Strategy gamers often have a soft spot for experimentation and their favourite titles often reflect that - be it in terms of sheer scale, mixing real-time and turn-based elements, or even adding different genres to the blend entirely.
Master of Orion II: Battle for Antares
Master of Orion II is the grandfather of 4X space strategy, and not one of those arthritic wise bearded ones, but the mythical type that can bench-press the back end of a car well into their 70s.
Simtex's masterpiece offers crazy amounts of faction customisation on top of an already diverse cast of unique alien species, a system for designing individual ships which later become parts of fleets, and an overall tone and feel to its setting that leaves the distinct impression of it being a lived-in place instead of a heap of interconnected spreadsheets.
Planets can be subdued at gunpoint, slowly assimilated or straight-up mind-controlled by telepaths. Systems can be blockaded and starved of food and reinforcements, diplomatic pressure plays as much of a role as espionage, certain prime real-estate systems are guarded by space dragons and amoebas making them unreachable without considerable military effort.
The titular Orion system is protected by The Guardian, which is a stupefyingly powerful space entity. Colonising the system isn't an instant win, but rather provides the player with the most resource-rich spot in the game by far, and pretty much allows steamrolling the competition from that point onward, on top of other tech and diplomatic advantages.
While a recent reboot of sorts is a viable route for those who can't quite stomach the rugged mid-90's aesthetics and UI, the GOG version of the original should run fine on modern systems and holds a wealth of depth and charm often parroted since but rarely truly replicated.
Rome: Total War
According to many, Creative Assembly themselves are still struggling to match the landmark strategy title they developed themselves in the form of Rome: Total War.
Loosely set during the time of the late Roman Republic and early Roman Empire, the pinnacle of the Total War series allows the reenactment or complete departure from various historical events and battles. The gameplay itself is divided between a turn-based strategic map hosting economy, commerce, infrastructure development, espionage and diplomacy, and a tactical battle map simulating individual battles.
Specific battlefield encounters are depicted with great attention to detail and historical authenticity, while the strategic map works with broad strokes to convey broader events, which are somewhat harder to quantify.
Players can take charge of one of three noble Roman families across the centuries vying for eventual imperial dominance, or opt to complete other objectives playing as one of the empires and kingdoms bordering the Roman-dominated world.
What sets Rome: Total War apart from its peers is the manner in which it oozes a believable sense of antiquity regardless of what part of the ancient world the player is currently looking at or manipulating events in. Its two expansions are a welcome addition for those craving more of the brilliance on display, but aren't an absolute must for the full experience.
Empire Earth has almost completely broken pathfinding, shamelessly cheating AI opponents, incredibly dull unit balance, and pacing so far off the mark that calling it glacial would be a gross understatement. So why are we talking about it?
Well, a few of those woes end up working in its favour. Primarily, it's one of the only games around that allows players to stomp club-wielding cave men with futuristic mechs, or even a nuke. The game features 14 epochs that can be traversed in a single match, form Prehistoric to the Nano Age, it's all there.
Stainless Steel Studios' only true hit is also one of the few real-time strategy games that relies heavily on attrition as a derived yet core gameplay system. Resources are near inexhaustible, defences require massive troop concentrations for a breakthrough, unit AI is beyond brain-dead, and a rock/paper/scissors approach to balancing ensures countering an offensive is a simple affair with relatively basic game knowledge. Miraculously, this forces the player to think strategically rather than focusing on individual tactical encounters.
The trainwreck starts shining as something truly unique, tense, and engaging once a match drifts into the epochs surrounding World War 1, for hopefully obvious reasons.
Empire Earth charms its way to success with some endearing and cheesy voice acting, a bonkers futuristic campaign for sci-fi Russia, and somehow maintaining a straight face in all its broken glory. Its expansion adds a 15th Space epoch to the mix, but is nothing to write home about, so the base game will do just fine for hours of strategically bizarre entertainment. Multiplayer is also a hoot, provided you have some patient friends on hand who can get it to run on modern machines.
Warlords Battlecry III
An offshoot of the Warlords turn-based strategy series, Warlords Battlecry III is the most seamless yet complex blend of fantasy real-time strategy and action RPG genres developed to date.
With over two dozen races or factions, just as many spell schools, almost twice as many hero classes across 50 experience levels, a downpour of different skills and items, and an absurd amount of possible combinations between them, the daunting volume of mechanics is surprisingly easy to learn in a step-by-step manner or through the game's campaign.
Whether creating a Barbarian warrior capable of taking down entire armies by one-hitting a unit at a time at blinding attack speeds, a Daemon champion making all nearby friendly units near invulnerable, or a Plaguelord summoning near-infinite swarms of poisonous wasps and spiders is your thing - Warlords Battlecry will let you do it.
The fieldable armies and their fortifications offer an equal level of depth. Some upgrade their entire tech-tree out of a flimsy skeleton starting point, while others allow for every unit to steal resources on hit or grow their numbers by sacrificing other friendly units.
Heroes can transfer between the story mode, skirmish battles against the AI and even multiplayer, so every kill and victory helps a champion creep further towards becoming a near-unstoppable wrecking ball of fantasy madness.
All of this is delivered with a surprisingly coherent art-style and with top-notch voice acting, both in the non-linear campaign and for individual unit quips, some of which have a high chance of sticking in player's heads for years to come.
Battlezone II: Combat Commander
Pandemic's premier outing was an iteration and a clear upgrade over the original Battlezone from 1998 in spite of a number of technical issues on release.
Battlezone II is a blend of real-time strategy with first-person shooting and vehicle combat mechanics. In short, anything a player could do from a birds-eye view could also be accomplished by interacting with terminals on buildings in the game world or by directly piloting its numerous vehicles of war, including hover tanks, walkers, aircraft and the like.
While it may sound ludicrous to even attempt by today's standards, somehow this 3-in-1 approach to strategy design works wonders for immersion, and that's a tall order for the genre which often presumes a sort of detachment from the battles taking place on-screen.
The story is your usual mysterious alien threat fare, but delivered from the point of view of a black ops operative forced to untangle internal intrigue while simultaneously facing off with the alien menace.
The game's AI isn't stellar, but competent enough to be able to take care of matters on a small scale without the player's direct intervention, should one just feel like piloting a tank squadron past the enemy defences while ordering an airstrike from the cockpit and calling in repair crews at the same time. The UI feels a little clumsy at times, juggling all these mechanics simultaneously, but all things considered, it works surprisingly well after some familiarising.
A recent remaster brought the late 90s title up to modern HD standards while not interfering with the original design. The remaster is indeed welcome as no developer since has even tried replicating what Battlezone can provide.