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 with the best strategy games.
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 comes in, so whether it’s 4X, real time, tower defense, or war games, we have you covered.
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 strategy game entry per franchise.
The Best Strategy Games
20. Desperados III
Developer: Mimimi Games Publisher: THQ Nordic Platform: PC, PS4, XB1
The west is wild in this prequel to the rootin’ tootin’, gunslingin’ Desperados series. Travel back to where it all began for John Cooper and his band of miscreants in this technically impressive, visually appealing strategy game.
Desperados III takes core elements from the original title and modernizes them for a strategic experience set in the untamed west. You may love bursting into taverns, guns blazing, but Mimimi Games has crafted an adventure that works best with stealth and a cunning personality. You won’t get far if your tactic is to rush into every scenario, especially since you’re perpetually outnumbered.
Use character abilities to string together stealth attacks and maneuvers to unravel the story of how the infamous John Cooper rose to the rank of a Desperado.
Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive Platform: PC, PS4, XB1
There’s a vast galaxy out there begging to be explored. It’s no easy feat, however, as much will stand in your way. If you can battle your way through deadly alien races and survive the rough conditions of unexplored worlds, you may uncover the greatest wonders of deep space.
Stellaris sends players on a quest across the stars to explore and build a dominion. Strategically construct space stations near distant planets to expand your reach and uncover unexpected treasures. You’re not the only one trying to extend your territory, however, and crossing the wrong extraterrestrial fleet is sure to start an interstellar conflict.
How you go about space exploration is up to you in this procedurally generated strategic space simulation. The choices you make will shape your journey across the galaxy or put a sudden stop to it.
18. Hearts of Iron IV
Developer: Paradox Development Studio Publisher: Paradox Interactive Platform: PC
World War II is likely the most commonly recreated conflict in the gaming industry. That’s certainly not a complaint, especially with series like Hearts of Iron utilizing the real stories and scenarios to craft engaging and strategic video games.
Hearts of Iron IV continues the popular series and puts you in control of any nation during the Second World War. Every aspect of your nation’s military force is under your control, and it’s up to you to lead it to victory. From the leading world powers that were at the forefront of the conflict to small nations caught in the crossfire, you can experience the war from all angles.
Hearts of Iron IV is a real-time war simulation that prides itself on authenticity. When you roll into the battlefield, you’ll be doing so with equipment and on vehicles pulled right out of the 1940s. With these weapons of war, you’ll aim to negotiate peace – either through force or intimidation.
Developer: Shiro Games Published: Shiro Games Platform: PC, PS4, XB1, Switch
Step into the role of a seafaring conqueror in Northgard, a strategy game that puts you in control of a Viking clan. In the wake of a high king’s murder, Viking clans are drawn into a journey of discovery as the king’s heir, Rig, flees to a new world and uncovers the truth behind his father’s death.
As a clan leader, you’ll build up your settlement, train warriors, carefully manage resources, and expand your territory to help Rig on his quest. Northgard follows in the footsteps of classic real-time strategy games but wields its own adventure filled with human and mythical adversaries.
Can you leave a lasting legacy? Or will the horrors of the new continent bring only death to you and your people? Play smart, stockpile resources, and assign jobs to your villagers to keep expanding your reach and your power.
16. Sins of a Solar Empire
Developer: Ironclad Games Publisher: Stardock Entertainment Platform: PC
The real-time strategy genre goes intergalactic with Sins of a Solar Empire. Build a thriving empire in the deepest reaches of space and conquer star systems to increase your power. With a strong military, you can become a feared ruler, but it’s going to take a lot of hard work to amass that kind of infamy.
Sins of a Solar Empire charge players with expanding their influence in the galaxy. Gather resources, build space-aged structures, forge helpful alliances, break those holding you back, and train a military capable of crushing your enemies in this classic real-time strategy experience.
Sins of a Solar Empire allows you to be the ruler you think you’re capable of being, even if that means being a ruthless tyrant. Ironclad Games released Sins of a Solar Empire in 2008 and followed it up with three expansions that added new units, mechanics, and scenarios to make your conquering of space much more fun.
15. Into the Breach
Developer: Subset Games Publisher: Subset Games Platform(s): PC, Switch
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 Platform(s): PC
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.
13. Heroes of Might and Magic: A Strategic Quest
Developer: New World Computing Publisher: New World Computing Platform(s): PC
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 Platform(s): PC
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.
Developer: Firaxis Games Publisher: 2K Games Platform(s): PC, PS3, Vita Xbox 360, iOS, Android
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.
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