30. Dominions IV
From archfiends to gods. Wannabe gods. Pretenders. Dominions IV, like Solium Infernum, can be off-putting at first. It has a complicated rule-set 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 rule-set, 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. Break through the hard crust, however, and there are rich veins to tap into.
The clash of deities isn’t a re-skin 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.”
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.
29. Warhammer 40,000: Mechanicus
Most XCOM-alikes end up disappointing almost by default, given the high bar set by the near-legendary 1993 original, and then reinforced by Firaxis’ superior (yeah, you heard us) 2012 reboot and its sequel. Nevertheless, this 2018 effort from French studio Bulwark managed to achieve a decent enough treatment of XCOM’s turn-based combat sub-genre, while adding enough creative idiosyncrasies to make it thoroughly charming in its own right.
You play as a faction of deranged cyborg techno-monks, plundering the depths of an alien tomb in search of ancient technologies, enlightenment, or sometimes just additional fuel for your knackered starship. Needless to say, the tomb is the resting place of countless miserable metal skeletons (yep, it’s those necrons again), who want to chase you out with a rolled-up newspaper made from searing green radiation.
This is an adventure that captures that “one more mission” addictiveness, and it’s superbly written, too. The various bickering cyber-clerics behind your expedition are genuinely memorable characters, and you find yourself gripped – and occasionally even laughing – as their story unfolds in between missions.
The game’s also dripping with atmosphere, with moody battlefields, light choose-your-own-adventure elements in between fights, and a grimy industrial soundtrack that absolutely slaps, sounding like what a bunch of Gregorian monks might create if given access to an abandoned factory, a synth setup, and more than a little ketamin.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Arguably, this is the first turn-based tactical game worth recommending under the 40K license. 2014’s hex war game Warhammer 40,000: Armageddon was a lot of fun, if visually dire, but it was a very different type of strategy game. Honestly, look ye to XCOM 2.
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 Pokémon.
BattleTech is sometimes too slow for its own good (though mods and a patch address this), but stick with it and it becomes an incredibly satisfying game of interplanetary iron warfare and robo-collection.
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.
27. Men Of War
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.
Where can I buy it: Steam.
What else should I be playing: There are several Men of War spin-offs/sequels, including the excellent Assault Squad.
26. They Are Billions
They Are Billions takes real-time strategy, tower defence and zombie survival, and combines it all into a single punishing, rewarding, delicious experience. It’s one of the rare games that succeeds in its Frankenstein-esque genre splicing, and Numantian Games have only made it bigger and more beautiful since coming out of Early Access.
The year is 2260, and after one of those classic zombie apocalypses that ravage the earth, the remnants of this steampunk-infused world now live inside a huge walled city to keep out the undead nasties. But no more! In They Are Billions’ sprawling campaign, you must colonise new outposts in the world around you, building new communities from scratch while protecting them from the hungry hordes.
The special thing about They Are Billions, though, is the way it keeps you scared and on your toes even during moments of relative peace. The way it leaves you to slowly explore outwards from the centre of the map and see just how many thousands of zombies are waiting for you, just beyond the borders of your city. The way it generates such fantastic, characterful anecdotes of Achillean heroism and Sisyphean despair. It all adds up to a delectable experience that keeps you coming back even after it defeats you time and time again and, more importantly, even after you finally complete it, too.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: If you love holding off wave upon wave of enemy attacks, then give StarCraft II’s Terran vs Zerg campaign a go. There’s also Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition and Warcraft III, which you’ll find elsewhere in this list.
25. Imperator: Rome
Ah, the glories of Rome! While Imperator’s launch was met with a seriously mixed reaction from devotees of Paradox Development Studio’s grand strategy games, we personally felt it stood toe to toe with the strongest of its stablemates.
With its window of play opening in 304 BC, the game follows the formula set by 2000’s Europa Universalis: you’re presented with a map of the world, on which you can examine every discrete political entity that existed at the time, before choosing one to pilot onwards through time. It’s a great moment in history to choose, with Rome poised between early collapse and expansion into a continent-eating juggernaut, Carthage lurking in the wings, and everything to play for in the chaotic fallout of Alexander’s empire.
