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The 50 best strategy games on PC

Hit Parade

An entirely objective ranking of the 50 best PC strategy games ever made, now freshened up to include our favourites from 2017 and 2018. From intricate, global-scale wargames to the tight thrills of guerrilla squads, 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.

Before diving into this delicious stack of games, we should define exactly what we mean when we say “Strategy Games”. In previous regenerations of this Master List To End All Master Lists, we’ve incorporated management simulations too, but as much as we ideally prefer to not be bound by Colonel Trousers’ rigid definitions, as outlined in the seminal brain-pacifier That Is Not Strategy Vol I-XXX, a recent renaissance in both strategy and management means we have a veritable embarrassment of riches to choose from. As such, it only makes sense to split the games that are more about community-wrangling than conquest off into their own forthcoming feature.

Even so, the church is broad – 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. 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:

40-50

30-40

20-30

10-20

1-10

Onward!

original-colonization

50: Sid Meier’s Colonization (1994)

Developer: MicroProse

Publisher: MicroProse

Conventional wisdom for strategy – hell, almost any genre – is to go bigger each time. Colonization hails from a time before conventional wisdom had been established, and as such this follow-up to the original Civilization instead goes smaller. It zeroes in on a particular time and place of world history, that being the European settlement of America, leading up to the declaration of independence.

It’s a slice of Civ through a microscope – what would be the work of turns is here the entire game. Exploding smaller concerns, such as providing the rawest resources for building, stoking local sentiment for rebellion against imperial rule, whether or not you kowtow to the demands of a distant king and how you treat local Native Americans, makes this a far more personal-feeling Meier tale.

Even the glorious conclusion – freedom from distant tyranny! – is so much more meaningful than the abstracted likes of winning a space race or enacting global co-operation policies. In an age when strategy so often pursues the biggest possible picture, we really do need to disappear down more charming rabbit holes like this.

Miscellaneous Notes: Colonization enjoyed a quasi-remake in 2008, as an official modification of Civ IV. Again, the laser focus on a specific era and concept was welcome, but it was a bit too obviously a reskin rather than its own game.

Where can I buy it: Steam GOG, or there’s FreeCol, a free, open source remake with various improvements, though it lacks the original art.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Though it goes for a bird’s eye rather than worm’s eye view of history, squabbling about marriage and lineage in Crusader Kings II lends it some of that more personal rather than purely conquest-focused approach. Alternatively, you could have a dig through the scenario modes in Civs V or VI, if you wanted more specific-time-and-place strategising.

Read more: Closure and Colonization: returning to finish the game after a 14-year break.

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.

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: XCOM 2: War of The Chosen

Developer: Firaxis
Publisher: 2K

We should mention up front that you do need to own XCOM 2 itself in order to play its expansion pack War of The Chosen, but they do wind up being two remarkably different games. More importantly, WOTC is superheroic cheese to XCOM the first’s guerilla tactics chalk. Where XCOM takes a country walk away from the expansive tactical complexity of the original 90s X-COM, WOTC sprints full-pelt into another continent. Your best soldiers will not be merely skilled in the use of weapons – they will become The Avengers, capable of the most absurd feats of sci-fi heroism. Better still, the base/strategy layer breaks the chokehold of both XCOM and XCOM 2’s single golden path of upgrades, allowing multiple different ways of staving off a slow death by resource drain.

It is, however, very, very silly, and attempts to maintain about nine different tones at once. That harlequin nature is at least part of the charm.

Miscellaneous Notes: WOTC does some odd things with all preceding XCOM 2 DLC, including pretty much blocking most of their story elements, so you can end up missing quite a lot if you default straight to this. If you can find the time, play XCOM 2 vanilla, then XCOM 2 with the non-WOTC DLC, then playing WOTC.

Where can I buy it: Steam, Humble, retail.

What else should I be playing if I like this: It’s a bit of a curveball, but Irrational’s old Freedom Force tactical RPGs do the whole superhero squad thing too, and with their tongue lodged far further into their cheeks than the tonal mess of WOTC.

