Every game has strategy, and as a genre “strategy” can mean a lot of different things. Turn-based, or real-time? “Grand” strategy, or tactics? A great strategy game isn’t necessarily one with good graphics, or a wide unit variety, but it’ll have excellent core mechanics, and ultimately it’ll make you think.
Here are 15 great strategy games that I think you should all play right now. Or, you know, whenever you get the time:
1. Civilization V
The Civ games are about human history: you’re guiding a race of people from the Stone Age through to modern times and beyond. This is ‘4X’ strategy (expand, explore, exploit and exterminate) at its finest - you will start off with nothing, and grow into a global power. Or die trying.
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? Which path will be your path to victory? There are over 20 playable factions now, and each lends itself to a particular playstyle, but you’ve still got a lot of flexibility.
Civilzation V is as streamlined as the series will ever get and the perfect place to jump in. It’s got a strong set of tutorials, tooltips that guide you through every decision. 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.
How to buy: Pick up the ‘Gold’ edition, or any bundle that includes the first expansion: Gods and Kings. Don’t worry about the DLC, especially the map packs. The new expansion, Brave New World, is a must buy.
2. Total War Series
Total War means exactly that: running an entire empire, while fighting every battle they face on the road to domination. One minute you’re tinkering with taxes and building baths, and the next you’re firing cannons and charging headfirst into the enemy.
It takes place in two distinct modes: up-close, real-time tactical battles and more removed, turn-based empire management. The key is the interaction between the two modes: holding the line in a siege, knowing that if a castle falls, so too will your forward line. Ordering a cavalry charge against an enemy army, knowing that it’s led by your opponent’s king and killing him will cause his empire to crumble.
Whenever two armies meet, the game switches into a tactical battle. This is where you get to play as the general, the hero – you command your units, build formations and strategies, and fight your enemy to the last man. The best bit: it’s not completely down to the stats – with the right terrain, the right tactics, a small outnumbered force can withstand almost any odds, and the mightiest army can be felled by a decent ambush.
The latest version, Total War: Shogun II, is the best in the series so far. If the period it covers, 16th century feudal Japan, is no to your taste, try Napoleon: Total War - it’s a focused look at the famous general’s campaigns.
Total War is deep, tactical and thoughtful: expect a campaign of Total War to last a week or so.
Buyer’s Guide: All the Total War games include a Gold or Master edition: which includes each title’s expansions and DLC. They’re often available in Steam sales: so watch out for a bargain. Total War: Rome 2 is the latest game in the series, it’s out on September 3rd.
3. Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings II is a murderous bastard of a grand-strategy game. You play a medieval lord, trying to gain more power, influence, and territory in a historically accurate medieval Europe. It offers complex game mechanics in lieu of fancy graphics. You’re managing economies, armies, and people.
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.
Betrayal should be expected.
As a Count or Duke, you can stage coups and rebel against your Lord for more power. As a King, it’s quite easy to lose the Kingdom through invasion or uprising. But as long as there’s a member of your bloodline still alive, you’ll always have a chance to win it all back. Don’t be put off by its apparent complexity - it may rely a lot on stat-screens and number crunching, but the more you play the more you learn.
Buyer’s Guide: Pick a bundle with the most expansion packs, including the latest (Old Gods), which is a must buy. Don’t worry too much about any skin packs you see.
4. Starcraft II
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.
Buyer’s Guide: Blizzard is one of the few companies that doesn’t really ‘do’ DLC. Starcraft II has one expansion out at the time of writing – Heart of the Swarm, with a second expansion (Legacy of the Void) due out at some point in the future. The expansions in general add a few new units and tweaks to multiplayer, but mainly advance the single-player story. In the vanilla game, you played as the Terrans. In Hearts of the Swarm you play as the Zerg. You play Protoss in Legacy of the Void.
5. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
XCOM was a surprise hit, but it deserves all the praise it gets. It’s a turn-based strategy game that sees you fending off an alien invasion in a dynamic single-player campaign. It’s a remake of the classic X-Com games, and as remakes go, it’s one of the best.
