The Grand Strategy genre offers some of the most complex and immersive titles in gaming. They’re different from other strategy games available for the PC. Grand Strategy puts you in control of every major aspect of your faction focusing on high level decision making affecting whole continents. Instead of playing on puny battlefields your interface is a map of the world.
Here’s a list of five of my favorite titles which will satisfy your cravings for building empires and slaughtering masses.
5# Knights of Honour
This is the oldest grand strategy game on this list. It’s one of the highest rated on Steam and continues to impress. With its high level strategy taking place on a map spanning all of Europe, Black Sea Studios have done a fantastic job of creating an extremely deep medieval kingdom simulation. The idea in Knights of Honour is to take command of one of more than 100 countries from three eras of European history. Your twin goals are to survive and expand. This doesn’t just mean improving your economy and military but also arranging marriages and dispatching spies to enemy nations.
The Game’s Ambition
This is a fairly ambitious game, and mostly, it works incredibly well. The in-game interface is elegant and the game mechanics well thought out. The pace is steady, a standard game can span hours of playing time and centuries of European history. At the heart of your empire are provinces, each containing a central town which must be conquered in order to win the province. These towns are the source of your food, wealth and armies. Some towns have access to bonus resources; for instance a town may have rich pasture land which supports cattle and sheep. These animal resources aren’t just a source of food but also produce leather and which can be used to trade and help with diplomatic relations.
The combat is resolved in one of two ways. You can let your Marshal fight the battle himself, allowing you to focus on other things or you take control of the conflict yourself. When you do, the map drops down to a 2D representation of the battlefield and you control your forces by choosing and maneuvering formations. Directing these battles can be extremely tricky and a downside to the game.
It’s the main reason that I dropped this title to the lowest number on the list. I enjoy the combat element of grand strategy and while not fatally flawed they did slightly detract from my overall enjoyment of this title. However it’s overarching campaign and accurate historical depictions won me over and I spent many hours directing the fate of European nations. With numerous mechanics to keep you busy, from religion to economics, your quest to become Emperor of Europe will be a unique and exciting one. If you enjoy the experience, massive modpacks are essentially free sequels.
Available on Steam
4# Galactic Civilisations III
Set in the far future, Galactic Civilisations starts the player out with only one planet to control. You then expand through diplomacy, colonisation and war. In a massive galaxy with enormous factions vying for power using both peaceful and military means, Galactic Civilisations will put you in the middle of an interstellar war of total domination.
This is a game series which sits alongside Master of Orion but with that series’ drop in quality, Galactic Civilisations comes out in front. Where this title excels is the characterisation. It’s not just a game about rules and statistics. There’s an attempt to make you feel that the aliens you encounter have personalities instead of being a rendered face on stats.
Mature Morality System
I rank this number four on the list because the current iteration of the series has removed the overarching political element that was so prevalent in the previous games. There are no elections, no governments and most regrettably, no spying mechanic. Past games had an exciting good/evil system but where this title proves it’s evolution is in its mature, moral decision making. The new designations of Malevolent, Pragmatic and Beneficial gain points as you make decisions. These points can be cashed in for special perks. The perks range from free colony ships to galaxy affecting boosts like causing all other civilizations to declare war on any race who attacks you.
Taken as a whole, Galactic Civilization’s failings are minor. For most games, a few major pieces that don’t quite fit together are a death knell. Galactic Civilizations keeps its focus right where it needs to – on excellent fundamentals. Progressive pacing makes the enormity of space amenable and paradoxically personal, while the sheer number and variety of tools and options at your disposal allow you to succeed and win if you can out-think everyone else.
Available on Steam
3#Hearts of Iron IV
From Paradox studios, this title exemplifies the technical advances that WWII Grand Strategy has undergone in the last few years. Paradox used their own Clausewitz game engine in this latest release and it certainly shows it’s adaptability and utility. This game engine captures the essence of the era; the rivalries and discoveries that defined it and how all these elements shaped the world. In Hearts of Iron IV all roads lead to destruction as players use the tools of progress to win a spectacular international strategic deathmatch.