Read More: The one thing that makes every WOTC turn different, one ridiculous turn in WOTC, Wot I Think

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. 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: Dune 2 Legacy (2010)

Developer: Open source collaboration, based on the work of Westwood Studios

Publisher: Virgin Games

1992’s Frank Herbert-adapting Dune 2 is the great grandparent of the real-time strategy game as we know it now, but a pleasant play experience in 2018 it most certainly is not. That’s where Dune 2 Legacy comes in, an open source project which takes some of Dune 2’s original data files (you still have ’em, yeah?) and sticks ’em into a new framework blessed with far more modern interface and graphical sensibilities.

The world has, of course, moved on since Houses Atreides, Harkonen and Ordos first went to war for control of the Spice of Arrakis, but a combination of straightforwardness and excellent vehicle and creature designs (Ornithopers and Sandworms are forever burned into the memories of many a late-30-something PC gamer) and devious treats such as the now-rare likes of stealing enemy buildings lends it a timelessly lurid charm.

Miscellaneous notes: Legacy is not the only Dune 2 remake in town, and nor does everyone agree that it’s the best. There’s also Dynasty and Golden Path to think about, amongst others, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.

Where can I buy it: You can find Dune 2 Legacy here, but you’ll need to pair it files with Dune 2 itself, which has sadly been swallowed by a legal Sandworm and is not available digitally. Perhaps you can ask some Fremen to direct you towards more mysterious places, however.

What else should I be playing: The Command & Conquer series constitutes Dune 2’s direct descendants, but Blizzard’s Starcraft games go a lot further in terms of asymmetrical sci-fi war.

Read More: Raised by screens: Dune II.
Have you played Dune 2 Legacy?.

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: Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2 (2000)

Developer: Westwood Studios/EA Pacific
Publisher: EA

In truth, the long-running Command & Conquer series has never been one single thing, but in popular memory it tends to be defined by a combination of accessible but explosive build’n’bash warfare and gloriously daft sci-fi soap opera FMV cutscenes. That reached its apex with the second Red Alert game, an alt-history spin-off documenting an absurd 70s war between the Allieds and Soviets, replete with psychic soldiers, robot tanks, tesla troopers and more exaggerated cultural stereotypes than it would be best to dwell on here.

For all that, it finds a joyful line between tactical satisfaction and thematic silliness without entirely tumbling into the OTT self-consciousness of its 3D-accelerated successor. This is peak 90s RTS, from a time when the genre seem unassailable, and it remains fiendishly playable, just challenging enough and filled with campy delight.

Miscellaneous notes: RA2 still has a thriving online scene, for instance via the CnCNet project. Note that, to get anywhere with this these days, you will need the (extremely good) Yuri’s Revenge expansion pack too.

Where can I buy it: You’re restricted to the wildlands of the second-hand market if it’s only RA2 you’re after, as its only digital availability (EA’s Origin service) bundles it together with every other C&C game to date. Still, £25 ain’t bad for 10 slices of history (plus their 7 expansions) – or you can try it free for 7 days with an Origin Access trial.

What else should I be playing: The ‘best C&C ever’ vote is very much split between RA2 and 2003’s Generals. The latter stands out both because it was the first time Command & Conquer ever left its comfort zone in search of new mechanics, the first time it went 3D, and because it offered a much more real-world approach to RTS after the increasing cartoonishness of its predecessors. Perhaps too real world, given its glorification of military slaughter arrived during the height of the post-2001 Middle-Eastern conflict. But maybe that’s OK, given that real-world politics now increasingly resemble C&C cutscenes.

Read More: Kieron Gillen and Leigh Alexander discuss the ‘War & Boobs‘ of the Red Alert 3 trailer.

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 soon, 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: Northgard (2018)

Developer: Shiro Games

Publisher: Shiro Games

Wyvern, armoured bears, shield maidens, draugr: on face of things, the viking mythology-styled Northgard is a return to the thematic outlandishness of late 90s/early-noughties real-time strategy, but it combines that joyful anything-goes quality with thoughtful, almost simulatory paths onward from build’n’bash tradition. There’s a whole food ecosystem, the regular arrival of winter turns it into a survival game of sorts, you can trade with monsters and your choice of which clan you control affects your play style on a level far beyond mere unit options. It’s very much a building game as well as a wargame, but does a stand-up of job of keeping things lean despite how many plates it spins.

