The best grand strategy games to play in 2020

There's a lot more to this growing strategy genre than meets the eye

crusader kings 3 big map

Grand strategy games are an emerging sub-genre of strategy gaming – encompassing long periods of history (or, if sci-fi, time), they involve many intricate layers that players need to contend with. It’s not just about winning that war or setting up this mine; you’ve got to develop infrastructure, set policy, and manage internal dynamics as well as international or extra-polity relations.

This genre often involves the exploration of the map in order to better understand the resources at your command and the position of your enemies – and your friends. Lines blur when picking apart the edge cases, but by and large count on grand strategy games to make the management of your faction the primary part of the experience. They often over-lap with other genre within strategy gaming, especially 4X games, but a key difference can be in framing. Games like Civilization, for example, typically put the emphasis on managing military resources in particular, with other mechanics in a supporting role.

It can also be just as much down to accepted definitions and chosen marketing. More and more game are choosing to identify as grand strategy, so it’s definitely a genre worth exploring in more detail.

the Best Grand Strategy Games

These are the best grand strategy games around right now:

  • Crusader Kings 3
  • Crusader Kings 2 (Free-to-Play)
  • Europa Universalis IV
  • Hearts of Iron IV
  • Stellaris
  • Imperator: Rome
  • Total War: Warhammer II
  • Total War: Three Kingdoms
  • Total War: Rome II
  • Field of Glory: Empires
  • Distant Worlds: Universe

Crusader Kings 3

Released in September 2020, this was the much anticipated sequel to 2011’s Crusader Kings 2. What makes the series in general unique amongst grand strategy games is the idea that you weren’t just managing a kingdom or nation, you were managing a person and their family.

From the lowliest of Counts to the highest of Kings, you are put in charge of an entire dynasty of characters and were tasked with ensuring its continued success and domination amidst the back-drop of Medieval Europe. Crusader Kings 3 has doubled-down on this idea, marrying the RPG and the map-based aspects in a way its predecessor was never really designed to handle.

It’s a great one to start with if your a grand-strategy newbie, as the development team have put a lot of work into tutorialisation and UI design, making sure the player is never more than a couple of clicks away from finding something they need.

Further Reading:

Crusader Kings 2

This is the game that put Paradox and grand strategy itself ‘on the map’, beginning a phenomenon that would go on to power nearly ten years’ worth of DLC and design in the grand strategy space. It’s also worth noting that the base game for Crusader Kings 2 is now free to play, so there’s no barrier to entry if you want to try this one out for yourself.

If you want some help getting started, we have a Crusader Kings 2 tips guide, a guide to all of the Crusader Kings 2 DLC released, even a CK2 mods guide!

Europa Universalis 4

The previous gold-standard of Paradox grand-strategy, this is the fourth iteration of a series that was originally adapted from an old-school board game of the same name, which has since been remade into a board game, of the same name.

Pull your nation through the turbulent times of the 15th Century all the way through to the Age of Reason and Napoleon’s revolution, upgrading your technology, your political acumen, and your ability to judge your neighbours along the way. Among historical grand strategy games, Europa Universalis 4 is notable for not focusing exclusively on Europe but giving access to much of the world for the whole span it covers. Want to turn a North American Indian tribe into an industrial powerhouse to invade Europe? Want to dissolve the HRE and form Germany early? The only limit is your imagination… and the content design, I guess.

Further Reading:

a zoomed in look at the galaxy map, showing two empires sharing borders.

Stellaris

The first of Paradox’s grand-strategy game to stray into ‘4X’ territory thanks to its sci-fi theme, in Stellaris you’re no longer limited to simple terrestrial life. Create a new sapient species, decide on its political and social inclinations, then take to the stars to spread an empire across a randomly generated galaxy, vying for resources and position against your equals, and the polities of long fallen superiors.

More like this: The best space games on PC

Stellaris is over four years old now and already has several DLCs which extend and expand options for your space empires. While it may not have the historical depth that other Paradox titles can depend on, it is more focused on evolving new experiences with new situations as often as it can with heavy emphasis on player customization. Plus you get to design your own spaceships, which is always a bonus for these kinds of games.

Further Reading:

a shot of a militarized border, troops squaring off on either side.

Hearts of Iron 4

This series is unique in its’ attempt to be a ‘true’ grand strategy WW2 game, as opposed to other war games that operate at similar strategic scales but generally forgo the breadth of the entire war. Much like EU4, here you can play as any nation on any continent during the era and politics that served as the backdrop to the second world war and do your best to profit and survive, not necessarily in that order.

More like this: The best war games on PC

Hearts of Iron 4 is going through somewhat of a transition – since launch, it’s been torn between the need to try and provide an authentic ‘as it happened’ WW2 experience (Hearts of Iron III, while flexible in some areas, was largely WW2-on-rails), and an emerging playerbase that enjoy a more sandbox approach, allowing for alt-history and ‘what-if’ scenarios. Because of this, not all countries have equal access to interesting decision trees at the moment, with the focus currently being on those which were significant players at the time. It does currently seem to be favouring alt-history with each update, however, so bear that in mind if you’re a WW2 enthusiast.

