While classic RTS and 4X strategy games may be taking up the spotlight in the discourse surrounding the strategy genre, one of the most prolific and expansive subsets in the genre is tower defense. The best tower defense games are technically relatively simple in their structure in their feature set, due to their usual focus on single-player action with the goal of defending against increasing hordes of enemies.
More recently, just like the strategy genre as a whole, tower defense games are starting to evolve and take new innovative forms, while maintaining the core addictive gameplay. Here are the best tower defenses of all time that represent the old, the new, and the funky, with one entry per series.
The Best Tower Defense Games
10. Sons of Ra
Developer: Pharaoh Hound Games Publisher: Pharaoh Hound Games Platform(s): PC
There are three major frontiers for the development of tower defense games: multiplayer, open maps, and genre hybridization. Sons of Ra makes the list as a tower defense game for its advancements in competitive multiplayer, something few games in this subset have succeeded.
In Sons of Ra, players will play 1-on-1 matches with an opponent, tasked with destroying their temple, by sending units down set lanes and constructing towers. This approach to tower defense leads to a highly dynamic, fast-paced, and micro-intensive push-of-war where players will have to think quickly and hone their resource management and timing.
Sons of Ra does fall into the trap that most tower defense games suffer from, which is limited gameplay options and grindy repetitiveness. However, Pharaoh Hound Games does enough with the unique Egyptian board game aesthetic, impactful divine abilities, and variety of gods to give Sons of Ra a distinct identity.
From developments in multiplayer modes to genre hybridization, Sanctum 2 is a unique blend of first-person shooter mechanics and strategic tower placement challenge. The first-person perspective and shooter action alone successfully ramp up the intense gameplay and sense of desperation that’s so characteristic of tower defense games.
The change in perspective doesn’t just give a different view of the battlefield, but actively places the player right in the middle of the maze-like battlefields that they themselves craft by placing walls, platforms, and towers. This keeps the defenders invested and can create for intense cooperative matches with each player taking on distinct characters with their own weapons and abilities. The first-person view also makes tower placement a fun challenge, as you will also need to traverse the defenses meant to keep enemies busy.
The game also has a bright and vibrant aesthetic and sleek sci-fi aesthetic, though the disappointingly few enemy types can look dated at this point. The unique blend of shooter and strategy, as well as the cooperative gameplay, still make Sanctum 2 a worthwhile venture.
8. Toy Soldiers: Complete
Developer: Signal Studios Publisher: Signal Studios, Krome Studios Platform(s): PC
After seeing Pixar’s cornerstone Toy Story, I always wondered if the packs of model plastic soldiers did glorious battle when I was away. Now, there’s at least a virtual platform available to play out these massive battles in Toy Soldiers: Complete, which incorporates the original WW1-set Toy Soldiers, Toy Soldiers: Cold War, and a slew of DLC packs all into one convenient package.
Toy Soldiers stands out most prominently with its varied map design and impressive number of units, along with the ability for players to take control of towers, vehicles, aircraft, and special units to do battle against waves of enemies. Maps can vary from wide open battlefields with multiple lanes of approach to claustrophobic and packed urban terrain with limited lines of sight, challenging the player to position their towers carefully. The player’s preparations all come to a head when the hilariously over the top boss units come knocking and really put the defenses to the test.
Luckily, it actually successfully escapes the feeling of repetition due to the sheer amount of content and mission variety, though at this point its graphics, controls, and performance prevent it from attaining a truly ageless status. The creative setting and wish-fulfilling premise of Toy Soldiers: Complete is certainly its major strength and makes it one of the best tower defense games of all time.
7. Orcs Must Die! 3
Developer: Robot Entertainment Publisher: Robot Entertainment, Stadia Games and Entertainment Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X & S, Stadia
The action genre seems to be the most common to hybridize with the strategy component of tower defense as it’s an effective way of adding tactical options on top of the standard tower or trap placement and keep the player in the thick of the fighting. Orcs Must Die! 3 is the latest in a trilogy of excellent tower defense games that started all the way back in 2011.
Despite the game’s gruesome title, Orcs Must Die will immediately disarm you with its cartoony charm, sense of humor, and fun characters. This approach perfectly feeds into battlefield readability when you’re getting overrun by hordes of orcs, goblins, and ogres, so that you can quickly discern important targets and get a read on the overall defense effort. The third person action-oriented approach of the gameplay does make the tower, or in this case, trap defense aspect somewhat less important, but on the whole these two elements are balanced out well enough so as not to overshadow one another too much.
Since the game is so character-focused, the developers added in a robust unlock tree, though power balancing is a bit of an issue with some items and weapons and could with some tweaking. Nevertheless, if you’re less into the cerebral side of tower defense, Orcs Must Die! 3 is an excellent pick.
6. Defense Grid 2
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment Publisher: Hidden Path Entertainment, 505 Games Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux, PS4, Switch, Xbox One
Speaking of cerebral tower defense, Defense Grid 2 is one such high-quality game that ditches the fantasy shenanigans of Orcs Must Die and goes for a sci-fi setting, complete with meteors, tesla weapons, and all sorts of complex gadgetry and weaponry. Just like the excellent Orcs Must Die series, Defense Grid 2’s predecessor is also worth checking out, though the second installment has a number of advantages that help it make it on the list.
Arguably the most impressive element of defense Grid 2 is its creative multiplayer mode, where players each defend a base, but as one player eliminates enemies on their map, they get added to the attack pool of the other player in a kind of roundabout or indirect competitive mode. Another core strength of defense Grid is its map variety and map design ranging from multi-level and multi-path winding mazes to more packed and flexible missions where you can directly affect the movement of the invading forces.