The singleplayer campaign plays a somewhat distant second fiddle to a beautifully drawn-out multiplayer mode that makes a virtue of tension as well as conflict, but whichever way you play, Northgard is without doubt one of the best RTS games of the last few years.

Notes: Northgard is in fact a 2017 game, depending on how you feel about the whole early access thing. It was a smash hit right out the gates even then, but we may never have seen it if its devs hadn’t abandoned their long-brewing ‘cooperative exploration game’ Until Dark in dissatisfaction and come up with Northgard instead.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

What else should I be playing: If you dig the setting, you could try Expeditions: Viking, a narrative’n’choice-heavy RPG based on Norse society.

Read More: Northgard review, Shiro games on the future of Northgard.

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: Markus “Notch” Persson was the key investment partner in Age of Wonders III, when he still owned Mojang and before he transitioned to being an unhappy billionaire with a wall of out of date sweets.

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: Homeworld: Deserts Of Kharak (2016)

Developer: Blackbird Interactive

Publisher: Gearbox Software

Ask anyone what they most desperately want from a new Homeworld game and the last things they’d say would be “prequel” and “no spaceships.” Deserts of Kharak scanned at first like clanging idiocy, like making a Spider-Man game in which ol’ Petey can only get around town on a pushbike. But whaddaya know? A move to, basically, War For Tatooine worked out very well indeed.

Kharak kept the scale, now with gigantic sand-crawlers, rather than floating homeships, spitting out tanks, quadbikes and planes in a tussle for control of a desolate sand-world that never seems too small, despite the narrowed focus. What Kharak might have lost in terms of cosmic perspective is gained in individual units feeling far more meaningful, but it retains the stately pace and the wonderful Chris Foss-like industrial vehicle design. While much of what Kharak does is fairly routine for a strategy game, how it feels is not. Tense, atmospheric and a treat for those who miss the Olden Days, without actually being nostalgia-wretched about it.

Notes: This first began life as the Homeworld-unrelated (at least, not officially) ‘Hardware: Shipbreakers’, before morphing into the free to play multiplayer ‘Homeworld: Shipbreakers’ and then finally to a traditionally-sold, singleplayer and multiplayer package, published by new Homeworld owners Gearbox.

Where can I buy it: Steam and Humble.

What else should I be playing: Homeworld, naturally, but if you want more wide-scale, sci-fi ground (and air and sea) combat, you should hasten in the direction of Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance’s impossibly enormous armies.

Read more: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak review

Have you played Deserts of Kharak?

32: Endless Space 2 (2017)

Developer: Amplitude

Publisher: Sega

For a genre of game that asks you to push ever-outwards, 4X sure can be conservative. Endless Space 2, like its predecessor, kicks down several ancient walls, while remaining remarkably elegant in the process. Thematically, it’s sci-fi, but very happy to be weird with its factions and micro-stories, but more importantly how the specifics and pecadilloes of its various races intersect with the mechanics.

They play differently because they are different, through-and-through: different constructions, different politics, different ways of interacting with the rest of the galaxy. It’s not simply a case of a different leader or a minor boost to this or that. Every time you play leads you on a different journey. This may not be grand strategy, but it is strategy at its grandest scope.

Notes: We took out Endless Legend and inserted Endless Space 2 instead this year. Yes, that decision felt very painful, but we didn’t want to double-dip too much. I.e. you should definitely play fantasy 4X Endless Legend too – it was, after all, our game of the year in 2014.

Where can I buy it: Steam

What else should I be playing: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is the sci-fi 4X to beat in many respects, but you’ll also want to nose at Galactic Civilizations and Stellaris, which both approach space wandering/biffing in very different ways.

Read More: Endless Space 2 review, How to make your own faction in Endless Space 2

31: 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 (soon to have its own successor), or the grim darkness of the twentieth century with Hearts of Iron IV.

