What is the best PC strategy game? The genre was first invented way back in 1938 when Winston Churchill looked out of an aeroplane window over France and thought, "Hey, this would make a really cool videogame, whatever that is."
Since then there have been about a hundred million different strategy games, simulating about as many different kinds of fighting as we humans have had reasons to fight one another. From the all-encompassing broad strokes of the Civilization series to the individually rendered blades of the Total War games, and from the unflinchingly realistic depictions of Europa Universalis to the far flung fantasy tech of StarCraft, the genre is as diverse as they come.
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But which are the absolute top strategy games on PC? Which are the best strategy games on Steam? Are any of them free? Well just drag a selection box over our bodies and right-click on the horizon, and we'll all be on our way to finding out.
Stellaris, Paradox’s 4X grand strategy hybrid, makes space surprising again thanks to event chains that are, at first, evocative of Crusader Kings II, but end up going much further. Expect mutant uprisings, robotic rebellions and the discovery of alien texts that make your citizens question their place in the galaxy.
It’s not just a 4X game; it’s a galactic roleplaying game and empire sim, bestowing a vast array of options upon players, allowing them to create unique, eccentric space-faring species. You can play as a fundamentalist society built on the backs of slaves, or hyper-intelligent lizards that rely on robots whether they are fighting or farming. The robust species creator and multitude of meaningful decisions mean that you can create almost any aliens that you can imagine.
And underpinning all of that is the game’s focus on exploration. While most space 4X games stick with one method of interstellar travel, Stellaris gives you three to choose from, each with their own strengths and counters. In one game, the galaxy might be a network of hyperlanes, but in the next, you might find yourself building wormhole stations and blinking across the galaxy.
Ashes of the Singularity
Ashes of the Singularity wears its Supreme Commander (seen elsewhere on this list) and Total Annihilation influences on its sleeve – complete with a camera view that can zoom all the way out, to the point where you’re ordering micro machines around a grid; before zipping all way in, so that you’re so close to the action you can almost feel the grinding of a Hades aircraft’s gears. The UI is missing a strategic zoom, but hitting space brings up a strategic map overview which does the same job and doesn’t take too much getting used to.
Ashes also operates a familiar streaming economy to Supreme Commander, whereby you build extractors to obtain resources from the land, however strays from SupCom’s escalating tier system, instead at times echoing Company of Heroes in the way it requires you continually hunt down resource points. Metal and radioactives are the game’s primary resources and regions will typically house one or the other, whereas Turinium and Quanta make up the rest - the former used to boost intelligence and achieve critical mass; the latter needed to boost unit output – thus much of your strategy hinges on your ability to manage all resources simultaneously.
Large scale armies of course make for large scale battles, which is where Ashes shines. Air units provide radar and visual coverage, and can bomb targets; whereas ground units are comprised of anything from small frigates around 50m in length, to humongous, kilometer-long Dreadnoughts. These are your best form of offence, as, besides from their size, they employ a veterancy feature that lets them gain experience with each passing battle. And best of all, they can be grouped together into meta units, intelligently working and moving as one.
Want more? Here's our Ashes of the Singularity review.
XCOM 2 is one of the all time greats of the tactics genre. Already. It takes the best bits from the series so far – the savage struggle, the ragtag group of heroes, the devious aliens, the tight tactical battles – and just throws improvement after improvement on top.
Once again you’re sending up to six soldiers into the breach, but this time as a group of struggling survivors fighting against a tyrannical alien regime. It’s all guerilla tactics, covert missions and dissidence. You need to learn to make sacrifices, leaving men and women behind so you can save the rest, and you need to learn to swallow losses and failures.
The battles are challenging and varied, full of horrific adversaries with tricky, surprising abilities, but the biggest changes are found in the strategic layer. You’ll travel all over the world, setting up cells, infiltrating black sites, hunting for more resources so you can field more powerful weapons and tools -- it’s compelling, rather than an afterthought.
And XCOM 2’s mods are already great. You can download a corgi gun. A corgi gun.
Want more? Here's our XCOM 2 review.