You send teams of up to six special forces soldiers into battle against everything from little grey aliens, to robots, to the occasional scuttling insect thing. It’s a tactically dense set of skirmishes set in fields, towns and aboard alien ships, and it’s all held together by a light strategic layer. It’s presented like an ant farm, and you’ll research new tech, perform autopsies, and beg for funding from a shadowy government agency.
In a word, it’s fantastic.
It’s the customisation that really hooks people in. You can give your troops names and faces, but as you play through the campaign they grow in your mind, they get backstories, fake accents. You care whether these soldiers live or die, and you experience their every move, feel every plasma bolt they get to the face. When they fall, you feel it, and the new guy they send as a replacement... well, he (or she) doesn’t get a name, not until they’ve earned their wings.
The tactical combat is really what makes the game, and if you ever fancy trying your skills as a commander against real people, XCOM also has online squad vs. squad multiplayer.
Buyer’s Guide: There hasn’t been much DLC for XCOM, so just keep an eye out for the main game.
6. Company of Heroes
This WWII strategy game throws you into the height of the action, during the Allies’ invasion of Northern France. Starting at D-Day, you fight your way across several maps divided into tactical zones. You’ve got to build up a base of operations, secure resources, and fight the good fight.
It’s challenging – you’ve got to make sure all angles are covered, and that your frontline is secure, because if there are gaps there’s nothing stopping your enemy blowing right by you and causing havoc in your rear. Infantry can build defences and/or garrison buildings and Engineers can set traps or lay down obstacles. Tanks and other vehicles provide the raw muscle of your force, but can be expensive to build en masse. You also have off-map support abilities to give you that extra edge.
There’s a reason this game is the highest-rated strategy game of all time - a single-player campaign that channels the best of Band of Brothers makes this single-player more than just training for online, and the online community itself is highly competitive. The two (or four, if you have the expansions) factions are finely balanced so that it’s more about and outmanoeuvring or simply outfighting your opponent, as opposed to building ultra-units or anything like that. In the nine or so years since release, a thriving modding community has also developed, which means you can get even more value for money by trying out everyone’s creations.
Buyer’s Guide: Company of Heroes has two expansions - Opposing Fronts and Tales of Valour, but no other DLC to speak off. Opposing Fronts is the only expansion really worth picking up, as it offers a lot more than Tales of Valour does. The sequel is out now as well, which covers the Russians and the Eastern Front.
7. Age of Empires Series
Age of Empires is a classic series – easy to learn, charming, yet the challenge is there if you want it. You’d choose a civilization, build up your city and your army, then fight with the other civilizations on the map. You’d also advancing through various ‘ages’ or tech levels for better troops and buildings.
It’s half resource management, half tactical combat, like Warcraft or Starcraft. You’d always start with your Town Centre and a few civilians, but by the end of a match you could have a sprawling metropolis, with walls, fire-shooting towers, with a large army to go with it. Age of Empires pre-dates the internet-fueled multiplayer era, so the main draw of these games are the single-player campaigns and AI skirmishes. These were often a series of specifically crafted maps (with customised objectives), that the player had to fight through, which usually covered either a famous person or group of people from history. These missions aren’t meant to be historically accurate, but they do engage you in the history and each one presents unique scenarios to overcome.
Age of Empires focused on the classical era, while Age of Empires 2 covers an abstracted time period that starts in the Dark Ages, and goes all the way to the early Renaissance era. Age of Empires III was themed on the colonisation of America, and the age of gunpowder – the single-player here isn’t that good, but there were some interesting enough features that made it stand out more from its predecessors.
Buyer’s Guide: The first Age of Empires can be hard to find, but in January 2013, Microsoft released a ‘HD’ version of Age of Empires 2, which includes the main game and its expansion. It’s well worth getting. You can easily find a ‘Complete’ edition of Age of Empires III as well, which comes with two expansions.