The PC is home to just about every type of video game under the sun, but few are as quintessentially PC as strategy games.
Because it’s such a popular (and important) type of game for the platform, and because I’ve spent way too much time playing them over the past few years, I thought I’d help folks out by putting together a list of what I consider to be the very best strategy games for the very best system to play them on.
So what counts as a strategy game? That’s a good question. One that, thanks to video gaming’s ceaseless drive to remove all meaning from its genre names, we may never be able to settle on. The lines blur so much between “strategy” and “RTS” and “grand strategy” and “management” and “simulation” that I’ve tried to restrict this list to games that, well, most people would simply agree (through a gut feeling) were OK with being called “strategy games”.
Here, then, are the best games to play if you feel like taking charge of something, ruining an economy and/or driving an army across the fields of your enemies.
Note: Originally published in November 2016, this list has since been updated to reflect new entries and include links to refreshed coverage of some classics.
What more can I say? A titan in the field, it stands as not just the best Civilization game, but one of the best games ever released on the PC. Whatever your strategic cup of tea, be it war, diplomacy or exploration, Civilization V has you covered.
And yes, I know that Civilization VI is out and is very good, but I think its obsession with yields and its lesser AI means it can’t quite match the complete package of its predecessor.
It’s 2016. Bearing this in mind, go play a shooter from 2010. Or a sports game. Or, well, anything else from 2010. Look how (relatively) basic it is! Notice how advances in game design and technology have rendered so many of these former classics obsolete. Now go and play Civilization V. I’ll see you in six months. If we’re lucky.
This spot on the list used to be kept warm by Crusader Kings II, but I think the time has come to replace it with the sequel, Crusader Kings III. While lacking in so much of the breadth and depth of additional content that Paradox have released for the former over the years, the latter’s gentler interface and more pleasant visuals (not to mention its own gameplay innovations, like a vastly-improved way of waging wars) mean it’s easily the one I’d recommend to people.
Crusader Kings III is a game that takes in 600 years of human history, from the 9th century through to the 15th, with all the geopolitical conflict, religious turmoil and interpersonal struggles that went along with it. So...where do we even begin with this game, let along this review?
On the one hand, it’s a lot like Civilization! On the other, it’s not, building on Civ’s foundations with a lot of cool, new and interesting ideas, from its slick user interface to the way its fiction results in some absolutely insane faction characteristics. It’s also great to see a strategy game with a genuine sense of style. Those looking for a proper Civilization alternative could try Amplitude’s more recent Humankind, but really, I think Endless Legend is still the stronger offering if you want to play a 4X game that’s a little different.
If I sound excited about this game, that’s because it’s an exciting game to talk about if you’re into stuff like this. It’s such a breath of fresh air, the perfect example of a game taking Civilization as its base but then shooting off on its own to add (or invent) aspects that compliment those foundations so well.
For me, the RTS genre died in 2006. Not from a cataclysmic event, but because that’s the year Company of Heroes was released and perfected the formula, basically saying “shut it down, we don’t need any more of these.” No game—even it’s own drab sequel—has come close to matching it since. Replacing frantic mouse-clicking and boring build orders with a constant need for actual tactics, its slower pace and more realistic battlefield conditions mean that even ten years on this is still an absolute classic.
The Total War series remains a pillar of PC strategy gaming, and while Empire is my personal favourite, and Warhammer the more popular recent entries, I tend to recommend Shogun 2 first. It’s more functional and focused than the Total War games before (or since), and it still looks absolutely gorgeous. Bonus: its big expansion, Fall of the Samurai, is probably the best thing in the entire Total War series.
They say you can never go home again. Well, with Shogun 2 Creative Assembly has done just that. Shogun 2 may be re-treading familiar ground, but it’s doing so with a range of features and innovations both new and repaired that make this the most polished, focused and enjoyable Total War game to date.
The art. The music. The way it confronted a difficult control challenge—moving around a fleet of ships in empty 3D space—and absolutely nailed it. The recent remakes really only touched the sound and visuals, because everything else about Homeworld remains almost perfect.
Homeworld was released in 1999. The 20th century. Play its remastered edition in 2015, though, and you’d be forgiven for thinking it was a brand new video game. Almost everything about it — and I’m not talking about its new visuals — feels fresh.
Inspired by the classic Panzer General, Panzer Corps is a (relatively) simple turn-based game that still manages to pack an amazing amount of depth (and content) away. If you want to fight the entirety of the Second World War but don’t want to spend hours learning complex rules or menus, this is the game for you. This game has since had a sequel released, which looks a lot nicer, but also plays slower and lacks a lot of the original’s extra content, so Panzer Corps is still the one I’d recommend.
The game’s strength comes from its simplicity. This isn’t a game that asks you to learn 150 menu commands or keyboard shortcuts. Because all you have to worry about is moving units then having them fire (and occasionally resupply), the majority of your time can be spent on what matters most: tactics.
This may seem a surprising choice, but World in Conflict is a very good strategy game. It picks a spot in the genre—somewhere between Blizzard’s chaotic immediacy and Total War’s big-map tactics—and nails it, constantly taxing both your small-scale reactions and broader strategic concerns. It’s also got a weirdly goofy, lovable feel to it you don’t often get in this most serious of genres, from its over-the-top adherence to its 1989 setting to Alec Baldwin’s “Jack Donaghy in fatigues” campaign narration.
I didn’t think XCOM 2 had any wiggle room left to improve on the first game. How wrong I was. Turns out that by adding stealth/visibility systems, honing the strategic metagame and greatly increasing the cinematic flair of the game you can make something great greater.
What astounds me about XCOM 2 is how often it’s not bullshit. With such high stakes and so many intertwining systems constantly pushing the player forward, it could easily have devolved into a hair-trigger, save-scumming frustration fest. It doesn’t. XCOM 2 masterfully creates the illusion that the odds are completely against you, while giving you numerous opportunities to Rocky your way back to the top. You’ve just gotta stay nimble. You’ve just gotta think.
I don’t think any game, even up to the contemporary StarCraft II and Deserts of Kharak, has been able to excel at the traditional RTS model—mine, build and deploy—better than Age of Kings. The scale of the maps, and the armies you could build, and the emphasis on fortifications...it all just came together perfectly. If you’re curious, the recent Definitive Edition is definitely the best way to check out this classic.
Let Captains and Colonels handle the small-scale stuff. Hearts of Iron IV puts you in command of an entire nation’s war effort, from the production of weaponry to the deployment of armies. It’s an intentional logistical nightmare, and once tamed can produce some of the most rewarding experiences in all of video games, especially with its endless variations of alternate history.
Hearts of Iron IV isn’t a game that gives you a gun and asks you to fight a war. It gives you a war and asks you to win it.
I love these games, and think they’re all excellent (and representative of different types of strategy game), but they just couldn’t quite make the cut.
Unity of Command II, StarCraft II, The Banner Saga, Endless Space 2, Alpha Centauri, Command & Conquer Red Alert, WarCraft III, Europa Universalis IV, Desperadoes 3 & Sid Meier’s Colonization.