40. Warhammer 40K: Dawn Of War
Although Creative Assembly’s Total War: Warhammer II remains one of the most popular Warhammer games you can play today, Relic’s first Dawn Of War game is still the one of the best digital expressions of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe, having sadly not been surpassed by the latest game in the series, Dawn Of War III. It’s the grimmest, darkest strategy game in existence, and while the game itself is more limited in scope than T’Warhammer, 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 a 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.
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 story lines. For more 40K, try Armageddon, a solid turn-based war game.
39. Warcraft III
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. Plus, it’s just got a shiny new remaster in the form of Warcraft III: Reforged, which spruces up the graphics, improves the game’s modding capabilities and gives it a fresh, modern multiplayer features. It also bundles in Warcraft III’s expansion, The Frozen Throne. Lovely stuff.
Where can I buy it: 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.
38. Offworld Trading Company
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.
What else should I be playing: M.U.L.E. – the original strategic trading game is available to play free, online.
37. Heroes of Might and Magic III
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.
Where can I buy it: 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. 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.
36. Dawn Of Man
In strategy games that cover broad swathes of human history, it’s always a bit sad that the Stone Age (known to anthropologists as “caveman times”) is, at best, an early game sideshow – something to be breezed past in a couple of technological leaps on the way to better things.
As the point in our history where we went from often-nomadic hunter-gatherers to farmers living in permanent settlements, by way of advances in tool use, it’s arguably as big a change as we’ve ever experienced. It’s a shame that so many games leave it behind. Not so with Dawn Of Man, which concentrates on the various something-lithic periods to the exclusion of everything else. In this game, pointy bits of iron are end-game tech.
With its frosty, beast-stuffed landscapes, Dawn Of Man does a grand job of making you feel like just another animal with a few tricks up its sleeve. Progress is slow, achieved through painstaking increments, and settlements never develop beyond meagre, hard-won hamlets. It’s also received several post-launch updates, too, which have added more content and a greater sense of challenge.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Banished is a clear comparison despite its medieval setting, but RimWorld is another apt match. If you like really ancient history stuff, check out Predynastic Egypt and Egypt: Old Kingdom, two worker placement score-rush games from Russian studio Clarus Victoria.
35. Druidstone: Secret of the Menhir Forest
From some of the team behind the dungeon crawling Legend of Grimrock games, this turn-based tactics game offers just the right balance between Into The Breach-style solution-finding, and improvisational disaster mitigation along the lines of XCOM.
Using a small party of three (and later four) characters, upgraded between battles in classic RPG style, players must navigate thirty-five extremely well-designed missions, completing core objectives to progress and nailing secondary objectives to gain extra upgrade resources.
With no enforced single sequence to mission order, and with replaying missions to complete secondary objectives being encouraged, it’s very rare to feel stuck, despite some pretty challenging situations. More often than not, if you’re finding yourself banging your head against a skeleton-shaped wall, you can reduce the difficulty by taking on a couple of calmer missions, and returning with beefier characters. Crucially, however, it never feels like a grind.
The whole package is wrapped in a lush and surprisingly cheery fantasy dressing, with dialogue that’s more endearing than it needs to be, and a merry sense of adventure. It’s not the longest game by any means, but the handcrafted nature of each mission, as well as the impressive variety of enemies, puzzles and objectives encountered, mean that things never start to feel stale.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: The Banner Saga, Legend of Grimrock 1 & 2, Into the Breach, or Firaxis’ XCOM series.
34. Hostile Waters: Antaeus Rising
“In the year 2012, the Earth was hit by the last thing it was expecting: sanity.” So declares Tom Baker in an early cut scene of Hostile Waters, as a series of national flags are burned to give way to an image of the planet. But this setup is not a convenient way to reduce humans to a unit for a space opera. It’s a political statement from another, better timeline than our own.
To defend a utopian, warless Earth from a cabal of furious billionaires and warmongers, you raise a unique carrier with the ability to manufacture vehicles imbued with the personality of dead soldiers. They’ll follow orders but also shout and joke and panic and compliment each other as they fight right alongside you. You might look up from your scout buggy to see a colleague in a hovercraft duck under the jet that was attacking you to spray rockets up its jethole, to applause from a nearby tank pilot. Just one tiny moment from a long, gruelling battle of attrition. None of the action is sacrificed for its utopian plot.
You can pilot anything or take over from a subordinate at any time (they will complain), bringing together the wider stakes of a war and the chaos of the front line like nothing else. You want the thrill of strafing from a chopper, sneaking into a base to find a weak spot, and flying a defenceless harvester in the midst of a raging battle, while knowing that you’re not just another imperialist bastard? It’s here. And it’s brilliant.
What else should I be playing: Battlezone2 : Combat Commander somewhat overlaps with its chaotic first person RTS battles. Sacrifice, also on this list, has a similar economic side and a strong story to match.
35. Rise Of Nations
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 war game.
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.
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.
32. Imperialism 2
One of the hurdles strategy games often face is finding the challenge and fun in tasks and themes that don’t immediately seem attractive or entertaining. War games 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 problems 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 well and truly in.
Where can I buy it: GOG.
What else should I be playing: Europa Universalis IV is the grand strategy successor to some of Imperialism’s ideas and covers the same era.
31. Galactic Civilizations 2: Endless Universe
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 space-faring 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 also bundled with the two expansions, one of which adds the ability to destroy solar systems.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Sequel Galactic Civilizations 3 left early access in 2015 and we liked that a lot, too.