The 50 best strategy games on PC

By Adam Smith on November 18, 2016

An entirely objective ranking of the 50 best PC strategy games ever made, now brought up to date with the riches of the last two years. From intricate wargames to soothing peacegames, the broad expanse of the genre contains something for everyone, and we’ve gathered the best of the best. The vast majority are available to buy digitally, a few are free to download and play forever. They’re all brilliant.

Article Continues Below

Loading…

Before diving into this delicious stack of games, we should define exactly what we mean when we say “Strategy Games”. The answer, quite simply, is that we don’t mean “Strategy Games”. Don’t worry, they’re here, – from grand historical strategy and RTS clickity-clicking to turn-based operational level wargaming – but our church of strategy is broad. Games that concentrate purely on tactical decisions and combat have been considered for inclusion, as have management games that might not fit into Colonel Trousers’ rigid definitions as outlined in the seminal brain-pacifier That Is Not Strategy Vol I-XXX.

There are several reasons to recommend our broader definition. Perhaps most importantly, it means that we haven’t ended up with a list of 50 games about World War II or alien spacewars. The treasures below are varied in theme, style and setting, and there’s surprisingly little overlap between them. Some of the management games included would struggle to find a home on any genre-based list if they didn’t have a home here. Inclusiveness is key.

Of course, you might find that your personal favourites haven’t made the list. When your moment of grieving has passed, remember that all attempts to rank games are arbitrary and ultimately futile, and whether X should be placed above Y might isn’t really all that important.

That’s not to say this isn’t the most accurate list you’ll ever read, of course, because it is.

The links below will skip you forward in intervals of ten, if you like. You can also change pages using the arrows beneath or below the image at the top of each page, or using your arrow keys:

The 50s

Article Continues Below

Loading…

The 40s

The 30s

The 20s

The 10s

Onward!

50: Transport Tycoon Deluxe (1994)

Article Continues Below

Loading…

Developer: Chris Sawyer

Publisher: MicroProse

The pleasures of Transport Tycoon are many. The isometric countryside and urban landscapes are still beautifully tranquil – despite the game’s industrial core, settlements resemble picture-postcard villages and towns rather than smoggy iterations of Dickens’ Coketown. Watching the landscape develop in sync with your ambitions is as rewarding as watching a level 1 Squire become a level 50 Demigod.

Business management games come in many flavours, but few offer the same kind of gentle challenges and immediately recognisable environments as Chris Sawyer’s masterpiece. Transporting goods and passengers might seem like a banal occupation, especially appearing alongside future wars and theme parks, but it’s the familiarity of the systems that makes the game so engaging.

Notes: The soundtrack, composed by John Broomhall, is a bluesy, jazzy delight, including excerpts from Herbie Hancock’s Cantaloupe Island.

The World Editor for the original Transport Tycoon included a Martian tileset.

Where can I buy it: OpenTTD is a free, open source remake. A non-freemium mobile port of the original is also available on iOS and Android.

Article Continues Below

Loading…

What else should I be playing if I like this: Cities in Motion and its sequel, from Cities: Skyline developers Colossal Order, present a more detailed (and occasionally fussy) simulation of public transport. Railroad Tycoon and its most recent reinvention Sid Meier’s Railroads is superficially similar, but doesn’t have the dynamic world of Transport Tycoon, and Ticket to Ride, available in physical form or as a digital adaptation, is a very different take on similar themes.

Read more: Memories of a teenage Transport Tycoon.

49: Hearts of Iron IV (2016)

Developer: Paradox Development Studio

Publisher: Paradox Interactive

A prolonged development cycle is sometimes cause for concern but in the case of Hearts of Iron IV, it was a sign that Paradox were paying close attention to feedback and ensuring that their fourth WWII era strategy game was the best and most accessible in the series. Few games take such a broad and detailed approach not just to a war but to the political situation before, during and after that war. This is strategy on a truly global scale, allowing players to rewrite not just the history of the war itself, but the events that led to it, and the shape of the world afterwards.

Article Continues Below

Loading…

New systems for managing fronts and large-scale invasions and maneuvers make the actual military campaigning simpler and more elegant than in any of the previous installments, and while there are still a few too many complications to recommend HOI IV to those whose first taste of Paradox came with the character-based history of Crusader Kings II, it’s easier than ever before to tackle this complex slice of history, and the rewards are greater than ever as well.

Miscellaneous Notes: Released on the 72nd anniversary of the Normandy landings.

Where can I buy it: Steam and from Paradox.

What else should I be playing if I like this: There are plenty of excellent strategy games covering World War II, from the deceptively clever RTS R.U.S.E. to the squad-based tactics of the Men of War or Close Combat series.

Read More: Creating alternate history with a Communist UK.

48: RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 (2002)

Developer: Chris Sawyer Productions

Publisher: Infogrames

While the excellent Planet Coaster, which is a direct sequel in all but name, threatens to take its place, RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 has stood the test of time and is still the definitive amusement park management game. While it was criticised as a sequel on release for taking small steps rather than giant leaps, it’s a more flexible and satisfying game than its predecessor. Minor additions include the ability to tweak building shapes and heights, which is important in a game that is as much about the cosmetic appearance of the park as its efficiency.

If you’ve ever played RollerCoaster Tycoon, there are so many memories locked triggered by the clank of the chain pulling a coaster train to the top of that first hill, and the screams of delight as it passes the peak or grind of disappointed metal as it slides backwards defeated. Designing a complex ride in RollerCoaster Tycoon can make you feel like an engineer, attempting to create FUN, rather than a cynical suit trying to manage your visitors’ expendable income.

Miscellaneous Notes: RollerCoaster Tycoon 2 is an officially licensed Six Flags product, which includes scenarios based on the company’s parks.

This is the last game in the series to include fatal accidents.

Where can I buy it: Steam and GOG.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Many devotees of the series prefer RollerCoaster Tycoon 3, which includes a “CoasterCam” and full 3d graphics. And now there’s Planet Coaster, of course.

Read More: Lovely memories of the game, its community and real life theme parks at fansite RCTspace Network.

Lose your lunch with Oculus Rift rollercoasting.

Our Planet Coaster review.

47: Imperialism 2 (1999)

Developer: Frog City Software

Publisher: SSI

One of the challenges strategy games often face is in finding the challenge and fun in tasks and themes that don’t immediately seem attractive or entertaining. Wargames and theme park management have certain obvious appeals, but when taxation and logistics seem to be the order of the day, a game can quickly look a lot like a job. Imperialism 2 is one such game.

Although its scope is impressive and the idea of ruling a country and building an empire is potentially exciting, SSI’s game focuses on labour and resource management, and is mainly about solving problms of supply and economics. That it succeeds in making these elements of rule both engaging and relatively accessible is down to the strength of the design. By concentrating on logistics, Imperialism and its sequel become games about the big picture that the smaller details are part of, rather than lists of numbers and complicated spreadsheets. Micromanagement is out and important nation-wide decisions are the order of the day.

Miscellaneous Notes: Developers Frog City Software closed in 2006 while working on a game about drug trafficking. Previously, they had been working on a strategy game about Greek gods, Pantheon, but that was never completed.

Where can I buy it: GOG.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Europa Universalis IV is the grand strategy successor to some of Imperialism’s ideas and covers the same era.

Read More: Our retrospective.

46: Warlords III: Darklords Rising (1998)

Developer: SSG

Publisher: Red Orb Entertainment

The peak of the turn-based Warlords series. Almost minimalist in its approach, Steve Fawkner’s masterpiece portrays grand conquests and clashes between numerous rival armies. Each scenario feels like a massive chronicle of war, as power shifts back and forth across vast realms. And yet, Warlords is essentially a series of unit-producing nodes, attached to one another by unchangeable paths.

In some ways, it’s the opposite of Master of Magic, the previous game on this list. Where Simtex pile on the choices, Warlords strips them back. Everything from the plain graphics to the non-interactive battles could be a problem in search of a solution, but Warlords III’s sophistication is in its simplicity and the ease with which it portrays its enormous, involving fantasy wars. It takes minutes to learn and has lasted for years.

Miscellaneous notes: Puzzle Quest takes place in Etheria, the world of Warlords.

Where can I buy it: You can’t. Unless you find a boxed copy somewhere, in which case, you can.

What else should I be playing: Warlords Battlecry 3 is the high-point of the RTS spin-off series. The King’s Bounty and Heroes of Might and Magic series are sort of like Warlords Jr.

Read More: How Warlords Battlecry 3 Blended Genres

Have you played… Warlords III?

45: Darkest Dungeon (2010)

Developer: Red Hook Studios

Publisher: Red Hook Studios

It’s easy to admire Darkest Dungeon for its atmosphere and grimly amusing narrator, and it’s easy to let all of those cobwebs and corpses obscure the tactical combat at the heart of the game. Aesthetically, it’s superb, taking the age-old dungeon-crawling adventure and reimagining it as something halfway between Poe and Lovecraft. A doomed family estate and countless unknowable horrors lurking in the dark corners of the earth.

The sanity meters and gothic charm are fantastic, but this is a game in which you spend most of your time pitting your party against monsters in turn-based battles. Thankfully, these side-on scraps are not just smart, they’re quite unusual as well. Taking the idea of planting mages and archers at the back, and warriors at the front, Darkest Dungeon makes combat all about management of positioning. The unusual character classes and creatures that face them have abilities that can only be used when in certain spaces in the party, and in relation to their enemies, and shifting your own units and enemies from place to place is a vital tactical consideration.

Darkest Dungeon is beautifully morbid, darkly humorous and smartly structured tactical dungeon crawler, and even though it eventually becomes repetitive, there are hours of enjoyment to be had.

Miscellaneous notes: The music is the work of Stuart Chatwood, perhaps best known for his work on Ubisoft’s modern Prince of Persia series.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

What else should I be playing: The Dark Souls trilogy offers the best dark RPG action in the world.

Read More: Our review.
Driven to Despair by Darkest Dungeon.

44: The Battle for Wesnoth (2005)

Developer: David White

Publisher: N/A

The Battle for Wesnoth should be one of the first programs you install on a new PC. For ten years, David White’s turn-based hexathon has been one of the great freeware strategy games and it has been consistently updated with new content and improvements. When a tablet version appeared on app stores with a price attached, it seemed reasonable to assume that the PC version might follow suit, becoming a commercial product after more than a decade (including pre-1.0 versions). That hasn’t happened.

