As you may have noticed from being on the internet or talking to other human beings, 2016 has been a bit of a shitshow. But if there’s one piece of solace to be found in the flaming wreckage of this orbital rotation, it’s been the quality of its video games. Strategy ones in particular.
This piece originally appeared December 21, 2016.
While it’s as remiss to go thanking 2016 itself for good games as it is to blame it for notable people dying—they do that every year, regardless of the time and date!—there’s no escaping the fact that between January and December we’ve been blessed with perhaps the finest roster of strategic video games in history.
I mean...just look at this list of the best of them. Yes, good strategy games come out every year. But examine the quality of each of these titles in isolation, then stack them all up together to remember they all came out within the same 12 month period. How the hell did we find the time/money to play all of these? There’s more than one a month! We couldn’t even find the time to review all of them.
The first new Civ game in six years. And it’s a damn good one.
Many were skeptical about the series’ detour into fiction, only to find that leaving history behind may have been the best thing to happen to Total War in years.
Somehow found a multitude of ways to improve on its near-perfect predecessor. Which, hey, is a former Kotaku Game of The Year winner.
I really hope this game doesn’t get lost in the holiday crush, because it’s one of the most rewarding tactics games in years. Oh, and the Japanese dub was one of the year’s best little surprises.
If you want to manage a theme park like a nerd, maybe this isn’t for you, but if you find joy in building and planning out fun and cool things, this game is a masterpiece.
While it looks like an RTS, it’s actually...a stock market simulator. Even more surprising than that sleight of hand is that it’s a lot of fun.
A triumph, not just of turn-based tactics, but of strategic story-telling. It’s incredible that some of the best art and music of 2016 can be found in a game on this list.
Not quite the 4X revelation people were hoping for, but still a tremendous effort from Paradox, as it’s easily their most accessible strategy game to date.
At the opposite end of Paradox’s accessibility spectrum, Hearts of Iron IV has some weird AI hiccups, but on the whole is a breathtakingly comprehensive simulation of the entire Second World War.
My favourite of the three “Go” games on mobile, because the extra tools at Adam’s disposal make for some more enjoyable puzzles. Also helps that the Deus Ex aesthetic translates so well to such minimal presentation.
Snuck under everyone’s radar a little, maybe because there are too many Warhammer games, but this is a surprisingly fun, traditional RTS about spaceships and very serious British men.
New Fire Emblem? New Fire Emblem. It goes on the list.
In a year of pleasant strategic surprises, this was the nicest. I was expecting a serviceable RTS experience with a dash of Homeworld flavour, not a fantastic piece of strategy design in its own right that felt entirely at home in the long-dormant franchise.
This game isn’t fun, it’s a never-ending kick in the ass that just tricks you into thinking it’s fun. Or at least that’s what I tell myself every time I turn it off, only to turn it right back again the next day.
It’s exhausting just reading back through them all. And those are just the full, final game releases! Endless Space 2's and Ultimate General’s Early Access builds are already looking terrific, and then you have to factor in some very good expansions to the likes of Endless Legend, Panzer Corps, Cities Skylines and even good ol’ Crusader Kings II. Oh, and the Order of Battle series, which has now moved to a kind of modular DLC system on Steam, kept on releasing great new campaigns as well.
I think what made 2016 so special wasn’t just the quantity of quality, but how surprising many of these games were, whether because they were better than we thought or because they simply came out of nowhere. It feels like every strategy game bet on black, and the house got cleaned out.
Few could have seen this coming. The big games came in hot. The smaller games surprised. The ones you suspected might fail actually pulled it off. It was a perfect storm of strategy video games, and even if it’s another decade before we see another lineup like it, that’ll be fine. It’ll have taken us that long to get through 2016's backlog.