The Best Strategy Games of 2016 – So Far

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It wasn’t long ago that folks in gaming circles were fretting about the impending death of real time strategy games – after StarCraft II blasted sales records, there was a pretty high bar to clear for any developers entering the genre with new properties or ideas. More recently, MOBAs like Dota 2 and League of Legends have drawn in younger players who might have otherwise been interested in RTS ten years or so ago.

But 2016 has already turned out to be a banner year for strategy and tactics games – not just RTS, but the kinds of hugely-ambitious grand strategy games that have made Paradox a household name. From ancient China to entire galaxies, 2016 probably has a strategy title with just about any armchair general’s name on it, whether you prefer hardcore history or more speculative universes.

We’re only halfway through the year, but let’s check out some of 2016’s best strategy games so far.

Ashes of the Singularity

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Developer: Oxide Games, Stardock Entertainment
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Platforms: PC
MSRP: $39.99
Style: Sci-Fi RTS
Released: March 31

Stardock’s latest foray into RTS is about massive battles that reward strategic thinking about counters and moves over twitchy unit micromanagement. Using the new DirectX 12 API, Ashes of the Singularity puts many hundreds of units on screen at a time, and instead of constantly clicking to tell them exactly what to do, you’ll dispatch forces to areas in anticipation of your opponent’s next move.

The single player campaign is a bit brief, with only 11 missions, but it’s really more of a lengthy tutorial to prepare you for the exciting multiplayer matches. If you have fond memories of Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance, you’ll want to give Ashes of the Singularity a look. For more, read Gameranx’s review by Stephen Daly.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII

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Developer: Koei Tecmo
Publisher: Koei Tecmo
Platforms: PC, PS4
MSRP: $59.99
Style: Grand strategy history sim
Released: July 5 (English edition)

No doubt there will be players who bounce off the latest entry in Koei’s long-running series of empire simulators, but give Romance of the Three Kingdoms XIII a chance – for one, it’s very rare to find a strategy game this deep on any console, and two, there’s a battle system designed just for debates between characters!

It’s true that RotTK13 has a clunky interface and a battle system that’s tidepool deep, but the star of the show here is the Crusader Kings-style focus on your network of friendships and familial relationships, which you’ll leverage to advance in rank and to recruit talented new officers to your cause. The game’s “Hero Mode” serves as a good tutorial for the free-form “Main” game in the form of episodes from ancient Chinese history. Once you’re through those, you can choose a mighty ruler or lowly military officer with whom to start your quest for dynastic might.

Hearts of Iron IV

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Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
MSRP: $39.99
Style: WWII Grand Strategy
Released: June 6

Paradox’s bread and butter, their huge and ambitious grand strategy games, have always had steep learning curves – none more so than 2009’s hardcore World War II simulator Hearts of Iron III. While Paradox’s fourth entry in the series manages to preserve much of its predecessors’ complexity – such as designing individual divisions and plotting out a path through multiple tech trees – it manages to make the experience much more approachable and fluid.

There’s no game that tackles the WWII era quite the way Hearts of Iron does, which is to say this is the one game that tries to take on all of it. From the movement of troops during the Battle of the Bulge to the political relationships between the Comintern nations and the west, from tank technology to international espionage, Hearts of Iron IV is meant for armchair Churchills rather than mere generals.

Total War: Warhammer

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Developer: The Creative Assembly
Publisher: SEGA
Platforms: PC
MSRP: $59.99
Style: Turn-based empire building with real-time battles
Released: May 24

If you know me at all, or if you read my effusive review here, it’ll be no surprise to find Total War: Warhammer on this list. The Total War series’ idiosyncratic approach to melding turn-based empire building and platoon-based real time strategy had baffled me up until I was able to pit ranks of dwarfen quarrelers against boar-riding Greenskins, with griffons and wyverns duking it out in the skies overhead.

All that could have been done with some clever mod work – and there’s been tons of that over the course of Total War’s long-running history. But the Creative Assembly made a terrific effort to truly incorporate Warhammer lore into this game, making each race – greenskins, the Empire, dwarfs, the vampire counts, and Chaos – play the strategic game in fundamentally distinct ways. As a bonus, it serves as a great entry point for the Total War franchise: I’ve been having a blast with Napoleon now that I grasp the fundamentals of Total War.

Stellaris

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Developer: Paradox Development Studio
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
MSRP: $39.99
Style: Real time 4X space empire sim
Released: May 9

Paradox’s decision to release a new IP like Stellaris so close to the release of a new entry in a tentpole franchise (Hearts of Iron IV, see above) is a question for the ages, but that doesn’t take away from the company’s foray into space, which represents a major leap out and away from their background of densely historic grand strategy games.