Wesnoth is still free. Not free to download and play up to a certain point and not free with the option of purchasing in-game currency or unlockables – free like that free lunch they said you’d never find. The (lack of a) price wouldn’t matter if the game wasn’t worth your time but, thankfully, it’s in sterling form. There are sixteen campaigns, spanning all the races of the world, and even covering the distant future of Wesnoth, and the included editor means you can design your own scenarios or simply download unofficial content when you’re done with the wealth of material included.

Miscellaneous Notes: Wesnoth was originally a nonsensical name but The Rise of Wesnoth campaign retrospectively explains its etymology – a combination of West and North.

Where can I buy it: It’s free!

What else should I be playing: Check out the free Telepath RPG games from Sinister Design, and then consider shelling out for the turn-based tactical splendour of Telepath Tactics.

Read More: Kieron and Graham have both spent time wondering why we haven’t written more about Wesnoth.

43: The Settlers II (1996)

Developer: Blue Byte Software

Publisher: Blue Byte Software

The Settlers is quite possibly the most relaxing meditative real-time strategy game in existence. Although there have been many entries in the series since, the second game, “Veni, Vidi, Vici”, is the strongest example of the design’s best qualities. Tasked with transforming a nascent settlement into a thriving economy, you’ll spend most of your time watching transportation and production loops – the engines of industry – in the form of serene, rural endeavour.

Blue Byte’s approach to what might be called base-building elsewhere is completely at odds with the games that would come to dominate the RTS space. From the distant thwok of a woodcutter’s axe to the deliberately slow-paced movement of raw materials and goods, The Settlers encourages contemplation and observation rather than demanding that players rush toward the finish line. It’s a pastoral game that conjures up images of lazy ruminations by a riverbank in the warm haze of an everlasting summer.

Miscellaneous Notes: Blue Byte co-founder Thomas Hertzler was ahead of his time – from a 1998 interview: “In the long run, I want to convert Blue Byte into a pure content provider. We call it BlueByte.Net. BB.Net will be it’s own entertainment value, by offering a lobby with chat, fan club, world ranking lists and tournaments. Instead of launching our games from the Windows Start menu, you’ll visit the BB.Net home page.

Where can I buy it: GOG has you covered for both the tenth anniversary remake and the Gold Edition of the original.

What else should I be playing: Widelands is a free, open source game with many similarities to The Settlers series.

Read More: Eurogamer’s Retrospective.

42: Ground Control (2000)

Developer: Massive Entertainment

Publisher: Sierra Entertainment

It could be argued that sci-fi RTS Ground Control doesn’t even represent the pinnacle of Massive Entertainment’s strategic achievements. For all of the improvements made since their debut, however, the move toward a more conventional formula has left Ground Control standing alone and despite its rather conventional appearance (FUTURETANKS), its quirks make it seems almost experimental.

The boldest idea, in a genre of tank rushes and disposable cannon fodder, is to make every unit precious. Losses cannot be replaced mid-mission, which means you’ll pay far more attention to any slight advantage you can take, whether that be from the terrain, positioning or the match-up between unit type. When the enemy approaches and the chips are down, the particular curve of a hill, which might not even distract the eye in another game, can momentarily become the most important aspect of an entire battlefield.

Notes: Massive Entertainment are now owned by Ubisoft, working on Tom Clancy’s The Division. They seem to have left strategy behind, at least for now.

Where can I buy it: GOG.

What else should I be playing: Although not directly related, the 1998 remake of Battlezone plays like a more conventional RTS with a similar look. Massive’s own World In Conflict is a more bombastic expression of similar ideas.

Read More: Our interview with Massive.

Our Ground Control retrospective.

41: Myth: The Fallen Lords (1997)

Developer: Bungie

Publisher: Eidos/Bungie

Bungie’s grim fantasy saga has some design elements in common with the previous entry on this list. Like Ground Control, Myth is about survival rather than conquest and growth, throwing small groups of friendly forces into dire situations. Precision plays a part but Myth is also a game in which dwarven satchel charges send body parts cartwheeling across a level. The swords of fallen enemies can be propelled through the air, skewering those still living.

It’s the combination of exquisitely implemented physics and gloomy narration that drives Myth into the upper echelons of tactical combat. Bungie create a superb sense of place as the campaign chronicles a seemingly doomed slog across a world in which the typical battle between Light and Dark is painted in blood, sweat, tears and snot. It’s as fine a depiction of the outnumbered and overwhelmed as any strategy game has managed to convey.

Notes: Bungie have been supportive of outside efforts to work with the Myth source code. A group going by the name Project Magma have taken full advantage of this, creating new scenarios and even a WWII total conversion.

Where can I buy it: Not available digitally.

What else should I be playing: The Banner Saga tells a similarly desperate and rugged tale, although without the real-time corpse physics of Bungie’s series.

40: Offworld Trading Company (2016)

Developer: Mohawk Games

Publisher: Stardock

It’s a rare thing to find a game that slots neatly into a genre but doesn’t seem to follow many – if any – of the established rules of that genre. Offworld Trading Company is one such game.

It’s about offworld colonies, except you’re not worrying about keeping your population happy and healthy. It’s about making big profits, but money is a fluid thing rather than the central resource. It doesn’t contain direct combat, but it’s one of the most ruthless and competitive game you’re ever likely to play. Oh, and you could pretty much follow an entire game by watching numbers fall and rise at the side of the screen, only glancing at the actual map once or twice.

Created by a team led by Civilization IV designer Soren Johnson, Offworld Trading Company is a game about the impact of decisions. Everything, even hesitation, creates change, and because the foundation of the entire game is in flux – the numbers that drive everything visible and entirely predictable – it creates a space where you become proactive and reactive simultaneously. It’s impossible to act without influencing the status and decision-making of your competitors, and by the time the impact of one change has been felt, another handful have already happened.

Notes: Partly inspired by M.U.L.E., which dropped off our list this year, Offworld Trading Company is a perfect social game – short-form, multiplayer and frequently hilarious despite its intensity.

Where can I buy it: Direct from the publisher, Steam, .

What else should I be playing: M.U.L.E. – the original strategic trading game is available to play free, online.

Read More: Our review.

An earlier look, with thoughts from the developers.

39: Heroes of Might and Magic III (1999)

Developer: New World Computing

Publisher: The 3DO Company

Heroes of Might and Magic III is almost perfect. The strategic portion of the game manages to instil resource gathering and experience grinding with the excitement of exploration and questing, while the tactical battles rarely become rote despite the limitations of an 11×15 hex map. It’s a wonderful example of several simple concepts executed well and locked together in a whole far greater than the sum of its parts.

A huge part of the game’s success lies in its approach to progression. As is often the case in strategy and RPG games alike, the goal in each scenario is to uncover a map and make all of the numbers go as high as possible. Build lots of units, level up heroes and gather gold until there’s no space left in your coffers. New World Computing ensure that there’s always something interesting behind the fog of war, however, and that every step toward victory feels like a tiny fantastic subplot in its own right. Just look at the towns for proof – every building and upgrade feels like an achievement, and part of a beautiful, fantastic tapestry.

Notes: The world of Might and Magic was created in 1983, with much of the inspiration coming from New World Computing founder Jon Van Caneghem’s D&D campaigns and characers.

The distinctive soundtrack to HOMM III is the work of the series regular composers Paul Romero, Rob King and Steve Baca. King and Baca were also members of nineties band, Red Delicious.

Where can I buy it: Get ye to GOG. Avoid the HD remake.

What else should I be playing: The previous games in the Heroes series are worth a look, as is IV, but for something slightly different, turn to King’s Bounty. Gargantuan and lighter in tone, 1C’s revival of the HOMM predecessor has spawned several semi-sequels. You could also dip into the RPG side of the HOMM coin – the World of Xeen games (IV and V) are excellent examples of the traditional party-based first-person CRPG.

Read More: Our review of Might and Magic: Heroes VI

RPG Codex speaks to Jon Van Caneghem

38: Frozen Synapse (2011)

Developer: Mode 7

Publisher: Mode 7

For five seconds at a time, Frozen Synapse allows you to feel like a tactical genius. You provide orders for your team of soldiers and then watch as enemies waltz right into your line of fire, or find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, right on the killing floor. The next five seconds might flip everything around though, leaving you feeling like a dolt.

The beauty of Mode 7’s clean and colourful game is that it plays on confidence and intuition rather than detailed analysis. Each 1v1 round of battle takes place on a randomised map, both participants draw up their orders and then execute simultaneously. If you know your opponent’s style you might be able to flush his/her units out, or wait for them to show themselves. Maybe you’ll have to take on the aggressive role, knowing that this particular enemy commander prefers to set up an ambush and wait. In a few short minutes, you’ll perform flanking manoeuvres, lay down covering fire, attempt to breach and clear a room, and watch in horror as everything goes wrong time and time again. But when a plan comes together? You’re a genius again, for at least five seconds more.

Notes: An X-COM inspired singleplayer management mode was planned during development and a sequel is due next year, taking influence from X-COM: Apocalypse.

The game’s soundtrack is the work of Mode 7 co-owner Paul Taylor, AKA nervous_testpilot.

Where can I buy it: Direct from Mode 7, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Mode 7 followed up with Frozen Cortex, which uses the same simultaneous turn-based style to depict a robotic futuresport. Laser Squad Nemesis is another take on the “WeGo” system of play (you might even be able to find an unofficial server.

Read More: Our Frozen Synapse Interview.

Playing with endings

Alec’s review over at Eurogamer

37: Prison Architect (2015)

Developer: Introversion Software

Publisher: Introversion Software

Theme Hospital might be the first popular management game to dwell on the dark side of profiteering. Sure, you could add salt to snacks to ensure kids nagged their parents for more soda in Theme Park, but that was benign compared to the intro to Hospital, which showed privatised healthcare at its most ruthless. To a backing orchestra of sickly bottoms and bilious upheavals, you were tasked with finding the best way to cash in on the cure.