Read more:

A profile of Paradox

A Conquest of Paradise expansion interview

Our review

A multiplayer diary

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: Stellaris (2016)

Developer: Paradox

Publisher: Paradox

Paradox’s first foray into galactic-scale 4X didn’t wind up on this list last year. There was much to recommend it at release, but it was a little bit hollow and a little bit clunky – until it wasn’t. A slew of big updates and even bigger DLC has seen Stellaris continue to evolve into something far more impressive, and most importantly varied, than it once was, and it doesn’t look as though it journey is over yet. Paradox often sticks with its games for the long-haul, as we’ve also seen with the likes of Crusader Kings 2 and Cities: Skylines, but so far it’s Stellaris that has most benefited from this approach. Whole systems have been ripped out and replaced in the name of slicker and smarter galactic empire-building.

Its tussle of space civilizations is now vast and strange, all gene wars and synth rebellions alongside the more expected likes of imperialistic aliens, and it’s a whole lot better set up for pacifistic play than it once was too. This empire has very much struck back.

Where can I buy it: Steam and direct from Paradox.

What else should I be playing: Galactic Civilizations III and Endless Space 2 have their own, very different takes on sci-fi 4X, or if you’re more into the imperial roleplaying-at-scale side of things, there’s Stellaris’ historical stablemate Crusader Kings 2.

Read more: Has Stellaris been improved by its updates?

Stellaris 2.0 and Apocalypse DLC review

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: BattleTech (2018)

Developer: Harebrained Schemes

Publisher: Paradox

On the face of things, BattleTech might look like XCOM with giant robots, but those big metal suits aren’t just there for show – they’re what makes BattleTech so distinctive. A big ol’ mech doesn’t much care when it loses an arm, for instance – it just keeps on fighting. Working out how to down these walking tanks both a) permanently and b) in a way that preserves enough of it to take home and use as parts to build a new one yourself is the key strategy here. You’ll have to juggle positioning, range, ammo and heat as these 80-ton titans clash in tense turn-based battles, while the meta-game involves steadily collecting enough salvage to raise yourself an army of building-sized steel Pokemon.

BattleTech is too slow for its own good (though mods and a patch address this), has a unhelpful tutorial and is a little drab to look at, but stick with it past the shonky early hours and it becomes an incredibly satisfying game of interplanetary iron warfare and robo-collection.

Notes: Developers Harebrained Schemes were acquired by Paradox in the wake of BattleTech’s success, which hopefully means this game will enjoy the sort of long-term support and updates that other ‘dox titles too.

Where can I buy it: Steam, GOG and Humble

What else should I be playing: To be honest, WW2 tank combat sims are probably where you want to go if your interest is in thoughtful tactical takedowns of heavily-armoured machines than it is the science-fictional trappings. But if it’s the latter, you might want to beetle in the direction of XCOM, though it’s significantly less measured, and its stars a whole lot squishier.

Read more: The true meaning of Battletech is giant robot Pokemon

Learning to love BattleTech: an evolving opinion.

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: Sequel Galactic Civilizations 3 left early access in 2015, and we liked that a lot too.

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 plate 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. Though its dour singleplayer campaign is a big ol’ nope in terms of storytelling, most recent expansion Legacy of the Void has an Archon mode that 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: There’s now a Total Warhammer 2, which introduces new factions and campaigns, as well as refining a whole bunch of stuff, but the really big news is that you can combo both games in order to stage tussles between their entire roster, or even embark on an incredibly long mega-campaign. There’s so much shared between the two games that replacing TWW with TWW2 here is effectively pointless, and in any case the first game stars Warhammer’s heaviest-hitters, making it probably still the better starting point.

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: A few months ago, there was a Dominions 5, very similar to 4 but with some refinements.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

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: 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

11: 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

10: Invisible, Inc. (2015)

Developer: Klei Entertainment

Publisher: Klei Entertainment

A few 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.

9: XCOM: Enemy Unknown (2012)

Developer: Firaxis

Publisher: 2K

In previous years, we’ve left XCOM the first off this list because having both it and the expanded-but-fundamentally-similar XCOM 2 was, frankly, silly. But now XCOM 2 has evolved into its preposterously (in a good way) superheroic DLC War of The Chosen, it would be even sillier to argue that it offers broadly the same experience as X1. One is chess (with guns and snakemen), the other is chess as played by Spider-Man and Worf (also with guns and snakemen), who are also being attacked by a zombie army.

