Sometimes we play video games to enjoy a mindless adventure or have the life scared out of us. We seek out epic quests filled with action and tragedy, hoping to get lost in excellent writing and superb storytelling. Then, there are times where we want to challenge ourselves. It’s not about being immersed in a narrative or getting lost in adventure. We want to test our ability to strategize and plan. That’s where this list of the best strategy games comes in.
Representing the best of the strategy genre, these titles range from punishingly difficult to accessible. Some require hours to completely understand every aspect of gameplay, while others are easier to jump into without worrying about instructions. If there is one constant among all of them, though, it’s that they perfectly define strategy gaming.
NOTE: we are only picking one entry per franchise.
The Best Strategy Games
15. Into the Breach
Developer: Subset Games Publisher: Subset Games
The stakes are high, but the battles are miniaturized in this turn-based strategy game from the team behind FTL: Faster Than Light. When the gigantic Vek arrive on a futuristic Earth, it’s up to you to man giant customizable mechs and defend humanity. Into the Breach uses procedurally generated scenarios to keep things fresh across the game’s multiple islands.
Defending Earth’s installations against the Vek requires careful planning, especially as each scenario has a turn countdown. Fail to accomplish your task by the last turn, and you’ll effectively hand the planet over to the Vek. The maps are small, but this doesn’t make the scenarios easier. In fact, it can add to the stress of planning your moves knowing the Vek are just a few squares away.
Into the Breach borrows few elements from Subset Games’ preceding title, FTL, but is largely a new experience. If you have the patience to learn the nuances of a relatively complex, but simple-looking game, you’ll understand why Into the Breach makes an impact on this list of the best strategy games.
14. Rise of Nations: Extended Edition
Developer: SkyBox Labs Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Ever wanted to take an entire nation through multiple generations, starting in an age of simple huts with straw roofs and advancing to the atomic era? Then you’ll want to install Rise of Nations right away. The Extended Edition is the high definition rerelease of the critically acclaimed real-time strategy, featuring all of the fun of the original with improvements to textures and animations.
Though the HD upgrade isn’t necessary to enjoy building an empire up from scratch, it certainly doesn’t hurt as you go from attacking buildings with fire archers to launching waves of dive bombers on thriving metropolises. Tired of the back-and-forth that doesn’t seem to be gaining you any land? Rise of Nations lets you develop and drop nuclear missiles on your opponents, resulting in a mushroom cloud of fiery destruction that’s sure to turn the tide of war.
Often compared to the Age of Empires series, Rise of Nations does well to stand on its own, even if it may fall short of the near-perfection that its competitor achieved.
Developer: New World Computing Publisher: New World Computing
Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest is a unique take on the strategy genre. You’ll oversee a village of people, improving living conditions, building essential facilities, and upgrading your military units; but you’ll also take to the map, moving groups of units as far as their stamina takes them each turn. Carefully scout ahead to avoid getting sucked into a battle you can’t win or wander aimlessly and hope for the best.
Unlike real-time strategy games, when combat is initiated, it switches to turn-based combat where your customizable band of soldiers can auto-attack or be commanded individually. It’s far less involved than modern turn-based combat, but the simplicity of it is deceptive. A Strategic Quest isn’t the type of game you can just breeze through. As the game progresses, enemies are harder to kill, and encounters that aren’t well-planned can go awry very quickly.
What the game lacks in polish, it makes up for in content and charm.
12. Europa Universalis IV
Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive
As Europa Universalis IV shows us with its level of depth, becoming a stable world power isn’t easy. It takes patience and a clear mind. It takes understanding the value of your provinces. It takes the might of a strong military and a rich economy. All of these things come into play in this strategy game, which transports players, acting as ruler of a European nation, from the Late Middle Ages to the mid-19th century.
How you thrive as a leader is up to you. Rely solely on military strength and you’ll become a colonial superpower at the expense of rebellions and civilian unrest. Build a massive economy and your people will be happy, but neighboring provinces will surely have their eyes on your goods.
There’s a delicate balance to achieve global perfection, but Europa Universalis IV lets you teeter on the brink of tyranny and fair rule. Though it may look like Risk on the surface, Paradox Development Studio focused on providing players the choice of how they’ll want to rule – with a strong fist, with pockets filled with gold, or honor and diplomacy.
Back in the 1990s, Mythos Games and MicroProse brought PC owners UFO Enemy Unknown, a sci-fi strategy game where players monitored the skies in search of extraterrestrial and deployed military units to take on intergalactic intruders.
Firaxis Games brought the classic series back to life, using many of the concepts from the original 1994 cult hit. The necessary upgrades to gameplay and visuals make this a suitable remake, right down to the often punishing difficulty.
Players take control of XCOM at the height of an alien invasion. Strategy is delivered two ways in Enemy Unknown: with management of the multinational paramilitary organization and in heart-pounding turn-based combat.