Prison Architect is an even darker proposition. Can you keep your inmates happy? Can you make a profit? How important is it to process death row residents efficiently? What happens when a riot breaks out?

The brilliance of Introversion’s game is in its recognition that a prison is a series of systems – of housing and treatment, of security and recreation – and then in its application of sturdy simulations to each of those systems. Like the best management games, it allows you to create a smoothly running machine, but it also embraces chaos and roleplaying.

During the most intricate planning, you can forget what the theme implies about the resources you’re processing, but Prison Architect is only ever a moment away from reminding you of the humanity within the machine.

Notes: Before Prison Architect, Introversion had been working on Subversion, a game of espionage and infiltration in procedurally generated cities, but it was indefinitely postponed in late 2011.

Where can I buy it: Direct from the developer.

What else should I be playing: RimWorld looks similar, on the surface, but is a much broader exploration of simulated people and the stories they can create.

Read More: A diary based on the RPG-like Escape mode , our review.

36: The Banner Saga 2 (2016)

Developer: Stoic
Publisher: Versus Evil

The original Banner Saga missed out on our list but the sequel brings enough improvements to the tactical combat that it has broken through the last of our resistance and taken a spot. Where the first game’s battles started to feel like as much of an endurance test as the ordeals suffered by the people under the player characters’ protection, the sequel introduces more enemy types and classes to keep things interesting.

Given that the sequel feels like the second act rather than an entirely new game, it’s definitely worth going back to the start. Yes, the pseudo-rotoscope, Norse-themed art is glorious, evoking some dark animation dimly remembered from the late 70s, but what gives The Banner Saga as a whole its staying power is that it’s a sort of rolling mood more than anything else. A disaster-strewn trek across a dying land, multiple, oft-changing perspectives, awful decisions with terrible consequences made at every turn, more a tale of a place than of the individual characters within it.

The feel of Banner Saga is what’s most memorable, elevating choose-your-own-adventure tropes into real atmosphere. There’s a reasonably robust turn-based combat system in there too, in which you regularly get to field armies of horned giants. A few punches are pulled, perhaps, but The Banner Saga has far more substance than might have been expected from a game which seems so very art-led.

Notes: The Banner Saga was subject to legal action by Candy Crush owners King, who decided they should have sole domain over the word ‘saga’. Read about that misery here, then breathe a sigh of relief that The Banner Saga 2 still happened.

Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG

Read more: Our review of the original, The RPS Verdict: The Banner Saga, our review of The Banner Saga 2.

35: Age of Wonders III (2014)

Developer: Triumph Studios

Publisher: Triumph Studios

It’s only with the addition of two excellent expansions that Age of Wonders III has managed to surpass the previous game in the series. After the release of Shadow Magic, itself a sequel of sorts to Age of Wonders II, Triumph turned their attention to the Overlord series, which retained some basic strategic elements with its horde of commandable minions. The chances of seeing a sequel to the 4X fantasy series that made the Dutch studio’s name seemed slight though.

When Kickstarter became THE place to revitalise much-loved entities for sequel or spiritual successor treatment, it seemed the perfect fit for Age of Wonders, but Triumph took a different path, opting to self-publish and attracting funding from various sources (see notes). The campaigns won’t cement themselves in memory but a robust and customisable random map tool, alongside solid and easily grasped mechanics, provides the game with all the longevity it needs If it weren’t for the emergence of Amplitude and their Endless series, Age of Wonders III would be the definitive fantasy 4X game.

Notes: Minecraft creator Notch was an investment partner in the game. His involvement came about when Triumph contacted him having seen that one of the random blurbs on Minecraft’s title screen mentioned the series.

Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG

What else should I be playing: The previous games in the series are worth a look, as are Warlock 2, Master of Magic and the sadly unsung Eador: Masters of the Broken World.

Read More: Our review

34: Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos (2002)

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Publisher: Blizzard / Sierra

It’s tempting to think of Blizzard as a gargantuan entity that absorbs the best ideas of a genre, reshuffles them slightly and applies an enormous amount of polish. The company’s enormous success was hard-earned, however, in the RTS boom of the nineties. The first two Warcraft games were launched into a world where Westwood’s Command and Conquer series was king, and it was only the release of Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness that elevated Blizzard to the same level as their rivals.

Rather than swinging for the same fences again, Blizzard made some minor alterations to the wheel with Warcraft III. The introduction of two new playable races, alongside orcs and humans, threatened fine-tuned balance, and there was a concerted effort to add variety to the RTS formula, particularly in the early game. Incorporating light RPG elements through the hero characters muddied the waters further and it’s testament to the abilities of designer Rob Pardo and his team that they were able to chart such a smooth course through those waters.

Notes: Reign of Chaos is the origin of Defense of the Ancients and the MOBA genre. Warcraft is one of the most successful games ever made but isn’t even close to being the most successful thing about itself.

Where can I buy it: From Blizzard.

What else should I be playing: If you want to know more about the world of Warcraft, there’s always World of Warcraft, as well as the previous strategy games in the series. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II has a similar approach to role-playing strategy and hero units.

Read More: Paul Dean on the origins of “bastard mod” DOTA

33: Cities: Skylines (2015)

Developer: Colossal Order

Publisher: Paradox Interactive

Last year, SimCity 4 represented modern citybuilders on our list of great strategy games, but now that we’ve had plenty of time to explore it and see the impact of its modding community, Colossal Order’s triumphant revival of the genre has taken the place of Maxis’ great accomplishment.

A session with Skylines is reminiscent of the golden age of gaming. That’s not any particular year; it’s related to your own relationship with games. Remember when you’d spend hours playing without worrying about the outside world, or even feeling any pressure from within the game itself? Hours of comfortable, calming bliss, laying roads and watching a city grow before your eyes. Skylines creates those long holidays from reality. Relaxation in game form.

That’s not to say the actual simulation isn’t complex though. If you want a challenge, Skylines can deliver, though you’ll often have to set your own parameters. The brilliance of the game is in the variety of cities it can host though, from perfect geometrical machines to wonderful recreations of real life locations. It’s like the biggest box of building blocks in the world.

Notes: Developers Colossal Order had previously worked on public transport management games, and a full city builder had long been a dream project.

Where can I buy it: Steam, direct from Paradox, GOG.

What else should I be playing: SimCity 4 is still worth a look, and keep an eye on Urban Empire.

Read more: Our Cities: Skylines interview, including the influence of SimCity

Our Skylines verdict

Our review.

32: Startopia (2001)

Developer: Mucky Foot Productions

Publisher: Eidos Interactive

Space. Cold, quiet and lacking character, isn’t it? All that void? It’s basically a cavernous meeting hall and we’re the only saps who’ve shown up. Startopia drops a dollop of comedy and colour into the inky vastness, and manages to bring the best of Bullfrog’s management games to mind while reaching for a more ambitious end-goal.

It’s a space station management game, enlivened by a superb sense of scale and the personalities of your station’s inhabitants. The stations in Startopia don’t focus their energies on military or scientific pursuits – instead, they’re essentially the grandest holiday resorts in the galaxy. Your goal is to create rather than destroy and, as with the best management games, Startopia allows you to build a world that you’d gladly visit yourself, even if it is full of litterbugs.

Notes: Short-lived studio Mucky Foot Productions was founded by three veterans of Bullfrog. The studio opened in 1997 and closed six years later – Startopia was the last of three games released.

Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG.

What else should I be playing: Go back to the glory days of Bullfrog with Populous, Syndicate, Theme Park, Dungeon Keeper and Theme Hospital. Or try the ambitious confusion of Republic: The Revolution, another game from a short-lived studio headed by an ex-Bullfrogger. That studio, Elixir, also created RTS management game Evil Genius.

Read More: Our Startopia retrospective

31: Championship Manager: Season 01/02

Developer: Sports Interactive

Publisher: Eidos Interactive

The Championship/Football Manager series occupies an odd space in PC gaming. Sometimes dismissed as the epitome of best-selling, mainstream, annually resold tosh, it’s also one of the deepest and most rewarding strategy series in existence. The Americans understand – true devotion to a sport, and the numbers behind the sport, is the domain of the nerdiest of nerds. Behind the tribalism and Sky Sports laddishness of football, there’s an intricate interplay of tactics and talent.

In some ways, Championship Manager is the archetypal strategy game. There’s a strategic level of club management that incorporates long-term coordination and diplomacy, and an operational level below that, which kicks in during weekly, monthly or seasonal planning. And then there’s a tactical level, during the matches themselves, when formations and individual abilities come to the fore.

Why Season 01/02 specifically? Partly because of the aforementioned Sky Sports – Sports Interactive’s games have improved in many ways but in England and elsewhere, the powers-that-be have consolidated their strengths through sponsorship and TV rights. It’s still possible to take an English League Two club to European glory in Football Manager 15 but given the structures of the real game, it seems improbable and deep down, you know you’re fudging the system rather than enjoying the simulation.

Notes: The series was renamed following a split from Eidos. When seeking a new publisher, one of Sports Interactive’s terms involved a set amount of sales going to a chosen charity.

Where can I buy it: Eidos released the game as freeware in 2008. Patches and updates are available via Champman0102.co.uk.

What else should I be playing: The Football Manager series is still excellent and fans of Other Sports will enjoy Out of the Park Baseball’s intricate simulation. If you prefer dice and Skaven, Blood Bowl is your best bet.

Read more: Our review of the latest in the series

How to more interestingly hate Football Manager

Our huge interview with Sports Interactive director Miles Jacobson

30: Wargame: AirLand Battle (2013)

Developer: Eugen Systems

Publisher: Focus Home Interactive

Wargame doesn’t look anything like a wargame. Where are the chits marked with NATO symbols scraping around your grandfather’s wrinkled campaign maps? Where is the interface that seems to sprout new logistical windows whenever you so much as glance at any of its formidable buttons? Watch a video taken from Eugen’s Wargame series and you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a glossy unrepresentative cutscene.

But you’d be wrong. Wargame really is that handsome and it’s a top notch RTS series to boot. AirLand Battle gets the nod over its successor Red Dragon, although that’s not to say RD isn’t worth your time. The addition of naval combat in the most recent entry isn’t an unqualified success but there isn’t a truly weak game in the series.

