from the end of the Middle Ages all the way up to the 1800s. As head honcho, you determine its political strategy, meddle with its economy, command its armies and craft an empire.
Right from the get-go, Europa Universalis 4 lets you start changing history. Maybe England crushes France in the 100 Years War and builds a massive continental empire. Maybe the Iroquois defeat European colonists, build ships and invade the Old World. It’s huge, complex, and through years of expansions has just kept growing. The simulation can sometimes be tough to wrap one’s head around, but it’s worth diving in and just seeing where alt-history takes you.
You can’t have a best strategy games list without a bit of Civ. Civilization 6 is our game of choice in the series right now, especially now that it’s seen a couple of expansions. The biggest change this time around is the district system, which unstacks cities in the way that its predecessor unstacked armies. Cities are now these sprawling things full of specialised areas that force you to really think about the future when you developing tiles.
The expansions added some more novel wrinkles that are very welcome but do stop short of revolutionising the venerable series. They introduce the concept of Golden Ages and Dark Ages, giving you bonuses and debuffs depending on your civilisation’s development across the years, as well as climate change and environmental disasters. It’s a forward-thinking, modern Civ.
Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins of a Solar Empire captures some of the scope of a 4X strategy game but makes it work within an RTS framework. This is a game about star-spanning empires that rise, stabilise and fall in the space of an afternoon: and, particularly, about the moment when the vast capital ships of those empires emerge from hyperspace above half-burning worlds. Diplomacy is an option too, of course, but also: giant spaceships. Play the Rebellion expansion to enlarge said spaceships to ridiculous proportions.
Stellaris takes an ‘everything and the kicthen sink’ approach to the space 4X. It’s got a dose of EU4, Paradox’s grand strategy game, but applied to a sci-fi game that contains everything from robotic uprisings to aliens living in black holes. It arguably tries to do to much and lacks the focus of some of the other genre greats, but as a celebration of interstellar sci-fi there are none that come close. It’s a liberating sandbox designed to generate a cavalcade of stories as you guide your species and empire through the stars, meddling with their genetic code, enslaving aliens, or consuming the galaxy as a ravenous hive of cunning insects.
Fantasy 4X Endless Legend is proof that you don’t need to sacrifice story to make a compelling 4X game. Each of its asymmetrical factions sports all sorts of unique and unusual traits, elevated by story quests featuring some of the best writing in any strategy game. The Broken Lords, for instance, are vampiric ghosts living in suits of armour, wrestling with their dangerous nature; while the necrophage is a relentless force of nature that just wants to consume, ignoring diplomacy in favour of complete conquest. Including the expansions, there are 13 factions, each blessed or cursed with their own strange quirks. Faction design doesn’t get better than this.
Civ in space is a convenient shorthand for Alpha Centauri, but a bit reductive. Brian Reynolds’ ambitious 4X journey took us to a mind-worm-infested world and ditched nation states and empires in favour of ideological factions who were adamant that they could guide humanity to its next evolution. The techs, the conflicts, the characters—it was unlike any of its contemporaries and, with only a few exceptions, nobody has really attempted to replicate it. Not even when Firaxis literally made a Civ in space, which wasn’t very good. Alpha Centauri is as fascinating and weird now as it was back in ’99, when we were first getting our taste of nerve stapling naughty drones and getting into yet another war with Sister Miriam.
Age of Wonders: Planetfall
Pick an Age of Wonders and you really can’t go wrong, and if sci-fi isn’t your thing, absolutely give Age of Wonders 3 a try, but it’s Age of Wonders: Planetfall that’s got us all hot and bothered at the moment. Set in a galaxy that’s waking up after a long period of decline, you’ve got to squabble over a lively world with a bunch of other ambitious factions that run the gamut from dinosaur-riding Amazons to psychic bugs. The methodical empire building is a big improvement over its fantastical predecessors, benefiting from big changes to its structure and pace, but just as engaging are the turn-based tactical battles between highly customisable units. Stick lasers on giant lizards, give everyone jetpacks, and nurture your heroes like they’re RPG protagonists—there’s so much fiddling to do, and it’s all great.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2’s cosmic battles are spectacular. There’s a trio of vaguely 4X-y campaigns following the three of the Warhammer 40K factions: The Imperium, Necron Empire and the nasty Tyranid Hives, but you can ignore them if you want and just dive into some messy skirmishes full of spiky space cathedrals colliding with giant, tentacle-covered leviathans.
