10. Age Of Empires II: Definitive Edition
For a while now, the RTS genre has been in a strange state of undeath, with a slew of titles from the golden age of the late 90s/early 2000s being resurrected to walk the earth again in search of the much-coveted Nostalgia Dollar. At their worst, these remakes and remasters are simply the bones of games left long behind by the evolution of the strategy genre, given a pointless lick of paint. But at their best, they are Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.
2000’s AoE2 was, to many, the high water mark of the 2D, isometric-ish, gather-and-mangle format. It was superbly balanced, perfectly paced, and offered just the right mix of economic and military play. You could enjoy a relaxed comp-stomp in campaign or single player versus modes, or get seriously competitive in the glorious micromanagement hell of multiplayer. And on top of all that, it had a superb scenario editor built-in, a great soundtrack, and a colourful medieval aesthetic that aged at least as well as Starcraft’s.
Definitive Edition, however, is more than just AoE2’s glammed-up zombie. It’s a giant sexy Frankenstein, with the contents of five separate expansions (four of which were originally made by extremely talented fans, with the latest one made in 2016), and a whole castle full of brand new content, sewn onto the body of the original game (and no, you’re wrong: Frankenstein was the monster’s name. The scientist was called Microsoft). Oh, and they made it look utterly beautiful too, and added dozens of little UI and control improvements to circumvent annoyances such as having to manually reseed farms.
With 35 civilisations to play as, 136 single-player missions over 24 campaigns, more multiplayer maps than we can be arsed to count, and even a built-in ‘art of war’ training mode to get people up to speed for multiplayer, it’s more than double the size of the original game, and hundreds of hours’ worth of fun even before you start fighting other people. If there had never been an AoE2, and this had been released out of nowhere in 2019, it would have blown people’s minds. Long live the (age of) king(s).
What else should I be playing: AoE2’s successors, Age of Empires 3 and Age of Mythology, are both well-above-average RTS efforts, and if you’re after a strange blend of AoE2 and the Civ series, you need to check out Rise of Nations. And if you want to get extremely silly, there’s always Red Alert 2.
9. Invisible, Inc.
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 play styles has been designed to encourage experimentation as well as creating the aforementioned tension.
Like Mark of the Ninja, this is a game which 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.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Mark of the Ninja, which is both precursor and prototype for Invisible, Inc., while being a marvelous game with its own style and mechanics.
8. Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
In the beginning, there was Total Annihilation. The beginning, in this instance, is 1997, the year that Duke Nukem Forever went into production. Cavedog’s RTS went large, weaving enormous sci-fi battles and base-building around a central Commander unit that is the mechanical heart of the player’s army.
Supreme Commander followed ten years later. Total Annihilation designer Chris Taylor was at the helm for the spiritual successor and decided there was only one way to go. Larger. 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.
Indeed, we recommend playing Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance these days, which is a standalone expansion to the base game. This adds loads of extra units, an entirely new faction, new maps and a new single-player campaign, and it’s a better sequel than the actual sequel.
Where can I buy it: Steam
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.
7. Sid Meier’s Civilization VI
It’s easy to dismiss the value of incremental improvements. We’re drawn to the flashy and the new, to innovations that light the touchpaper of change. Civilisation VI isn’t a huge leap forward for the series, but a step or two still make it the best one yet. The old draw is still there. You get to take a nation from conception to robot-aided world domination. Win the space race, infect the world with (your) culture. Pressgang the UN. Get nuked by Gandhi. It’s a marriage of scope and personality that surpasses most game’s attempts at either.
Civ VI funnels that grand strategy through smaller milestones. You might reach a new continent to boost research speed for a key technology, or focus on winning round a city-state with a few well placed envoys. City-planning matters more, thanks to specialised districts with adjacency bonuses. It’s pleasingly grounding – a way of chipping away at that layer of abstraction while adding another welcome layer of strategy.
It refines ideas the series has been playing around with for decades. No one change is revolutionary, and nor is their cumulative impact. They still make it the best Civ by far, and Civ games are fantastic.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Endless Legend spices up the 4X genre with radically varied factions, and Age Of Wonders: Planetfall melds Civ-scale strategy with turn-based tactics.
Paradox’s first foray into galactic-scale 4X had a bit of a rocky start in life, but a slew of big updates and even bigger DLC expansions has seen Stellaris continue to evolve into something far more impressive, and most importantly more varied, than it once was. Paradox often sticks with its games for the long-haul, as we’ve also seen with the likes of Crusader Kings II and Cities: Skylines, but so far it’s Stellaris that has benefited most 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.
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 II.
5. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
After Earth, the stars. The 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 re-skin – 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 contours 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.
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.
4. Crusader Kings II
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 also means your character will age and die, to be replaced by an heir, and that 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 II 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.
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 closest game in terms of character-based strategy is probably King of Dragon Pass, or its successor Six Ages: Ride Like The Wind. Powermonger is an early example of character-based strategy, with individual people to observe and mourn.
3. XCOM 2
XCOM 2, together with its equally excellent expansion War Of The Chosen, is one of the finest strategy games of all time – and it’s made all the more remarkable by how different it becomes when step up to that aforementioned expansion. War Of The Chosen is the superheroic cheese to XCOM 2’s guerilla tactics chalk. Where XCOM takes a country walk away from the expansive tactical complexity of the original 90s X-COM, War Of The Chosen 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 choke-hold 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, admittedly, very, very silly, and attempts to maintain about nine different tones at once. That harlequin nature is at least part of the charm.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Mutant Year Zero: Road To Eden is effectively XCOM 2 with ducks and warthogs. Alternatively, (and it’s a bit of a curveball) 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 War Of The Chosen.
2. FTL: Faster Than Light
Umpteen games offer the fantasy of being a roguish spaceship pilot, but a childhood spent watching Star Trek might leave you with different life goals. A fantasy in which there are enemies on the view screen, fires in the engine room, and your survival is reliant on a mysterious alien passenger you picked up at the last planet you visited.
FTL revels in creating science fiction scenarios like this. It’s a roguelike in which you control small spaceships and their crew from a top-down perspective. You’re flying at lightspeed across the galaxy to evade an approaching deadly force, and must make decisions about where to visit, how long to linger in each sector, and what items to trade.
At each destination, you’ll experience an encounter of some kind. That might be a little text story asking whether you want to accept a stranger onto your ship, but most often it’ll be combat with one of the game’s alien races.
At both the micro and macro levels, every decision you make in FTL matters. You’ll be attacked by slavers in an area where solar flares periodically damage your ship. You’re hoping you can rescue one of those slaves and gain a new crew member, and so you stay and fight, but there’s also the very real risk you’ll be destroyed and lose all your progress. Two minutes later, the slavers are destroyed, but your engines were damaged in the fight. You’ve vented the oxygen from the engine room to snuff out the flames, but you can’t fly away until they’re repaired, and the next solar flare will destroy you when it hits in another 60 seconds. Now decide: which of your crew are you going to sacrifice by sending them into the vacuum to repair the engines?
FTL generates these dramatic moments with ease, while being easy to pick up, running on anything, and with variety enough to keep you entertained for years. A true masterpiece.
Where can I buy it: Steam
What else should I be playing: Star Traders: Frontiers is a similar space captaining anecdote generator, albeit with a lot more complexity and in the form of an RPG. Alternatively, try Subset’s follow-up Into The Breach, for a similarly tight strategy roguelike with a mecha theme. Speaking of which…
1. Into The Breach
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 Into The Breach 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, it’s 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.
What else should I be playing: BattleTech offers a far more decompressed and stats-based take on mech combat, if Into The Breach is all too minimal for you.