My love of PC gaming dates back to a time when my family couldn’t come close to affording a computer capable of running games. Back then I would browse PC gaming magazines and look in awe at the technical majesty of titles like Myst or Half-Life, and shake my head in disbelief at how games like Everquest and Tribes were even possible.
But during that period of deprivation of PC gaming’s splendid majesty, it was the strategy games that captured my interest the most. While true online games and pure first person shooters were little more than pipe dreams during that era of console gaming, the real-time strategy game was simply something that could not exist anywhere outside of the mouse and keyboard. As such its lusty blend of strategy, intellect and large-scale warfare was the ultimate draw for gamers who thought their Nintendos were the center of the gaming universe.
To this day, little has changed. Consoles may be terrifyingly powerful and the average cell phone twice as capable as the PCs I longed for in my youth, but honest to God strategy games are still the sole property of the PC. It is one of the proudest legacies in all of gaming.
Compiling a list, then, of the best PC strategy games ever made is among the most daunting tasks of its kind. There are dozens of games worthy of the top spot honors, and trying to separate the 10 best of them will leave you with a guilty feeling that may not be deserved, but is unshakable nonetheless.
So with the disclaimer that I am fully aware that all of my opinions on this matter may be entirely wrong, and the acknowledgment that you, the wise, loyal and devilishly attractive readers, are 100 percent correct, I present the 10 best PC strategy games ever made.
10. Supreme Commander
Though “learning curve” is likely the first phrase you’ll hear used to describe Supreme Commander, it is woefully incapable of relaying the sheer depth that will prevent many gamers from ever getting much further than Supreme Commander’s opening moments. The amount of micromanagement it requires of you in order to lead your troops to victory is so staggering that mastering it should be an acceptable bullet point on your professional resume.
But if you tough it out you’ll be rewarded with a strategic experience of nearly unlimited potential. Supreme Commander makes no compromises in its quest to place you in the ultimate battleground of land, sea and air units. Nowhere is this truer than in the multiplayer mode, where victory goes to the individual who makes the fewest of thousands of potential errors.
The best RTS games leave you in awe once you take in the full scope of your accomplishments. Supreme Commander not only does this with each playthrough, it’s also capable of bringing a smile to your face you even when you reminisce on your accomplishments.
9. Age of Empires II
In breaking down the best strategy games, it’s tempting to look first at their historical significance. After all, in such a diverse category it surely must be the games that served as milestones for the genre that get the ultimately nod right?
The answer is, “sort of.” To a degree the historical significance standard applies to Age of Empires II, for instance. However, Age of Empires II truly earns its spot for being so much damn fun. Maybe “fun” isn’t a quality that makes a game worthy of rubbing shoulders with the giants of the industry, but at their heart games are about entertainment, and AOE: II is simply more entertaining than many of its contemporaries.
So while it did make a few innovations and refinements of its own, ultimately AOE: II will be fondly remembered for years to come by virtue of features like its word class multiplayer mode, general accessibility and downright hilarious cheat codes. And you know what? That’s good enough for me.
8. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Gamers are not typically a crowd that easily shelves its cynicism. So when it was announced that the fabled PC series XCOM would be revived for the modern age, no one expected the game to quell the groans heard around the world from gamers .
Yet after a series of design changes, XCOM ended up silencing even its harshest critics. Though it sacrificed some of the base building options found in the original games, Enemy Unknown’s perma-death-based combat system more than made up for it by providing one of the most harrowing and emotionally intense experiences in all of gaming.
No, gamers aren’t easy cynics to overcome. But Enemy Unknown forced them all to put aside their doubts with ferocity as they not only invested hours into the game, but also passionately pleaded with everyone in their lives to do the same.
7. Total War: Shogun II
Do I really need to elaborate on the brilliance of the Total War series? Who among us has not been taken in by watching the footage of thousands of units charging each other on an ancient field of battle, only to discover the surprisingly deep Risk-like game of movements and positioning that fuels the spectacle?
The only real question then is which Total War game gets the nod? While Medieval: Total War was the first game to really show the potential of the series, and Rome: Total War damn near perfected the formula, Shogun II’s feudal Japan setting and subtle (yet welcome) tweaks to the franchise formula sets it apart as the highlight of an almost impeccable series.
But really, this is an entry for the Total War series in general. It’s a series that is truly only possible on the PC, and thus holds a special place in this writer’s PC fanboy heart.
6. Civilization V
Much like Total War, the question here isn’t so much why Civilization, but why Civ: V?