The real-time tactical combat manages to be thrilling even when you’re commanding the most sluggish of armadas. You need to manage a whole fleet while broadside attacks pound your hulls, enemies start boarding and your own crews turn mutinous. And with all the tabletop factions present, you can experiment with countless fleet configurations and play with all sorts of weird weapons.
Viking-themed RTS Northgard pays dues to Settlers and Age of Empires, but challenged us with its smart expansion systems that force you to plan your growth into new territories carefully. Weather is important, too. You need to prepare for winter carefully, but if you tech up using ‘lore’ you might have better warm weather gear than your enemies, giving you a strategic advantage. Skip through the dull story, enjoy the well-designed campaign missions and then start the real fight in the skirmish mode.
Mechanically, Homeworld is a phenomenal three-dimensional strategy game, among the first to successfully detach the RTS from a single plane. It’s more than that, though: it’s a major victory for atmosphere and sound design, whether that’s Adagio for Strings playing over the haunting opening missions or the beat of drums as ships engage in a multiplayer battle. If you liked the Battlestar Galactica reboot, you should play this.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
Most of Westwood’s C&C entries are fantastic—but Red Alert 2 has the best campaigns, most interesting units, great maps and of course, superb FMV sequences. The different factions are so distinct, and have more personality than they did in the original game—hence Soviet squids and Allied dolphins. They found the right tonal balance between self-awareness and sincerity in the cutscenes, as well—they’re played for laughs, but still entertain and engage.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sounded almost sacrilegious at first. Over a decade since the last Homeworld game, it was going to take a game remembered for its spaceships and 3D movement and turn it into a ground-based RTS with tanks? And it was a prequel? Yet in spite of all the ways this could have gone horribly wrong, Deserts of Kharak succeeds on almost every count. It’s not only a terrific RTS that sets itself apart from the rest of the genre’s recent games, but it’s also an excellent Homeworld game that reinvents the series while also recapturing its magic.
Only Total War can compete with the scale of Supreme Commander’s real-time battles. It’s still exhilarating to flick the mousewheel and fly from an individual engineer to a map of the entire battlefield, then flick it again to dive down to give orders to another unit kilometres away. When armies do clash—in sprawling hundred-strong columns of robots—you’re rewarded with the most glorious firefights a CPU can render. It’s one of the few real-time strategy games to combine air, ground and naval combat into single encounters, but SupCom goes even further, with artillery, long-range nuclear ordnance and megalithic experimental bots.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
In addition to being the preeminent competitive strategy game of the last decade, StarCraft 2 deserves credit for rethinking how a traditional RTS campaign is structured. Heart of the Swarm is a good example of this, but the human-centric Wings of Liberty instalment is the place to start: an inventive adventure that mixes up the familiar formula at every stage. From zombie defence scenarios to planets that flood with lava every few minutes, you’re forced to learn and relearn StarCraft’s basic elements as you go.
Most notable today for being the point of origin for the entire MOBA genre, Warcraft III is also an inventive, ambitious strategy game in its own right, which took the genre beyond anonymous little sprites and into the realm of cinematic fantasy. The pioneering inclusion of RPG elements in the form of heroes and neutral monsters adds a degree of unitspecific depth not present in its sci-fi stablemate, and the sprawling campaign delivers a fantasy story that—if not quite novel—is thorough and exciting in its execution. It also has the best ‘repeated unit click’ jokes in the business. Shame about Warcraft 3: Reforged, it’s not-so-great remake.
Company of Heroes
Some games would try to step away from the emotional aspect of a war that happened in living memory. Not Company of Heroes. It’s torrid and difficult and brutal. Sure, its methods are pure Hollywood—the muddy artillery plumes could have come straight from Saving Private Ryan—but the result is the most intense RTS ever made, brilliantly capturing the tactical standoff between WWII’s asymmetrical forces.
Rise of Nations
Age of Empires gave us the chance to encompass centuries of military progress in half-hour battles, but Rise of Nations does it better, and smartly introduces elements from turn-based strategy games like Civ. Instead of marshalling troops from a single base, you build cities all over the map to grow your nation’s borders. When borders collide civs race through the ages and try to out-tech each other in a hidden war for influence, all while trying to deliver a knockout military blow with javelins and jets. There aren’t enough games that let you crush longbowmen with amphibious tanks and stealth bombers.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War 2
It was tempting to put the excellent first Dawn of War on the list, but the box-select, right-click to kill formula is well represented. Instead let’s appreciate the experimental sequel, which replaced huge units with a handful of rock-hard space bastards, each with a cluster of killer abilities. In combat you micromanage these empowered special forces, timing the flying attack of your Assault Marines and the sniping power of your Scouts with efficient heavy machine gun cover to undo the Ork hordes. The co-operative Last Stand mode is also immense.