Notes: The alternative history in the series’ first game, European Escalation, was inspired by the real life Able Archer NATO war game.

Where can I buy it: Direct, Steam.

What else should I be playing: All three Wargames are excellent. For more Cold War shenanigans, try Arsenal of Democracy, a grand strategy game based on Hearts of Iron II.

Read more: Talking to Eugen

A European Escalation battle report

29: Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War (2004)

Developer: Relic Entertainment

Publisher: THQ

Although Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer has finally seen the light of day, Relic’s first Dawn of War game is still the best digital expression of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe. While it may be surpassed by Dawn of War III next year, it’s the grimmest darkest strategy game in existence, and while the game itself is more limited in scope, the 40k universe is a much stronger draw than the elves ‘n’ imperials fantasy world.

Dawn of War is steeped in the blood and weird theological war cries of the 40K universe, and manages to add enough thematically suitable twists to the RTS template to make the setting more than a fresh lick of paint.

Notes: When THQ filed for bankruptcy in 2012, Dawn of War studio Relic was sold to Sega for $26.6m. Before Dawn of War, Strategic Simulations Inc. had worked on a series of strategy games based on the 40K license in the nineties. The sequel is impressive, but the move toward tighter tactical combat, cover systems and individual units isn’t quite as satisfying as the meatgrinder of the original’s best maps.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: The sequel removes the base-building and takes a similar approach to Warcraft III, adding RPG aspects. For more 40K, try Armageddon, a solid turn-based wargame.

Read more: The joy of unwinnable skirmishes

Our Dawn of War: Soulstorm verdict

28: Rise of Nations (2003)

Developer: Big Huge Games

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Although it’s not often regarded as part of the pantheon of strategy games, Rise of Nations is the closest thing to a real-time take on Civilization that we’ve seen. Spanning the history of warfare from catapults and caravels to submarines and stealth bombers, it’s a game of territorial control and long-term decision-making that could be mistaken for a simplified wargame.

Incorporating resource management, attrition, formations and tactical use of terrain, it’s a complex and rewarding game that sold exceptionally well at release but doesn’t seem to have fuelled discussion in the way that many of its contemporaries do. As the last original game designed by Civ II creator Brian Reynolds, it stands as a suitable book-end to his career so far, but hopefully not an endpoint.

Notes: Big Huge Games CEO Brian Reynolds was lead designer of Rise of Nations, and had previously worked on Civilization II and Alpha Centauri in the same role.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: Spin-off/sequel Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends added fresh features as well as exploring a new fantasy setting, but didn’t perform as well at retail. Age of Empires and Empire Earth are also worth considering.

Read more: Kieron writes about the making of Rise of Nations

27: Gary Grigsby’s War in the East (2010)

Developer: 2 by 3 Games

Publisher: Matrix Games

Oof. Now we’re getting serious. War in the East is intimidating. Not as intimidating as an actual war, granted, but… oof. War in the East is the kind of game a lot of people look at and wonder why anybody would want to spend their leisure time playing with something that looks so much like a job. And not a fun job, like Euro Truck driving or games journalism – this is the kind of job that leads to staring at screens until the veins in your eyes have their own heaving great muscles.

If you’ve ever wanted your eyeballs – and your strategic brain muscle – to benchpress a Sherman tank, War in the East is the game for you. The cost of entry is high, in terms of money and time, but the satisfaction of mastering the interlocking systems is immense. Success in any of the included campaigns or scenarios feels like a reward well-earned, and beyond mastery of the rules and mechanics, a wargame of this complexity is one of the best ways to appreciate and understand real life military history. War in the East will make you smarter but that’s not to say the process won’t hurt a little.

Notes: Gary Grigsby is one of gaming’s great veterans – he has been designing digital wargames since 1979.

Where can I buy it: Matrix Games.

What else should I be playing: Grigsby’s Steel Panthers series is an excellent turn-based tactical series, mostly concentrating on individual vehicles and infantry squads. War in the East has a direct sequel – War in the West.

Read more: The Flare Path investigates War in the West

26: Dwarf Fortress (2006)

Developer: Tarn Adams

Publisher: Bay 12 Games

Dwarf Fortress? A strategy game? Well, yes. The organisation of fighting forces and management of a settlement plant Tam Adams’ masterpiece firmly within our broad definition of strategic gaming. So the question should really be – if Dwarf Fortress is a strategy game by what standard is it not THE BEST strategy game?

Because it’s unfinished? Because it’s too broad and baggy to allow for definite strategic approaches to emerge? Because it’s about dwarves and we all know that tanks are the most strategic species? Admittedly, Tank Fortress would be a fine proposition but the actual reasoning behind Dwarf Fortress’ position as the 26th best strategy game of all time is known only to a select few. Whether you’re allergic to the number 26 or not, you should play Dwarf Fortress right now – it’s one of the most remarkable and complex games ever made

Notes: Development began in 2002 and Adams reckons version 1.0 will be ready sometime in the 2030s.

The full name is Slaves to Armok: God of Blood Chapter II: Dwarf Fortress, as Dwarf Fortress is a sequel of sorts to a 3d isometric RPG that you can find here.

Where can I buy it: It’s free.

What else should I be playing: “Dwarf Fortress with better graphics” and “Dwarf Fortress with a better UI” are almost genres in and of themselves. Clockwork Empires, currently in Early Access, is promising, while Space Station 13 offers something entirely different but the free-form complexity is reminiscent of the best of Dwarf Fortress. Dungeon Keeper and its sequel might also satisfy your desires.

Read more: Procedural poetry discussion

The detailed roguelike that’s easy to play.

The Song of Onionbog

25: AI War: Fleet Command (2009)

Developer: Arcen Games

Publisher: Arcen Games

Despite prolific and varied activity Arcen haven’t managed to surpass their debut release yet. To be fair to them, when the bar is set as high as AI War: Fleet Command, that’s not entirely surprising. Like many of the finest games within a genre, AI War changes the underlying machinery while leaving enough surface familiarity for comfort. The recognisable bodywork is also a disguise in this instance.

The moment everything clicks is the moment you realise that all of your glorious expansion has only served to piss the AI off. And, let’s be clear, it is an AI that you’re pissing off. An in-game AI, a ruthless and seemingly unstoppable machine intelligence that waits for you to make a move and then counters it, swatting your empire to one side. It’s an inversion of a 4X game’s normal flow, encouraging expansion and then punishing it by feeling out the cracks in every new frontier.

Notes: As might be expected, the AI in AI War is important and complex. Using Fuzzy Logic and what the developers describe as “Decentralized Intelligence”, it’s quite unlike anything else in strategy gaming.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: Arcen’s releases aren’t always as strong as AI War, but they’re always interesting. Bionic Dues and Skyward Collapse both offer intriguing takes on turn-based tactics and strategy, one in the form of a mech-based roguelike and the other as isometric God game.

Read more: Quinns needs iron – an AI War diary

Kieron investigates the demo

24: Galactic Civilizations 2: Endless Universe (2008)

Developer: Stardock

Publisher: Stardock

In direct contrast to AI War, Galactic Civilizations 2 succeeds by sticking to the basics. That’s not to say there’s anything basic about the game itself, but there are no unexpected twists. You take control of a spacefaring race and you conquer the galaxy, just as the 4X gods intended. Stardock’s game succeeds by implementing all of the expected features – diplomacy, economics, planetary management, warfare – in an enjoyably solid fashion.

The AI is notable, both for the challenge it offers and the way that it operates. Although it does receive boosts at the highest difficulty levels, there’s also a credible attempt to simulate counter-strategies tailored to the player’s actions. The Endless Universe release, or Ultimate Edition, is bundled with the two expansions, one of which adds the ability to destroy solar systems.

Notes: The original Galactic Civilizations was released in 2003, a remake of an OS/2 strategy game. 2003 also saw the release of the disappointing Master of Orion III.

Where can I buy it: Stardock’s store

What else should I be playing: Galactic Civilizations 3 is available in Early Access form but is currently light on features in comparison to the prequel.

Read more: Kieron reviews GalCiv 2 for Eurogamer

Tom Francis’ excellent diary

23: DEFCON (2006)

Developer: Introversion Software

Publisher: Introversion Software

DEFCON is the strategy game most likely to make you wake up in a cold sweat. It’s an abstract simulation of thermonucler war, in which the tension rises along with the DEFCON level, and frantic deals lead to bitter betrayal. It’s a game in which people are reduced to numbers (and ashes). Scores are measured in megadeaths inflicted and, in the default setting, causing a megadeath on an opponent’s territory is worth two points while losing a million citizens in your own territory only loses one point. The value of life.

The presentation is immaculately sinister and minimalist, and while DEFCON is unlikely to keep you playing through the night, you might lose sleep anyway. The closest strategy gaming comes to horror.

Notes: 1983 film Wargames was a direct influence on DEFCON’s theme and aesthetics, and the film’s hacking sequences were an inspiration for Introversion’s first game, Uplink.

Where can I buy it: Introversion, Steam, GOG.

What else should I be playing: Chris “Dragon Speech” Crawford’s Balance of Power tackles Cold War brinkmanship, while New World Computing’s Nuclear War offers a satirical , cartoonish approach to mutually assured destruction.

Read more: Our interview with Introversion’s Chris Delay

Kieron’s review at Eurogamer

22: Unity of Command (2011)

Developer: 2×2 Games

Publisher: 2×2 Games

The perfect gateway game. Perhaps you’ve dabbled with a couple of 4X games and the occasional RTS, and now you want to step up to the late and try your hand at a historical wargame – Unity of Command is precisely what you’re looking for. It models all the smart stuff, including supply lines, but doesn’t drown players in the details.

There’s plenty for experienced wargamers to enjoy as well. Each map seems tailor-made to illustrate specific tactics that were utilised during the Stalingrad Campaign, and the expansions introduce fresh approaches that fit the historical realities of their new campaigns.

Notes: The strategic mechanics of the game were designed to reflect historical realities – the player should find themselves executing “textbook Blitzkrieg” at times, even if they weren’t previously aware what “textbook Blitzkrieg” looked like.

Where can I buy it: Direct, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Ultimate General: Gettysburg is a similarly tricky and yet accessible historical wargame, as is Commander: The Great War, covering WWI.