Tower defense games usually don’t stand out much in their graphical style and consequently, Defense Grid 2 falters in that department with dated graphics, in both texture detail and weapon effects. Innovations in multiplayer and mission variety, though, make defense Grid 2 a seminal game in the subset of tower defense strategy games.
Of all the games on the list, Bloons TD 6 is most representative of a traditional tower defense game in its overall structure. This mostly comes down to the fact that players can do little to affect the path of the invading balloons and blimps, but that definitely doesn’t mean that Bloons TD 6 is a bad game – quite the opposite.
Don’t be fooled by the game’s cutesy and disarming artstyle, as Bloons is one of the most challenging tower defense games out there, especially on higher difficulties and in later levels. Amidst all the challenge, players have a great variety of monkey towers and abilities to play around with, along with upgrade paths and technology unlocks that can help customize and diversify your defense strategy.
Gameplay-wise, it’s quite hard to fault Bloons TD 6, though the only annoyance keeping the game further down on the list is its somewhat predatory in-game monetization that’s a holdover from its implementation on mobile devices. Luckily, Bloons TD 6 has a huge number of modes and the core addictive gameplay will ensure that you keep coming back for further challenges, be it standard missions or the crazy boss events.
4. Creeper World 4
Developer: Knuckle Cracker Publisher: Knuckle Cracker Platform(s): PC
The Creeper World series has mostly flown under the radar, which is quite the shame as it has some of the most innovative gameplay for a tower defense game due to its thematic genre hybridization with the logistics sub-genre, along with its unique enemy type – the Creep. In this game, instead of defending specific lanes or paths that enemies will take, the Creep is this liquid-like entity that oozes over all types of terrain, which should challenge even veteran tower defense enthusiasts.
The expansive logistics and resource system in Creeper World 4 will ensure players aren’t just building combat towers to hold back the Creep, but also placing transport lines and refineries to supply vital resources to the frontline structures to keep up the war effort. In addition, Creeper World has a terraforming feature, which means players can tame the landscape in their favor to help direct and limit the Creep’s spread into choke points and manageable areas. In effect, players can create their own lanes in open-ended and flexible maps, something few tower defense games can boast.
The flipside of this increased complexity is that more casual tower defense audiences may be taken aback by the sheer number of moving parts and that tower variety does suffer a bit in comparison to other games of this type. The bottom line, though, is that Creeper World 4 innovates on a few core elements of this subset, which easily makes it one of the best tower defense games out there.
3. Plants vs Zombies
Developer: PopCap Games Publisher: PopCap Games, Electronic Arts Platform(s): PC, macOS, iOS, PS3, Xbox 360, DS, Vita, Android, Blackberry 10
You definitely can’t go wrong with the classics and of all the games, Plants vs Zombies is certainly a household name in the strategy genre as a whole. One of the main reasons for its success is of course its hilarious setting and charming aesthetic, which makes it a highly accessible strategy game, which goes hand in hand with the overall low barrier of entry of tower defenses games generally.
It’s really the gameplay and the huge amount of content that gives Plants vs Zombies a leg up, be it the unique effects of the player’s defending plants, the ever-evolving enemy types, or the constantly changing environments and modes. The best way to describe the unlocking dynamics of Plants vs Zombies is almost like a near endless Russian Doll, which constantly reveals new layers and surprises, as you reveal new elements.
It may not be as complex as Creeper World 4 or as open-ended as the next entries on the list, but it still gets the core of the tower defense experience, more so than even Bloons TD 6. And even though Plants vs Zombies is a relatively old game, it’s still worth coming back to over and over and discovering something new or trying a different strategy.
2. The Riftbreaker
Developer: Exor Studios Publisher: Exor Studios, Global Joy Games, Surefire Games Platform(s): PC, PS4, PS5, Xbox One, Xbox Series X & S, Android
Survival strategy games may look like a simplified version of classic RTSs with a missing PvP multiplayer mode, but in their core design they’re a next step in the evolution of the tower defense subset. The Riftbreaker is one of the most recent examples of this evolution done on a high level.
The Riftbreaker essentially combines elements of third-person action games, tower defense, and logistics to create a wholly unique experience where players need to manage resource extraction, base defense, and exploration all at the same time. This is helped by a deep customization and equipment system where players not only need to unlock items in a tech tree, they also have to ensure that they have resources that can supply the particular item, for example ammunition for a ranged weapon.
The game also sports a varied array of biomes with bright and vibrant colors, foliage, and creatures, though the overall saturation of color can make it hard to track the battlefield, especially when things get busy. Coupled with a dynamic weather system and robust base-building system, The Riftbreaker is an excellent example of a flexible and expansive tower defense game that will test your skills of combat, management, and exploration.
1. They Are Billions
Developer: Numantian Games, Blitworks Publisher: Numantian Games, Blitworks Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One
Just like FTL: Faster Than Light kicked off the indie boom in the 2010s, Numantian Games’ They Are Billions has launched a trend of survival strategy games. Where The Riftbreaker focused more on action and logistics, They Are Billions takes the bird’s-eye-view approach with players focusing more on the bigger picture within any given mission.
They Are Billions stands out as the best tower defense game with its unique fantasy and dieselpunk aesthetic and setting coupled with a game engine that allows for unprecedented scale of combat that really ramps up the tension when the hordes of zombies come knocking. Strategically, the game offers plenty of opportunity for flexible decision-making due to the open-ended nature of the maps, where key terrain features hold great defensive value in creating fortifications.
Though tower defense games typically don’t include active unit control, They Are Billions incorporates a unit production and command system similar to games like Age of Empires, which adds yet more instruments in the player’s arsenal in setting up their defenses. On top of all of this, They Are Billions even includes a compelling campaign mode, which builds out the world and gives greater appreciation of the effort the developers took in crafting this terrific survival tower defense strategy game.
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