Further Reading:

new pc games imperator rome

Imperator: Rome

Released in April 2019, Imperator: Rome was an attempt to parse nearly two decades’ worth of learning in terms of designing games like this for newer audiences. Starting not long after the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire (304 BC), you can pick any nation or polity that existed around this time period and attempt to lead them to greatness, with the timeline officially ending when Augustus was proclaimed Emperor.

It’s had a bit of a rocky launch, with Steam reviews plummeting to the ‘Mostly Negative’ area and a divided critic opinion. The content offering and historical flavour was Imperator’s weakest element, but it has been getting better with free patches and content packs that focus on specific areas and cultures. The dev team have proven very mobile and willing to completely re-think entire aspects of the design, which is a good thing and we can’t wait to see how this one evolves.

Further Reading:

a roman legionary and a gallic warrior square off on a battlefield

Total War: rome II

Right up until the release of Three Kingdoms (below), Total War: Rome II had the honour of being Creative Assembly’s most-played historical strategy game by a significant margin. It’s had a loyal core of around 10,000 players for a couple of years which has inspired CA to create more DLC for the game despite it being over six years old now (no other CA game that old has received such support).

Related: The best Total War games

Rome II had a very rocky start, but it’s in a very good place these days. Rome: Total War is the cult classic favourite for many older series fans, and Rome II, by and large, is a better, more encompassing game. It’s not perfect, but unless you’re really turned off by the glory of Rome, this is an excellent one to try out.

Further Reading:

An orc, brandishing an axe, is charging into battle on a sled being led by three wolves. Other orcs are in the background, including a siege weapon.

Total War: Warhammer I & II

A departure from their usual fare, Creative Assembly landed quite the coup when they won the right to work on Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy license. This was at a time when the IP itself had been axed in the table-top world in favour of the Age of Sigmar’s ‘nu fantasy’ line.

Going fantasy for the first time also allowed the design teams to let their hair down and get creative, with everything from the strategy map to tactical battles getting fantasy-fuelled twists and innovations. Some are great, others are very much subjective (we’re really not a fan of tactical battles in the Warhammer games), but no one can deny it’s been a success. If you’re looking for a more fantastical spin on grand-strategy there are few better.

Further Reading:

two armies clashing, one tinged with blue the other red. mounted units in the fore.

Total War: Three Kingdoms

Released in May 2019, this Total War game attempts to marry the hardcore, historically based sensibilities of the classic titles with some of the better innovations to come out of the Total Warhammer fantasy line. Creative Assembly have been threatening to do a Three Kingdoms-era China game even before Rome II, so it’s nice to see them finally realize this goal.

It’s been largely a success – Three Kingdoms has made the campaign layer better than it’s every been, with some very meaningful character interactions and dynamics between the various factions. Real-time tactical combat sits somewhere between the Warhammer and other historical titles, and while there are certain aspects that will come down to personal taste its still a very robust and very decent tactical battle engine that really helps give weight to the political machinations of the turn-based layer.

Further Reading:

Field of Glory: Empires

Released in July 2019, Field of Glory: Empires is a new historical grand-strategy game from Slitherine. It attempts to occupy the space between Rome 2 and Imperator and brings with it some smart ideas and decent design choices. It’s a *tad* old-school, but then the developers have a history of creating hardcore, old-fashioned war games so some of that was going to bleed through. It definitely has the military-focus of older Total War and Paradox titles, but as some really interesting mechanics in terms of empire & population management. It’s also not gone for the same ‘breadth’ that Imperator has, instead going for some very focused abstractions that remind us of the original Rome: Total War.

In all honesty, given how Imperator turned out, this is probably a good thing – “less is more” still holds true today. Empires’ other ace-in-the-hole is the ability to sync up with another Slitherine title, Field of Glory II, and export the battle data from Empires so you can play out the fight in-full like you can in a Total War game. It’s an extra step, but the process is as smooth as it cane be and FOG2 is a really good tactical turn-based wargame, to be fair. Now that it’s out in the wold it’ll be interesting to see where Slitherine take it – they’re not known for Paradox-levels of support but they’re certainly more attentive than most.

Distant Worlds Universe

Much like Stellaris, Distant Worlds: Universe is a space 4X grand-strategy game that’s a far sight meatier and more expansive than its Paradox counter-part. If you’re still not finding Stellaris to your tastes or are up for a challenge, this is definitely worth checking out. Distant Worlds is a deep game with a very steep learning curve, and past a certain point empire management can become quite taxing. On the flip-side, the game has a wonderful trick that lets you give nearly all functions over to an AI handler, allowing you to focus on whatever bit interests you the most. If you wanted to, you could even relinquish control over all but a single vessel, boldly going where no AI has gone before as you explore your procedurally generated galaxy.

Being an older game Distant Worlds has a decidedly ‘old school’ flavour about it, and more than any other entry on the list represents the nexus where 4X and grand-strategy merge – and where the differences lie.

PCGamesN is affiliated with the Paradox Store.

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