Most notable today for being the point of origin for the entire MOBA genre, Warcraft III is also an inventive, ambitious strategy game in its own right, which took the genre beyond anonymous little sprites and into the realm of cinematic fantasy. The pioneering inclusion of RPG elements in the form of heroes and neutral monsters adds a degree of unitspecific depth not present in its sci-fi stablemate, and the sprawling campaign delivers a fantasy story that—if not quite novel—is thorough and exciting in its execution. It also has the best ‘repeated unit click’ jokes in the business.
Rome: Total War
Total War’s transition to full 3D marks a point before the gradual escalation in complexity that would lead to Empire’s initial instability and the longstanding AI problems that have dogged the latter games in the series. The original Rome presents a simple, compelling image of ancient warfare and delivers on it phenomenally. It’s a great introduction to one of the most interesting eras in military history, and holds up to this day.
Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War II
It was tempting to put the excellent first Dawn of War on the list, but the box-select, right-click to kill formula is well represented. Instead let’s appreciate the experimental sequel, which replaced huge units with a handful of rock-hard space bastards, each with a cluster of killer abilities. In combat you micromanage these empowered special forces, timing the flying attack of your Assault Marines and the sniping power of your Scouts with efficient heavy machine gun cover to undo the Ork hordes. The co-operative Last Stand mode is also immense.
Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins captures some of the scope of a 4X strategy game but makes it work within an RTS framework. This is a game about star-spanning empires that rise, stabilise and fall in the space of an afternoon: and, particularly, about the moment when the vast capital ships of those empires emerge from hyperspace above half-burning worlds. Diplomacy is an option too, of course, but also: giant spaceships. Play the Rebellion expansion to enlarge said spaceships to ridiculous proportions.
Crusader Kings II
Crusader Kings II is a political strategy game. It’s as much about who your imbecilic niece is marrying as it is about leading armies into battle. Every landed character is simulated, and each one has goals and desires. It’s complex—you can blame the feudal system for that—but offers clear and immediate drama on a personal level. Its simulation corners you into desperate situations and encourages you to do terrible things to retain power. One time I executed a newborn baby so that his older and smarter sister could reign instead. Feudal times were messed up.
DEFCON’s sinister blue world map is the perfect stage for this Cold War horror story about the outbreak of nuclear war. First, you manage stockpiles, and position missile sites, nuclear submarines and countermeasures in preparation for armageddon. This organisation phase is an interesting strategic challenge in itself, but DEFCON is at its most effective when the missiles fly. Blooming blast sites are matched with casualty numbers as city after city experiences obliteration. Once the dust has settled, victory is a mere technicality. It’s nightmarish, and quite brilliant in multiplayer.
Company of Heroes
Some games would try to step away from the emotional aspect of a war that happened in living memory. Not Company of Heroes. It’s torrid and difficult and brutal. Sure, its methods are pure Hollywood—the muddy artillery plumes could have come straight from Saving Private Ryan—but the result is the most intense RTS ever made, brilliantly capturing the tactical standoff between WWII’s asymmetrical forces.
Its deep strategic systems and clean turnbased combat make Xenonauts a triumph of rebooted game design. If you’re an old fan of the X-COM series, forget about finding your old install disks or putting up with 20-year-old graphics: playing Xenonauts is the best way to relive those glory days with deeper systems. And if you’re new to X-COM, this game will let you explore the series’ classic roots with added depth and details.
Total War: Shogun 2
As Total War evolved after Rome it suffered bloat and other growing pains, but Shogun 2 was finally the one to get it right. A gorgeous setting and strong theme bolster the strategy side, where the honor of your clan leader and the struggle between Buddhism and Christianity play a key role. Battles offer distinct differences between clans (Chosokabe archers for life) and some especially fun special troops, like the bomb-throwing kisho ninja. Shogun 2 also introduced a 2-player co-op campaign to the series, which is an amazing (though slow) way to conquer the continent.
Unity of Command
Strategy expert Tim Stone described this, in our 2012 review, as a “fresh and friendly” wargame, praising the convincing, challenging AI. You’ll need to use genuinely clever battlefield tactics to beat these computerised generals. The simple interface removes the usual barrier to entry that most wargames have, but there are hidden depths to uncover as you learn the intricacies of its systems.
Rise of Nations
Age of Empires gave us the chance to encompass centuries of military progress in half-hour battles, but Rise of Nations does it better, and smartly introduces elements from turn-based strategy games like Civ. Instead of marshalling troops from a single base, you build cities all over the map to grow your nation’s borders. When borders collide civs race through the ages and try to out-tech each other in a hidden war for influence, all while trying to deliver a knockout military blow with javelins and jets. There aren’t enough games that let you crush longbowmen with amphibious tanks and stealth bombers.
Age of Empires II: HD Edition
We had to put this in here, too, even if Rise of Nations built upon this foundation in a bunch of ways. Age of Empires II is still a big draw on PC thanks to its HD edition, which is supported by new expansions like Rise of the Rajas, released in late 2016. That's not bad for a game released almost two decades ago.
Build immense armies, upgrade them, farm like hell and enjoy a suite of entertaining campaigns in this RTS. Plus, if you get bored of the game's numerous campaigns and easily downloadable custom campaigns, enjoy making your own daft mash-ups in the scenario editor. We can't wait for the fourth game.