Stellaris has you creating new histories of completely new races of people among the stars – will you be spiritual nationalists, subjugating all who refuse to adopt your species’ faith? Or perhaps isolationist scientists, preferring to avoid interstellar conflict in favor of exploration and discovery?

There’s admittedly a bit of a lull in the midgame, but Paradox is known for its dedication to its titles. While Stellaris is already thick with content, there’s assuredly even more to come.

XCOM 2

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Developer: Firaxis Games
Publisher: 2K Games
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, coming to PlayStation 4 and Xbox One September 9
MSRP: $59.99
Style: Turn-based squad tactics
Released: February 5

After a brilliant franchise reboot with XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the turn-based squad tactics game is back with a sequel that adds new mechanics, new foes, and new reasons to cry about a seasoned squad member cut down in the prime of life. And if you missed the 2012 outing or its expansion, Enemy Within, you’ll be fine jumping in with XCOM 2: everybody pretty much dies anyway.

This time, though, you’re commanding a resistance force in the post-alien takeover Earth, and you’ll have to train up troops, research equipment, and use them in white-knuckle turn-based battle against an entrenched enemy that can control your soldiers’ minds if the dice roll against you. The addition of ambush mechanics and an improved control scheme make this an improvement on an already great game.

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak

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Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Publisher: Gearbox Software
Platforms: PC, Mac
MSRP: $49.99
Style: Real time strategy
Released: January 20

On paper it’s a strange move to revitalize a landmark franchise from 1999 – Homeworld – and then remove features that were present 17 years ago. The original Homeworld’s balletic presentation of fully 3D space combat set a bar that was never even approached again (other than by its own sequel, and their recent remasters).

But Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak manages to transfer the graceful movement of its predecessors to the planar surface of the series actual homeworld, where the story began. The game smartly avoids the well-trodden base-building grounds of Command & Conquer and WarCraft by giving you a gigantic mobile carrier on massive tank treads. Terrain elevation matters too, and you’ll have to consider 3D line of sight in order to arc your artillery’s shells onto your enemies or successfully plan an ambush. Deserts of Kharak doesn’t innovate so much as make RTS beautiful and graceful, and it’s well worth a look.

Battlefleet Gothic: Armada

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Developer: Tindalos Interactive
Publisher: Focus Home Interactive
Platforms: PC
MSRP: $49.99
Style: Real time broadside strategy in space
Released: April 21

Orks in space will never not be funny, even in the relentlessly grimdark future fantasy of Warhammer 40,000. While set in interplanetary space, Battlefleet Gothic: Armada is really a classical naval game about maneuvering, boarding, and broadsides.

As the commander of a “small” fleet of a couple mile-long ships, you’re tasked with making your way through Warhammer 40K’s 12th Black Crusade in real-time battles where the stakes are you and your crews’ survival. Through the long and challenging campaign, losses and gains are persistent, so in addition to bringing tactical skills to bear in skirmishes, you’ll also have to play the long game of choosing which craft to upgrade, which losses to bear, and how best to develop your crews.

Play as the Imperium, Eldar, Chaos, or the Orks – just remember, hit the Big Red Button as often as possible.

Offworld Trading Company

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Developer: Mohawk Games
Publisher: Stardock Entertainment
Platforms: PC
MSRP: $39.99
Style: Real-time Economics Sim
Released: April 28

While it’s set on Mars, Offworld Trading Company might be one of the more realistic RTS games in recent memory because instead of grav tanks and lasers, your weapons here are free market forces. Designed by Civilization IV lead designer Soren Johnson, Offworld Trading Company has you racing to set up a colony on the Red Planet in order to be the first to ship martian goods back home to earth.

There are 13 different commodities in the game, and each price is set by supply and demand determined not only by what’s needed back on Earth, but also by who’s producing and consuming what on Mars. You’ll have to keep a keen eye on the market, as well as avoid sabotage from your competitors, in order to win.

Honorable mention: 8-Bit Armies

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Developer: Petroglyph
Publisher: Petroglyph
Platforms: PC
MSRP: $14.99
Style: Classic RTS
Released: April 22

The fact that it doesn’t innovate is probably 8-Bit Armies’ greatest strength: it’s an unabashed throwback to the original Command & Conquer formula that helped create the RTS genre in the 1990s. There are machine gun guys, rocket launcher guys, tanks, artillery, helicopters, and just one resource to manage. Red Alert fans, you’ll be happy to know that a Tanya-style commando also appears in several missions.

If you’ve come this far in this list and have never played a real-time strategy game, this is the title for you. It introduces the genre with its original concepts and conventions in an approachable and fun way, with bright, crunchy voxel graphics and a rocking chiptunes soundtrack by Command & Conquer composer Frank Klepacki. Check out our review here.