Rome itself is a beautiful headache to play, with internal politics and infrastructure growing harder and harder to manage as the legions seize more territory: it’s a game that’s less about building an empire, and more about holding it together. Alternatively, it’s just as much fun to play as a bunch of mud-caked western European barbarians, trying to either resist Rome, chew at its edges, or develop a republic of your own.
For those who weren’t happy with Imperator at launch, it’s already undergone three transformative (and free) patches to address player criticism, and the reaction from fans seems to be encouraging. If you’ve not dipped into it so far, now’s a good time.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Crusader Kings 2 if you like the RPG-esque management of eccentric personalities, Europe Universalis IV for global empire building, or Hearts of Iron IV for a more focused war gaming experience.
24. Jagged Alliance 2
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 re-installation and several days lost in the war for Arulco. Jagged Alliance 2 is still in a class of its own and despite the years spent 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.
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.
23. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
Following on from the adaption of the Total War formula to the Warhammer fantasy setting, 2019’s Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2 hammered another nail into the coffin of the traditional wisdom that all Games Workshop licences gravitate towards dangerous mediocrity.
It pushes a lot of the same buttons as Total War, in fact: you build up persistent multi-unit forces on a campaign layer, then position them on a tactical map and shove them into the enemy in a long, grinding bout of micromanaged carnage. The difference, of course, is that rather than units of many soldiers, you’re battling with baroque, city-sized starships crewed by millions of lunatics.
Conflict in Armada 2 feels huge: hundreds of individual turrets batter away at each other in punishing broadside engagements, fighters zip around like clouds of dust, and larger ships can take an epochal beating, dying by a hundred degrees before their backs finally break with a sound like a whale reading its credit card bill. Of course, it’s nothing what like actual space combat would resemble, being played on a 2D field – it’s more like WWI-era battleship combat, embiggened to fit the maximalist aesthetic of Warhammer 40K. Even so, it’s got that level of internal consistency that suspends all disbelief.
If anything, the strategic game is a little light, but not so much that it feels stripped down, and there’s an impressive level of narrative customisation for each of its three playable factions. As well as the obvious humans (who are actually three factions: the imperial navy, the space marines and the cyborg mechanicus), you can play as the Very Very Hungry Caterpillars a.k.a the Tyranids, and our personal favourites, the miserable ancient Egyptian space terminators known as the Necrons.
Outside of the campaign, in the battle mode, you can play as any of the twelve factions in the tabletop game. They all have a huge range of toys to play with, from swarms of fragile stealth craft to juggernauts with all the subtlety of bricks with angry faces painted on them, and they all play completely differently. However and whatever you choose to play, you’re guaranteed one hell of a light show.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Any Total War game, World of Warships, or if you’re after something a bit sillier and less tactical, Gratuitous Space Battles.
22. Anno 1800
The latest in Ubisoft’s series of semi-historical colony managers, Anno 1800 covers the transition from the age of sail and small-scale farming to the era of thundering engines, electricity and hellish abattoirs we all know and love.
As well as offering competitive real-time city-building against both AI and human opponents, Anno also has an extra layer of built-in maritime RTS where you direct a small fleet of ships to trade, explore, carry out reward-based missions, fight pirates, or assault your competitors.
It can get hectic at times, with at least two separate maps (new and old world) in play at any one time, with multiple independent settlements to run on each, and the aforementioned naval game to handle at the same time. Oh, and there’s also a choose-your-own-adventure style text adventure minigame that occasionally pops up when you send out expeditions. It can all be a little overwhelming until you find its rhythm, but it means you’re never, ever short of something to do.
Anno 1800 is also thoroughly gorgeous, with coastlines and jungles that thrum with exploitable beauty, and complex, varied building animations that make it genuinely worth it to zoom in on your streets and see what’s going on.
What else should I be playing: Emperor: Rise of the Middle Kingdom, Pharaoh and Factorio if you’re in it for the production chains, Windward and Sid Meier’s Pirates if you’re more a boat fan.
21. Neptune’s Pride
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.
Where can I buy it: It’s free.
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.