Since strategy games have never really translated so well to consoles, they remain a vital part of the PC’s heritage. Whether you enjoy real-time battles or weighty turn-based scenarios, great strategy games throw you into a grandiose simulation that lets you command armies, rule empires, and, in some cases, seize control of entire spacefaring races. Those who play them, love them dearly. But there are a few strategy games we love more than all the rest for the way they immerse us in their world and tickle that tactical part of our brain just right so we’re compelled to play them for hours on end without even realizing how addicted we’ve become. So read on if you love strategy games as much as us. And be sure to leave a comment if we forgot to mention your favourite title.
12. StarCraft II
Extending from the classic RTS archetype where you gather resources, build armies, and kill your enemy using quick thinking and even quicker mouse clicks, the original StarCraft is a game that came to define strategy and helped launch the competitive phenomenon we now know as esports. As such, multiplayer became the primary focus of StarCraft II which incorporates a ladder system that is sophisticated enough to recognize players who are capable of competing at the highest level.
That’s not to say the the single players aspects have been completely abandoned. As you follow the exploits of Terran Mercenary Jim Raynor in Wings of Liberty (part one of the three-part game), you fight your way through a series of missions with a number of unique objectives, including wave defence and resource gathering on a map that periodically overflows with lava. And in between missions your battlecruiser functions like an RPG hub where you can move around and talk to different members of your crew to research new tech, play mini games, and plot the course for your next mission. The ability to interact with the world outside of missions really lends itself to the interactive storytelling aspect in SCII — something that a lot of RTS games still struggle with today.
11. Company of Heroes
Many fans of realistic war games consider Company of Heroes to be the greatest entry in the RTS genre. Rather than having players constantly worrying about resources and build orders, it has you focus your attention on executing actual tactics. The slower pace and more realistic battlefield conditions reduced the need for frantic mouse clicking and gave strategy gamers an experience that is still holds up incredibly well after 10 years.
10. Total War: Shogun 2
While some may prefer Empire for it’s greater scope, Shogun 2 is really the crowning jewel in the Total War series. Though the map in Shogun 2 is relatively small when compared to some of the other Total War games, thanks to the prevalence of mountains, the terrain is quite diverse and full of interesting tactical problems. And the small scale actually makes the game more exciting because it means you get into battles more frequently.
Shogun 2 also has a lot of great add-ons including mods, user-created maps, and the excellent Fall of the Samurai expansion. On top of that it’s one of the most beautiful strategy games ever, with subtle cherry blossom petals floating across a battlefield where honorable warriors cross swords in tense single combat.
9. Age of Empires II: Age of Kings
More so than any other title on this list, Age of Empires II masters the traditional RTS model of mine, build, and deploy. You start with nothing more than a few measly workers, but as you advance, you’ll eventually find yourself mining gold, building fortified fortresses, and going to war.
Multiple campaigns, custom maps, and plenty of contrasting factions provide you with months of addictive gameplay. And thanks to an HD re-release on Steam, Age of Kings is better-looking and perhaps better-supported that it has ever been.
8. Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings II is a grand-strategy game where you take on the role of a medieval ruler trying to increase his realm of influence. Like most strategy games, battles and war are a big part of it, but here they take a back seat to politics and familial relationships. Paying close attention to who your half-witted niece is marrying probably has more far reaching implications than the outcome of any single skirmish on the battlefield. And it’s this personalized element that really differentiates CKII from other games in the strategy genre. As each game plays out you’ll get married, have children, eventually die, and then your heir will take your place and cycle will start all over again. Between all this, you can choose to use either intrigue or brute force to increase your holdings. You’ll find yourself seeking out politically advantageous marriages and then murdering your wife when a better opportunity presents itself. You’ll probably even call her a fool for trusting you. This not a game for the weak minded or faint of heart. This is a game for kings.
7. Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion
Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion is all about the endless struggle for sovereignty. And the struggle is real. Even when you’re just playing against the AI, things are tough because there are always neutral forces jetting around that make early base expansions difficult. There are even pirate factions that you or your opponent can bribe to carry out special attacks.
Diplomacy is another key aspect of the game. In addition to trade agreements and non-aggression pacts, you can also pick up mission contracts from other factions that might involve you sharing resources or carrying out a strike on another player. In order to do well you’ll have to move your units around a lot with scouts checking out new worlds to exploit, trade fleets moving goods from place to place, and battle fleets hopping from one conflict to the next. And if you run out of things to do, there are also some impressive map-making tools that you can utilize to create your own custom scenarios.
If you’ve ever watched the 1983 movie WarGames starring Matthew Broderick and thought you’d like to try your hand at some Cold War era military tactics, then DEFCON is definitely the game for you. In it, you’re given a bunch of military assets and, as the world slowly ticks down towards armageddon, it’s up to you to make the best use of them and find a way to come out on top in an all out nuclear war.
The game can be played with two to six players (either human or AI) and the initial organizational step will have you manage your stockpiles, position missile sites, arm your nuclear submarines and arrange any countermeasures in preparation for incoming nuclear strikes. But despite your best efforts you won’t be able to stop every missile directed at you. Entire regions will be reduced to rubble and you may lose whole fleets but all you’ll see are some flashing icons accompanied by facts and figures on a blue screen. Killing large amounts of people in a single strike will help you maximize points, while losing a large percentage of your population will lower your score or see you wiped out altogether. In the end, the player with the most points gets to claim rulership over the remaining nuclear wasteland.