Tightly Focused Gameplay
Hearts of Iron is different from Paradox’s other grand strategy games (Europa Universalis III I’m looking at you here) being a scenario rather than a sandbox; a very big, complicated scenario that can play out in many, many different ways. To really enjoy it you have to understand that it’s not the sort of game where you can choose from multiple factions and freely guide their destinies, rather the choices are starker. As Germany, do you want to attack Russia now or wait until they attack you first? These are the crucial and pivotal questions you’ll be asking yourself. Because of it’s smaller, tighter focus, I found this title to be one of the more intense Grand Strategy games.
The element which detracts from this game is the combat. Like all of Paradox’s titles, there’s an issue with making the military battles palpable and intuitive. There are so many complex variables and statistics at play during a battle. Each unit has so many statistics that affect performance that it becomes over-complicated. On the battlefield it’s fairly easy to see the effects of new technologies, but elements like “mass attack doctrine” have no noticeable impact on the myriad of battles you will face during gametime. Having said this, if you purchase Hearts of Iron IV, you will get a beautiful, thrilling wargame which successfully orchestrates the most titanic battles of World War II’s history.
Available on Steam
2# Total War : Warhammer
Dwarfs line the walls of the Everpeak, weapons ready. They fire bolt and lead at the incoming Orcs, but to the giant lummoxing forward at the head of the green horde it may as well be a light smither of rain. The giant crashes into the gates, stumbles back and crashes into them again. It bursts through, met by massed units of Longbeards, fearless dwarf veterans, who mob the giant like dogs harassing an elephant.
They win, because in the rock, paper, scissors of Total War: Warhammer the Longbeards’ immunity to psychological effects makes them ideal for fighting fear-causing giants.
Moving away from it’s traditional historical setting into the realm of fantasy was a bold move for Total War and even bolder to feature the Warhammer universe. I believe however it was an incredibly intelligent move and is definitely one of the best Grand Strategy titles on the market today. In Total War: Warhammer, the player chooses a faction, conducts diplomacy, trade and economic development on a large map of the world. The battles are then played out on a separate battlefield stage in real time.
Comprehensive Faction Choice
There are a total of 12 playable factions. These vary considerably in detail, making each play through as a different race a truly unique experience. This variety is present in both the turn based map element and the real time battles. Dwarfs don’t have wizards but do have mighty artillery and are more defensive. Vampire Counts have mages but not missile launchers (although I would have loved to have seen some zombie archers!), they generally shamble around targeting specific units with zombie knights and flying creatures.
The green skinned orcs have a bit of everything but when cornered they lose their nerve and often flee. This attention to detail in both crafting the various factions and creating graphically and visually arresting units (I love zooming in on the battlefield and watching my mohawk haired Orcs do battle with Zombies) is why I have placed this as one of my second favourite grand strategy titles.
Available on Steam
#1 XCOM 2
XCOM 2 is one of the all time greats of the tactics genre. It takes the best bits from the series so far – the savage struggle, the ragtag group of heroes, the devious aliens, the tight tactical battles – and throws improvement after improvement on top. Once again, you are sending small squads into the breach, but this time as a group of struggling survivors fighting against a tyrannical alien regime.
It is all guerilla tactics, covert missions, and dissidence. You need to learn to make sacrifices, leaving men and women behind so you can save the rest, and you need to learn to swallow loss and failure. The battles are challenging and varied, full of horrific adversaries with tricky, surprising abilities.
The biggest change to the game is at the strategic layer . Why else would it be on a list of the best strategy games on PC? You will travel all over the world, setting up cells, infiltrating black sites, hunting for more resources so you can field more powerful weapons and tools. It’s compelling rather than an afterthought.
XCOM 2 embraces a new form of thought from its predecessor. In base management you now allocate individual engineers as human upgrades to your comms and other systems. You won’t come around to it right away. But once you do you will find yourself thinking around your strategic problems in callous new ways.
This is a guerrilla fight, in which familiar mechanics are refitted to tell a very different story. An untimed mission in which you might take a turn just to heal and reload everybody’s weapons is a luxury you’re rarely afforded. Far more often you’re racing to an objective and then to an evac point. One you’ve placed yourself or, cruelly, a fixed point on the other side of the map.
Frequently, you’ll be rushed by the appearance of a red flare burning away on the tarmac. This is the harbinger of a shipful of reinforcements for the next turn. Anybody who doesn’t reach the evac zone is captured, or for the purposes of the campaign, dead. It’s harsh. Unbending. And yet the fact that you’re unconcerned about mopping up every last enemy on the map is freeing.