Grand strategy games are an emerging sub-genre of strategy games that typically encompass long periods of history (or, if sci-fi, time), and 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 over long periods of time.
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 genres 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 a case as to what the accepted definitions are and how a game is marketed. In any case, this is definitely a genre worth exploring in more detail.
Grand Strategy Games
These are the best grand strategy games around right now:
- Crusader Kings III
- Crusader Kings II (Free-to-Play)
- Europa Universalis IV
- Hearts of Iron IV
- Total War: Warhammer II
- Total War: Three Kingdoms
- Total War: Rome II
- Field of Glory: Empires
- Distant Worlds: Universe
Crusader Kings III
Released in September 2020, this is the highly anticipated sequel to 2011’s Crusader Kings II. What makes the series unique amongst grand strategy games is the idea that you aren’t just managing a kingdom or nation, you’re managing a person and their family.
Related: The best strategy games on PC
From the lowliest of Counts to the King of Kings, you are put in charge of an entire dynasty of characters and tasked with ensuring its continued success and domination amidst the back-drop of Medieval Europe. Crusader Kings III 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 you’re 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 what they need.
You can buy Crusader Kings III on the Paradox store.
- Crusader Kings 3 review
- The best Crusader Kings 3 mods
- Crusader Kings 3 DLC
- Interesting Crusader Kings 3 starts and characters
- Crusader Kings 3 beginner’s guide
- Crusader Kings 3 console commands and cheats
Crusader Kings II
This is the game that put Paradox and the genre 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 II is now free to play, so there’s no barrier to entry if you want to try this one out for yourself.
Click here to buy Crusader Kings 2 on the Paradox store.
Europa Universalis IV
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, also with 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 IV 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 First Nation 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 game design, I guess.
You can buy Europa Universalis on the Paradox store here, although it’s worth noting that there is now a DLC subscription service.
The first of Paradox’s grand strategy games 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 space faring species, decide on its political and social inclinations, then take to the stars to spread an empire across a randomly generated galaxy. You will need to compete 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 five 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 sci-fi stereotypes as often as it can with heavy emphasis on player customization. Plus you get to design your own spaceships, which is always a bonus.
Check out Stellaris on the Paradox store today.
- Stellaris DLC guide
- Stellaris tips
- The best Stellaris mods
- Stellaris cheats and console commands
- Stellaris tech tree
Hearts of Iron IV
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 this era, with the politics serving as the backdrop to a WW2-like event. You must do your best to profit and survive, and 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 player base that enjoys 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 who were significant players at the time. It does currently seem to be favouring alt-history with each update, so bear that in mind if you’re a WW2 enthusiast.
Hearts of Iron 4 is available from the Paradox store.
- Hearts of Iron 4 DLC guide
- Essential Hearts of Iron 4 mods
- Essential Hearts of Iron 4 tips
- Hearts of Iron 4 cheats and console commands
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 many thousands of players for most of its life which inspired developer Creative Assembly to create more expansion for the game despite it being quite old now (no other CA game has received such support).
Related: The best Total War games
Rome II had a rocky start, but it’s in a very good place these days. Rome: Total War is a cult 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 time period this is an excellent one to try out.
Total War: Warhammer I, II & III
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 tabletop world in favour of the Age of Sigmar’s ‘nu fantasy’ line.
Going fantasy for the first time also allowed the design team to let their hair down and get creative, with everything from the strategy map to tactical battles getting fantastical twists and innovations. Some are great, others are very much subjective (the tactical battles are a bit divisive), but no one can deny it’s been a success, and now the series is looking to get even greater now that we know Warhammer 3 is coming.
- The complete Total War: Warhammer DLC guide
- Total War: Warhammer 2 DLC guide
- Total War: Warhammer 2 review
- The best Total War: Warhammer II mods
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 has 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 a resounding 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.
It’s a shame really that Creative Assembly decided to end support for the game, barely two years after it was released.
- Total War: Three Kingdoms review
- Total War: Three Kingdoms DLC guide
- The best Total War: Three Kingdoms mods
Field of Glory: Empires
Released in July 2019, Field of Glory: Empires is an historical grand strategy game from Slitherine. It attempts to occupy the space between Rome 2 and Imperator: Rome 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 wargames so some of that was going to bleed through. It definitely has the military-focus of older Total War and Paradox titles, but also 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.
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 can be and FOG2 is a really good tactical turn-based strategy game, 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, so you never know.
Distant Worlds Universe
Much like Stellaris, Distant Worlds: Universe is a space 4X grand strategy game that’s a far sight meatier and more complex 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 complex 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. We can’t wait to see what Distant Worlds 2 will be like, which is due out sometime in 2021.