Like an adaptation of the tabletop game crossed with the XCOM design template, BattleTech is a deep and complex turn-based game with an impressive campaign system. You control a group of mercenaries, trying to keep the books balanced and upgrading your suite of mechwarriors and battlemechs in the game’s strategy layer. In battle, you target specific parts of enemy mechs, taking into account armor, angle, speed and the surrounding environment, then make difficult choices when the fight isn’t going your way. It can initially be overwhelming and it’s undeniably a dense game, but if that’s what you want from your strategy games or you love this universe, it’s a great pick.
Into the Breach
A beautifully designed, near-perfect slice of tactical mech action from the creators of FTL. Into the Breach challenges you to fend off waves of Vek monsters on eight-by-eight grids populated by tower blocks and a variety of sub objectives. Obviously you want to wipe out the Vek using mech-punches and artillery strikes, but much of the game is about using the impact of your blows to push enemies around the map and divert their attacks away from your precious buildings.
Civilian buildings provide power, which serves as a health bar for your campaign. Every time a civilian building takes a hit, you’re a step closer to losing the war. Once your power is depleted your team travels back through time to try and save the world again. It’s challenging, bite-sized, and dynamic. As you unlock new types of mechs and mech upgrades you gain inventive new ways to toy with your enemies.
The game cleverly uses scarcity of opportunity to force you into difficult dilemmas. At any one time you might have only six possible scan sites, while combat encounters are largely meted out by the game, but what you choose to do with this narrow range of options matters enormously. You need to recruit new rookies; you need an engineer to build a comms facility that will let you contact more territories; you need alien alloys to upgrade your weapons. You can’t have all of these. You can probably only have one. In 1989 Sid Meier described games as “a series of interesting decisions.” XCOM 2 is the purest expression of that ethos that Firaxis has yet produced.
The War of the Chosen expansion brings even more welcome if frantic changes, like the endlessly chatty titular enemies, memorable nemeses who pop up at different intervals during the campaign with random strengths and weaknesses.
Sneaky tactics doesn’t come in a slicker package than Invisible Inc., Klei’s exceptional stealth-em-up. It’s a sexy cyberpunk espionage romp blessed with so much tension that you’ll be sweating buckets as you slink through corporate strongholds and try very hard to not get caught. It’s tricky, sometimes dauntingly so, but there’s a chance you can fix your terrible mistakes by rewinding time, adding some welcome accessibility to the proceedings.
DEFCON’s sinister blue world map is the perfect stage for this Cold War horror story about the outbreak of nuclear war. First, you manage stockpiles, and position missile sites, nuclear submarines and countermeasures in preparation for armageddon. This organisation phase is an interesting strategic challenge in itself, but DEFCON is at its most effective when the missiles fly. Blooming blast sites are matched with casualty numbers as city after city experiences obliteration. Once the dust has settled, victory is a mere technicality. It’s nightmarish, and quite brilliant in multiplayer.
Unity of Command 2
Unity of Command was already the perfect entry point into the complex world of wargames, but Unity of Command 2 manages to maintain this while throwing in a host of new features. It’s a tactical puzzle, but a reactive one where you have the freedom to try lots of different solutions to its military conundrums. Not just a great place to start, it’s simply a brilliant wargame.
Hearts of Iron 4
Hearts of Iron 4 is a grand strategy wargame hybrid, as comfortable with logistics and precise battle plans as it is with diplomacy and sandboxy weirdness. Ostensibly game about World War 2, it lets you throw out history as soon as you want. Want to conquer the world as a communist UK? Go for it. Maybe Germany will be knocked out of the war early, leaving Italy to run things. You can even keep things going for as long as you want, leading to a WW2 that continues into the ’50s or ’60s. With expansions, it’s fleshed out naval battles, espionage and other features so you have control over nearly every aspect of the war.
Steel Division: Normandy 44
Steel Division: Normandy 44 takes its cues from Eugen Systems’ exceptional Wargame series, combining the titular subgenre with loads of RTS goodness. Normandy 44 takes the action back to World War 2 and tears France apart with its gargantuan battles. It’s got explosive real-time fights, but with mind-boggling scale and additional complexities ranging from suppression mechanics to morale and shock tactics.
