When it comes to selecting the best strategy games, we go deep into genre's rich history on PC. Whether you favour real-time bouts or brainy turn-based simulations, great strategy games throw you into uniquely massive scenarios that let you rule empires, control spacefaring races, and marshal cavalry charges against armies of hundreds. We love them. But we love some of them a little more than the others. Will you agree with our picks? Are there any you'd add or like to recommend to fellow readers? Have your say in the comments.
As with our list of the best FPS games, we've focused on games that offer a strong variety of takes on the genre, and which still play brilliantly today.
Tom Senior: The game cleverly uses scarcity of opportunity to force you into difficult dilemmas. At any one time you might have only six possible scan sites, while combat encounters are largely meted out by the game, but what you choose to do with this narrow range of options matters enormously. You need to recruit new rookies; you need an engineer to build a comms facility that will let you contact more territories; you need alien alloys to upgrade your weapons. You can’t have all of these. You can probably only have one. In 1989 Sid Meier described games as “a series of interesting decisions.” XCOM 2 is the purest expression of that ethos that Firaxis has yet produced.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
Rob Zacny: Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak sounded almost sacrilegious at first. Over a decade since the last Homeworld game, it was going to take a game remembered for its spaceships and 3D movement and turn it into a ground-based RTS with tanks? And it was a prequel? Yet in spite of all the ways this could have gone horribly wrong, Deserts of Kharak succeeds on almost every count. It's not only a terrific RTS that sets itself apart from the rest of the genre's recent games, but it's also an excellent Homeworld game that reinvents the series while also recapturing its magic.
Samuel Roberts: The Civ game of choice right now for us, and it's packed with enough features that it feels like it's already been through a few expansions. Its Districts system lets you build sprawling cities, and challenge you to think several turns ahead more than ever. The game is gorgeously presented—while the more cartoon-y style takes some time to get used to, it's lovely to look at in its own right.
We're really curious to see how the inevitable expansions will build on what's already here, but taken as it is, this is the best Civ to play right now.
Samuel Roberts: "I hope upcoming patches and expansions can fill in the gaps," is what Phil's Stellaris review said at launch. There's still room to improve for Paradox's sci-fi game, but the updates have been coming fast. The Utopia expansion made major changes to the game's internal politics system, and various other changes could plausibly see you put another hundred hours into the game. Plus, it lets you build Dyson spheres around a sun, letting you drain all the energy from it and leave any nearby planets freezing, which is amazing in a cruel way.
Chris Thursten: A sleeper hit of recent years, Endless Legend is a 4X fantasy follow-up to Amplitude’s Endless Space—a pretty good game, but apparently not the full measure of the studio’s potential. Shadowed at the time of its release by the higher-profile launch of Civilization: Beyond Earth, Legend is easily the best game in the genre since Civ 4. It’s deep and diverse, with fascinating asymmetrical factions, sub-races, hero units, quests to discover, and more. It looks gorgeous, too.
Tom Senior: As much a social experiment as a strategy game, Neptune’s Pride pits friends against one another in a battle for control of a star system. The rules are simple: upgrade your stars and get them to build ships, then deploy them to poach more stars. The war unfolds slowly in realtime over the course of a week or so, and may slightly ruin your life during that period. The simple but elegant ruleset leaves lots of room to make and break alliances, and before you know it your friend’s getting up at 3am to launch sneak attacks while you sleep. A simple game that orchestrates amazing drama.
C&C: Red Alert 2
Samuel Roberts: I still love the first two Red Alerts, and most of Westwood's C&C entries are fantastic—but this one has the best campaigns, most interesting units, great maps and of course, superb FMV sequences. The different factions are so distinct, and have more personality than they did in the original game—hence Soviet squids and Allied dolphins. They found the right tonal balance between self-awareness and sincerity in the cutscenes, as well—they're played for laughs, but still entertain and engage.
Nothing's as OTT as this beautiful disaster from EA's Red Alert 3, basically.
Galactic Civilizations 2
Andy Kelly: If you’ve ever wanted to conquer space with an army of customisable doom-ships, this is the strategy game for you. It has smart, creative AI, and a full-size game can take weeks to complete. You have to balance economic, technological, diplomatic, cultural and military power to forge alliances, fight wars and dominate the galaxy. Reminiscent of the Civilization games, but on a much grander scale, and with a lot more depth in places.
Chris Thursten: Mechanically, Homeworld is a phenomenal three-dimensional strategy game, among the first to successfully detach the RTS from a single plane. It’s more than that, though: it’s a major victory for atmosphere and sound design, whether that’s Adagio for Strings playing over the haunting opening missions or the beat of drums as ships engage in a multiplayer battle. If you liked the Battlestar Galactica reboot, you should play this.
Tom Senior: Only Total War can compete with the scale of Supreme Commander's real-time battles. It’s still exhilarating to flick the mousewheel and fly from an individual engineer to a map of the entire battlefield, then flick it again to dive down to give orders to another unit kilometres away. When armies do clash—in sprawling hundred-strong columns of robots—you’re rewarded with the most glorious firefights a CPU can render. It’s one of the few real-time strategy games to combine air, ground and naval combat into single encounters, but SupCom goes even further, with artillery, long-range nuclear ordnance and megalithic experimental bots.
StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty
Chris Thursten: In addition to being the preeminent competitive strategy game of the last decade, StarCraft II deserves credit for rethinking how a traditional RTS campaign is structured. Heart of the Swarm is a good example of this, but the human-centric Wings of Liberty instalment is the place to start: an inventive adventure that mixes up the familiar formula at every stage. From zombie defence scenarios to planets that flood with lava every few minutes, you’re forced to learn and relearn StarCraft’s basic elements as you go.