It’s hilarious, in the wake of WOTC, to think that some of us grumbled that Firaxis’ 2012 reinvention of XCOM was far too action-orientated and over-the-top. Nowadays, it seems so sedate and subtle. But y’know what? Ask me which XCOM I’d like to replay (again) right now, and I’d say XCOM the first without hesitation. The follow-ups offered a far wider range of tactical possibility, but the purity of this – people with guns versus aliens with guns and psychic powers – was and is so brilliantly tight. ‘How do I get out of this?’ is a fundamentally different question when you don’t have eight different trump cards to call upon, and that means the essential risk/reward of percentage-chance-to-hit shots is an ever-present dilemma. The essential run, shoot or overwatch choice of any XCOM turn is potent, undiluted and remains, quite possibly for all time, one of the best five-second loops of PC gaming we’ve ever known.

This is not even to mention that the Enemy Within DLC, with its mech units and augmented human units, manages to totally remix the game in a way that even the full-fat expansion packs of yesteryear rarely achieved. Long live XCOM: it ain’t X-COM, but instead it’s a legend in its own right.

Notes: Any sentence that starts with ‘XCOM’ and doesn’t end with ‘Long War‘ isn’t a very good sentence. The massive free mod dives deeper into XCOM’s guts than even the developers ever imagined possible, in pursuit of a more hardcore and varied campaign which borrows lost elements from the original X-COM. In some ways, it goes too far to be fun, but in other ways it lobs so many surprises and thoughtful twists into proceedings that it would be insane to let it pass by you by.

Read more: Firaxis’s Jake Solomon post-mortems XCOM, XCOM: diary of a wimpy squad, XCOM Review.

Where can I buy it: Steam.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Trad. answer for anyone who didn’t appreciate the liberties XCOM took with the X-COM formula: Xenonauts.

8: 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 entry number 12 on this 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. Its 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

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

Developer: Relic Entertainment

Publisher: Sega (originally THQ)

Although Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer has finally seen the light of day (twice!), Relic’s first Dawn of War game is still the best digital expression of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe, having sadly not been surpassed by last year’s Dawn of War III. It’s the grimmest darkest strategy game in existence, and while the game itself is more limited in scope than Twarhammer, 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. Better still, it’s lived an long and rich life of both official and fan-made expansions, adding races, modes, units and even entire new rules aplenty – which is a big part of why this remains the ultimate Games Workshop RTS, even 14 years on.

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, while its particularly strong standalone expansion Chaos Rising even manages branching storylines. For more 40K, try Armageddon, a solid turn-based wargame.

Read more: The joy of unwinnable skirmishes

Our Dawn of War: Soulstorm verdict
Read more:

6: 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

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: It’s hard to recommend anything similar to King of Dragon Pass, but for a similar feeling of weighty leadership and consequential choices you can look to The Banner Saga. (Or maybe Six Ages, the Dragon Pass spiritual successor that’s so far only available on iTelephones.)

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 10 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: 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: Alec explains “Why X-COM Matters (To Me)”

1: Into The Breach (2018)

Developer: Subset Games

Publisher: Subset Games

Screw it, let’s forget ourselves and embrace some ‘Q magazine declaring OK Computer to be the greatest album of all time in 1997’ madness. In a perfect world, something will come along and handily leapfrog this turn-based mechs vs giganto-beasts follow-up to FTL, any day, but in terms of what strategy game we would go out and tell almost anyone to go out and play right now? There is no other answer.

Into The Breach throws out every millilitre of superfluous strategy bathwater without losing even a single bit of baby in the process. It asks you to focus only on the most immediate problem to hand: your guys are there, the acid-spitting enemy is there, a skyscraper full of helpless civilians is there: what are you gonna do, hotshot?

It’s very easy to lob chess comparisons at any turn-based strategy game, but ITB really does nail that move-to-move dilemma. Every. Single. Action counts; failing to do something useful with one of your three units almost always spells doom. Most of all, ITB is masterful at slowly dumping a whole load of knowledge into your head – recognising a wide array of enemy types and their special abilities on sight, figuring out how to combo an equally wide range of mech abilities, and most of all grokking the importance of moving enemies, above and beyond attacking them – without your even realising it’s happening.