Total War: Shogun 2
Total War's second trip to Japan, the sequel to the very first Total War, is the greatest game in the series. Yes, better than the beloved original Rome or the ambitious and very pretty Attila. It’s a more thoughtful, scaled back Total War, in contrast to its massive, very flawed predecessor, Empire.
Lessons had obviously been learned from the more focussed Napoleon. Shogun II’s map is diverse and full of interesting tactical problems thanks to the prevalence of mountains, but it’s also small, by Total War standards, and more manageable. This is very, very good, because it means one important thing: more battles!
Shogun II is undoubtedly the prettiest Total War game to boot. Its newer siblings might be younger and firmer, but Shogun’s got a style they could only dream of, where battles are peppered with floating cherry blossoms and individual warriors duke it out in tense duels.
There's a lot to recommend beyond the base game, too. Check our guides to the best Shogun 2 mods, DLC and user-created maps. The excellent Fall of the Samurai expansion is also a must, particularly if you want to see gunpowder warfare done right, or at least better than in Empire.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
With Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Blackbird Interactive have done the seemingly impossible: transpose the elegant, minimalist space wars of the original Homeworld games to a single planet. And somehow, it works.
It’s a journey, across a never-ending desert, on a mission to save a civilisation. Each battle is connected to the last, and the ones yet to be played. Every unit that survives will live to fight another day in another mission in a persistent war for survival.
Kharak itself, despite just being one giant desert, is a fantastic planet-sized battlefield. The addition of terrain and elevation replicates the three dimensional battles of the previous games, with the sand dunes providing cover, hiding spots and high ground from where you can unleash devastating attacks.
Like its predecessors, Deserts of Kharak is also blessed with some of the best art design that you could hope to find in an RTS, accompanied by incredible sound design and a genuinely interesting narrative.
Want more? Here's our Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review.
Not Since SimCity 4 has there been a city-builder of such great quality. Colossal Order had made a name for itself through the Cities in Motion series, which simulated city transport networks, but skylines was much more ambitious – a full-featured, highly moddable city management game. And what a game. Huge, in size and scope, detailed and logical, Skylines managed to almost make us forget about 2013's disappointing SimCity.
On the day it launched, it was already an impressive game, but by the end of the day it proved to be something else: a playground for modders. In stark comparison with EA's attitude in regards to SimCity, Colossal Order smartly opened their game up to the masses, allowing modders to fiddle with all manner of things, from in-game buildings and roads to adding entirely new assets and tools.
The base game should keep most avid city planners happy, but the expansion, After Dark, is more than worth a look, as well. It expands the commercial aspect of your cities, adding in a whole lot of leisure, as well as a game-changing day and night cycle. More than just an aesthetic touch, it gives you a lot more fine control over your city, letting you plan city services like garbage disposal, public transport and police patrols around the time of day. For instance, the roads are quieter late at night, making it easier for the garbage trucks to make their stops.
With the diligent modding community still very much active, Skylines promises to only get bigger. Take a look at our list of the best Cities: Skylines mods.
Want more? Here's our Cities: Skylines review.
Whenever Endless Legend comes up in conversation, it's hard not to gush about it, which is what we're being forced to do here. Forced by the fact that it’s just lovely, earning itself a place as one of the best games of 2014.
It’s a 4X game that blends fantasy and science fiction seamlessly, throwing stranded spacemen against magical dragon people in absolutely the most striking hex-based world. Diverse, gorgeous, it looks almost tangible, like you could reach out and pick up one of the elaborate cities and cradle it in your hands. "Don't worry, citizens. We won't let the horrible man-eating insects devour you and your families."
What makes it most notable are the fascinating factions that vie for dominance over the pretty but slightly apocalyptic world, each blessed with unique and interesting mechanics that set them apart and inform how they are played. You’ve got the horrible aforementioned flesh-eating insect race, the Necrophage, for instance, who are so foul that they can’t make alliances with the other factions, forcing them to always be the opposition. And there’s the bizarre Cultists, a faction of peculiar zealots that can only construct one city and must rely on swallowing up other factions if they want to expand.
