The 20 best strategy games ever

By T.J. Hafer, Monday, 3 September 2018 11:15 GMT

What are the best strategy games? It’s a daunting question to answer, with the genre spanning back almost as long as humans have been playing games. Even if we’re just limiting ourselves to the digital variety, there are dozens and dozens of RTSes, 4Xes, wargames, and grand strategy paragons worthy of high praise. After much consideration, they’ve been narrowed down to the best of the best.

In terms of classification, this list contains games in which strategy is the primary concern – or at least one of a handful of primary concerns. As Sid Meier would say, these games present a series of interesting choices that can lead you to defeat or triumph. Effort was taken to include a variety of subgenres of strategy as well, even though those can sometimes be difficult to compare to one another.

This list also favors games that still hold up and are fun to play today over those that are considered definitive, innovative, or trend-setting. While some consideration was given to historical importance, the main factor was how enticing each game would be to pick up and play irresponsibly into the wee hours of the morning, right here and now. An effort was also made not to include too many games from the same series or developer, so you can consider, for example, the Total War entries selected to speak to the position the series has as a whole in strategy gaming, even though it wasn’t possible to include all of the greatest hits.

Get your hotkeys and your End Turn button ready. The countdown begins!

20. StarCraft II

While ultimately divisive among fans of the original, Blizzard’s space RTS sequel and its two expansions feature some of the most high production value storytelling and entertaining, creatively-designed campaign missions in any RTS. The multiplayer de-emphasized some of the insane micro that made old school StarCraft special, instead focusing on strong economic “macro” play, scouting, and unit compositions, but it’s still a blast to play – and watch! It’s not the top dog on Twitch these days, but esports gaining traction outside South Korea owes a lot to Wings of Liberty, Heart of the Swarm, and Legacy of the Void.

19. Cities: Skylines

SimCity is one of the original titans of strategy, and Skylines is hands down the best rendition of the core idea it set out with today. Colossal Order saw the void left by Maxis’ latest shot at the title and created a more open-ended, full-featured city builder that looks gorgeous with its tilt-shifted camera and offers lots of tools to optimize a traffic grid, underground rail line, or sewage disposal system. The freeform paving, zoning, and districting brushes grant fine control over the look and function of each block of your city, and like any truly great city-builder, it’s enjoyable both as a hands-off ant farm type experience and as a nitty-gritty urban planning puzzle.

18. Ultimate General: Gettysburg

A readable, easy-to-control, tactically nuanced Civil War RTS, Ultimate General takes into account terrain, line of sight, and unit condition in ways that deepen the gameplay without ever becoming cumbersome to understand and work with. It’s a lot of fun in multiplayer, but the campaign is particularly impressive. Damage to regiments carries over from one part of the scenario to the next, and the story of the battle adapts like a branching choose-your-own-adventure based on how well you capture and hold objectives.

17. Stardew Valley

It’s hard to fit this one into a single genre, but ConcernedApe’s farming sim rotates around a strong strategic axis that requires you to plan ahead for the changing conditions of different seasons, decide which crops to plant where and when to maximize profits, and manage your limited time from day to day between different activities. It also features a dating sim, a dungeon crawl, and some RPG elements… but even looking at it purely from a strategy perspective, it deserves a spot on this list.

16. FTL: Faster Than Light

A hybrid RTS/roguelike, FTL never stops feeling tense as you order your crew around to man shield generators, repair hull breaches, and repel boarding parties. Each playthrough can vary wildly in tactics and tone based on the type of ship you pick and the types of aliens you bring along. Outside the nail-biting, ship-to-ship combat, you constantly have to make tough calls about how long to spend exploring a system for resources while the clock is ticking and the rebel fleet is hot on your heels.

15. WarCraft III

To this day, no strategy game has told such a fast-paced, engrossing epic fantasy story with so much bravado and flair for presentation as Reign of Chaos and its expansion, The Frozen Throne. It marks when the WarCraft universe truly came alive and opened up beyond an ongoing conflict between orcs, humans, and their respective allies. While it never matched StarCraft as a competitive skirmish game due to being so hero-centric, it also had one of the most vibrant and inventive custom map scenes ever thanks to its full-featured and easy-to-use editor. Among these maps was a little experiment called Defense of the Ancients, which gave life to one of the biggest mega hit genres in gaming today.

14. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II

There’s a spirited debate between Dawn of War II, with its tighter, more squad-focused gameplay, and the original Dawn of War, which played a bit more like a traditional RTS. For my money, I enjoyed the second a bit more. Focusing the campaign on a small group of elite space marines and their personal squads made everything feel like a futuristic version of a war movie, where each grizzled hero has a memorable personality and distinct combat role. Overwhelming numbers were almost never available, so making the most of what you had and solving each level’s pseudo-puzzle of enemy emplacements, cover spots, and unique twists became, at its best, pure tactical nirvana. The multiplayer side wasn’t quite as good as the original, but it held its own in that respect nonetheless.