The stakes are high with each mission, even if you happen to squeeze by with a victory. Lose a soldier on the battlefield, even one you’ve spent hours beefing up, and they’ll be stricken from your roster completely. When you’re not engaging enemy units, you’ll manage XCOM’s research and tech, monitor global activity, and forge alliances with the world’s nations while keeping their people safe.
XCOM is relentless, throwing everything at players to deliver a thought-provoking, strategic experience that will have you guessing your every move – on and off the battlefield.
10. Crusader Kings II
Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Pegged as a “dynasty simulator,” Crusader Kings II charges players with successfully controlling a Medieval kingdom. Developed by the same studio behind Europa Universalis IV, Crusader Kings II shares many similarities and even ends in the 15th century, where Europa picks up.
Rather than controlling entire nations as in Europa, Crusader Kings II has players playing as individual rulers. This leads to differences in gameplay that gives the game a completely different feel. Controlling a ruler is quite a bit different than managing an entire nation and puts a more personalized spin on the concept.
You can still rely on diplomacy to progress your dynasty, but some may find the aggressive approach to be the more enjoyable one. Crusader Kings II also has players thinking of the future with children that take on the traits of their parents. Marry well, and your offspring may be suited to take your place at the head of the dynasty. So long as you leave one behind worth ruling over.
Real-time strategy gets historical with Company of Heroes. Set during the events of World War II, players assume control of a faction of the United States military in a robust single-player campaign that spans D-Day and the subsequent Battle of Normandy. A multiplayer mode lets you switch sides to control the Axis or remain a commander of the Allies in two different game modes.
Since there was very little base building happening during the Battle of Normandy, players can take control of buildings as they push further into France. Occupied civilian buildings can be converted into barracks, which is where additional units are spawned for combat. Company of Heroes uses the realistic setting well, creating an intense back-and-forth between the Allies and Axis forces as both struggles for control.
To keep in the fight, both sides must take supply lines, which reduces the amount of resources that filter into the opposing side. Fewer resources lead to diminished manpower, which, in turn, will shift the tide of the war.
8. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
Developer: Westwood Pacific Publisher: EA Games
You can’t talk about strategy games and not have the Command & Conquer series come up at least once. Picking up after the conclusion of Red Alert, the sequel sends players to the battlefield to control both Allied and Soviet troops in a pair of campaigns set in the alternative history where Hitler didn’t exist and Joseph Stalin failed to conquer Europe. When the Soviets invade the United States, it launches a semi-global war and a different take on the Cold War.
We could talk all day about how much fun Command & Conquer is and how the strategy and base-building is everything you could want out of a game, but there is something more important to focus on. Those live action cutscenes.
Starring Twin Peaks alumni Ray Wise and Eight Legged Freaks heroine Kari Wuhrer, Command & Conquer’s story is a mess that is too corny not to sit through. Even if the gameplay were atrocious, which it is far from, there is no doubt players would suffer through it to watch the likes of Udo Kier do their best with the material they were given. Red Alert 2 is a perfect storm of greatness on many fronts, but we will never forget the live action actors.
Having to choose one Total War title out of the dozens that are out there is about as torturous as jumping into the series without any prior knowledge of it. Eventually, however, you learn the ropes, emerge victories, and, in this case, decide that Total War: Warhammer II deserves the recognition on a list of the best strategy games.
What started off as a tabletop game from the 1980s blossomed into a viable video game franchise, with a multitude of real-time and turn-based strategy games. Total War fits the latter billing and improves upon the mechanics laid out in Total War: Warhammer. After choosing between 12 playable races, five of which are introduced in Warhammer II, players take to a top-down map to control an army of siege, melee, and aerial units.
Whereas real-time strategy games are a little less about strategic placement of troops (especially older titles), Total War forces you to plan out your position on the battlefield. When you see enemy banners marching toward your army, you’ll want them in the best formation for a suitable sneak attack or strong defense.
With great patience and a clear understanding of what each unit is capable of, you can dominate the battlefield and send your enemies running.
6. Supreme Commander
Developer: Gas Powered Games Publisher: THQ
Supreme Commander may have one of the coolest building mechanics seen in any game. The titular unit, also known as an Armored Command Unit, transports buildings through a quantum gateway, making for one of the most fun means of base-building in the real-time strategy genre.
While building up your base and summoning units is a big part of Supreme Commander, it’s the warfare that really shines and makes the game stand out in a sea of great RTS games. Unlike other games, which provide an accessible minimap that takes up a valuable portion of the screen, Supreme Commander utilizes a “strategic zoom” feature, which lets you zoom out to a minimap view of the level seamlessly. When the battle heats up and you have units scattered all over the map, it’s a bit easier to manage bouncing around the map when not working with a small version of the same map.
