Turn-based strategy games have often been dismissed by somewhat closed-minded fans of real-time strategy games as being too slow, arduous and boring. On the contrary, turn-based games can be even more suspenseful than their real-time counterparts. To put it simply, when you know that you're going to die in 10 turns unless you pull off some feat of skill, you're going to do everything you can to change the outcome. Sounds pretty exciting to me.
This list has been updated with the addition of Civilization: Beyond Earth, Endless Legend and Age of Wonders 3.
2015 Entry – Age of Wonders 3 (with Eternal Lords and Golden Realms expansions)
Age of Wonders 3 is the latest title in the long-running series of games from Triumph (the first of which is already on this list). It represents the latest generation of fantasy-themed turn-based strategy games, offering great strategic as well as tactical gameplay with its overland and battle screen modes, respectively.
The addition of its two released expansion packs: Golden Realms and Eternal Lords brings massive improvements to the base game.
Late 2014 Entry – Endless Legend
Amplitude's Endless Legend is a game that definitely deserves a spot on this list. Released in 2014, it remains to this date a deeply engaging turn-based strategy title. Strategy in the game manifests through the myriad of diverse factions, all of which play differently from one another, with different gameplay styles and end-goals. Culture has never been more complicated (and enjoyable) in a strategy game as with Endless Legend.
Late 2014 Entry – Civilization: Beyond Earth
Civilization: Beyond Earth is easily one of the best turn-based strategy games in recent years. The various factions and Affinities will ensure multiple, robust playthroughs, each presenting unique scenarios that will encourage the player to strategize in challenging new ways with each file.
XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Firaxis's XCOM: Enemy Unknown is a worthy successor to the turn-based strategy game series by Microprose—classics from almost two decades ago. It's been a long time coming, and Firaxis put their best foot forward in re-creating the spirit of the original game.
Revived by the makers of Civilization, the new XCOM streamlines everything that made the original title a little annoying to play through and improves upon all of its best qualities for a modern, turn-based strategy game that's like no other.
XCOM's popularity and success is proof of the strength of turn-based strategy games, which have stood the test of time despite being declared 'dead' a million times over.
X-Com: UFO Defense
X-Com: UFO Defense isn't one of the earliest turn-based strategy games, but it's certainly one of the best. As aliens from Mars invade the earth, an international task force called X-Com is formed to counter the threat with funding from the world's various governments. As leader of X-Com, you have to invest in bases to recruit and train military personnel, purchase and manufacture equipment, and research material collected from the field to improve your odds against the xenos.
While the game allows you to manage your bases, the game's meat and bones are in the combat missions. As time progresses, the aliens carry out sporadic terrorist attacks on civilian populations and it becomes your job to send out a team to deal with them. In the field, you're in control of an entire squad of operatives. The game is notable for its high tension missions, where your soldiers go up against forces unknown who can attack you from out of sight. Careful planning, reconnaissance and proper use of your soldiers goes a long way to ensuring success.
Master of Magic
Master of Magic looks like the child of Civilization and Lord of the Rings. But it's more than just Fantasy Civilization. Released in 1995 and created by the now defunct Simtex, Master of Magic was the first game of its kind to feature both empire building and a tactical turn-based battles.
As an archmage vying for dominion over the land against other powerful wizards, you had to first choose a patron race, which provided you with a myriad of bonuses, penalties and special abilities. One of the races even began in the mirror world of Myrran, which was a reflection of the real world, replete with its own set of heroes, cities, resources and dungeons. You had to also choose spellbooks, which allowed you to cast a variety of spells based on the schools of magic that you picked.
While much of the game consists of building up your empire, the turn-based battles are just as much a part of the Master of Magic experience. You can recruit heroes who approach you seeking service in exchange for payment and use them to lead your armies to conquest. Battles are played out in an isometric map similar to Final Fantasy Tactics and your actions determine your victory or failure.
Jagged Alliance 2
Sirtech's Jagged Alliance 2 remains an unsurpassed turn-based strategy experience, offering some of the most complex isometric battles the genre has ever seen.
Jagged Alliance 2 takes place in the fictional South American nation of Arulco. Taking the role of a mercenary, you've been hired by the country's deposed leader to retake the country from the hands of its tyrant, Deirdranna. With funds at your disposal and rewards for retaking towns and completing mission objectives, you can hire a mercenary crew and recruit the aid of local citizens and militia to reclaim Arulco. There's a rebellion, and you're leading it.
Like Final Fantasy Tactics, JA2 uses a strategic map screen where the player issues high level strategic orders. Unlike FFT, you're in control of more than a single group of units and you have to also supervise the the management of your liberated cities. Combat and individual location exploration takes place in tactical screen, where player can issue individual direct commands to their mercenaries. As the game is partly an RPG, you can train your mercenaries to be more efficient killers and equip them with gear that you salvage from enemies, receive as rewards or acquire through the online gun store. One of the more interesting elements of the game is its fake internet service, which is replete with websites to recruit new mercenaries and other services.
