The strategy genre has two major sides to its development coin: real-time and turn-based, the former of which is currently the most popular. There’s an allure and a kind of visceral accuracy to the best real-time strategy games as they capture the unstoppable march of time. As a result, all game components and systems model the unstoppable march of time and its effect on strategic and tactical decision-making, giving these types of strategy games a sense of dynamism and a greater emphasis on action.
This combination of quick strategic and/or tactical thinking with sleight-of-hand skill, responsiveness, and agility has made this genre especially suited for competitive play. However, there are plenty of titles that have experimented with this approach, creating a slew of unique experiences that balk trends and influence the genre in meaningful ways.
As it’s a broad genre with a venerable history, we’ve put together a list for any strategy beginners and enthusiasts to refer to immerse themselves in real-time strategy gaming, with one entry per RTS franchise.
The Best RTS Games
20. The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth 2
Developer: EA Los Angeles Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Puzzlingly, fantasy has been a less common choice for RTSs and finds more of a home in either turn-based strategy or other non-strategy genres. There are a few precious gems out there and just like the franchise’s key MacGuffin, The Lord of the Rings: Battle for Middle-earth 2 may be lost to time forever due to unfortunate circumstances as quite the collector’s item.
Though it may be a classic RTS at its core, Battle for Middle-earth shows promise in the ways it deviates and innovates on the genre, specifically with the introduction of hero characters and reliance on troop formations, as well as magic spells and powers. Not to mention, the excellent license the game is based on, providing grounds for an interesting spin-off story going in parallel with Tolkien’s War of the Ring from the books (though its canonicity is suspect).
While some features, particularly custom hero creation, are unbalanced and create some janky and absurd situations, they’re still notable for the freshness and the ideas that they bring. All in all, this series showed signs of brilliance with amazing aesthetics, and still remains one of the great real-time strategy games out there.
19. Kingdom Two Crowns
Developer: Stumpy Squid, Fury Studios, Coatsink Publisher: Raw Fury Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux, PS4, Switch, Xbox One, Android
Not all real-time strategy games are bombastic and stressful affairs. The genre has seen its fair share of experimentation and innovation in smaller indie games, and one such series is Kingdom. There are three titles in the series, all worth checking out, but Two Crowns is the best of the three and embodies exemplary features of indie strategy gaming.
Kingdom is a minimalistic strategy series where players take control of a lord tasked with building up a settlement all the while defending against evil spirits that rampage during the night. Though the game never goes beyond its premise, causing it to feel repetitive and grindy at times, Two Crowns spices up the game by adding on and offline co-op that make the entire experience more fun and exciting.
Coupled with colorful pixel art and pleasant music, Kingdom Two Crowns is one of the best RTS games the indie sphere has to offer.
18. World in Conflict
Developer: Massive Entertainment Publisher: Sierra Entertainment, Vivendi Games, Ubisoft Platform(s): PC
Oddly enough, one of the least represented settings in strategy gaming has been the Cold War and contemporary warfare. World in Conflict not only shed light on this setting, but it also managed to create one of the most engaging and innovative multiplayer experiences of any real-time strategy game.
The crux of World in Conflict’s quality gameplay is that every player picks a tactical combat role, such as armor, helicopters, infantry, or support, as well as calling in off-map strikes, meaning that players have to play in careful coordination with each other to take territory on the battle map. On top of this, World in Conflict is the only game on this list to have an exemplary story that actually features interesting personalities and legitimate character development.
The game may be more arcadey and a bit more chaotic than games like the Wargame series, but it’s still oh so fun and makes for an easy-to-get-into experience with tons of action and tense moments. Sadly, official multiplayer support for World in Conflict has been shut down with no sequel in sight, putting its legacy in limbo, but it perseveres in strategy gaming history as one of the most unique and engaging real-time strategy games of all time.
17. Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
Developer: Tindalos Interactive Publisher: Focus Home Interactive Platform(s): PC
You might think that space combat and ship-based warfare would be an incredibly popular feature for RTSs, but unfortunately they’re quite the rarity. Luckily, the few games that are out there are totally worth it with Battlefleet Gothic being the exemplar of current high-quality space combat gameplay. The Warhammer 40,000 setting only serves to the game’s benefit as it provides excellent grounds for compelling gameplay design, particularly faction variety.