It loses steam a bit when it gets to the end game, but remains fun and the journey to that point is rich in interesting strategic and tactical decisions. Surprisingly, it’s also blessed with a strong narrative that lends the game a tangible sense of place. Every faction has a unique set of story quests that will inform a lot of your decisions without backing you into a corner, and there's an abundance of side-quests and stories that makes it feel like you're managing a world where a roleplaying adventure is taking place.
Want more? Here's our Endless Legend review.
Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings II is a murderous bastard of a grand-strategy game. You play a medieval ruler trying to gain more power, influence, and territory in a historically authentic medieval Europe. It's a game of intrigue, war, politics and religion, played out of a stunning, detailed map of the known world and in countless, complex menus. Really, though, it's about people: your dynasty, your vassals, you lovers, enemies and family members.
It’s this personal element that makes CKII so compelling. You are in charge of a family dynasty, not an abstract nation. You will marry and have kids, you’ll die, and then your heir will take over and the whole thing begins again. In between all this, you can use intrigue or brute force to increase your holdings, but the key is that you develop a real personal connection with your characters, you avatar. You will mourn their death, you’ll cheer their every triumph.
You'll want to make a lot of friends, and then betray them all, the fools.
Usurp thrones, create politically advantageous marriages, murder your wife, and if it all gets too much for you, there's always the occasional jousting tournament or day of hunting to keep you in good spirits. As long as they don't kill you.
Because we like making excuses to play, we tested Hillary Clinton's Presidential skills in Crusader Kings II.
It's the year 2000. Montezuma has his finger on the big red button. Will he launch the nukes? Or will a last minute alliance between the war-mongering Gandhi and the peaceful but wealthy Mongols under Genghis Khan claim a last minute victory? Civilization V is a game fat with weird ahistorical scenarios as civilisations compete and work together from the Stone Age to the near future, and it's the poster child for the ambitious 4X genre.
The decisions you face are many: political, economical, military, even social. You can be a friendly neighbour or conqueror. A hub of trade and tourism, or an industrial powerhouse. Freedom of choice is the game’s best asset – where do you go? What do you do? How will you end up creating the greatest civilisation in the world?
Civilization V is as streamlined as the series will ever get and the perfect place to jump in, but it's still blessed with enough complexity so that you won't find yourself sitting in front the screen, endlessly clicking End Turn, waiting for someting to happen. Combat is as good as it’s ever been thanks to a rethink of Civ’s grid system, and Steam Workshop support means there’s a never-ending flow of mods and maps to tinker with.
This is the series that invented the term “one more turn” – it is addictive, compelling, and absorbing. Essential playing.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
Playing Dawn of War now is fascinating. In many ways, it feels like a very traditional RTS, with lots of base building, turtling and resource management. But it’s also a precursor to the likes of Company of Heroes. We see Relic starting to experiment with morale, cover, squads and drastically different factions.
There's an intensity underpinning the whole game. It’s all about pushing forward, then capturing and holding territory. And all the time, resources become more fleeting, as generators and the like decay. But the war machine constantly needs to be fed.
Expansions fleshed the game out, introducing more factions built around unique mechanics. There’s the sneaky Eldar, waaargh-hungry Orks, the massive Imperial Guard – each faction offered different ways to play the game. By the end, there were nine factions in total.
Dawn of War II ended up changing just about everything, making battles smaller and focusing on tactics over strategy. It was still great, but the move away from the traditions of the genre made it lose some of its magic.
Starcraft II is sci-fi strategy game about armoured cowboys versus xenomorphic aliens and space elves. It’s a classic base-building RTS where you gather resources, build armies, and kill your enemy before they kill you with quick decisions and even quicker mouse clicks.
Multiplayer is a huge part of Starcraft II. Your enemies will be human; they will be able to click faster than you, issue orders quicker than you. You will probably lose a lot, but you will get better the more you play, and there is a small but dedicated competitive player-base to compete against at the eSports level.