The adjective to beat for Into The Breach is ‘elegant’, but maybe that makes it sound cold and distant. Only the opposite is true: it rings high drama out of every movement, and it does so while having the confidence to leave your imagination to fill in the gaps left by its 2D, minimally-animated presentation. To show anything else would take time, and taking time would only make it baggy, and it is precisely because Into The Breach is not baggy in the slightest that it feels like such a (currently) final word on how to make a turn-based strategy game.

An instant-classic masterpiece that doesn’t even remotely try to tell us it’s a masterpiece. It just gets on with the job.

Notes: Despite its minimalism, Into The Breach also functions remarkably well as a story game – but, just as with its action, it only gives you the broadest strokes of how and why your mech pilots are travelling back through time to try and prevent the near-destruction of Earth by giant bugs from god-knows-where, leaving your imagination to fill in the rest. Which, again, is exactly why it works so well.

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

What else should I be playing: BattleTech offers a far more decompressed and statty take on mech combat, if ITB is all too minimal for you. And, if you have an olden Nintendo portable, the GBA’s Advance Wars is another smart lesson in how to do meaty TBS with none of the flab.

Read more: We talk to the devs about hurting our feelings, writer Chris Avellone sheds light on ITB’s greatest mysteries, our Into The Breach review.

WHERE THE HELL WAS CHESS ON THAT LIST!?!

Best PC strategy games – the complete list

See below for a summary of the full roster. So, what about those X-COM and XCOM rankings, eh? What about the lack of any Age of Empires 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.

We update this piece every year – new to it now are eleven games, most of which blessed us with their presence in 2017 or 2018, but say hello to golden oldies XCOM (how is it six years old already?), Colonization, C&C: Red Alert 2 and Dune 2. Westwood RTS games haven’t made an appearance on previous iterations of this, but it’s high time we gave the grandmother of build’n’bash her dues.

2018’s Into The Breach shoots straight to number one with a bullet, while the next new game is the recent BattleTech at 26, with Northard completing the 2018 trilogy at 37. And a special shout out to 2016’s Stellaris, which finally joins the list thanks to ongoing and meaty updates.

As for your favourite strategy game that we ignorantly left out – well, that’s at #51.

The Complete List

1 Into The Breach [new entry]
2 UFO: Enemy Unknown
3 Crusader Kings II
4 Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
5 King of Dragon Pass
6 Homeworld
7 Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
8 Civilization IV
9 XCOM [new entry]
10 Invisible, Inc.
11 Jagged Alliance II
12 Alpha Centauri
13 Distant Worlds: Universe
14 Dominions IV
15 Solium Infernum
16 Total War: Warhammer
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 BattleTech [new entry]
27 Gary Grigsby’s War in the East
28 Rise of Nations
29 Stellaris [new entry]
30 Wargame: AirLand Battle
31 Europa Universalis IV
32 Endless Space 2 [new entry]
33 Homeworld Deserts of Kharak [new entry]
34 Warcraft III
35 Age of Wonders III
36 The Banner Saga 2
37 Northgard [new entry]
38 Frozen Synapse
39 Heroes of Might and Magic III
40 Offworld Trading Company
41 Myth
42 Ground Control
43 Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
44 Battle for Wesnoth
45 Dune 2 Legacy [new entry]
46 Warlords II
47 Imperialism 2
48 XCOM 2: War of the Chosen [new entry]
49 Hearts of Iron IV
50 Sid Meier’s Colonization [new entry]

For more of RPS’ bestest best games, take your pick from:
The best PC games of all time
The 50 best FPS on PC
The 25 best co-op games ever made
The best space games on PC
The best non-violent games
The 14 best Metroidvania
The 10 best hacking, coding and computing games
The 25 best horror games on PC
The 23 best VR games
The 50 best free games on PC
The 10 best games based on movies
The 25 best stealth games on PC
The 25 best action games on PC
The 50 best RPG on PC
The 25 best adventure games ever made
The 25 best puzzle games on PC

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Who am I?

Alec Meer

Senior Editor

Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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