Strategy games were born on the PC, but a lot of them are bad. Incredibly bad. Here are ten strategy games on the PC that are in fact really good, games that not only improved but transformed the existing mechanics and conventions of the genre.
When it was released, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2 was one of the most enjoyable and polished RTS’s around. A departure from the more serious tone of the original, the game revolves around a massive retaliatory Soviet invasion of US soil. If nothing else it has flair, offering a bonkers story involving psychic beacons and containing bizarre and incredible weapons such as the Chronosphere. The cutscenes also feature some great over-the-top performances. You can play as both sides of the conflict in the campaign, but the real fun is going head-to-head against opponents online. Luckily for us, Red Alert 2 is freeware.
Total War: Shogun 2 (2011)
Total War: Shogun 2 sees the series return to 16th century Japan, where you play as the leader of one of the nine factions of Kyoto. Each is vying to become Shogun, but choose your force wisely – one clan may have an edge in naval combat, but what happens when you come up against an opposing fortress? In many ways a return to the roots of the series, developer Creative Assembly refined and simplified features to produce a truly great strategy game. One notable feature is the sound design – the clatter of spears and the warcry of cavalry units really brings the conflict (and its consequences) to life.
In the future there is nothing but war, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War showcasing that in a wasteland of destruction and gore. You take control of the Blood Ravens, a chapter of Space Marines who arrive on the planet Tartarus. It doesn’t take long for things to escalate, and it is this fast pace that makes the game so entertaining. You gain resources to spend and further your campaign by capturing new strategic points, meaning if you want to succeed, you have to constantly be on the move and fighting. Few strategy games have put as much personality into their units, be they Orks, Chaos or Eldar. Unfortunately, these units do not hold up visually for the ingame cutscenes.
As well as Warhammer, Relic also developed Homeworld. Unlike Warhammer however, Homeworld focuses on exploration rather than conflict. You play as the Kushan, a people who have left their planet in search of their titular homeworld, Hiigara. Constantly in pursuit are the genocidal Taiidan empire. The story alone is compelling and atmospheric, but it is all the better for unfolding in striking space battles and tactical maneuvers on a cosmic scale. Homeworld’s vastness makes it one of the slower games on this list, but that just gives you more time to appreciate it.
Sins of a Solar Empire (2008)
Playing Sins of a Solar Empire is a major time commitment, with large-scale games taking hours to resolve. It’s that addictive and fun that you won’t even care. Although not revolutionary in mechanics, it was one of the first games to successfully combine and reconcile the intensity of an RTS and the strategic depth of the 4X genre. Take a close look and you can see your individual ships puttering along; zoom out, and all your operations are unveiled, the game transitioning between these perspectives with ease. Sins of a Solar Empire also produced some wholly original mechanics. Take the pirates, for example. Place a bounty on your opponent’s head, and the pirates will make swift work of him. But once you’re opponent places a higher bounty on your head, it turns into a bidding war with lethal consequences.
Set in the Middle Ages, Age of Kings contains 13 playable civilisations. You and your opponents gather resources and build infrastructure in order to move from the Dark Ages to the Imperial Age. A straightforward premise, but it was the second game in the series that really brought these civilisations to life. These distinct races have their own specific abilities and units, producing a game that is excellently balanced. The multiplayer is immensely fun, with the highlight being the gamemode Regicide. It doesn’t end until the king is killed; make sure it isn’t yours.
Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos (2002)
Warcraft 3: Reign of Chaos is best known for preceding the gaming colossus that is World of Warcraft, but it is a fantastic game in its own right. The Night Elves and the Undead joined established factions Orcs and Humans in a game that requires you to engage with all aspects of its strategic mechanics if you are to succeed. With a great story and cutscenes that stand to this day, it’s no wonder that Warcraft 3 received multiple Game of the Year Awards.
Company of Heroes (2006)
Although worlds apart in terms of tone, time and space, many successful gameplay conventions were carried over from Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War to Company of Heroes by developer Relic. If you are to succeed in Company of Heroes however, you must use quickness and cunning rather than overwhelming force – darting from crater to cover, occupying bombed-out houses. Fantastic graphics and historical accuracy make this not only one of the best strategy games ever, but one of the best WWII games hands down.
Civ 5 (2010)
Civ 5 owes much to its predecessors, but what it does differently sets it up as one of the greatest PC strategy games of all time. One of this biggest changes was an overhaul to warfare, Civ 5 tactically deeper when it comes to fighting other nations. This system means that even the most technologically advanced army can be undone by a force with superior positioning and tactics. And in this rendition, your civilisation grows in an even more detailed and colourful world, the graphics beautifully rendering your journey to world domination.
In this sequel, Blizzard didn’t change much. But the various additions and tweaks to units and abilities that they did perform cement its position on this list. The single player campaign is fantastic, populated by some lovably cheesy characters and well-crafted levels. This immensely polished game is one of the fastest selling strategy games of all time, and rightfully so.