13. Age of Mythology

While one of the granddaddy franchises of the strategy world, Age of Empires and its ilk haven’t all held up that great as the genre has evolved. Age of Mythology has. The rousing, swashbuckling campaign that spanned Greek, Egyptian, and Norse mythology was really icing on the cake of a well-designed core and meaningfully distinct, fun-to-play civilizations. Rarely do RTSes blend thematic and mechanical elements of a faction so well as, say, the Norse having to slay enemies to gain divine Favor. The mythic units for each faction were a ton of fun to play with and look at, and the rock-paper-scissors triangle of mortal-monster-hero felt rewarding to plan around and appropriate for the setting.

12. Master of Orion II

Space 4X has become a somewhat oversaturated genre in recent years, but few have done it better than Master of Orion II – including the recent reboot within the same franchise. Aside from introducing such elements as designing your own alien race based on a list of selectable traits and engaging in climactic space battles involving superweapons and boarding actions, it dialed in on much of what still makes these types of games so enticing. It might not be the best-looking contender by current standards, but it’s still one of the most enjoyable to play. Frequently imitated, rarely overshadowed, MoO2 has stood the test of aeons.

11. Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Many of the other games on this list could fairly be called tactical (rather than strategy) games when compared to the breathtaking scale of Supreme Commander. It revitalized a type of RTS in which high-level awareness, focusing on resource control and production, and knowing how many troops you’d need at a given location five to ten minutes from now to catch an opponent off-guard were the keys to victory. The Forged Alliance expansion refined the core gameplay and addressed some issues with the original, leaving us with what remains one of the absolute best multiplayer RTSes to boot up to try your wits against friends and rivals alike. Play StarCraft if you want to feel like you can shred like Hendrix. Play Supreme Commander if you want to feel like you can conduct an orchestra.

10. Rise of Nations

Big Huge Games managed to completely out-Age of Empires the original Age of Empires series in its take on the march-through-history RTS. An innovative and interesting territory mechanic added a new dimension to the usual song and dance by creating new roles for fortifications, new risks and opportunities for hit-and-run raid tactics, and an overall consideration for hard map control that mitigated many of the problems much newer RTSes still struggle with. It continues to baffle me that the genre hasn’t borrowed more from Rise of Nations in the 15 years since its release.

9. Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault

Relic managed to bring the intimate and human side of World War II to life just as well as any Spielberg or Nolan, changing the way we thought about our normally disposable squads of soldiers by giving them believable, sometimes heartbreaking mannerisms and voiceover lines. Focusing on morale, resource control, and reconnaissance over the typical “kill the enemy base” formula created a more dynamic and thought-provoking battle space. And the Ardennes Assault expansion introduced an open-ended, strategic campaign layer that remains one of the best I’ve tested my planning skills on in several years – to say nothing of the memorable, well-characterized company commanders.

8. Mount & Blade: Warband

Another strong contender that’s difficult to categorize, don’t let Warband’s skill-based melee combat fool you. It’s a strategy game on multiple levels, from your troop choices to how you command them from the saddle in battle, all the way up to how you chart your course through the power structures of Calradia by way of vassalage, marriage, conquest, and betrayal. It’s a brilliant, peerless feudal sandbox that is only held back from ranking higher on this list due to being rough-edged and unrefined. If the long-awaited sequel is merely more of the same but with a lot more polish, it may be a contender for Greatest of All Time.

7. Total War: Warhammer II

The types of situations you can find yourself in the middle of while playing Total War: Warhammer II are right out of a fantasy-obsessed school child’s wildest dreams. Dragons swoop overhead and let loose a torrent of fire to send a horde of orcs scattering. Shining-armored knights crash lance-first into a writhing wall of decrepit zombies. Demonic abominations are ambushed in a darkened grove by stealthy wood elves. The unit and army diversity is astounding, and the gargantuan Mortal Empires map that combines all of the races from Warhammer and Warhammer II into a single grand campaign is simply one of the Seven Wonders of Strategy Gaming.

6. Sid Meier’s Civilization V

One military unit per tile was one of the best changes ever introduced to the legendary Civilization series. If you disagree, come fight me in real life. Okay, actually, don’t do that. But divisive changes to the military side of things aside, Civ V represents the pinnacle of the series and the most “finished”-feeling version with the aid of its two admirable expansions, Gods & Kings and Brave New World. The list of playable civilizations is huge, and includes some of the most clever and strategically unique factions ever introduced – such as Venice, which can only ever found one city. Maybe with more time to marinade in DLC, Civ VI will catch up. But for now, V is still King.