The single player is also interesting - Blizzard have combined frantic action with an RPG like backdrop as you follow the exploits of Terran Mercenary Jim Raynor. You will fight through a series of missions, many of which will have unique objectives – like trying to harvest resources on a map that periodically fills up with lava, defending against waves upon waves of Zerg for a set period of time. In between missions you’ll explore an RPG-like hub, where you can talk to people, research new techs and decide where your next destination will be. Story is hard to do in RTS, and many resign themselves to cutscenes or in-mission dialogue, but SCII actually makes you interact with the world outside combat, and so it’s more interactive story.
2015 saw the game conclude with the launch of Legacy of the Void, one of our best games of 2015, so if you want the whole experience, you'll be wanting to get all three entries in the series.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
Company of Heroes 2 was great, but it didn't quite match the magic of its predecessor. Then Ardennes Assault came along. The US forces and German Oberkommando are fighting over control of the Ardennes, in a campaign inspired by The Battle of the Bulge. What sets it apart from both Company of Heroes and the sequel is the non-linear campaign that plays out across a strategic meta map. The Germans are dynamic, being reinforced by retreating forces, changing the challenges posed by both story missions and the dynamic skirmishes.
A single battle can replayed many times, with each fight offering new obstacles.
While the campaign is only played from the American point of view, the US forces are split into three companies, all with unique specialties covering air, support and mechanised roles. These companies all have special officer abilities and upgrade trees, and any can be used to tackle a mission. Even if you focus on one, the other two will still be on the map, and can provide assistance by blocking the enemy retreat out of a capture province.
This is the first time the battles in Company of Heroes have had real weight. Previously, winning was all that mattered. Finish the mission and you move on to the next one, starting fresh. Ardennes Assault is a persistent campaign, though, and losses in battle can bring down a company's veterancy and manpower, and there's even a risk of it being wiped out entirely, leaving the other two companies to face the Germans alone.
Age of Empires II
Age of Empires II is easy to learn, charming, yet the challenge is there if you want it. You start with nothing but a few aimless workers, but you'll eventually be ripping gold out of the earth, building huge fortresses and monuments to your glory, and of course you'll be putting all of your enemies to the sword.
It covers an abstracted time period that starts in the Dark Ages, and goes all the way to the early Renaissance era. Celtic woad raiders duke it out with Persian elephants and medieval pikemen near Japanese fortresses. And for those that know the cheat, there's always that sports car with machine guns to play with.
Multiple campaigns, infinite skirmishes, custom maps and plenty of disparate factions – there's a lot to keep you busy. And thanks to an HD re-release on Steam, which added multiplayer and Workshop support along with Steamworks integration, it's better-looking and more supported than it has been in years.
Wargame: AirLand Battle
Wargame: AirLand Battle is a marriage of wargaming and real-time strategy – forcing you to worry equally about logistics and blowing stuff up – set amid sprawling, richly detailed battlefields and slick strategic campaign maps. From the latter, you control the war, concerning yourself with moving different forces into position, snatching territory and deploying new battlegroups, and it's great, but what you're really here for are the huge, real-time, combined arms battles.
A gargantuan range of modern military vehicles and units are at your disposal, and from them you can craft a destructive loadout to take into battle. The number of units available is bewildering, but it's not just for show. This isn't a game of rock, paper, scissors, as each unit is made up out of countless statistics, strengths and weaknesses, to the point where your addiction to spreadsheets might start here.
The single-player and co-op campaigns are good, but there's a good chance you'll find yourself spending more time with the multiplayer. In particular the 10 v 10 matches are a sight to behold, and require a completely different mindset. Sure, you can field a broad range of units and just try to lock down territory as you would in single-player, but you'll be more effective if you specialise. Be the heavy armour guy, tormenting your enemies with your monstrous tanks, or the artillery girl, bombarding the enemy from afar whenever they appear.
Tropico is essentially a city builder, but what makes it great is its charm. You play as the dictator of Caribbean-themed Banana Republic, and your job is guide your island from humble beginnings into greatness.