The excellent faction variety feeds directly into Armada’s intense and fast-paced real-time tactical combat where positioning and activation of key abilities can mean split-second success and gaining a crucial battlefield advantage. The game also happens to include an impressive selection of grand strategy-lite lengthy narrative campaigns, with the Necron characters and story being a particular highlight.
Armada does suffer from clunky controls and a slight overreliance on micromanagement, but even in its current state it’s one of the best real-time strategy games out there.
16. Men of War: Assault Squad 2
Developer: Digitalmindsoft Publisher: 1C Company Platform(s): PC
For something more grounded and realistic, Men of War: Assault Squad 2 brings the action onto the battlefields of World War 2. WW2 is one of, if not the most popular historical setting to be adapted in video games, so it’s no surprise that several RTS games set during that bloody war make their way on the list.
With its inspiration clearly inspired by classic RTS with an added degree of historical realism, Men of War impresses with its flexibility to model small squad skirmishes to larger hectic and impressive slugfests. This comes from the game’s innovative command system, where players can give orders to a group of units all the way down to taking manual control of individual soldiers and play the game like a third-person shooter.
Additionally, the game impresses by including many of the major powers of the war, including the often excluded Imperial Japanese armed forces. Though Men of War’s attention to historical detail leads to plenty of gameplay jank and balance issues, it’s not enough to take away from the game’s overall quality and exciting action.
15. Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
Developer: Mimimi Productions Publisher: Daedalic Entertainment, Kalypso Media Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux, PS4, Xbox One
The only stealth-tactics RTS to grace the list, Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is also one of the best of the oft-overlooked and underrated stealth strategy game sub-genre (the more recent Desperados 3 is also worth a look). If many strategy games aim to be open-ended strategic sandboxes or tactical challenges, then Shadow Tactics is much more akin to a complex puzzle game with multiple avenues of approach where timing and deliberate planning take center stage.
Players will command a squad of various Japanese characters from Japan’s post-Sengoku Jidai Edo period and complete scenarios to advance the story. It may be tempting to simply run in guns blazing, or in this case, katanas unsheathed, but due to the overall enemy numerical superiority and relative fragility of the player’s characters, a mix of stealth and decisive offensive action will see the most success and wind the game’s tension to a satisfying breaking point.
But just like in non-strategy stealth games, such a reliance on precise moves and timing can leave the game feeling unfairly punishing and, as a result, frustrating. On the whole though, Shadow Tactics is still an exciting and interesting take on real-time strategy that’s worth looking into.
14. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
Developer: Westwood Studios, EA Pacific Publisher: Electronic Arts Platform(s): PC
The classic RTS genre used to flourish in the 90s and early 2000s with three centerpiece franchises leading the charge, of which the Command and Conquer series chose the pulpy and less serious approach compared to its counterparts. This series has a long and venerable story with a tragic end, but it’s still generally fondly remembered with Red Alert 2 acting as the crux of the entire series’ take on the genre.
From a gameplay standpoint, Red Alert 2 contains all the hallmarks of classic RTS with base-building, power management, resource gathering, unit recruitment, and micro-intensive combat, but it’s the game’s character, humour and aesthetics that really make it standout. Take every hyperbolized cartoony Cold War stereotype and trope and mix it with a healthy dose of crazy science-fiction and you get an unforgettable, flavorful strategy experience.
However, time is beginning to take its toll on the series as many RTS mechanics and features are outdated, generic, and unimpressive compared to its competitors, as well as new and emerging RTS series and games. Nonetheless, Red Alert 2 is an important milestone in the legacy of classic RTS and real-time strategy gaming as a whole.
13. Warhammer 40000: Dawn of War
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: THQ Platform(s): PC
So what do you get when you take Red Alert 2’s shenanigans and over-the-top approach and push it further? Why, you get a Warhammer 40K game, of course. The setting may not be as outwardly and explicitly humorous in its approach, but the choice to wear a self-serious mask paired with gothic and exaggerated architecture barely hides the setting’s satire and parody of science-fiction in general.