Disciples 2 is one of the few strategy games to feature a rich gothic motif. Set in a dark fantasy world (as opposed to a world of unicorns and rainbows), the main focus of D2's story revolves around four dominant races in a state of constant war. Included are the human Empire, the dwarven Mountain Clans, the demonic Legions of the Damned and the skeletal Undead Hordes. It's a setting much inspired by Warhammer Fantasy and as you may or may not know, nothing in that world is particularly pleasant.
Similar to Heroes of Might and Magic, the game is a mission-based strategy game with a focus on overland maps, and is spread across four separate campaigns whose stories tie into each other. The gist of the game is simple: you build up a Capital City that allows you to research new units and spells, using your heroes to lead armies to perform exploration and combat, and finally the battles themselves. Combat in the game plays out very similarly to Japanese turn-based RPGs like Ogre Battle where placement is everything. The combat is nothing at all like HOMM's.
Heroes of Might and Magic 3
The third game in the Heroes of Might and Magic series takes off after the events of the second game where a bunch of stuff happened that nobody remembers or cares about. Story was never the series' strong point, and most of its appeal came from its great gameplay.
Like so many other empire-building strategy games at the time, the game was split into a number of different campaigns where you took possession over one of the game's many races. Every race came equipped with its own cities, which you built up for the purpose of recruiting new units while collecting an upkeep to maintain your forces. Every army was lead by a hero, whom you could train up by earning experience in and out of battle, giving them new skills and abilities each time they leveled up. Heroes also depended on the equipment you gave them–magical items scattered throughout the lands and carried by enemy heroes.
Battles played out on a field and your army was represented by unit stacks. Ten dragons could make a barbecue out of a thousand peasants while your other units sat back.
It was a game that deprived you of sleep every time you played it, not unlike every other game on this list.
It's the only tactical turn-based game that's set in WWII, a setting that's more or less overflowing with titles in every other genre. Heavily inspired by Jagged Alliance 2, at least in terms of combat (as there's no management mode), Silent Storm puts you in charge of a squad of allied commandos who infiltrate the German lines to destabilize their war effort.
The game is packed with tons of weapons from WW2 and throws in a bit of sci-fi towards the end with laser and gatling-gun wielding mechs. Crazy, I know.
When Sid Meier came up with the Civilization series two decades ago, I'm sure he couldn't have imagined how big they'd become. It's a series that's managed to stand the test of time, culminating in its latest addition, which was released not too long ago. No top ten list of strategy games would be complete without the series that created the habit of staying up several hours past bedtime to play "Just One More Turn".
The concept is simple: select a civilization, plan its development, and take over the world. How you do that is up to you.
The latest addition removes some of the series' less well designed features like espionage and has replaced its normal square grid system with a much better hex-grid combat system. The AI's got some issues, and the game isn't perfect but it's well on its way to becoming the best Civilization ever made.
Medieval: Total War
If you've ever read multi-page battle reports from the game's horde of die hard players you'd understand the dedication that a game like Medieval: Total War can inspire in a gamer. Choosing a period between the Early Middle Ages to the Late Middle Ages, you choose your faction and engage in the total dominance of Europe. Taking the role of rulers like Saladin to King Richard the Lionheart, your goal is not only to secure your own lands but to wage a crusade against the infidels of the opposing religion. It's touchy stuff in this day and age, but no less satisfying when you lay waste to their cities.
The game is split between two modes: turn-based empire management and real time strategy battles. In the empire screen, each turn takes a season and your duties are divided into planning and strategizing the development of your empire, performing diplomatic actions, conscripting an army and making military decisions. The battles then take place out in the field where your armies go head to head against opposing factions.
Age of Wonders
Sometimes regarded as the spiritual successor to Master of Magic, Age of Wonders takes a more mission based approach. You can choose between two factions: the high elves, and the dark elves. As as high elf, you play the role of an elven ruler who seeks to reclaim the elven lands. As a dark elf, you do the direct opposite of that. Along the way, you can recruit allies loyal to your cause and make enemies in the process. New heroes will join your forces and are capable of raiding dungeons for equipment and experience.
Your carry your heroes from mission to mission, along with a few veteran units who earn experience as they participate in battles, and build your cities to accumulate wealth and magic. The magic you research allows you to use powerful spells against your opponents and remains persistent throughout the campaign.
Unlike most other strategy games, the story in Age of Wonders was actually well written and it's very much worthwhile to play the game as both Good and Evil.