5. XCOM 2

Firaxis’ take on XCOM might be the greatest success story of any of the many reboots we’ve seen come through the strategy world in the last few years. The combat is tense, impactful, and rewards both careful thinking and being able to react with a cool head to changing, sometimes disastrous shifts of the tactical situation. The strategic layer could use some work – evidenced by the fact that the Long War series of mods has improved upon it significantly – but still does a respectable job tying everything together. XCOM 2 introduced new, interestingly specialized soldier types, a bunch of fun and challenging enemies, and a more desperate, complex campaign scenario compared to its direct predecessor.

4. Europa Universalis IV

Paradox’s simulation of the Age of Discovery and the Early Modern world is simply the most elegant grand strategy game ever designed (though it has suffered somewhat from feature creep with the small mountain of DLC released since launch). The readable, responsive interface takes very complex, underlying systems and makes them very intuitive and relatively painless to interact with. A gorgeous map of the world, zillions of dynamic flavor events based on real history, and an innovative trade system really make you feel like you’re leading your nation through the centuries in which the modern world truly started to take shape.
Free and paid content since launch has fleshed out regions of the world normally neglected by strategy games about this era, ensuring that playing as the Khan of Kara Del, the Chief of the Osage, or the Sultan of Oman is just as full-featured and rewarding an experience as any of the obvious power players like England and Spain. It’s nothing less than a masterpiece.

3. Total War: Attila

The historical Total Wars have covered many eras and introduced plenty of contenders for a top spot. Attila takes the cake largely for tackling an extremely interesting and under-explored era of history: namely the tumultuous era between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the rise of medieval Europe. The campaign mechanics employed to do so are full of flavor and introduce many harrowing scenarios and no-win decisions, truly giving the sense of surviving an apocalypse by the skin of your teeth.

Climate change forces the barbarians out of the Northern reaches, setting them to squabble for territory as the Empire crumbles. Each tribe must face the pivotal question of where and when to settle their nomadic warband to form a territorial kingdom that will hopefully last for the ages. All the while, the Huns gallop thunderously out of the East like the harbingers of a Biblical armageddon, forcing unlikely alliances, desperate migrations, and last-ditch bribes. It’s the most dynamic and engrossing campaign Total War has ever offered, ably modeling real historical causalities involved in an era often portrayed as an oversimplified and unrealistic narrative of bloodthirsty barbarians feasting on the corpse of Western civilization. All of these things elevate it above its siblings, which is quite an accomplishment.

2. StarCraft: Brood War

Still the king after all these years, no traditional RTS has ever surpassed Blizzard’s sci-fi classic. The masterfully-tuned balance between its three wildly asymmetrical factions is the centerpiece here, but it’s far from the only reason to love Brood War. Interestingly, some of the technical limitations in play at the time of its release have led to top-level pros developing insanely skill-intensive tactics that are a marvel to behold if you know what to look for. Watching a champion Brood War match can be every bit as astounding and humbling as hearing a world-class musician play or witnessing elite athletes duke it out in a traditional sport. It also proved to the world that esports were marketable, becoming a massive pillar of South Korean popular culture and paving the way for many competitive games that came after.

It’s not as often talked-up, but StarCraft and its expansion also feature some of the best writing in any Blizzard game. While StarCraft 2 has been fairly criticized for being a bit too over-the-top and sloppy in the plot department, the operatic and morally complex political maneuverings in the original Terran, Zerg, and Protoss chapters that introduced us to the Korprulu Sector would be right at home in a critically-acclaimed sci-fi show. It’s no small task to find meaningful flaws in this living classic.

1. Crusader Kings II

Paradox’s feudal incest-and-fratricide simulator has very little in common with StarCraft. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. It’s often obtuse to new players. But it also happens to be the most distinct, involving, and truly special strategy game of all time. By focusing on individual characters with likes, dislikes, quirks, virtues, and desires as the engine that drives everything, it creates a highly human experience that acknowledges people – not flags or armies or abstract ideas of nations – truly shape history.

When you find yourself playing as the one-eyed, possessed, lesbian queen of Bavaria who aspires to find the Necronomicon to get revenge on the powerful vassal who probably killed her firstborn son (though she can’t prove it… yet), you sometimes have to sit back and marvel what an unrivaled experience all of these unpredictable, interacting systems can create.

Drama arises naturally from the most seemingly innocuous places, every generation presents new, telenovela-worthy tales of feud, infatuation, and ambition. It takes something huge like the geopolitics of the middle ages and makes it accessible and relatable even to someone who couldn’t be more disinterested in the reforms of Charlemagne or vexillology by illustrating how unrequited love or a petty slight at a royal ball might be what really motivates a war or an alliance of powerful houses. And speaking of powerful houses, the fan-made Game of Thrones mod for CK2 is leagues and leagues better than any officially-licensed game based on George R.R. Martin’s iconic fantasy universe.

There are strategy games that are more streamlined, more cohesive, and more elegant than Crusader Kings II. But none stand as equals before its sheer specialness, its story generation potential, and its insane mechanical and emotional depth leading to near-endless replayability. The bejweled crown of Best Strategy Game Ever belongs on the head of no other.

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