As a game, Dawn of War hasn’t quite reached the same status as the Command and Conquer series in its contributions to classic RTSs, but it still has several features that give it a leg up, such as excellent faction and unit variety, as well as extensive unit customization. Though lower in graphical detail and quality compared to more modern titles, Dawn of War’s aesthetics, visual style, and animation work is still exquisite and give the game a timeless feel.
However, Dawn of War is still a game of its time, adhering very closely to its genre’s tropes and not innovating quite enough, but with its interesting campaigns and engaging combat, it’s still one of the best real-time strategy games of all time.
12. Age of Empires 2: Definitive Edition
Developer: Forgotten Empires, Wicked Witch Software, Tantalus Media Publisher: Xbox Game Studios Platform(s): PC
If it’s not immediately apparent, some of the best RTSs of all time are classic RTSs or those similar to them, due to their popularity and solid gameplay structure. Age of Empires 2 is no different and joins Command and Conquer as one of the other pillars of classic RTS gaming.
This time players will find themselves in a historical setting, roughly the Middle Ages, and take command of one of the many factions in either campaigns or competitive skirmish multiplayer. Though Age of Empires may have a decent variety of factions, they all mostly play in a similar manner with minor differences to buffs, units, and buildings for minor differentiation.
One of the advantages of Age of Empires over its counterparts is a somewhat less micro-intensive demand for effective control, meaning there’s greater emphasis on planning, foresight, and creative tactics. It may not be revolutionary in its design, but as an overall package, it’s a rock solid real-time strategy game.
Staying on the topic of innovation, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak is a prequel spin-off game of the well-regarded space combat game series Homeworld, which also comes highly recommended. In many ways, it has a similar appeal as Battle for Middle-earth as it retains a core classic RTS gaming structure, while finding ways to change those dynamics in meaningful and interesting ways.
The biggest point of innovation in Deserts of Kharak is how it plays with the idea of base-building by giving players command of a mobile carrier as their headquarters that acts as a factory, an aircraft carrier, missile carrier, and gunship, with the addition of power-shunting systems for even greater tactical control. Moreover, this game also starts to generally shift the focus from pure resource gathering to unit control and effective tactics, something that future entries leaned into.
From a faction design perspective, Homeworld’s belligerents are sufficiently different in their behavior, but they’re unfortunately not too impressively distinct. Nonetheless, Deserts of Kharak represents a kind of minor shift away but also a continuation of the legacy of classic RTSs, cementing itself as one of the best real-time strategy games of all time.
10. Company of Heroes 2
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: Sega, Feral Interactive Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
Yet another WWII-themed strategy game to make the list, the Company of Heroes series has become the new pillar of the classic RTS in modern gaming, while also subverting and downplaying many traditional tropes of the sub-genre. In particular, the emphasis on unit command and tactical action while minimizing the impact of base-building and reducing the complexities of resource gathering makes this strategy series the current frontrunner in popularity and attention.
On top of subverting tropes, the game’s success lies in its compelling faction design, underexplored Eastern Front setting, and intense multiplayer. Unfortunately, the base game’s frankly offensive and downright terrible single-player campaign does hamper some of the game’s reputation, but in the grand scheme of things, it ends up being more of a footnote that doesn’t take away too much from Company of Heroes’ overall gameplay success.
Undoubtedly, the multiplayer scene is where Company of Heroes lives and breathes with solid easy-to-learn but hard-to-master systems that will offer hundreds if not thousands of hours of competitive and fun matches.
Developer: 11 Bit Studios Publisher: 11 Bit Studios, Merge Games Platform(s): PC, macOS, iOS, PS4, Xbox One, Android
Frostpunk is the definition of video games as art and philosophical thought pieces, along with its spiritual predecessor, This War of Mine. 11 Bit Studios don’t shy away from discussing pressing and often difficult social, economic, cultural, and political topics in strategy gaming, which gives their games a strong relevant intellectual and emotional core that transcends the boundaries of the game itself and can affect the player in the real world, more than most.
Frostpunk is a dieselpunk city builder and management game where players must survive a rapidly developing ice age all the while gathering resources, keeping their population warm, and making difficult socio-economic choices. The excellent theme combined with solid management systems make Frostpunk a compelling experience in its own right.
Compared to some other management games, Frostpunk isn’t quite as in-depth with its mechanics, opting to let its setting and thought-provoking material do most of the heavy-lifting. Despite some minor gameplay shallowness, Frostpunk remains one of the most engaging and relevant real-time strategy games of all time.