Read more: Our review – Kieron is a shit Nazi

Armchair General interview about Unity of Command’s AI

21: StarCraft II (2010)

Developer: Blizzard Entertainment

Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment

StarCraft II is the Platonic ideal of the micro-heavy multiplayer RTS game. Watching expert players at work is bewildering, as the clicks per minute rise and the whole game falls into strange and sometimes unreadable patterns. According to the StarCraft Wiki, a proficient player can perform approximately 150 productive actions per minute.

“Oh bother”, you might be thinking, “I usually only click my mouse 150 times a year unless I’m photoshopping bees onto a picture of a politician’s face.” Fear not. StarCraft II may be included here because it has perfected an artform that only a dedicated few can truly appreciate, but its campaigns contain a bold variety of missions, and bucketloads of enjoyably daft lore. The upcoming Legacy of the Void expansion’s Archon mode even offers two-player coop, so you can share all of those actions per minute with a chum.

Notes: StarCraft: Brood War was one of the foundational games in the rise of esports to prominence and the sequel continues to attract television audiences, huge prize pools and high-level professional players.

Where can I buy it: Blizzard.

What else should I be playing: Grey Goo is a fine recent example of the multi-faction asymmetrical RTS formula that StarCraft II plays with. Alternatively, the Command & Conquer series offers a wealth of traditional real-time strategy, ranging from tecno-camp to full-on sci-fi silliness.

Read more: We go hands-on with upcoming expansion Legacy of the Void

Our verdict

20: Men of War (2009)

Developer: Best Way / Digitalmindsoft

Publisher: 1C Company

The top twenty. Daley Thompson’s Double Decathlon, as its known at Games Journalism Academy. To break into the big two-oh a game needs to offer something truly spectacular and in the case of our first entry, it isn’t difficult to pinpoint precisely what that “something” is.

Men of War is a real-time tactics game that simulates every aspect of the battlefield, from the components of each vehicle to the individual hats on your soldiers’ heads. The hats are not a gimmick. Best Way have built a full scale real-time tactical game that simulates its world down to the smallest details.

If you’ve ever played an RPG and scowled when a giant rat’s inventory reveals that it had a pair of leather trousers and a two-handed sword secured beneath its tail, Men of War will be enormously pleasing. Ammunition, weaponry and clothing are all persistent objects in the world – if you need an extra clip for your gun, you’ll have to find it in the world rather than waiting for a random loot drop. If you need backup, or replacements for fallen men (of war), you’ll be able to find them in friendly squads who exist as actual entities on the map rather than as abstract numbers in a sidebar.

The credibility of the world isn’t window-dressing. All of that simulation serves a greater purpose, allowing for desperate vehicle captures, as a seemingly doomed squad realises that they might be able to commandeer the Panzer they took out moments ago, patch it up and continue to fight the good fight.

Despite the brutal difficulty – which goes hand in hand with the occasionally punishing micromanagement required – there’s always hope in Men of War. Or, if not hope, the understanding that the game’s world, unlike war, makes a certain amount of sense, and that every predicament has root causes in the simulation itself.

Notes: Beginning a tradition of perfunctory titles that continued with Faces of War and Men of War, Best Way’s first title was Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. It’s a real-time tactics title that lays down the foundations for the Men of War games.

Where can I buy it: Gamersgate, Steam.

What else should I be playing: There are several Men of War spin-offs/sequels, including the excellent Assault Squad.

Read more: Our review

An interview with Chris Kramer, MD of Digitalmindsoft, co-developers of Men of War

Men of War: Step by Steppe.

19: Panzer Corps (2011)

Developer: Flashback Games / The Lordz Game Studio

Publisher: Slitherine

From Men of War’s micromanagement to the grand splendour of Panzer Corps. Slitherine’s remake of Strategic Simulations’ Panzer General is just about as accessible a hex-based military wargame as you’ll ever see. If Unity of Command is the gateway, Panzer General is the mansion.

The sheer amount of STUFF in Panzer Corps (800 unit types with 20 parameters to define them, Grand Campaign DLC that covers the entire war across 150 scenarios) might lead the wary to believe that the game requires an intimate knowledge of the rivets and bolts on every class of tank, or the ability to explain the strategic importance and consequences of the Mönchengladbach allied bombing campaign without reference to notes. That’s not the case.

Panzer Corps targets players’ intelligence rather than their knowledge, and works to encourage and reward smart tactical approaches and a basic understanding of operational strategy. Everything you need to know to make a decision is readily at hand in the unobtrusive and helpful interface, and within a couple of hours, you’ll be ready to take the stabiliser wheels off your tanks and start cooking up some experimental plans of your own.

Panzer Corps is the Lego set next to Gary Grigsby’s Meccano, and that’s absolutely fine. Who doesn’t want to play with Lego every once in a while?

Notes: Lgeneral is an open source, freeware strategy engine based on the original Panzer General. Originally available for Linux, it has now been ported to other platforms, including Windows.

Where can I buy it: Slitherine, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Panzer Corps is a spiritual successor to Panzer General, which had its own swords and spells spin-off in the form of Fantasy General. Warhammer 40,000: Armageddon brings Orks and Space Marines to the Panzer Corps engine.

Read more: In this case, listen more. The excellent Three Moves Ahead podcast gathers a fine staff to discuss Panzer General

18: Company of Heroes (2006)

Developer: Relic Entertainment

Publisher: THQ / Sega

Company of Heroes made World War II seem like new territory. Complaining that one the most significant historical events of the twentieth century are old hat seems borderline offensive, but has anyone who has ever watched The History Channel or played a computer game in the early twenty-first century will tell you, World War II WAS old hat. On the television you could choose between Hitler’s Last Days, Hitler’s Children, Hitler’s Gold and Hitler’s Breakfast. In computer games, you were going to see a whole lot of occupied France, although there only seemed to be three parts TO see: THAT beach, a sleepy village and a sniper in a clocktower.

As the name suggests, Company of Heroes managed to marry the humanity of Band of Brothers with the ingredients of an RTS. Even as you send fresh troops into battle, replacing a squad who just died on a fool’s errand of your own making, Company of Heroes makes you believe that every soldier counts for something. That’s partly due to the detailed depictions that the Essence Engine make possible, but it’s also down to the careful pacing of the missions.

Has any RTS game handled both the calm and the storm as well as Company of Heroes? Even when combat begins, there’s usually a peppering of shots toward cover before casualties occur, and Relic ensure that you have time to react as a situation develops. Even though those soldiers are just pixels on a screen, don’t be surprised if you find yourself making tactical choices that ensure their survival rather than the quickest possible route to success.

Notes: The custom-built Essence Engine was the most advanced graphical engine utilised in an RTS at the time of release, and was later revamped for use in Relic’s Dawn of War II and Company of Heroes 2.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: Company of Heroes 2 depicts the Eastern Front and, while a commendable sequel, it doesn’t quite recapture the brilliance of the original. For an entirely different tactical take on small-scale WWII combat, consider Men of War or the squad-based alternate history of Silent Storm.

Read more: Alec reviews the Opposing Fronts standalone expansion over at Eurogamer

Our interview with game director Quinn Duffy

Our first look at the sequel

17: Neptune’s Pride (2010)

Developer: Iron Helmet Games

Publisher: Iron Helmet Games

Sometimes, particularly with a multiplayer game like Neptune’s Pride, the stories that emerge from a play session are the best form of criticism. If you had to describe Neptune’s Pride in a few words, it’d sound like almost any other game of galactic conquest. Planets and ships can be upgraded, and, as ever, you’ll be trying to gather as much science, industry and money as possible. Simple.

The twist in this particular tale is the speed of the game – or, perhaps, the distances involved. Sending a fleet to explore, invade or intercept takes hours. There’s no way to speed up the passage of time so what to do while waiting?

In 2015, five years after the great RPS-PCG Neptune’s Pride war, those long waiting periods have become much more common in gaming You might associate them with freemium games that allow you to buy gems (why is it always gems?) to hurry the process along. Neptune’s Pride is not one of those games.

Most of the game takes place in the gaps between orders, as alliances are forged, promises are made and backs are stabbed. Due to the long-form nature of a campaign, Neptune’s Pride will live with you, needling at the back of your mind, and you’ll find yourself switching strategies in the anxious early hours of the morning, betraying friends and playing into the hands of your enemies.

Notes: Lead designer Jay Kyburz worked at Irrational Games, contributing to Freedom Force, the original Bioshock and SWAT 4. Has Irrational been a one-time home to more independent developers than any other studio?

Where can I buy it: You can play for free in your browser.

What else should I be playing: …Neptune’s Pride 2? Or why not just dig into Iron Helmet’s catalogue – there’s cooperative play in Blight of the Immortals and another competitive long-form sci-fi game in Jupiter’s Folly.

Read more: The greatest after-action report ever recorded on these pages

Our interview with Iron Helmet

16: Total War: Warhammer (2016)

Developer: The Creative Assembly

Publisher: Sega

Creative Assembly’s Total War series delivers ludicrously impressive tactical battles, along with empire-building at the strategic level. Previously, we’d always considered the series best to be the entries when it manages to bring its blockbuster vision of a given historical era to the screen without losing track of the fundamentals of its design. The bloat of Rome II, even in its much-improved Emperor Edition, is out then, and on our previous list we included Shogun 2.

That remains the high mark when it comes to historical interpretation. The contained setting, reduced unit count and shared goal of every faction worked in the game’s favour, retaining the freedom of the strategic map but providing a tight focus that places the development of strategies and battle tactics front and centre. It makes me hope that the next era tackled will be home to a similarly self-contained conflict – American Civil War anyone?

For our entry on this list, we’re stepping outside history though, or at least the history of the real world. Total War: Warhammer is the first game in the series to tackle a fictional setting and Games Workshop’s fantasy world of brutal orcs and grudge-bearing dwarves is a perfect fit for the map-conquering, and makes the tactical battles more colourful, cunning and spectacular than ever. It’s the differences between the factions that make the game really shine, affecting both combat and the over-arching story of your campaign, and strong as it was at launch, Total Warhammer is likely to be even better a couple of years down the line.

