There is such a gargantuan selection of strategy games on the market that it is difficult for new players to know where to begin. Most, if not all gamers have fantasized about being a general of a nation at war, actively solving the issues of supply logistics and terrain features, or a commander controlling a squad of elite soldiers, directing them into tactically favorable combat situations, or a CEO ensuring a company is run as efficiently and optimally as possible, as well as any number of other, strategically focused situations. “Strategy” is an all encompassing term defining a wide range of games, but in terms of mechanics it is simple to tell when a game is a strategy game, or has strategy elements. Whenever a game asks the player to consider to the bigger, meta picture, and is forced to make important decisions that affect the future game state, is a good indicator of strategy being an important part of gameplay.
However, due to the complex nature of games in this genre, many of these titles require hours of learning before the mechanics begin to make sense to a player. Compared to something like a first person shooter, where the player learns all available controls and options within the first few minutes, the systems and rules of a strategy game are interwoven and complicated, therefore being impenetrable to many players who often overlook these games for an easier to digest, simpler to understand experience. Fortunately, the popularity of the strategy genre has spawned games that are simple to get into, but still contain a degree of strategic depth. This list of backlog friendly games is my personal recommendation for those looking to get into the genre, but don’t know where to start. Keep in mind, when I suggest something because it is easy to play does not mean it is easy to master.
Some genre related terms to keep in mind are “turn-based”, which allows a player to take his or her individual turn per sequence, similar to chess, and “real-time”, which executes player and opponent actions continuously, similar to paintball.
The easiest to understand game on the list, may also be one of the most difficult games to complete. This charming spaceship simulator roguelike is a real time strategy game where the player manages the actions of a crew of a spaceship, hopping from system to system attempting to escape from an overwhelming enemy fleet. The art style and soundtrack are perfectly adorable, and controlling the crew is as simple as clicking on them, but this game is tough as nails. Being a rogue-like means that failure means a complete restart of the game, but subsequent playthroughs can unlock different ship types, and the randomized map means that no two runs are the same. The ability to pause and issue commands means that even in the most hectic of situations, there is always some breathing room to decide the next course of action. Commonly found in backlogs due to years of discounts and bundles, this is an amazing game that shouldn’t be missed.
A surprising offshoot of Steamworld Dig, Steamworld Heist puts the player in the role of a robot spaceship captain, exploring derelict vessels drifting through the space between planets. Form a squad of colorfully characterized robot allies, and explore these decrepit ships, fighting the enemies on board in turn based combat encounters. The game has gameplay and pacing similar to the XCOM series, albeit in a 2D perspective. Taking cover, flanking, and positioning are all important to success, but what this game has that’s unique is that ability to aim your squad’s shots manually. Different weapons are available, as well as an absurd variety of hats, and bullets fired can ricochet off of walls, leading to optional trick shots, invaluable in dealing with entrenched enemies. Don’t pass on this game due to its cartoon aesthetic, this is an enjoyable turn based game that definitely scratches the strategy itch, with novel mechanics.
Before it was the hero based multiplayer shooter it is now, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six series was a game of careful planning and execution. While Rainbow Six: Siege still retains a bit of the slow paced, tactical considerations of the past title’s DNA, older games in the series had in depth planning phases that had the player literally draw out the path on a blueprint of the level for the elite squad of global soldiers to navigate. Door Kickers is a spiritual successor to this ingenious mechanic, the pure tactical layer that demands strict attention to detail and care in planning. The player draws out the route for the squad to follow, and issue precise commands, even down to what direction they should be facing with their weapons, or chuck a flashbang. This is a real time strategy game with pause, and while it’s likely your carefully constructed plan won’t survive first contact with the enemy, it is intuitive and simple enough to hastily sketch out a new plan on the fly. Definitely worth checking out if you’ve ever wanted to command a team of operatives methodically clearing a house full of armed hostiles.
