Looking back at it now, 2020 doesn’t feel like a banner year for strategy games, but that doesn’t mean there haven’t been a few gems. The list below – gathered by a panel of experts and regularly updated – contains games from as recently as 12 months ago alongside classics from as far back as 28 years ago. They’re all games we think you could play and love right now.
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As always, we treat genre as a broad church. Below you’ll find both real-time and turn-based strategy games, and everything from small scale robot skirmishes to epic historical warfare. We have however mainly focused on games about commanding troops of one kind or another, while splitting our picks of the best management games off into its own list. A handful of the games you’ll see below will involve a bit of building, but there’s no football management or spaghetti junctions.
We’re working on a video version of this list for those of you who like words in your ears and your pictures to move, but in the meantime why not watch this lovely review of Desperados 3, one of the more recent games on the list.
Our 50 picks for the best strategy games on PC are below, but they are our picks. You might feel we’ve forgotten something, so write your own enthusiastic recommendations in the comments below. That way, everybody can learn about more, wonderful strategy games.
50. Endless Legend
Endless Legend is unspeakably beautiful. Every part of it was made with care and thought, and a commitment to making an often formulaic sub-genre interesting and strange and enticing. Each world asks to be revealed, each faction stokes curiosity. There are the bizarre cultists and their sole, massive city, who fanatically raze anything they conquer after they’ve learned what they can from it. There’s the dour Broken Lords who are haunted suits of armour, unable to use food but able to reproduce with ‘dust’, the game’s mysterious magical currency, which itself is key to why one of our favourite factions, the Roving Clans, are so interesting. They’re nomads obsessed with collecting dust to unlock its true power. They’re totally unable to declare war, but they get a cut of every market trade and can hire the best mercenaries.
In addition to the expansion and conquest, there are story arcs to follow by sending armies to the right places, which themselves can drive conflict or political wrangling. From the faction-specific units on the turn-based tactical battles to the esoteric faction rules that even, god help us, invite roleplaying, everything about Endless Legend aims to take strategy games somewhere new and better.
49. Company Of Heroes
Company Of Heroes made World War II seem like new territory. It manages 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.
48. Dune II Legacy
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 2020 it most certainly is not. That’s where Dune 2 Legacy comes in, an open source project that reworks Dune 2 into a new framework, giving it a 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, excellent vehicle, creature designs and devious treats such as the now-rare likes of stealing enemy buildings lends it a timelessly lurid charm.
47. Total War: Shogun 2
Arguments over which of Creative Assembly’s historical battlefield sims is the best are a time-honoured tradition among strategy game obsessives, and you’ll probably find a lot of those discussions tend to conclude with 2011’s Total War: Shogun 2. In our own discussions, we concluded that 2017’s Warhammer II and 2019’s Three Kingdoms were the bestest best Total War games you can play today, but Shogun 2 is still one of Creative Assembly’s all-time classics.
Set during Japan’s warring states period, you are put in the samurai war flip-flops of one of the many warlords struggling for control of the islands during the 16th Century, and it gets hectic. The AI is well-tuned on both the strategic map and on the tactical battlefields (not always the case in Total War), and the campaign is paced with shrewd finesse: if you throw your weight around too much, the Shogun himself will paint a target on your head, and everyone will come at you like estate agents after a plate full of money.
Thanks to this built-in tipping point, progression is a matter of careful calculation and time-biding rather than a wild land grab, and political thinking is just as important as good generalship. All this, for a game that’s ostensibly about lining up troops on a battlefield and doing big stabs, feels somehow incredibly generous.
DEFCON is the strategy game most likely to make you wake up in a cold sweat. It’s an abstract simulation of thermo-nuclear 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.
Few games are as enjoyably apocalyptic as Sacrifice. Its levels may be relatively small, but you, as an inter-dimensional mercenary/con man/tyrant, have brutalised many of them. You’ll wage terrible war across many more, unleashing an even worse monster in the process, profaning altars, and ultimately murdering the gods themselves.
The five gods who make up its pantheon are memorable, highly charismatic, and consumed with petty rivalries. Each god will offer you a job fighting some enemy or other. Which one you pick determines which level you’ll fight in this chapter of the story, and what unit and spell you’ll add to your collection. You could play the entire story two or three times and never fight the same battle or use any of the same units.
And what battles! You personally visit weird, floating lands full of blobby monsters summoned by pumping a soul into them, that they will crush your enemies so you can harvest their souls too. Spells will bore irreparable holes in the earth, summon the arbitrarily-scything figure of Death itself, and crush someone under a massive cow. Its deployment of levity and charm is perfectly pitched to take the edge off its bitter, intense conflict.
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 war game, but does a stand-up of job of keeping things lean despite how many plates it spins.
The single-player 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.
43. Unity Of Command
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 war game – 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 war gamers 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.
42. Command & Conquer Remastered Collection
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. The Remastered Collection revamps the original Command & Conquer and the first Red Alert, plus all associated expansion packs, in a manner that makes them look like they do in those same memories. It’s glorious.
C&C remains peak ’90s RTS, from a time when the genre seem unassailable, and it remains fiendishly playable, just challenging enough, and filled with campy delight. To EA’s enormous credit, the Remastered Collection does those old games proud, rendering ridiculous FMV in modern resolutions, turning pixelated sprite art crisp, applying UI improvements from later games back to the original, as well as rebuilding the multiplayer, adding a map editor, and more. It’s a great package – and heck, worth it for the remastered music alone.
41. OpenXcom (UFO: Enemy Unknown)
Revisiting Julian Gollop’s masterpiece now, particularly in light of the excellent Firaxis remake and its sequel, can be a sobering experience. Why is it possible to send soldiers into battle without a weapon? 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?
Indeed, UFO is riddled with irritations. Fortunately, there’s now OpenXcom, which takes the game apart and puts it back together again with a new code base designed to run on modern computers. It also means it’s free from all the irritating bugs and limitations that played the original, and you can mod it. You can still buy the original if you really want, but OpenXcom is definitely a more enjoyable experience in 2020. Of course, the Firaxis remake is even better in 2020, but when you’re in the thick of a terror mission, with chrysalids seemingly pouring out of the walls, or in those last hours when you finally seem capable of taking the fight to the aliens, there’s still nothing else quite like X-COM. Not even XCOM.