The series’ long-standing struggles with AI haven’t been entirely eradicated, but the character of the Warhammer Fantasy world works fantastically with a lightly tweaked version of the traditional Total War toolset. As long as the introduction of more factions doesn’t lead to distracting complications, Warhammer may reign supreme for a long time to come.

Notes: Creative Assembly have already said that their next historical Total War will tackle an era they’ve never covered before. The studio is also responsible for the superb (and entirely different) Alien Isolation.

Where can I buy it: Humble Bundle, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Shogun II: Total War and Rome: Total War are the best alternatives, both in terms of the period covered and the quality of the game.

Read more: Our review

Insights into the new Wood Elves faction.

Best Total Warhammer mods.

15: Solium Infernum (2009)

Developer: Cryptic Comet

Publisher: Cryptic Comet

A strategy game inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost, Solium Infernum takes place in Hell, where six archfiends are locked in a struggle for power and prestige. Although it can be played against AI characters, Infernum is much more enjoyable if you can manage to drag at least one human friend into the fiery depths with you because diplomacy is key. Other keys include bluffs, desperate pleas and cruel deceptions.

It’s OK to lie to your friends becase you’re roleplaying an archfiend, remember? Nasty behaviour is required. It’s proof of total immersion in Hell strategy.

As with iron fists in velvet glove, archfiends hide their nastiness behind a veneer of politeness, a rigid aristocratic code of honour. As you attempt to navigate that code, you’ll find your plans evolving and your strategies in conflict with one another. The design of the game forces long-term planning but the actions of your opponents can interrupt and defy even short-term goals, leading to elaborate stories that take place in the code, on the screen, and in the conversations between participants.

Like Neptune’s Pride, Solium Infernum is a game that takes place in the judgements of character and intent between turns more so than in any direct conflict.

Notes: Designer Victor J Davis is moving away from computer games and applying his talents elsewhere: “I’ve been selling computer games for over 7 years and it’s been a great ride.  Selling games directly from this website has been an increasingly difficult task. My programming skills are so tied to an aging and abandoned development platform that making even a niche title like my previous games is a dubious proposition at best.  So I’m leaving the digital space and moving over to the card board arena where I hope my design skills can shine. “

Where can I buy it: Direct from Cryptic Comet.

What else should I be playing: Stick with Cryptic Comet and try post-apocalyptic strategy in Armageddon Empires, Lovecraftian RPG strategy in Occult Chronicles and Six Gun Saga, a Wild West themed digital card game. If you want to stay in Hell, there’s always Lucasarts oddity, Afterlife.

Read more: The complete RPS Battle for Hell saga

Our hands-on

Our interview

14: Dominions IV (2013)

Developer: Illwinter Game Design

Publisher: Illwinter Game Design

From archfiends to gods. Wannabe gods. Pretenders.

Dominions IV, like Solium Infernum, can be offputting at first. It has a complicated ruleset that takes a few playthroughs or a determined study of the monstrous manual to understand, and even when a session begins, following the flow of action can be difficult. That’s despite the game being separated into tidy turns, with distinct sets of instructions to put into action. There are cities to build, victory points to secure and armies to move around the randomly generated maps.

That tricksy rulest, along with a combination of graphics that are functional at best and a demanding interface, can make the basics hard to grasp. Or perhaps it’s that there are no basics. Dominions is a deep game and inexperienced players can lose before the first turn, by creating a pretender god with a confusing and contradictory set of abilities.

Break through the hard crust, however, and there are rich veins to tap into. The clash of deities isn’t a reskin of monarchs or emperors at war – there are disciples to nurture, totems to worship and all manner of nations that can be subject to the whims of the possibly-tentacled pretenders. As we said in our review: “This is a game in which Zeus can punch Cthulhu in the face and an immortal lich king can reanimate his fallen bodyguard to create a dread army, more powerful than the mortal flesh that the enemy so foolishly flayed from moon-white bones.”

Notes: The War of the Ring boardgame was one of the key inspirations for the new features added to Dominions IV.

Where can I buy it: Steam, Desura.

What else should I be playing: Few games are as extraordinarily complex and varied as Dominions IV but Illwinter’s own Conquest of Elysium 3 offers a similarly rich experience, in slightly more accessible form.

Read more: Our review

13: Distant Worlds: Universe (2014)

Developer: Code Force

Publisher: Matrix Games

By allowing the player to hand over the reigns of responsibility, Distant Worlds makes everything possible. It’s space strategy on a grand scale that mimics the realities of rule better than almost any other game in existence. And it does that through the simple act of delegation.

Rather than insisting that you handle the build queues, ship designs and military actions throughout your potentially vast domain, Distant Worlds allows you to automate any part of the process. If you’d like to sit back and watch, you can automate everything, from individual scout ships to colonisation and tourism. If you’re military-minded, let the computer handle the economy and pop on your admiral’s stripes.

As well as allowing the game to operate on an absurd scale without demanding too much from the player in the way of micromanagement, Distant Worlds’ automation also peels back the layers to reveal the working of the machine. It’s a game with an enormous amount of possibilities and by allowing you to play with the cogs, it manages to convince that all of those possibilities work out just as they should.

Notes: The Universe release of Distant Worlds is a compilation of all previous expansions along with the base game and robust modding support.

Where can I buy it: Matrix, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Space Rangers 2: Dominators is a strategic RPG set within a similar living universe.

Read more: Our review

12: XCOM 2 (2016)

Developer: Firaxis Games

Publisher: 2K Games

Firaxis’ remake of UFO: Enemy Unknown is one of the most important games released in the lifetime of RPS, and the sequel is enough of a step forward to claim its place on this list. Julian Gollop’s 1994 strategy masterpiece is one of the games that made us, a perfect meeting of theme and mechanics that is still capable of inspiring breathless enthusiastic outbursts and the kind of meandering strolls down memory lane normally associated with a long lost friend.

When XCOM: Enemy Unknown was announced, the very idea of a remake seemed simultaneously inevitable, exhilarating and doomed to failure. Even it if it could match up to the original game, or prove itself worthy to live alongside it, how could it surpass the memories and the meaning that were part and parcel of X-COM?

That it succeeded is preposterous. Joyously, brilliantly preposterous. Some of the criticisms levelled at Firaxis’ first invasion are swatted aside by the sequel, which takes the bold step of reimagining the reimagining. Rather than simply giving us more of the same, Solomon and his team rewrote the playbook, inventing a scenario in which the XCOM organisation has been forced to fight a guerilla war against a global government controlled by the invaders from the first game.

Yes, it’s a sequel in which the canonical ending of the first game is failure. That seems fair enough, considering everyone lost more games of XCOM than they won. Bringing back random maps and introducing a greater sense of that fear of the unknown that was such an integral part of Gollop’s original, XCOM 2 is a tactical masterclass that improves on its predecessor’s brilliant b-movie aesthetic and creates a beautiful, broken world that is well worth the effort it takes to save. Maybe next time our hard-earned victories will carry over into the sequel, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Notes: There had already been an attempt to remake X-COM – original designer Julian Gollop’s The Dreamland Chronicles: Freedom Ridge was announced in 2000 but cancelled by 2001.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: There are other X-COM games, as you may know, but why not try something different? Valkyria Chronicles is a tactical game with some similarities to Firaxis’ remake.

Read more:

Our review.

A look back at the game months after release, with DLC and mods in place.

A diary. Yes, we’re all doomed. Again.

Our review of XCOM: Enemy Unknown

The Long War mod

Our Enemy Within review

Our Enemy Within interview

Our post-mortem with lead designer Jake Solomon

Another rather large interview with Solomon

Our diary – the death of RPS

11: Invisible, Inc. (2015)

Developer: Klei Entertainment

Publisher: Klei Entertainment

Three years ago, claiming that Mark of the Ninja was anything other than Klei’s masterpiece would have been considered rude at best. That the studio have created an even more inventive, intelligent and enjoyable game already seems preposterous, but Invisible, Inc. is exactly that. And, splendidly, Invisible, Inc. is one of the greatest tactical games ever made, its focus on just a few controllable units making for scenes of incredible tension. It’s the kind of game where you throw your hands in the air at the start of a turn, convinced that all is lost, and map out a perfect plan ten minutes later. And then realise you haven’t taken a breath since the turn started.

The reinvention of the familiar sneaking and stealing genre as a game of turn-based tactics deserves a medal for outstanding bravery, and Invisible, Inc. might well be the best wholly original turn-based game released in a decade.

Everything from the brief campaign structure to the heavily customizable playstyles has been designed to encourage experimentation as well as creating the aforementioned tension. Like Mark of the Ninja, this is a game that believes that information is power, and the screen will tell you everything you need to know to survive. And then you’ll die, again and again because you didn’t think three or four moves ahead. Between turns, you’re likely to pace and scratch your head as if playing a Chess tournament at the highest levels. The genius of Invisible, Inc. is that it creates such drama and tension within infinite procedural environments, which adjust themselves according to your personal desires. Fancy limiting guards’ patrol patterns to make life easier? There’s an option for that. How about slowing the security systems that come online the longer you’re on-site? It’s possible.

Invisible, Inc. is a classic that we’ll be talking and writing about for years to come.

Notes: Revealed under the working title Incognita – retained as the name of the in-game AI – Klei switched the title to Invisible, Inc. when people responded to the punning name in focus testing. A rare example of a clear focus testing triumph.

Read more: The marvel of Invisible, Inc.’s rewind button, Our Verdict, Our Review.

Where can I buy it: Direct from the developer or Steam.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Mark of the Ninja, which is both precursor and prototype for Invisible, Inc., while being a marvelous game with its own style and mechanics.

10: Jagged Alliance 2 (1999)

Developer: Sir-Tech Canada

Publisher: TalonSoft

It’s incredible to think that nobody has taken Jagged Alliance 2 on, face to face, and come out on top. There are other games with a strategic layer and turn-based tactical combat, sure, and there are plenty of games that treat mercenaries, guns and ammo in an almost fetishistic fashion – but is Jagged Alliance 2 still the best of its kind?

Doubts creep in every once in a while and, inevitably, that leads to a swift reinstallation and several days lost in the war for Arulco. Jagged Alliance 2 IS still in a class of its own and despite the years spend in its company, it’s hard to articulate the reasons why it has endured. The satisfaction of gaining territory in the slow creep across the map is one reason and the tension of the tactical combat is another. Even the inventory management feels just right, making every squad the equivalent of an RPG’s party of adventurers.