How you do that is up to you. You can exploit the natural resources of your island and turn it into an industrial powerhouse, or you can tap into the island’s natural beauty and try and become THE holiday destination for ignorant white tourists. Or both. There are a lot of choices in Tropico, from where to place that apartment complex or that factory, to whether or not to institute pensions, or conscription. You’ll attract immigrants to the island, and they’ll all need housing and jobs, and you’ll need to build up your economy and services. Throughout everything, your actions are wonderfully narrated by the talk show host of Tropico’s only radio station, who makes even the most dickish of moves seem like benign intervention.
As your island grows, you’ll also have to start dealing with global politics - America, Russia, even China and Europe will all want to exert influence. They’ll offer you money and riches, if only you'd let them maybe build a military base just over there, or let them export their waste to you. If you’re not careful, you’ll have a revolt on your hands, or an invasion. Either way, your regime will be toppled.
Tropico is just a consistently fun game to play: it’s city-management on a manageable scale, with a healthy dose of economy, trade and politics to keep things interesting. You’ll never stop being amused, because remember: El Presidente is always right. Even when he’s wrong.
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
Sins of a Solar Empire cares more about action and titanic battles than most empire-building games do. Sure, you have planets you can colonise, industry and trade you can develop, but when it comes down to it, there’s always groups of ships throwing bullets, lasers and missiles each other in the never ending struggle for dominance.
It’s challenging, even against the AI. There are three races, each with their own identity, ships and technology. There are always neutral forces that will make early expansion slow, and there’s even a ‘Pirate’ faction that you can bribe to attack your neighbour, which always seems like a great idea until they’re paid even more money to attack you instead. There is a pretty involved diplomacy element as well, beyond the usual trade agreements and non-aggression pacts. Other factions can give you missions, like giving them resources or attacking another player, and you can do the same to them.
There’s a lot of movement in a typical Sins game: your scouts will be zipping from planet to planet in the search for new worlds to exploit. Your trade fleets will be moving goods from place to place, keeping the wheels of economy and your mighty battle fleets will be darting from one crisis to the next, because if it’s not pirates at your door, then it’s another faction coming to claim what’s yours.
There’s no single-player campaign per say: you simply play an infinite number of skirmish battles against the AI using a wide range of map set-ups, each with it’s own quirks and strategy. You can also create your own using the impressive map-making tools, and of course you can take the game online and play against real people.
DEFCON is a game about winning the unwinnable: all-out nuclear war. You’re presented with a simple vector-based world map (in the style of the film WarGames), you’re given a bunch of military assets, and as the world slowly ticks down towards armageddon you have to make the best use of them in order to come out on top of soon-to-be desolated world.
Not that you really notice – DEFCON’s simplicity and its abstraction is its greatest asset. You won’t be able to stop every missile, and you won’t win every clash. Regions will be wiped out, entire fleets will be lost... but all you see are stats on a screen. You get points for killing large amounts of people in one go, you lose points for every percentage of your original population you lose. The player with the most points at the end of it all “wins”. Congratulations.
It’s fascinating, although morbidly so, but what makes it so addictive is that the game really is a battle of minds, a game of nuclear Chess. A match will always start at DEFCON 5, and will count down the threat levels at set times. The closer to 1 you get, the more you’re allowed to do, but it all basically boils down to the best placement of your assets – you’ll have fleets and submarines, bombers and fighters, missile silos, radar. You and your enemies (up to 6 players or AI can play in one match) will all be doing the same thing, so the amount of anticipation and second-guessing is mentally challenging.
Supreme Commander was the game that broke PCs, such were the demands it placed on processors. This future war robo-RTS simplifies resource management and focuses more on creating the perfect war machine. You start off with a single irreplaceable command unit, and from there you build factories that will churn out units to wage war on your enemies.
It’s the sheer scale that does it – years later, Supreme Commander doesn’t so much break PC’s anymore as it breaks minds. A player’s army can potentially reach up to 1,000 units separated out into land, sea and air. You have to orchestrate a careful ballet of production, movement and attack, grinding down your opponent while keeping your command unit safe, and your factories powered and supplied so that they can create more machines of death. It’s brilliant and mind-boggling.
