How to get into grand strategy games

This article was originally published in PC Gamer issue 303. For more quality articles about all things PC gaming, you can subscribe now in the UK and the US. 

If you’re reading this, there’s a chance you’ve just realised you’re secretly very excited about securing lucrative trade routes around the Mediterranean, fabricating claims on provinces, or sending armies marching across the globe. Yes, you’ve developed an appetite for grand strategy. The good news is that we’re here to help, with this beginner’s guide to strategy’s grandest of subgenres. Bear in mind these three tips and pick a game that fits your preference.

Start getting comfortable with failure

Complex systems and a challenging learning curve mean failure is just part and parcel of the experience, but it can be just as rewarding as victory. 

Set your own goals

Victory is just a distant, and frequently insignificant, objective, so it pays to set your own. Become a queen. Get disgustingly rich. Colonise a new land.

Learn to love menus

You’ll be seeing a great deal of them, along with a mountain of charts and lists. They are your advisors, generals, ships and enemies, and what you’ll use to create your bold plans.

Start here

Total War: Shogun 2

The Total War series has consistently been a solid entry point into grand strategy, offering light but broad faction management and gargantuan, exhilarating tactical battles. The best of the bunch for beginners is Shogun 2 . It’s one of the most focused games in the series thanks to a comparatively small campaign map with geography that creates interesting limitations, as well as factions with a clear objective. It’s also absolutely gorgeous. 

For armchair generals

Hearts of Iron IV

Kicking off in 1936, Hearts of Iron IV is a game of two halves. There’s the pre-war grand strategy side of things, where you must shore up your nation’s infrastructure, plan its research programme and guide it through the quagmire of competing ideologies. When the world around you devolves into war, that’s when it becomes a wargame. Instead of managing trade and dabbling in politics, you’ll be ordering airstrikes on factories in the dead of night and creating new fronts in war theatres across the globe.

Perfect for roleplayers

Crusader Kings 2

People, not empires, are the most important things in Crusader Kings 2 . You play the ruler (and the subsequent heirs) of a dynasty from the Early Middle Ages, largely setting your own goals. Poison enemies, marry for wealth and connections, spread your religion, or maybe just spend your days riding, hunting and having saucy affairs. It’s no surprise that Crusader Kings 2 is also the foundation for the best Game of Thrones mod in any game ever. 

Not into history?

Distant Worlds: Universe

Grand strategy games typically deal with history, but they’re not entirely shackled to the past. This is a real-time 4X game with a grand strategy scope, applied to the vast expanse of space. What makes Distant Worlds special is that it lets you give over control of any aspect of empire management to the competent AI, freeing you to focus on your favourite parts. You can even play a single scout ship exploring the galaxy, like Picard and chums.

Feeling ambitious?

Dominions 4

Dominions 4 is the ultimate power fantasy: become a god of your own making and then conquer the world. It’s full of magic and supernatural warriors and is essentially a battle royal between an eclectic bunch of super beings intent on becoming the one true god. It’s also stuck with an archaic interface and is probably the least user-friendly game here. Fascinating and a brilliant source of emergent stories, it’s definitely worth building up to. 

For budding industialists

Victoria II

Older and a little less friendly than EU4 and CK2 , Victoria II remains one of Paradox’s most intriguing games. Set during the 19th and 20th centuries, it shines a light on the politics and industrial revolutions of the age. It’s less about shifting borders or commanding armies, and more about being a savvy politician or economist, attempting to curry favour with a reactive, politically conscious population. 

Purist's choice

Europa Universalis IV

One of the most sprawling, complex grand strategy games and probably the best. Take control of a country in the Late Medieval Period and nurture it to the 1800s, managing every facet, from armies to merchant fleets. Become a master of diplomacy and strategy to create strange alternate histories where Scotland ruled the Americas. 

Avoid this

Empire: Total War

Wildly ambitious and unfocused, Empire gives players the world and AI opponents who really struggle with the scale; essentially it’s Shogun 2 ’s opposite. This was also the first time, and unfortunately not the last, that Creative Assembly included naval battles, making a lot of people more careful about what they wish for. Rome II makes a lot of the same mistakes.