8. They Are Billions
Developer: Numantian Games, Blitworks Publisher: Numantian Games, Blitworks Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Modern strategy gaming is currently flourishing with the rise of new sub-genres and innovative systems mixing that either build off, subvert, or play with many traditional genre conventions. The survival strategy sub-genre has been on the rise with They Are Billions as one of the most prominent and successful examples that popularized this vein of strategy games.
They Are Billions immediately grips with its exciting premise of building a settlement and desperately holding out against an endless horde of zombies. This simple yet effective approach creates a consistent sense of dread and tension, as well as giving ample opportunity for methodical strategic and tactical decision-making to best counter the nearly undefeatable threat.
However, Numantian Games’ RTS can come across as a repetitive one-trick pony at times, as the game doesn’t expand beyond its initial premise and simply changes up maps and resources. Nevertheless, as one of the leading examples of a new strategy sub-genre, They Are Billions shuffles its way onto this list as one of the best real-time strategy games of all time.
7. Two Point Hospital
Developer: Two Point Studios
Platform(s): PC, macOS, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
For something more light-hearted, Two Point Hospital is a management game where players take the lead in developing their own medical corporation by establishing successful medical facilities. This game is particularly of note due to its relation to the highly-regarded Theme Hospital from 1997, another quality medical management game.
Two Point Hospital wears its humour and heart on its sleeve (sometimes literally), giving the entire game an endearing and silly charm while freshening up what could’ve easily become a bland spreadsheet game, something the management sub-genre can struggle with. The fun setting and flavor also pairs nicely with Two Point Hospital’s management mechanics of establishing various practices, training personnel, and dealing with geographical and spatial challenges.
The game can certainly become grindy and repetitive at times, simply by nature of it being a management game with periods of empty downtime and having to wait for certain milestones or resources, which slows the pacing of the game down. However, there’s enough to do in Two Point Hospital at any given moment to offset the occasional slow pace, as well the fact that the consistent hilarity from the game’s innate silliness will keep players entertained.
6. Steel Division 2
Developer: Eugen Systems Publisher: Eugen Systems Platform(s): PC
The final WWII game to make the list, Steel Division 2 and its spiritual predecessor, the Wargame series, represent the clearest innovative path forward for real-time strategy gaming – a focus on units and depth of tactical command. In addition, a rich setting, such as the Eastern Front in Steel Division 2 (just like Company of Heroes 2), can go a long way in aiding meaningful game design.
It may not necessarily be perfectly historically accurate, as Steel Division definitely isn’t a simulation game, but it captures many of the broad strokes of WWII warfare, which gives it a leg up on its classic RTS brethren. By far the biggest point of attraction in Steel Division 2, aside from the setting, is the huge variety of units and division army lists for both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht and the intricate combined arms balancing act that players have to consider when going into the awesome Army General single-player scenarios or the intense multiplayer.
Such depth and attention and detail does have the drawback of giving the game an intimidating feel and can be overwhelming with its learning curve — the tutorial isn’t the best, either. However, Steel Division 2 is a game absolutely worth trudging through the complexity and engaging in massive exciting battles, which make it one of the best real-time grand strategy games of all time.
5. Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance
Developer: Gas Powered Games Publisher: THQ, Square Enix Platform(s): PC
Unfortunately, time hasn’t been kind to Supreme Commander, the exemplar of the industrial warfare sub-genre, with recent imitators reaching only a fraction of its success. Unlike Steel Division 2, which focuses on the behavior and abilities of units in an army, Supreme Commander went the other route of focusing on factories, resources, production lines, and overall battle strategy rather than specific unit tactics and formations.
Forged Alliance is the best example of this type of strategy game with its lengthy narrative campaign, creative faction design, and massive scale. In the late 2000s, Supreme Commander was the game to experience matches that had hundreds of units from all branches of forces, leading to plenty of potential from combined arms warfare, especially when teams played against one another.
Time also hasn’t been kind to Forged Alliance’s performance as it struggles to optimally run on modern systems, which can turn the exciting massive battles into laggy slogs. Despite its technical age, Supreme Commander cements its legacy as a brilliant real-time strategy game with its standout creative approach to real-time strategy gaming and excellent potential for strategic decision-making.