But it’s the character of the squad members that seals the deal. It’d be easy to dismiss them as a cluster of bad jokes and stereotypes, but each has enough personality to hang a hundred stories on – remember the time Fox bandaged Grunty’s wounds in the thick of a firefight a turn before he bled out, or the time Sparky made an uncharacteristically good shot and saved an entire squad’s bacon? If you don’t, go play Jagged Alliance 2 and make some memories.

Notes: The Jagged Alliance 2 v1.13 mod is one of the greatest examples of post-developer support. It’s a huge community-built expansion of the base game’s concepts and content that continues to receive updates fifteen years after the initial release.

Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG.

What else should I be playing: The first Jagged Alliance has its charms but Silent Storm might be the closest thing to a true spiritual successor. Avoid any sequel, remake or spin-off after the second game.

Read more: Our look at the 1.13 megamod

Our review of the disappointing Jagged Alliance: Back in Action

9: Homeworld Remastered (1999/2015)

Developer: Relic/Gearbox

Publisher: Gearbox

Has a game ever captured the splendour and loneliness of space better? You could make an argument for the Elites and EVEs of the world, but Homeworld is at least worthy to drift alongside them in the laser leagues.

Aesthetically, Relic’s duo of sci-fi RTS games are splendid. Rather than the Imperial March and pulpy bombast of Star Wars, Homeworld aims for the awesome and sublime, with a melancholy streak, backed by Paul Ruskay’s ambient score and Samuel Barber’s Agnus Dei. There are huge lightshows to observe, as fleets clash against the backdrop of infinity, but Homeworld is about the journey as well as the fights along the way.

The minimalist interface seems designed not only as a functional design choice but as a way of leaving as much of the vision revealed as possible at all times. Each mission is a step – larger than any mankind has ever taken – and they are constructed to communicate the interconnected nature of the locations and events. The missions themselves achieve a form of tactical purity – cut loose in three dimensions, and mostly free of anything resembling terrain and cover, your ships rely on your judgement above all else.

Notes: Gearbox bought the rights to Homeworld during an auction following previous holder THQ’s bankruptcy.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

What else should I be playing: Blendo Games’ Flotilla provides an entirely different take on fleet combat.

Read more: Our review of the remastered collection

Our interview with Gearbox regarding the remastered collection

Our interview with composer Paul Ruskay

8: Endless Legend (2014)

Developer: Amplitude Studios

Publisher: Iceberg Interactive

Amplitude only seem to have been around for five minutes and here they are in the top ten. The studio’s first release, Endless Space, was promising but seeing that promise fulfilled so quickly was one of 2014’s most pleasant surprises.

Along with unusual and inventive worldbuilding, blending fantasy with sci-fi and delivered through beautiful art, Endless Legend takes a novel approach to 4X traditions. As well as rethinking the basic rules of expansion, upgrading and exploration, there’s a built-in apocalypse timer in every game, as the planet’s climate changes, plunging every faction into crisis.

It’s the factions themselves that elevate Endless Legend above the competition though. Having rewritten parts of the rulebook, Amplitude add a couple of extra chapters with each faction. There are the Cultists, who cannot build new cities but work to convert minor factions to their cause, the Necrophages who devour minor factions and cannot indulge in diplomacy, and six others, all with unique properties. Playing a new faction is like playing a distinct and expansion of the base game, and with solid post-release support, Endless Legend is improving all the time.

Notes: The Endless trilogy, containing Endless Legend, Endless Space and Dungeon of the Endless, forms a complete narrative involving planetfall, apocalypse, expansion, precursor races and the power of the ever-present Dust.

Where can I buy it: Direct from Amplitude, Steam

What else should I be playing: The other Endless games are definitely worth a look, particularly Dungeon of the Endless, which is a rogulike tower defense thing unlike anything else available. When At The Gates releases its depiction of migratory tribes might offer a similarly novel approach to 4X strategy.

Read more: Our 2014 Game of the Year Award went to Endless Legend

Our 2014 Best 4X Award also went to Endless Legend

Our review

7: Europa Universalis IV (2013)

Developer: Paradox Development Studio

Publisher: Paradox Interactive

Europa Universalis IV is far better now than it was at release, and far better even than it was when we put it in eleventh place on last year’s list. Over the years, Paradox had started to develop a reputation for launching games that required strong post-release support. Even though that’s no longer the case and the internal development studio’s teams are now in impeccable condition on day one, the strong post-release support continues. Now it’s in the form of free patches and paid-for expansions.

The Europa series feels like the tentpole at the centre of Paradox’s grand strategy catalogue. Covering the period from 1444 to 1821, it allows players to control almost any nation in the world, and then leaves them to create history. A huge amount of the appeal stems from the freedom – EU IV is a strategic sandbox, in which experimenting with alternate histories is just as (if not more) entertaining than attempting to pursue any kind of victory. Not that there is such a thing as a hardcoded victory.

Providing the player with freedom is just one part of the Paradox philosophy though. EU IV is also concerned with delivering a believable world, whether that’s in terms of historical factors or convincing mechanics. With a host of excellent expansions and an enormous base game as its foundation, this IS one of the most credible and fascinating worlds in gaming.

Notes: The MEIOU and Taxes mod makes this grandest of strategy games even grander, adding hundreds of provinces and nations, and reworking major and minor systems.

Where can I buy it: Direct, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Paradox’s grand strategy games are in a league of their own – a Crusader Kings 2 campaign, with a transferable save game for your next attempt at EU IV is recommended, or head back to ancient times with Europa Unversalis: Rome (while wondering if there will ever be a sequel), or the grim darkness of the twentieth century with Hearts of Iron III.

Read more:

A profile of Paradox

A Conquest of Paradise expansion interview

Our review

A multiplayer diary

6: UFO: Enemy Unknown (1994)

Developer: Mythos Games

Publisher: MicroProse

Julian Gollop’s masterpiece endures and not just because we’re drunk on nostalgia.

Revisiting the game now, particularly in light of the excellent Firaxis remake, can be a sobering experience. Why is it possible to send soldiers into battle without a weapon? Wouldn’t they think to grab a handful of ammo and a rifle before suiting up and clambering onto the Skyranger? And, come to think of it, why does X-COM, the planet’s last hope, have to buy basic equipment? Why is the interface so unfriendly to newcomers? Why why why why why?

UFO is riddled with irritations. It’s occasionally counter-intuitive, one major bug was never officially patched and That One Last Sectoid on a map will never cease to be an annoyance. But in the thick of a terror mission, with chrysalids seeming to pour out of the walls, or in those last hours when you finally seem capable of taking the fight to the aliens, there’s nothing else quite like X-COM. Not even XCOM.

Notes: Julian Gollop’s latest game, Chaos Reborn, is a remake of one of his earliest creations., 1985’s Chaos: The Battle of Wizards.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

What else should I be playing: Xenonauts is an unlicensed remake that hews far closer to the original than Firaxis’ reinvention. Official sequel Terror From the Deep is more of the same, with the difficulty increased and the Lovecraftian depths plumbed. The third entry in the series, 1997’s X-COM Apocalypse, shifts the action to a single city and was (and perhaps still is) far ahead of its time.

Read more: Alex explains “Why X-COM Matters (To Me)”

5: King of Dragon Pass (1999)

Developer: A Sharp, LLC

Publisher: A Sharp, LLC

King of Dragon Pass is a strategy game that fell into our current timeline from another dimension. There are very few games that seem to have spawned no imitators, or that appear to have been drawn from whole cloth. If you were to pick at King of Dragon Pass, you’d find threads that led elsewhere, but this game of tribal leadership is almost entirely unique.

Fundamentally, it’s a game about decisions. You’ll choose how to spend time and resources, and you’ll invent a history for your tribe. However, every decision appears to change the world and your own story, with consequences sometimes spinning out over years, leading to new decisions and events that are often unexpected but always comprehensible within the carefully simulated reality of the game. There are moral choices, military choices, economic choices, personal choices, spiritual choices – there are advisors to assist with those choices. They bicker, they exert influence, they age, they die. Everything in the game is utterly convincing and even years after release, the possibilities seem endless.

King of Dragon Pass is so complex and complete, and yet so staggeringly different to any other game on this list, that it might have been made by aliens. It doesn’t resemble any other strategy game, it doesn’t play like any other strategy game and it’s never been copied. Nobody else would know where to begin.

Notes: Members of the original team are now working on a spiritual successor, Six Ages.

Where can I buy it: GOG, direct (mobile and tablet versions).

What else should I be playing: https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2014/10/17/king-of-dragon-pass-retro/

Read more: Remembering King of Dragon Pass

4: Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance (2007)

Developer: Gas Powered Games

Publisher: THQ

In the beginning, there was Total Annihilation. The beginning, in this instance, is 1997, the year that Duke Nukem Forever went into production. Cavedog’s RTS went large, weaving enormous sci-fi battles and base-building around a central Commander unit that is the mechanical heart of the player’s army.

Supreme Commander followed ten years later. Total Annihilation designer Chris Taylor was at the helm for the spiritual successor and decided there was only one way to go. Larger. As Graham wrote when asking our readers if they’d played Supreme Commander’s standalone expansion Forged Alliance, initially it’s the scale that impresses. Starting units are soon (literally) lost in the shadow of enormous spiderbots as orbital lasers chew the battlefield to pieces.

Spectacle alone wouldn’t make Supreme Commander the greatest RTS ever released, however, and there’s plenty of strategic depth behind the blockbuster bot battles. It’s a game in which the best players form their own flexible end-goals rather than simply rushing to the top of the ladder. Yes, there’s a drive toward bigger and better units, but the routes to victory are many – some involve amphibious tanks, others involve enormous experimental assault bots and their ghostly residual energy signatures.

Notes: Forged Alliance is a standalone expansion that bolsters the base game with loads of extra units, an entirely new faction, new maps and a new singleplayer campaign. It’s a better sequel than the actual sequel.

Where can I buy it: Steam, Gamersgate.