This was one of the few games to officially support dual monitors, which means you can have a zoomable map up on the second screen. It’s a godsend, as it allows you to keep an eye on the big picture a lot easier. Few games are blessed with the same scale as Supreme Commander, and when you take the war online that’s where the real challenge begins. Titles like StarCraft demand quick thinking and quicker reactions, but they only deal with a couple of dozen units at most. Supreme Commander demands all of that, and deals in the thousands.
Europa Universalis IV
Paradox Development Studio’s mighty flagship and one of the best PC games of 2013. The EU series has always had the power to impress, with its massive complexity and sandbox approach to strategy. But with that complexity came a lot of obstacles. Bugs, obtuse UIs and poorly explained mechanics could put people off before they’d annexed their first nation.
Europa Universalis IV changes all of that. It’s still a tough nut to crack and demands a lot of player investment, but it’s by far the most user-friendly game in the series. And while its myriad systems remain daunting, it’s perfectly possible to just jump in and carve out a niche in history.
Through trade and economics, warfare and diplomacy, exploration and progress, nations advance through the ages. You can embark on the colonisation of the Americas or send ships to conquer India, or you can simply start in those places, as an indigenous power or, later, a colonial nation. It's a centuries long sandbox, and you can start anywhere, at any time across 400 years.
It’s a game of what ifs. What if Venice formed Italy and swept through the Ottoman Empire with a massive mercenary army? What if England and France became best friends and carved up Europe together instead of fighting each other? What if Scotland ruled the world? What if.
Distant Worlds: Universe
Distant Worlds is huge; soul-crushingly, overwhelmingly massive. An entire galaxy is simulated from private traders going about their business, to pirates getting up to no good. It’s the most ambitious 4X space game that you’re ever likely to find.
But the beauty of the game is that it’s you, the player, who defines your level of interaction with the galaxy. Everything can be automated, so you can sit back and simply control a single scout ship, charting the galaxy for hours on end, or you can take control of a whole empire, fiddling with economic policy, alien diplomacy and galactic-scale wars. It's absolutely up to you how you want to play, and the AI is impressively competent, meaning that you can let it take over the parts of empire management you're not keen on, without worrying about it ruining everything.
At its core, it’s a tool for creating your own galaxies to play in. Players can curate the game to such a degree that one game could bear no resemblance to the next. Everything from the age of the galaxy to the aggression of pirates can be dictated before a game even begins.
Age of Wonders III
Age of Wonders III is a welcome resurrection; a classic series given new life. It’s a fantasy 4X game where the final X, eXterminate, is the most important one.
There are multiple, scripted campaigns to get through, but the meat is the randomly generated maps and customisable factions. Fundamentalist goblins can fight - using holy powered engines of war – industrialised elfs, while armies of dire penguins march through frozen wastes until they're slaughtered by magical halflings. It’s all delightfully silly. And damn do the battles get big. Multiple units can be linked together, creating gargantuan armies. Sieges are evocative of Total War in terms of scale, but with thoughtful turn-based combat and magic.
While diplomacy and city management are weak, Age of Wonders shines during conflict. The abundance of magic and special abilities, diverse lists of units and battlefields littered with environmental obstacles make each battle a rewarding puzzle.
Order of Battle: Pacific
The Panzer General-style of wargame has been re-created and reinvented many times over the history of the strategy genre, but no game has quite done it with as much success as Order of Battle: Pacific. An intricate-yet-approachable wargame, with logical rules and a distinct eye for detail.
Each move becomes a series of puzzles. The game rewards making pacey decisions and refusing to dawdle. Yet extending your grasp for side-missions can also provide bonuses further down the line. Each decision expands into new opportunities and further questions.
It’s also a game that finally succeeds at naval transportation and combat, which is pretty vital considering the Pacific setting means much of your time will be set at sea. It’s approach to naval is exceptionally strong, and makes sailing from port to port as interesting as battles themselves.
That's it. Phew. 20 of the best PC strategy games. But I bet we missed some of your favourites. Let us know in the comments.