Best Strategy Games 2018: From 4X to turn-based strategy

Strategy games are having a renaissance. After years in which only a handful of big names kept the genre afloat, we’ve recently seen an explosion of creativity. The resurrection of XCOM in particular has reignited interested in turn based strategy, while the growth of Paradox has popularised the once niche grand strategy subgenre. If you’ve ever felt intimidated by strategy games before, this is the perfect time to dip a toe into the genre (I recommend starting with Into the Breach) and experience the agony and ecstasy that is getting your tiny computer troops horribly killed.

into the breach

Into the Breach

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux 

Pros:

  • Ingenious combination of block puzzle and tactics
  • Creates stories through its gameplay systems
  • Beautiful musical score

Cons:

  • Won’t necessarily convert those who don’t enjoy the genre

Into the Breach shrinks turn based tactics down to bite size, giving you just three units and a handful of turns to defend a tiny 8×8 grid. Importantly, it also allows you perfect knowledge of where your enemies will strike next turn, giving you just enough information to make a plan.

The result is an intricate puzzle where the player desperately tries to re-arrange the board to protect both their units and vulnerable civilian buildings. A well timed push here nudges two enemies into attacking each other, a carefully aimed pull from a hover drone yanks another into the sea. You rarely make long term plans, instead constantly reacting, as if presented with a new chess problem each turn.

XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux

Pros:

  • Tight tactical gameplay
  • Dynamic and unpredictable
  • Wider strategy full of tough, meaningful decisions
  • New stealth options work well
  • Strong cinematic presentation

Cons:

  • Views don’t always provide necessary information

Where Into the Breach is a tiny perfect snack of tactics, XCOM 2: War of the Chosen is an all you can eat buffet. It’s a gigantic, globe spanning game with dozens of systems layered on top of each other, all combining to make you break your keyboard when your favourite soldier gets nailed with a poorly thrown grenade.

While the first game had you defend earth against alien invaders, the second presumes you’ve already lost, and are now mounting a resistance against an occupying force. The fantastic War of the Chosen DLC adds more to this, with various resistance groups and recurring villain aliens hampering your fightback. Simply the best execution of the venerable XCOM concept yet.

Company of Heroes

Platforms: PC, Mac

Pros:

  • Incredible micro-management depth
  • The best RTS to play co-op vs AI
  • Amazing levels of tension

Cons:

  • Sometimes overwhelming

The genius of Company of Heroes is to scale the RTS right down. Every squad of soldiers has a massive range of micro-management options, but there are few enough of them that those of us who aren’t professional Starcraft players can use them properly.

When encountering a machine gun a rifle squad will dive to the deck, suppressed by the hail of fire, but by carefully maneuvering them around cover and tossing a grenade, they can take that emplacement out. The Opposing Fronts DLC is a must have, adding two exciting new factions, while the Soviet themed sequel isn’t quite as good as the original.

Invisible Inc

Platforms: PS4, PC, Mac, Linux 

Pros:

  • Terrific aesthetic
  • Masterful tension
  • New agents play vastly differently

Cons:

  • Very difficult for beginners

Invisible Inc takes the turn based tactics of XCOM and applies it to the tension of the stealth game genre. Each mission involves a team of agents infiltrating an procedurally generated base, with the alarm steadily rising as they become more aware of your presence. This means you’re constantly being pushed forward, whilst also desperately trying to stay unseen.

Worse still, knocked out guards will only stay knocked out for a few turns, meaning you need to get past them and get invisible again quickly. Initially it can be brutally difficult, but eventually you come to understand the games quirks, then you’ll unlock another agent, which changes the way the game plays considerably. Eminently replayable, hyper stressful, fun.

stellaris

Stellaris

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

Pros:

  • Vast amount of different approaches for different empires
  • Constantly being updated with new features
  • Full of great mini sci-fi storylets
  • Crisis keeps endgame interesting

Cons:

  • Diplomacy not as interesting as war
  • Managing large empires can get fiddly
  • Generally not as fun to play as a ‘good guy’

Stellaris is the ultimate space opera simulator. It lets you create a custom space empire, fulfilling pretty much any science fiction trope you can think of, and then expand to the stars. Along the way you’ll find little Star Trek-esque nuggets of story, tales of cosmic wonder and horror. You’ll also find allies and enemies, making peace and war over hundreds of years before being forced to deal with an existential threat.

Playing Stellaris is like writing your own sci-fi novel, charting the rise and fall of a strange interstellar community made up of religious mushrooms and warmongering penguins. It’s also constantly being improved and updated, so even if you don’t like one particular system, there’s a good change it’ll change in a few months.

