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.
39. Warcraft III: Reforged
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.
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 games you’re ever likely to play. 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.
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.
36. Dawn Of Man
In strategy games that cover broad swathes of human history, it’s always a bit sad that the Stone Age is, at best, an early game sideshow – something to be breezed past in a couple of technological leaps on the way to better things. 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.
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. 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.
34. 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.
33. 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.
32. 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.
31. 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.