Time to conquer the best strategy games on the PC
By Chris Walsh
What are the best strategy games on PC? Some would say StarCraft II, others Civilization VI. Join us as we list the genre’s greatest hits, featuring the biggest Steam games available. Fun fact: the strategy game genre was first invented back in 1938, when Winston Churchill looked out an aeroplane window over France and thought, “Hey, this would make a really cool videogame, whatever that is.” Probably.
Since then, there have been about a hundred million different strategy games, simulating as many different kinds of fighting as we humans have had reasons to fight one another, and then some.
From the all-encompassing broad strokes of the Civilization games to the individually rendered blades of the Total War series, and not to forget the far-flung fantasy tech of StarCraft – strategy games are as diverse as they come. But which are the absolute top strategy games on PC? Well, just drag a selection box over our bodies and right-click on the horizon, and we’ll all be on our way to finding out.
Offworld Trading Company is right at the other end of the strategy games spectrum from Civilization, though its designer, Soren Johnson, also worked on Civ IV. While Civ spans the history and some of the future of humanity, chronicling the progress of mankind, Offworld Trading Company is all about making a fortune by exploiting our red neighbour, Mars.
It’s an RTS crossed with the intricacies of the best management games, one in which victory is not achieved by throwing tanks at enemies, or demolishing their bases. Instead, your weapons are resources and cash, which you use to manipulate the marketplace not just to simply get rich, but to completely screw over your competitors. That’s if you haven’t made a temporary alliance with one of your rivals, of course – though you might end up closing deals with one hand while holding a dagger in the other.
You might not expect an economic strategy game to be very aggressive, but Offworld Trading Company encourages you to be just as hostile as a warmonger. When you’re eyeing up menus, planning what to build next, what to sell, which company to launch a hostile takeover against next, it’s easily as thrilling as when you’re sending infantry across artillery-pummelled fields or launching sneak air attacks against an enemy stronghold in Company of Heroes or StarCraft II.
With Total War: Warhammer, the iconic strategy series dipped an experimental toe into fantasy. The joyous fun of dragons and magic (not to mention a popular licence) made for mass appeal and record sales, but developer Creative Assembly did not forget how to make a good strategy game. The character of Warhammer’s factions was channelled into engaging campaign mechanics that varied for the first time, encouraging replayability, and unit rosters that enabled a better Lord of the Rings battle simulator than any other game out there.
All of that’s even more true in the sequel, as our Total War: Warhammer 2 PC review points out. This time, CA goes even bigger, making it one of the best strategy games in recent years. Again, though, this ambition is tempered with craft: the new Vortex victory condition may seem like fantastical indulgence, but it serves the game by keeping the pressure up right to the end, when you would previously be cruising to an easy win. The factions are richer and more vibrant than ever, yet mastering more vanilla classes adds common sense to all the bombast. So don’t be fooled by the dragons and dinos – this is the best Total War has been by the old, analytical metrics, as well as the flashy new fun ones.
If you’re looking for the most recent fantasy strategy content, check out our blood-soaked Total War: Warhammer – Curse of the Vampire Coast review. If that gets you excitedly gnashing your extra sharp incisors, here’s our exhaustive Total War: Warhammer Vampire Coast guide. However, if you’re looking for something more historical, check out our verdict on the latest major game in the series in our Total War: Three Kingdoms review.
If Civ V was the most streamlined the series had ever been, Civilization VI is the most celebratory – a 25th anniversary iteration that sheds the sterility of previous entries in favour of a stirring soundtrack and a brave new (cartoonish) look. It finds Firaxis remembering that the power of 4X games is as much in their atmosphere as its systems.
It’s testament to the attentiveness of Sid Meier and his studio, however, that those systems have not been neglected either. Civilization VI has exhumed several of the best additions from its predecessor’s Community Balance Patch, while pushing onwards and upwards with some new offbeat ideas – builders that expire after three turns, for instance, and cities that spread across several tiles.
Firaxis will surely continue to build on these strong foundations with balance patches and DLC like the Civilization 6: Rise and Fall expansion – and there’s even more following the Civ 6: Gathering Storm release date arrives. And, of course, players will do the same as they conceive game-changing Civ 6 mods.
Paradox’s 4X grand strategy hybrid makes space surprising again with event chains that are, at first, evocative of Crusader Kings II, but end up going much further. In Stellaris, expect mutant uprisings, robotic rebellions, and the discovery of alien texts that make your citizens question their place in the galaxy.
It’s not just a 4X game; it’s a galactic roleplaying game and empire sim, bestowing a vast array of options upon you, allowing you to create unique, eccentric space-faring species. You can play as a fundamentalist society built on the backs of slaves, or hyper-intelligent lizards that rely on robots whether they are fighting or farming. The robust species creator and multitude of meaningful decisions mean you can create almost any alien you can imagine. No wonder we praised it highly in our Stellaris review.
And underpinning all of that is the game’s focus on exploration. While most space games with 4X elements stick with one method of interstellar travel, Stellaris gives you three to choose from, each with their own strengths and counters. In one game, the galaxy might be a network of hyperlanes, but in the next you might find yourself building wormhole stations and blinking across the galaxy.
Stellaris’ multiplayer is not to be overlooked either, transforming decent human beings into Machiavellian alien tyrants at the drop of a hat. It’s easily one of the best strategy games of recent years. Plus, there’s always new DLC on the horizon for dedicated players, like the upcoming Stellaris Federations update.
XCOM 2 is one of the all-time greats of the tactics genre, so we gave it a really good score in our XCOM 2 review. It takes the best bits from the series so far – the savage struggle, the ragtag group of heroes, the devious aliens, the tight tactical battles – and throws improvement after improvement on top.
Once again, XCOM 2 has you sending up to six soldiers into the breach, but this time as a group of struggling survivors fighting against a tyrannical alien regime. It’s all guerrilla tactics, covert missions, and dissidence. You need to learn to make sacrifices, leaving men and women behind so you can save the rest, and you need to learn to swallow loss and failure.
The battles are challenging and varied, full of horrific adversaries with tricky, surprising abilities, but the biggest changes are found at the strategic layer – why else would it be on a list of the best strategy games on PC? You will travel all over the world, setting up cells, infiltrating black sites, hunting for more resources so you can field more powerful weapons and tools – it is compelling, rather than an afterthought.
And besides the great XCOM 2 mods – there are corgi guns, for goodness sake – the War of the Chosen and Tactical Legacy Pack expansions will keep you occupied long after the credits of the main game roll. Featuring new environments, stories, and a devious new enemy called the Chosen, working out how to weather these new storms will certainly steal your remaining free hours.