A recent reboot of an older strategy franchise, XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a game about humanity’s attempt to survive against an overwhelming onslaught of alien invasions. You play as the commander of XCOM, a government organization that was created for just this scenario of extraterrestrial attack. What XCOM does better than the rest of the games on this list is instill a feeling of desperation in the player, as you are truly struggling against a technologically superior force. There are two phases to this game, a strategic layer where structures are built, soldiers are recruited, and technologies are researched, and a turn based tactical phase where you control a squad from a top down, 3D isometric view. Queue up commands, and watch your soldiers take their shots, and somehow miss a 90% chance to hit shot. The game is simple to understand and play, but what I have found is a bigger barrier to entry is the crushing difficulty of the game, especially near the beginning. Starting weapons and armor are pitiful compared to the alien’s, and if experienced soldiers are killed in battle, this can lead to a death spiral of continual failure that will doom the player to an inevitable game over. I recommend avoiding the Ironman setting, which autosaves the game every few minutes, and don’t feel ashamed about reloading the game every time a mission goes poorly. XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a satisfying strategy and tactics game, if you’re willing to spend some time and effort and have a tolerance for frustration.
The strangest inclusion on this list, Prison Architect challenges the player with running a prison, including hiring the employees, constructing the cells, facilities, and ensuring everything is powered and watered. While not something most players think of when they think of a strategy game, at its core Prison Architect is a game about managing resources, fixing and dealing with internal threats, and important decision making. This is a very dense game, with hundreds of objects to build and many options, but thankfully there is a tutorial which eases the player into the experience. The majority of options are also hidden, and only pop up when the time seems right, which helps curb the confusion. There is also a built in difficulty mechanic, as you can choose how many and what security level of prisoners you want to take it per day, even turning it down to closed intake if something needs to be fixed. This allows you to either make a nice, relaxing rehabilitation center with low security prisoners, full of books, televisions, and classes for inmates to attend, or a terrible, hellish labor prison full of high security prisoners with strict curfews, armed guards, and tasers always ready for zapping. The game’s real time with pause lets the game flow at a pace decided by the player. What this game excels at is slowly layering on levels of complexity gradually, and letting the player decide what he or she is comfortable with, and is an excellent entry point into the strategy genre.
Released in the wake of the WW2 video game craze of the early 2000s, Company of Heroes is by far the most popular real time strategy game set in the second world war, and for good reason. It is a game that focuses on the moment to moment combat on the ground compared to base building and resource gathering of other titles. The game starts off small, with just a couple of riflemen squads to command, and eventually starts adding in specialized units and armor. The small selection of unit types is a strength, as every unit serves a distinct purpose with no filler. Infantry is weak out in the open, but a force to be reckoned with if they are hiding in cover or garrisoning one of the many buildings littered about the map. With a nearly fully destructible environment, Company of Heroes is truly revolutionary game, and holds up well graphically despite being nearly 12 years old. Resource nodes on the map are captured by units, which automatically creates combat situations in predetermined locations due to their importance to both sides. The small sizes of the units and the clear goals of this game make it effortless for newcomers to pick up and play, as there is far less emphasis on micro managing the units, compared to positioning and cover. If you are looking for a game that plays out like a sequence from HBO’S Band of Brothers, it is hard to do better than Company of Heroes.
Starcraft is a series that is one of the most culturally significant real time strategy games ever made, being responsible for catapulting the esports scene to the mainstream, along with its fantasy based sibling, Warcraft. Many real time strategy tropes and expectations have been codified by these games, such as resource gathering and factions which all play distinctly from one another. As a result of this game’s reputation as an esport, the high level of skill, reflexes, and memory required to play is off putting to many players, who feel as if there is no way they can catch up to over two decades worth of experience by the seasoned Starcraft community, which is absolutely accurate. However, this recommendation is for the single player campaign Wings of Liberty. The story driven single player does a fantastic job of ramping up the difficulty for new players, starting out with simple, small battles and becoming quite challenging towards the climax. Throughout the game, the player can choose to purchase upgrades for units between missions, adding to the meta strategy of the game overall. Not to mention that this campaign, in its entirety is completely free to play. At the end of the day, Starcraft is a game about building up a base, and creating a large army that you rush over to destroy the enemy’s base as fast as possible, but in the world of competitive multiplayer there is a strong emphasis on micromanaging each unit’s movement and attack patterns to maximize damage output and minimize damage taken. Thankfully, the single player campaign emphasizes this far less, as the AI doesn’t behave as competently as a real life opponent. There is no reason why a newcomer to the strategy genre shouldn’t try this game, considering the hefty 20 hour campaign and multiplayer component are free to play.