5. Civilization V
Civilization V isn’t just the poster child for the ambitious 4X strategy game genre, it’s one of the best PC games of any genre. As you work to build your society up from the stone age to a not-so-distant future, you’re faced with many political, economical, military, and social decisions. You can become a friendly neighbour or a ruthless conqueror. A hub of tourism and trade, or an industrial powerhouse. You’re free to run your nation in whatever manner you choose as you strive to create the greatest civilization the world has ever known.
Don’t worry if you’ve never played a Civilization game before, Civ V is the most streamlined game in the series so it’s perfect for newcomers. It’s intuitive enough that you begin to get a sense of what you want to try and accomplish after a few turns and complex enough that you could still spend hours meticulously planning your every move. The combat is also as good as it’s ever been thanks to the game’s enhanced grid system, and support from the Steam Workshop gives you access to an ever-growing library of mods and maps to play around with.
Whatever draws you to strategy games, be it epic battles, exploration, or diplomacy, Civilization V has all the bases covered.
4. Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
Normally when a sequel to a game comes out you would expect the scope of things to get scaled up, not down. But that’s exactly what Blackbird Interactive did with Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, which takes place on single planet rather than following a journey through the vast reaches of space. Although technically the game is a prequel that takes place before the events of the original game, so perhaps it’s fitting.
As you migrate across a seemingly endless desert on a mission to save your entire civilization, each battle builds off of the past battle and connects to future battles. Managing your units effectively becomes vital as every combatant that survives will go on to fight in the next mission and better your chances of survival. The planet Kharak is essentially one massive battlefield and you’ll have to use the terrain to your advantage if you want to win. You can use sand dunes for cover, seize the high ground and unleash devastating attacks on your enemies from above that show off some of the best art design that’s ever been seen in the strategy genre.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a deep, exciting, and diverse game that features excellent story elements, great sound design, and a compelling campaign. Basically everything you could ever want in an RTS.
3. Endless Legend
Recognized as one of the best games from 2014, Endless Legend is the fantasy world successor to Amplitude’s Endless Space. The game seamlessly blends fantasy and science fiction pitting stranded space marines against magical dragon people and hive mind insectoids. It’s also gorgeous to behold with a slick user interface and cities so elaborately detailed they almost looks as though they’re meticulously handcrafted dioramas.
But the thing that really sets Endless Legend apart from other strategy games are all the fascinating factions you can use to seize control of the little post-apocalyptic paradise. Each of the factions is gifted with their own exclusive and intriguing mechanics that set them apart and give them a unique play-style. For instance, there’s the former forest dwelling Wind Walkers who harness magic to control and shape the natural world. There’s the Necrophage who, unless you choose them, are a constant opposing force since their foul nature prevents them from forming alliances with the other factions. And there’s the bizarre Cultists, a faction of fanatical zealots that can only construct one city and must assimilate other factions if they hope to grow in size. There are also five other factions all with drastically different appearances, units and abilities.
The story in Endless Legend is also quite good and builds a strong narrative around an abundance of side-quests and stories that almost make it feel as though you’re playing an RPG nested inside an RTS.
Mutant uprisings, robotic rebellions, and the discovery of ancient alien texts will have you questioning your place in the galaxy after you play Stellaris — Paradox Interactive’s 4X grand strategy hybrid set in space. The game bestows a vast array of options upon players, allowing them to create unique, outlandish space-faring species. You can play as a fundamentalist society and enslave an inferior race to do your bidding, or as super-intelligent reptiles that employ robots to do all the work. The imaginative species creator lets you create almost any type alien that you can think of.
Stellaris also places a lot of emphasis on exploration, offering players a multitude of methods for interstellar travel, each with their own strengths and drawbacks. For instance, in one game the galaxy might be connected through a network of hyperlanes, and the next game you might find yourself building wormhole stations to traverse the galaxy. It does an excellent job providing complex tactical decision making while still remaining accessible to people who might not be as familiar with the strategy genre. It’s also got a stellar soundtrack.
1. XCOM 2
The original XCOM was such a great game that many people didn’t think there was much room for improvement with the sequel. But XCOM 2 takes the best parts from previous installments — tense tactical battles, crafty aliens, a ragtag group of heroes — and then just makes everything better.
Like in the earlier games, you can send up to six soldiers into the field, but this time as a group of survivors struggling against a domineering alien regime. It’s all about covert missions, guerilla tactics, and breeding dissension. You quickly learn that making sacrifices, for instance by leaving party members behind so that you can complete the mission, is all part of the game and you just need to suck it up and move forward.
The battles are quite challenging and exhibit a great degree of variation as you take on deadly adversaries with surprisingly problematic abilities. But the most drastic changes to the game are found on the strategy side. The designers added in a stealth system, refined the strategic metagame, and greatly enriched the cinematic presentation of the game. You’ll travel the world setting up new comms facilities, infiltrating black sites, and scavenging for hard to find resources so you can implement more powerful weapons. XCOM 2 is one of the best strategy games ever and a shining example that no matter how great something is, there’s always room for improvement.