The answer honestly lies in the expansions. Civ: V’s expansions (especially Gods and Kings) took what was arguably already the best realization of a pretty epic idea and removed any remaining arguments against it. Civilization was always based around the idea of becoming one of the major pieces in the grand game of life and attempting to claim the board, but before the ultimate edition of Civ: V the series had never before managed to pack in so many little things into that grand goal. For many, it is the ultimate realization of just how dangerous one more turn syndrome can be.
Plus, it is my personal favorite Civilization game. That may not count for much objectively speaking, but as the old umpire saying goes; “The tie goes to…whomever the hell I say it goes to.”
Those of us who grew up knowing that the cabernet and caviar space battles of Star Trek were clearly superior to the light beer and fist bump space battles of Star Wars, have long been fascinated by the opportunity to command a squadron of space ships in a true three dimensional environment.
While Homeworld certainly offers that, it must be said that it’s also much more than a mere realization of some fanboy’s dream. Instead Homeworld offers a truly unique style of strategy game that allows players to participate in space battles on a scale that no Hollywood epic could quite replicate. The battles of Homeworld not only force players to think in an entirely new dimension, but their visual splendor holds up remarkably well for a game that is nearly 15 years old.
Homeworld is quite simply unlike any other game in the history of gaming. In a world with any justice it would be more than a cult classic, and instead would be counted among the god-tier of PC games.
4. Warcraft III
The brilliance of Blizzard has always lied in its mastery of simplicity in game design. I don’t mean simple as in inferior or easy, but rather simple as in universal. It makes games that anyone can easily be drawn into, then takes us on a journey of creative excellence from the moment we’re strapped in for the ride.
There is perhaps no game in its canon that exhibits these qualities better than Warcraft III. At its heart it does relatively little to advance the RTS genre in bold new directions outside of a couple minor innovations, but that doesn’t matter. Instead, Warcraft III’s brilliance comes from the way it so perfectly executes the essential aspects that make RTS games so compelling, then adds just the right amount of creative flair and production values in order to put it cleanly over its competition.
Any good chef will tell you that a truly great meal is the result of a few simple ingredients combined perfectly. Warcraft III is that truly great meal: One that will mean most future meals will leave you with the slightest twinge of disappointment, regardless of their quality.
3. Crusader Kings II
PC strategy game developers have long sought to increase the scope of gaming. Few, though, have ever been as successful in this endeavor as Paradox Interactive was when it unleashed Crusader Kings II onto the world.
And yet as grand as Crusader Kings II ‘s strategic scope is, it’s also incredibly intimate. Rather than focus solely on the large scale medieval battles that typically define strategy games of this type, CK:II instead emphasizes the complex political and personal relationships that fuel not just war but the world at large. Here is a game that’s as concerned with your ability to establish a strong lineage as it is with your ability to raise huge armies.
That may not sound too exciting to an outsider, but as anyone who has spent hours trying to squelch the army your brother raised after being outcast from your kingdom as the result of an arrangement with the King of France will tell you, true scope in gaming strategy starts with appreciating the depth and potential of a single human.
2. Company of Heroes
The idea of a strategy game (and a World War II one at that) that could come along in 2006 and reinvigorate the genre was little more than a pipe dream prior to Company of Heroes.
It pulled off this Herculean feat simply by trimming the fat off the genre, and focusing on the things it wasn’t typically known for. Gone, for instance, were the tedious resource management aspects of other RTS games, as well as the “good for what they are” standard of visuals the genre had a tendency to set. In their place were some truly exceptional production values, and a streamlined form of gameplay that contributed tremendously to an in-game campaign that is as cinematic and gripping as strategy games have ever known.
Before Company of Heroes, strategy games were near the bottom of the list in terms of genres capable of providing truly cinematic gaming experiences. Now, we know it is capable of anything.
There are bad games, good games and great games. Above those, there are beloved games.
Beloved games are well beyond things like criticism or analysis. They are so ingrained into the minds of the gaming community that they are more of an institution or historical landmark: a game that was, is and always shall be amazing.
Starcraft is one of those games. Not only has it sold millions upon millions of copies and is considered to be the national sport of Korea, it has also become one of those rare titles that just makes gamers smile when they hear the name.
But if we allow ourselves to look beyond the considerable hype the game has attracted, we find a game that is somewhere on the border of perfect. In 1998, Blizzard crafted a nearly perfectly designed, perfectly produced and (far above all) perfectly balanced strategy game. Its core design is airtight, yet its intangibles are downright sexy. It’s like driving a Ferrari that you never have to take to the mechanic.
Starcraft is not only the face of the real-time strategy genre, but for many has remained the go-to gaming experience for 16 years. Not bad for an old-timer.