Supreme Commander features many small details that help it stand out, including units that are proportionately sized. It may seem minor, but when the game’s largest and most powerful units are summoned, they can literally crush smaller forces.
Supreme Commander has some of the most satisfying combat, with or without the towering colossi units that can decimate entire armies in seconds. Couple that with strategic base-building and you have the makings of a great strategy game.
There is something about seeing your progression that’s so rewarding. In Age of Empires II, said progression is a literal advancement across four “Ages.”
Starting in the Dark Age, players gather resources and upgrade their bases to rise to the Imperial Age, all while defending their homestead and building an army to crush their opponents. There is nothing like lining up rows of archers and knights as your trebuchets make quick work of your enemy’s buildings.
Just about everything in Age of Empires II was so smooth and lent to one of the most rewarding real-time strategy games to date. Even Age of Empires III had a difficult time matching the quality of its predecessor, despite the added gameplay mechanics and improved visuals.
Age of Empires II is a classic that is still fun to play even 20 years later. The campaign is spread out across five scenarios, each one following a different historical figure. Featuring William Wallace, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Edward Longshanks, and other names only some history dorks may remember, the five campaigns offer a great deal of variety with a different take on each individual’s history.
4. Civilization IV
Developer: Firaxis Games Publisher: 2K Games
The world is your oyster. Will you expand across it with force or diplomacy? In Civilization IV, you learn that, sometimes, the choice isn’t really yours. After taking control of a historic civilization, you’ll be placed in a resource-laden map and given the tools needed to turn your small village into a thriving empire.
To do so, you must strategically manage the land around you, build up your armies, and, when the opportunity arises, make friends with bordering colonies. Or, you can focus strictly on your military and try to decimate those around you.
The Civilization series has always been about choices, and Civilization IV expands upon that concept. Along with managing individual units and gathering resources, players also control their budding empire’s government and religion. While religion isn’t new to the series, it plays a more prominent role in Civilization IV. Your choice of faith not only impacts your civilization, but it can also impact those around you should you be influential enough to help it spread.
Sid Meier’s Civilization series is a meticulous one that requires patience and careful planning. Try to advance too quickly, and you can find yourself crushed beneath the feet of your enemies or the savages that inhabit the lands.
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Expansions don’t tend to surpass the quality of the source material, but StarCraft: Brood War took the already engaging story just a step further, tossing in new faction units and locations for good luck. Brood War picks up after the events of StarCraft and follows the Terran, Zerg, and Protoss factions as they find a way to survive together in the same galactic space.
When StarCraft was first revealed in 1996, it wasn’t quite the animal we fell in love with when it released two years later. That’s right, there was a time when Blizzard released its games only two years after the initial reveal. After some retooling, the result was the moody space-drama that spawned the Brood War expansion.
While the core gameplay remained the same, Brood War launched with new maps, music, upgrades, and units that helped it earn a slightly more favorable response than the game it expands upon.
2. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment Publisher: Blizzard Entertainment
Back when Blizzard could do no wrong, games like Warcraft III were the pinnacle of RTS gaming. Continuing the story we’ve been following since Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, Reign of Chaos ups the ante quite a bit with new gameplay mechanics such as heroes and items; a new, more vibrant art style; and the Undead and Night Elf factions.
Everything we loved about the original two entries returns, including memorable characters like Grom Hellscream and Uther Lightbringer and familiar base-building mechanics. Despite a few added elements, fans of the Warcraft series are more than capable of jumping into Reign of Chaos without hesitation.
Warcraft III is the moment when the lore expanded large enough to fill the vast World of Warcraft, and the payoff is an incredible RTS adventure across four unique campaigns. As can be expected with Blizzard at the helm, cutscenes were visceral and filled with incredible moments like Thrall and Grom’s fight against Mannoroth and when Arthas Menethil… well, we’ll err on the side of caution and avoid spoilers, especially with Warcraft III Reforged releasing in the future.
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: THQ/SEGA
Warhammer 40,000 is one of the most popular real-time strategy games – ever. So, of course, one would wind up at the top of a list of the best strategy games.
The chaotic gameplay of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War received an upgrade with the anticipated sequel. Rather than have players focus on tedious base-building and preparing defensive measures, Dawn of War II puts you right on the battlefield as one of four factions. When you choose your mission, you select the units you want fighting for you. When they die, that’s it. There are no barracks you can frantically summon new units from.
Since there was a shift in focus to only combat-driven gameplay, new elements had to be added to ensure the experience doesn’t get stale quickly. More of a focus is placed on cover to add an additional layer of strategy when it comes to engaging the enemy. It also adds to the number of things that can be destroyed on screen, which is always a perk.
The many changes made from Dawn of War and Dawn of War II almost make them feel like two different series. Improved AI that sends troops running when they’re under fire, more accurate sizing, and improved physics all add to the frantic firefights, which frame an engaging narrative that spans multiple planets.