Strategising expressed in real-time, turn-based and the time-bending variants in between has been a cornerstone of gaming since close to its infancy. Here's a selection of the very best examples of strategy games to ever grace the medium.
Relic Entertainment's first game is in many ways a monolithic presence in the modern RTS landscape. One of the rare truly 3D strategy titles, as opposed to the usual 2.5D in the form of cliffs or elevations simply providing bonuses to units, Homeworld also boasts one of the best stories in video games as a whole.
The campaign has players leading the last remnants of an exiled civilisation clinging to survival aboard an exotic looking mothership back to their ancestral home through a truly epic series of space battles. A player's fleet carries over from mission to mission, and the experience as a whole is notoriously unforgiving in terms of difficulty.
Commanding groups of capital ships and frigates into battle with swarms of corvettes and fighter craft blazing around on escort duty while ion cannon beams and projectiles fly in all directions on a stylised and colourful galactic backdrop is as jaw-dropping today as it was close to 20 years ago.
For first time players, we strongly recommend skipping the remastered version if it is at all possible to get the original 1999 release running on modern machines. The remasters are prettier, but they mess with camera control and perspective, which we feel is detrimental to overall narrative delivery.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
The Command & Conquer franchise has aspired to deliver a measure of asymmetry in faction design ever since its inception and Red Alert 2 is the point in the series where it finally came together.
On top of adding considerable amounts of strategic depth, this series entry cranked the famed camp levels of Red Alert's FMV sequences up to eleven, with iconic performances by Udo Kier (Yuri), Nicholas Worth (Premier Romanov) and Ray Wise (US President Doughan), to only name a few.
Individual unit design also showed the levels of creativity Westwood were capable of delivering, for both tone and gameplay. Hearing the Lybian Demolition Truck enthusiastically exclaiming "One way trip!" and "Why don't you drive?" while carrying a nuke, a British Sniper saying "I love to camp!", or the Allied Mirage Tank claiming "Nobody here but us trees!" never gets old and breathes life into the battlefield carnage.
Units also advanced in rank if players manage to keep them alive adding unique bonuses once maxed out.
The Yuri's Revenge expansion brought more campaign content, shuffled the game's faction balance, and is generally considered an almost inseparable addition to the Red Alert 2 package.
Age of Empires II
Every so often it happens that a sequel so thoroughly improves on its predecessor that it makes it obsolete, and any further entries to the series struggle to compare favourably. This was the case with Ensemble Studios' Age of Empires II and its Conquerors expansion.
Age of Empires II lies on the sweet spot between historical accuracy and real-time mechanical simplification for gameplay and narrative purposes. The game's campaigns take some liberties with authenticity for the events they describe, but do allow for many more practical visual and gameplay deviations, such as siege equipment appearing as self-propelled, unit and building scale being disproportional, and fish traps holding unlimited amounts of food.
Most of these transgressions are easy to forgive as the design and style are internally consistent and the visuals remain gorgeous to this day, which is something to be said for a game from the late '90s.
Various civilisations are lumped into architectural groups that convey a universal historical feel for their respective epochs and regions while expressing more nuanced differences between them through in-game bonuses or restrictions placed on them. Each civilisation has a fitting unique unit and technology, and most receive additional tweaks to reflect some other aspect, like the Franks having more hit-points for cavalry or Turks getting a 50 per cent discount on gunpowder technologies.
Official third-party expansions have steadily broadened the game's scope in the 20 years since its release, upgrading the game's HD edition by adding new civilisations and balancing old ones. Age of Empires II can swallow an impressive amount of hours in its original form, and even more with its expansions if the base-game somehow still leaves you craving.
In spite of often being falsely referred to as South Korea's national sport, StarCraft remains one of the cornerstones of e-sports history, and with good reason.
The high-point of what will soon be referred to as old Blizzard RTS efforts, StarCraft has air-tight balance for its three asymmetrical factions, captivating B-movie styled cutscenes sprinkled between missions, and hard-as-nails singleplayer campaigns that provide the game's thematic and tonal backdrop as well as a prolonged tutorial for multiplayer.
The Brood War expansion added a story mode that is more akin to a series of tactical puzzles for the most ambitious of players, and changed balance just enough to put the final touches on an already near spotless product.
Humanity has spread across the stars only to fracture and reform again when faced with alien threats in the form of the highly advanced and religious Protoss and a galaxy devouring organic swarm of horrors named the Zerg. The interplay between these factions is delivered in space-opera style, and while a lot of its concepts and visuals are recycled from other works of sci-fi, StarCraft manages to put a somewhat simplistic but fresh spin on many of its themes.
StarCraft remains so entrenched in modern strategy that even its remastered edition carried over bugs and exploits from the original that were deemed tournament-legal. That same original release from 1998 is now completely free to play, so if you haven't experienced StarCraft in all its 640x480 4:3 glory, then there are no obstacles in the way of a quick catch-up.
BlueByte and Related Design have proven that the extreme effects of global warming can indeed serve as the stage for a compelling RTS experience with Anno 2070.
Unlike most entries to this list, Anno 2070 leans more into its trade and industry aspects than its warfare component, but naval combat is fleshed out just enough for it to qualify.
Global sea-levels have risen to a point where what's left of mankind had to evacuate to a series of islands. Three distinct factions have arisen to fill the power vacuum left by the disappearance of traditional nation-states - Tycoon, Eco and Tech. Their individual philosophies should be obvious by just looking at the names, and each brings with it a gameplay style with its own strengths and weaknesses. A mix-and-match approach is also possible, and is usually the only way to play at an optimal level.
Said gameplay focuses mainly on managing production chain efficiency, ecologic balance, oceanic trade routes, population needs and conducting limited warfare against pirates or rival island colonies. These become increasingly complex as the game introduces concepts such as underwater outposts, the requirement of connecting multiple islands or hastily competing for limited resources.
What separated Anno 2070 from true greatness at launch was Ubisoft's usual insistence on near game-breaking DRM, but most of the pains this caused on launch have been patched out in the meantime. With a unique mix of clean and gritty visuals for some of its factions, and the ability to pause and play at your own pace, there are very few strategy titles that can offer the flow Anno 2070 pulls off, and that includes the titles from within the series itself.