What else should I be playing: Nothing else matches the scale of Supreme Commander but if it leaves you wanting more, go back to Total Annihilation rather than forward to Supreme Commander 2. And while it’s an entirely different proposition, MechCommander 2 is jolly good fun and has a mech…and a commander.

Read more: Our Chris Taylor interview

Have you played…Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance

Supreme Commander 2’s Revamp Expansion Mod

3: Crusader Kings II (2012)

Developer: Paradox Development Studio

Publisher: Paradox Interactive

Paradox’s finest game is the ultimate strategy-RPG. Set in the Middle Ages, covering 1066-1453 (extended to a 769 start date through post-release expansions), Crusader Kings II simulates dynasties rather than nations, or realms. That means you’ll be playing as an individual rather than the abstracted form of an immortal ruler. It means your character will age and die, to be replaced by an heir, and it means you’ll often spend more of your time dealing with family matters than with conquest and glory.

Famous as an engine for stories, Crusader Kings II is the game that most closely resembles Game of Thrones or, for that matter, actual medieval history. Popes are overthrown, unwanted children vanish into the tower never to be seen again…incest occurs. It’s a particularly violent soap opera that’s almost as much fun to watch and read about as it is to play with.

It’s also a wonderful grand strategy game. With all the attention that is (rightfully) spent on the storytelling and alternate histories, the cold hard mechanics of Crusader Kings are sometimes overlooked. Underneath the character-based dramas, tragedy and comedies that play out, there are superb and unusual military strategies to unpick, as well as the great and complex game of diplomacy and hierarchical struggle.

Notes: The frequently updated Game of Thrones mod is likely to be the best Game of Thrones game unless Paradox decide to negotiate the license themselves. That’s not out of the question.

Where can I buy it: Direct from Paradox, Steam.

What else should I be playing: Sengoku is another Paradox title that feels like a test-run for Crusader Kings II, in the titular period. The closet game in terms of character-based strategy is probably King of Dragon Pass, which you can find on this page. Powermonger is an early example of character-based strategy, with individual people to observe and mourn.

Read more: Our review

Our Passage of India expansion interview

Our look at Crusader Kings 2 in 2013

Our Sword of Islam expansion interview

2: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999)

Developer: Firaxis Games

Publisher: Electronic Arts

After Earth, the stars. The recent release of the disappointing Civilization: Beyond Earth has only served to improved Alpha Centauri’s stock. The name on the tin might be Sid Meier but Brian Reynolds was lead designer on the game, working alongside Meier and others. Having taken lead on Civilization II, Reynolds left MicroProse and founded Firaxis, along with Meier and designer/composer Jeff Briggs. Their first project at their new company was a sequel to Civilization – not a numbered sequel, but a true follow-up.

Charting the colonization of a new planet, Alpha Centauri is not only one of the greatest 4X strategy games in existence, it’s also one of the greatest sci-fi games. No game before or since has managed to construct such a strong authored narrative that takes place between and behind the turn-by-turn systems at play. You walk away from Alpha Centauri feeling that there’s space for a trilogy of films, five seasons of television and a stack of books in the things it leaves unsaid, but also know that those things aren’t necessary. It is a complete thing, and several grades above the usual space opera hokum.

It could have been a reskin – Civilization III in all but name – but Alpha Centauri radically rethinks the basic building blocks of 4X gaming, beginning with the planet itself. Discarding the idea of terrain types, Firaxis created a procedural system that mapped countours and climate to create believable hills and valleys, along with the water that flows across them. As the game continues, seems that the process of colonising is a reversal of Civilization, in which fertile plains become industrial scars. You are creating a paradise rather than working one into destruction, or so it seems. Of course, that’s not the whole story. There was already life on this ‘new’ planet, after all, and there’s still life in Alpha Centauri and will be for decades to come.

Notes: The story carries the influence of many science fiction authors, including Greg Bear, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Kim Stanley Robinson and Vernor Vinge.

Where can I buy it: GOG.

What else should I be playing: Stellaris is the next hot contender to the sci-fi 4X throne, though it’s galactic empires are on a different scale to Alpha Centauri.

Read more: Our Alpha Centauri retrospective

Our Beyond Earth verdict

Our interview with Firaxis about Beyond Earth and Alpha Centauri

1: Sid Meier’s Civilization IV (2005)

Developer: Firaxis Games

Publisher: 2K Games

Flappy-handed British film critic Mark Kermode will sometimes dismiss a new release by flippantly comparing it to 2001: A Space Odyssey. To paraphrase: “It takes three hours of your time to show you the drab dissolution of a middle class marriage in Kensington. 2001 manages to take you from the dawn of humanity to the space age and beyond in two and a half.”

Civilization IV only touches on the space age in its closing stages – you’ll need to refer to the previous entry on the list for more of that – but it packs over six thousand years of social, technological and military development into every playthrough. Unless one of your neighbours cuts your time short, that is.

The timeframe alone isn’t enough, of course, it’s what Civilization does within it that counts. In the fourth official entry in the series, Firaxis created a 4X game that still seems to overflow with possibilities. The days of forcing players toward a simple military conquest victory were long gone but the series has never felt as open to personal choice as it did in the complete form of its fourth iteration. While Civilization V is a fine game in its own right, its predecessor is more challenging and altogether more comfortable filling that extraordinary timeframe with interesting decisions and dilemmas.

While not as bold or inventive as Alpha Centauri, Civilization is both the cornerstone of 4X strategy gaming and an evolving entity within the genre. It’s setting rarely allows it to devolve into a simple arms race and despite the wars and horrors that are an essential part of its history, there’s a hopeful, humanist core at the heart of Civilization.

Although the very basis of the game relies on the idea of nations in competition with one another, there’s an undercurrent of celebration. “Look at everything that has happened. Look at everything that will happen.” There are hundreds of thousands of people who have grown up with Civilization, absorbing the ideas illuminated by the tech tree, and then digging deeper into the Civilopedia. It’s a game that leaves a mark on almost everyone who plays it, whether inspiring an interest in history or game design. Across its many versions, it’s almost certainly one of the first games that many strategy fans play, and for many it’ll probably be the last as well. Because they return and because they never really leave it behind.

Accessible in both its setting and rules, Civilization IV is a game for everybody and still the best of a series that has rarely disappointed. It depicts conflict, but it also depicts progress and millennia of cultural wonders, and the whole experience is masterfuly narrated by Leonard Nimoy – still (sorry, Mr Bean) the perfect voice of Civilization.

Notes: The title theme, Baba Yetu, was composed by Christopher Tin, a former roommate of Civ IV lead designer Soren Johnson. It’s a Swahili-language rendition of the Lord’s Prayer and the first computer game theme to receive a Grammy nomination.

Where can I buy it: Steam, Gamersgate.

What else should I be playing: Civilization VI is a fine game and builds intelligently on the foundations of Civ V, which was a very different game to IV. With a couple of good expansions and updates, it might even dethrone its predecessor one day. For a completely different strategy experience, check out lead designer Soren Johnson’s Offworld Trading Company, which appears earlier on this list.

Read more: Kieron reviews Civilization IV

Our Civilization VI review

Our review of Civ V’s latest expansion

Our review of the previous expansion

Our review of Civ V at release

Our Offworld Trading Company interview and early impressions

Postscript

What about those X-COM and XCOM rankings, eh? What about the lack of any Command & Conquer whatsoever? What about King of Dragon Pass squeaking into the top five. There’s plenty to debate and discuss, and the RPS hivemind doesn’t always agree with itself. Something to do with misaligned nodes and a cup of tea that we spilled on the mainframe.

Even if you disagree with the specific rankings – and it’d be peculiar if you didn’t disagree with at least one of them – hopefully you’ll find this a useful compilation of the best that strategy gaming has to offer. Diverse in playstyle, difficulty, mechanics and setting, it might well be the richest genre in all of Gamesdom, and this list is as much a celebration of that as an attempt to make games fight one another. If you’re wondering about Honourable Mentions, check the “What else should I be playing” entries for each game. There’s plenty more to discover.

The complete list is below – but first, some observations about what has changed since last year’s list. There are the ten games that are new to the list, though they’re not all ‘new’ in the sense that they hadn’t been released when we drew up our first top 50. Imperialism 2, in particular, was released in 1999, sixteen years before our original list was published.

XCOM 2 is the highest ranked game of 2016, though it is replacing its predecessor rather than taking a spot of its own. We don’t include multiple entries from the same series, which meant either XCOM: Enemy Unknown stayed and kept the sequel off the list entirely, or XCOM 2 was considered enough of an improvement to represent both games.

Invisible, Inc., Klei’s superb tactical infiltration game, is the highest ranked new original game, and it joins Darkest Dungeon, Offworld Trading Company and Prison Architect as the only non-sequels to make a first appearance.

The Complete List

1 Civilization IV
2 Alpha Centauri
3 Crusader Kings II
4 Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
5 King of Dragon Pass
6 UFO: Enemy Unknown
7 Europa Universalis IV
8 Endless Legend
9 Homeworld
10 Jagged Alliance II
11 Invisible, Inc. [new entry]
12 XCOM 2
13 Distant Worlds: Universe
14 Dominions IV
15 Solium Infernum
16 Total War: Warhammer [new entry]
17 Neptune’s Pride
18 Company of Heroes
19 Panzer Corps
20 Men of War
21 StarCraft II
22 Unity of Command
23 DEFCON
24 Galactic Civilzations 2
25 AI War
26 Dwarf Fortress
27 Gary Grigsby’s War in the East
28 Rise of Nations
29 Warhammer 40K: Dawn of War
30 Wargame: AirLand Battle
31 Championship Manager: Season 01/02
32 Startopia
33 Cities: Skylines [new entry]
34 Warcraft III
35 Age of Wonders II
36 The Banner Saga 2 [new entry]
37 Prison Architect [new entry]
38 Frozen Synapse
39 Heroes of Might and Magic III
40 Offworld Trading Company [new entry]
41 Myth
42 Ground Control
43 The Settlers II
44 Battle for Wesnoth
45 Darkest Dungeon [new entry]
46 Warlords II
47 Imperialism 2 [new entry]
48 RollerCoaster Tycoon 2
49 Hearts of Iron IV [new entry]
50 Transport Tycoon

Read article on Rock Paper Shotgun

Loading…