The sequel, Steel Division 2, brings with it some improvements, but unfortunately the singleplayer experience isn’t really up to snuff. In multiplayer, though, it’s pretty great. And if the World War 2 setting isn’t your cup of tea, the older Wargame series still represents some of the best of both RTS and wargaming, so they’re absolutely worth taking for a spin.
STRATEGY GAMES TO WATCH
We’re always updating this list, and below are a few upcoming games that we’re hoping we’ll eventually be able to include. These are the strategy games we’re most looking forward to, so check out what you should be keeping an eye on.
Crusader Kings 3
After eight years of updating and expanding Crusader Kings 2, Paradox is finally making a sequel. Crusader Kings 3 is expected to have almost all of its predecessor’s systems, but on a greatly expanded map that’s four times larger, and with a greater focus on roleplaying. The stories of idiot nobles, families assassinating each other and romances with horses made CK2 such a singular strategy game, and leaning into these emergent character-driven narratives even more can only be a good thing.
This time, it’s even using a character progression system that would look right at home in a traditional RPG. Characters can work their way down different lifestyle trees, unlocking perks that further specialise them and give them new abilities. Even the dynasties themselves can level up and gain helpful boons. But Paradox says it won’t be shedding any of its grand strategy elements, which it’s also been tweaking and, in some cases, overhauling. It’s due out this year.
Deserts of Kharak was fantastic, which is why you’ll find it above, but who hasn’t yearned for a true Homeworld sequel? Blackbird Interactive’s Homeworld 3 will have 3D combat with massive scale battles that let you control everything from tiny interceptors to massive motherships, just like you’d expect, as well as moving Homeworld’s saga forward.
The studio still hasn’t revealed much about the sequel, though its broad vision is to capture how the original games looked and played—something it even managed to do with Deserts of Kharak, despite being a ground-based RTS—but with “meaningful improvements.” One example of the changes is how the ballistic system works. It’s still a long way off, though, with launch not expected until 2022.
After years of working on its Endless series of games, the best of which you’ll find on the list above, Amplitude has now turned its attention to a historical-themed 4X game. Humankind is Amplitude’s take on Civilization, featuring dynamic civilisations that are born from culture combos. You might start out playing as the Hittites in the first era, and then pick Romans later on, and then throw the Germans into the mix down the line. With new eras come new cultures that you can add to the melting pot, unlocking new culture-specific benefits.
It also expresses this through its cities, which grow throughout history, swallowing up the land around them. Some places will retain their historic attributes, like the older quarters of modern cities, while others areas will adapt as the eras progress. You’ll be able to start building your civilisation later this year.
BEST STRATEGY MODS
Some of our favourite strategy games have spawned enduring modding communities, keeping decade-old game alive with dramatic overhauls that continue to be updated long after the devs have moved on. As well as celebrating the best strategy games, then, we also want to celebrate a few of our favourite strategy mods.
Third Age: Total War
Until Total War: Warhammer, we had to rely on mods to get our fantasy Total War kicks, but with mods as good as Third Age, that wasn’t too much of a sacrifice. It’s a Medieval 2 overhaul that recreates the third age of Middle-earth, including cities, landmarks and all the ents and orcs you could hope you fight or befriend. Lord of the Rings has inspired countless mods, but this remains one of the best.
XCOM: Long War
XCOM: Long War could have been an expansion. It throws in so much and tweaks pretty much everything, but it never compromises the game it’s built on. XCOM was great, but it was quite a bit more streamlined than original X-COM designer Julian Gollop’s vision of the series. Long War merged them, giving fans of the older games something trickier and meatier to play with, but it still felt modern and polished. Firaxis developers even got involved, and for XCOM 2 the team created some official add-ons, before following up the mod with Long War 2.
Crusader Kings 2: A Game of Thrones
Crusader Kings 2 is pretty much the perfect platform for a Game of Thrones strategy game. It’s fat with intrigue, warring nobles and mad monarchs tearing kingdoms apart. That’s not to say that the creators of CK2’s A Game of Thrones mod haven’t changed loads. It’s a substantial overhaul that goes beyond changing the map and giving people lore-approriate names. Most of the focus is on one throne that everyone’s fighting over, for instance, so the structure of the game has been changed to fit the setting. It also introduced a few systems before Paradox did, including characters being able to duel each other. No official game has been able to capture the books or show quite like the mod.