When it comes to the best strategy games, we look for a variety of elements. We like a mix between explosive, large-scale action and more complex games of difficult decisions. In this list, you'll find everything from fast-paced and competitive FPS games to long burn 4X games. In the case of series with multiple entries, we've picked what we feel was the best game to play now. We might feature more than one entry from the same series if we think they're different enough that you might benefit from playing both.
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2
Battlefleet Gothic: Armada 2's cosmic battles are spectacular. There's a trio of vaguely 4X-y campaigns following the three of the Warhammer 40K factions: The Imperium, Necron Empire and the nasty Tyranid Hives, but you can ignore them if you want and just dive into some messy skirmishes full of spiky space cathedrals colliding with giant, tentacle-covered leviathans.
The real-time tactical combat manages to be thrilling even when you're commanding the most sluggish of armadas. You need to manage a whole fleet while broadside attacks pound your hulls, enemies start boarding and your own crews turn mutinous. And with all the tabletop factions present, you can experiment with countless fleet configurations and play with all sorts of weird weapons.
Like an adaptation of the tabletop game crossed with the XCOM design template, BattleTech is a deep and complex turn-based game with an impressive campaign system. You control a group of mercenaries, trying to keep the books balanced and upgrading your suite of mechwarriors and battlemechs in the game's strategy layer. In battle, you target specific parts of enemy mechs, taking into account armor, angle, speed and the surrounding environment, then make difficult choices when the fight isn't going your way. It can initially be overwhelming and it's undeniably a dense game, but if that's what you want from your strategy games or you love this universe, it's a great pick.
Viking-themed RTS Northgard pays dues to Settlers and Age of Empires, but challenged us with its smart expansion systems that force you to plan your growth into new territories carefully. Weather is important too. You need to prepare for winter carefully, but if you tech up using 'lore' you might have better warm weather gear than your enemies, giving you a strategic advantage. Skip through the dull story, enjoy the well-designed campaign missions and then start the real fight in skirmish.
Into the Breach
A beautifully designed, near-perfect slice of tactical mech action from the creators of FTL. Into the Breach challenges you to fend off waves of Vek monsters on eight-by-eight grids populated by tower blocks and a variety of sub objectives. Obviously you want to wipe out the Vek using mech-punches and artillery strikes, but much of the game is about using the impact of your blows to push enemies around the map and divert their attacks away from your precious buildings.
Civilian buildings provide power, which serves as a health bar for your campaign. Every time a civilian building takes a hit, you're a step closer to losing the war. Once your power is depleted your team travels back through time to try and save the world again. It's challenging, bite-sized, and dynamic. As you unlock new types of mechs and mech upgrades you gain inventive new ways to toy with your enemies.
Total War: Warhammer 2
The first Total War: Warhammer showed that Games Workshop's fantasy universe was a perfect match for Creative Assembly's massive battles and impressively detailed units. The second game makes a whole host of improvements, in interface, tweaks to heroes, rogue armies that mix factions together and more. The game's four factions, Skaven, High Elves, Dark Elves and Lizardmen are all meaningfully different from one another, delving deeper into the odd corners of old Warhammer fantasy lore. If you're looking for a starting point with CA's Warhammer games, this is now the game to get—and if you already own the excellent original, too, the mortal empires campaign will unite both games into one giant map.
XCOM 2/War of the Chosen
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.
The War of the Chosen expansion brings even more welcome if frantic changes, like the endlessly chatty titular enemies, memorable nemeses who pop up at different intervals during the campaign with random strengths and weaknesses. There are also new Advent troopers to contend with, tons more cosmetic options, zombie-like enemies who populate lost human cities, the ability to create propaganda posters and lots more. War of the Chosen does make each campaign a little bloated, but the changes are so meaningful and extensive that XCOM 2 players need to check it out regardless.
Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.