Developer: Ludeon Studios Publisher: Ludeon Studios Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
From the sci-fi battlefield to the sci-fi hearth, RimWorld is a colony management game that’s taken the management sub-genre by storm in recent years. On a basic level, it has all the necessary components for a solid and deep gameplay experience with the player having limitless options on how to approach their colony and their people’s well-being.
What Frostpunk and Two Point Hospital aren’t able to attain is the insane potential of RimWorld’s emergent storytelling due to its open-ended nature and presence of specific random event difficult settings. Part of the fun in RimWorld is not only to run an effective frontier world colony, but experience the absolute insanity that can arise from all the horrific and hilarious events that might befall such a remote colony.
These random events and the open-endedness of RimWorld’s management gameplay can definitely leave some players dumbstruck and overwhelmed due to the sheer breadth of systems and limited direction, almost like too many types of cookies in the cookie jar. Once players find their groove though and embrace experimentation, they’ll find the best real-time strategy management game in recent memory.
3. Crusader Kings 3
Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
Aside from a few exceptions, the real-time strategy approach to strategy games is most popular with games that focus on smaller scale tactical combat. However, Paradox Interactive have single handedly taken de facto ownership of the grand strategy sub-genre of games, due to their real-time spin compared to the far more popular turn-based approach for grand strategy gaming.
While we may only mention Crusader Kings 3 here, similar titles like Europa Universalis 4 and Stellaris can also fit here as well. Crusader Kings 3 does to grand strategy gaming what RimWorld did to management games by focusing on emergent storytelling, as players command a Medieval dynasty with the goal of seeing them succeed throughout the ages, by any means necessary.
Not only is the setting excellent and fits the gameplay loop perfectly, but the sheer number of systems is both liberating and overwhelming, as players can really choose whatever path they want to take for their characters, be it sneaky subterfuge or bloodthirsty conquest. Though Paradox grand strategy games have generally had chronic issues with easing players into the endless well of their games, Crusader Kings 3 is arguably the most accessible of these real-time grand strategy games and is the best starting point for this sub-genre.
2. FTL: Faster Than Light
Developer: Subset Games Publisher: Subset Games Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux, iOS
From scheming for supremacy to fighting for survival, in FTL players act as captain of their starship trying to outrun a nigh-unstoppable pursuing rebel force. While decidedly smaller-scale than most games on this list, FTL is definitely not lacking in variety and volume of content.
The game’s premise may be simple, but players will find a treasure trove of both nail-biting and challenging tactical battles and plenty of opportunity for emergent story-telling in this timeless real-time roguelike strategy classic. Structured as a roguelike, FTL brings nearly limitless replayability with its impressive array of unlockable ships, as well as a slew of interesting aliens to have part of the crew.
It can get grindy and punishing at times due to the game’s built-in randomness, but that only serves to give FTL an addictive quality. On top of its incredible pixel visual style and award-winning music, FTL is a must-have for any strategy enthusiast, nay, any gaming enthusiast to have in their library.
1. Wargame: Red Dragon
Developer: Eugen Systems Publisher: Eugen Systems, Focus Home Interactive Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
It may not have the same quality-of-life-improvements as the more recent Steel Division 2, it may have some cheesy balance issues, and it may have some questionable implementation of naval units, but Wargame: Red Dragon is hands down the best real-time strategy game of all time (European Escalation and Airland Battle are also fun to revisit). Red Dragon’s overall quality works on three levels: innovation, setting, and gameplay systems.
From an innovation standpoint along with Company of Heroes, the Wargame series has moved the classic RTS sub-genre towards being far more unit and team-focused, giving the game an incredible amount of replayability and tactical depth. Just like World in Conflict, Red Dragon is set during the Cold War, but unlike the former, the latter has a far more extensive representation of nations and their armed forces, such as Japan, the Koreas, and China. From a gameplay perspective, the Steel Division series wouldn’t exist without Wargame, in regard to the mind-blowingly massive unit variety.
Though the AI is something that nearly every real-time strategy game struggles with, Red Dragon’s multiplayer focus and overall massive potential for in-depth tactical gameplay overshadow any major issues that it may have, making it the best real-time strategy game of all time.
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