Civilization 6

Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux

Pros:

  • Deep, engrossing strategy from start to finish
  • Fantastic presentation and personality
  • Great new additions to the fundamental mechanics
  • Refinements and improvements make all of its existing mechanics even better

Cons:

  • Religion can be a little spammy

One of the unique appeals of the Civilisation series is that with each new installment a new lead designer gets to come up with their own interpretation of the classic “take an empire from the stone age to the stars” concept.

Civilization 6 is notable for its use of urban sprawl, with cities growing to take up several adjacent map times. This means that planning your settlements ahead and growing them effectively is incredibly important, you’re fighting against the terrain as much as you are opposing rulers.

Total War: Warhammer 2

Platforms: PC, Mac

Pros:

  • New, faster-paced style of campaign
  • A new world and new races to explore
  • Big on weird and wonderful unit types
  • Stupidly fun, absorbing and addictive

Cons:

  • Hard work to field and support more than a couple of armies
  • Requires major commitments in both times and effort

Total War is almost a genre to itself, part turn based grand strategy and part real time battle simulator. Creative Assembly have attempted the concept many times, but none more successfully than when they made the shift from historical warfare to the grimdark fantasy of Warhammer, culminating in Total War: Warhammer 2

The bigger, more outlandish and outright magical units of Warhammer are simply more fun to play around with than historically accurate archers, and allow for bigger, showier battles. The strategic layer benefits too, with each faction playing in its own unique fashion. The sequel is generally superior to the original, but by buying both you can stitch them together into one colossal mega-map, featuring two games worth of factions.

Starcraft II: Legacy of the Void

Platforms: PC, Mac

Pros:

  • A fitting end to the StarCraft II saga
  • Superb campaign missions
  • Beautiful design and animation
  • More accessible online and co-op play

Cons:

  • Minor difficulty and pathfinding issues
  • Still a very traditional RTS game

It feels weird to even call Starcraft 2 a strategy game, it exists on a separate plane from the rest of these games, and can’t really be measured against them. As the top strategy game esport, Starcraft is arguably watched more than played.

But this unique status is what makes it deserve a place on this list. If you enjoy playing strategy games competitively against other humans, there is simply no substitute. By contrast if you don’t, then Starcraft really isn’t for you.

 

Cities Skylines

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC

Pros:

  • Incredible mod scene
  • Deep infrastructure simulation
  • Strong DLC support

Cons:

  • I hope you like managing traffic

For years Maxis’ SimCity dominated the city building genre, but recently it has been Finnish developer Colossal Order who’ve picked up the flag. Cities Skylines started out as very much a spiritual sequel to SimCity, but over time and many DLCs it has developed its own character, such as a deeply european focus on public transport. The community around the game has also grown strong, with a thriving mod scene even leading to a distinctly different playstyle, which eschews win/loss conditions in favour of studious decorating tiny model towns.

Darkest Dungeon

Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC

Pros:

  • Beautiful presentation
  • Deep and involving
  • Sumptuous atmosphere

Cons:

  • You’ll die…
  • … and go insane
  • … and die again

Darkest Dungeon arguably straddles the divide between strategy and RPG. You assemble a party of adventurers and then journey into dungeons, engaging in turn based tactical battles that rely enormously on positioning.

But then there’s the twist, which is that you’re not playing as these adventurers but their sponsor, and between dungeon runs you’ll find yourself rebuilding a small town to finance further expeditions. The individual adventurers are interchangeable, and you’ll replace them frequently as they die or simply collapse under the stress of the lovecraftian environment.

Your real focus is the town, and sustaining it, no matter how many characters die in the dungeon below.

Homeworld Remastered

Platforms: PC, Mac

Pros:

  • Sympathetically updated visuals
  • Superb RTS gameplay
  • Well judged difficulty curve
  • Epic sci-fi feel

Cons:

  • Camera controls feel clunky
  • Changes might upset old fans

19 years on, there is still no other strategy game like Homeworld, which challenges the player to truly 3D space-borne combat. It’s easy to see why, as it’s difficult for us ground based humans to get our heads around, but the result it still spectacular.

That it marries this innovation to a surprisingly touching story about the last survivors of an alien race desperately seeking a new home. Homeworld Remastered‘s tale meshes with the terrific soundtrack and gorgeous visuals to create a real sense of a mournful but majestic cosmos.

Battletech

Battletech

Platforms: PC

Pros:

  • Has a style of its own
  • Challenging in a fun way
  • Giant mechanical crushing exosuits

Cons:

  • Novices will struggle
  • Fiendishly difficult later on
  • You have to seek out guides for information

Battletech’s appeal is simple: big honking mechs. An adaptation of the classic tabletop game, it offers an astonishing level of depth to its giant stompy robot suits. The campaign too is deep and complex, as you struggle to get new gear for your mechs whilst constantly risking damage or destruction in missions. It’s full of hard choices and that, ultimately, is what strategy games are about.

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