Sid Meier’s long running franchise’s previous installment is an excellent entry point into the grand strategy genre. Grand strategy games are named so due to the need to consider expansion, military, resources, development, and a number of other things that all encompass the fabric of a civilization. While this is overwhelming initially, the developers of this game spent real effort in making this title as accessible and easy to play as possible, going so far as to have specific advisors for culture, military, science, and economy, which spout endlessly about every single aspect of the game the player needs to take into consideration. The turn based nature of the game means you can spend as long as you want pouring over menus, unit statistics, and technology trees. Start by choosing a spot for your first city, and watch your borders grow, and deal with your neighbors through diplomacy or warfare. Research technologies, ranging from the bow and arrow to nuclear weapons, and push toward one of the many possible victory conditions to win the game. Before you know it, the addictive need for “one more turn” will sink in, and hours will pass by in a blink of an eye. There are many nations to choose from, all of whom have special units, buildings, and benefits, such as China receiving a greater chance to have a great general spawn. Despite this, the nations are never different enough from one another to be confusing or impenetrable. This is a game where the expansions, Gods and Kings and Brave New World flesh out the game’s religion, trade, and culture mechanics immensely, and are essential to enjoying Civilization V to its full potential. Considering how often the “Civilization V: Complete” bundle has been on sale on various storefronts, this is a game newcomers should definitely look into if they want to be the architect of a nation’s destiny.
Ever since I watched Braveheart, I’ve wanted a video game that can effectively capture the spectacle of hundreds of soldiers fighting on screen at once, and being in command of it all from a god like perspective. The Total War series have always been about capturing the thrill of watching these colossal engagements take place and maneuvering blocks of troops to best capitalize on tactical situations. Games in Creative Assembly’s catalog of covered many major historical periods of warfare, ranging from Julius Caesar’s conquests, all the way up to Napoleon’s march into Russia. Out of this series, the best entry point in my opinion is Total War: Shogun 2, set during the tumultuous Sengoku Jidai in Japan. The Total War formula takes place in two phases, first phase is a turn based empire management not dissimilar to that of Civilization, and the second is real time strategy battles, with the massive encounters previously mentioned. Total War: Shogun 2 is the best introduction since its unit roster is confined to the japanese military of the era. Units have a rock-paper-scissors counter system that creates tactical puzzles for the player to solve. Spears beat horses, swords beat spears, and horses beat swords. There is wiggling room in this system, mixed up by inclusions such as no-daichi warriors that are deadly in a charge, or naginata wielding monks, or gunpowder matchlock units. Other Total War games have very different cultures battling it out with different doctrines and fighting styles, but Total War: Shogun 2 is the formula at its most streamlined and balanced, not to mention the one of the more graphically pleasing in terms of art design. The base game alone is enough to keep a player engaged for well over a hundred hours, and is a fantastic historical illustration of a momentous period of Japan’s past.
Paradox Interactive is known for making some of the most complicated grand strategy games ever made, which makes it a surprise when their first attempt at a space game yielded a title that has ended up being one of their more accessible games. Unlike their other titles, there is a helpful tutorial robot that explains in extensive detail every single menu and every single mechanic the game has to offer. Stellaris is a game about charting a species’s destiny in the cosmos, and it excels at giving the player a sense of genuine discovery as they slowly explore the surrounding space. Colonize planets, gather resources, research technologies, construct a naval fleet, and meet the surrounding empires of your nation. This is a complex experience, but the tutorial system and relaxed pace of initial exploration make the experience digestible. The pause and play mechanics mean that orders can be queued up easily, and while there is a ship customization mechanic, this is mostly optional due to the ability to autocomplete ships with the latest technology and equipment. Combat is a simple matter of clicking on an enemy fleet, and watching your own fleet attempt to take them out with the loadouts you provided them with. In addition to this, the mandatory sector system allow the player to automate large chunks of their empire, letting them focus on the systems that matter the most. Compared to the vast majority of grand strategy games set in space, most of whom have a notorious reputation for being opaque to newcomers, Stellaris is an excellent choice as an entry point into this genre.
Strategy games take more investment to learn than other genres, but the feeling of accomplishment is unparalleled when they are mastered. The games in this list aren’t the deepest or most in depth in simulating a strategic experience, but are all excellent games, and offer up interesting scenarios that are a fun to dissect and overcome for newcomers. This is a genre of games that has only gotten better with time, and with new wave of strategy experiences being released weekly, there is never a better chance to get into these games than right now. Why not play some of those in your backlog?