Are you a fan of traditional, tabletop strategy games like chess, Risk, and Monopoly? Thinking of trying your hand at the digital world of strategy games? Maybe you’ve played video games before, but never one of the strategy genre. Regardless, you’ve come to the right place. The world of strategy video games is one of the longest running and strongest in the digital games industry. There’s something out there for every age group, skill level, and personal taste, with themes ranging from tactical warfare to city management.
In this guide, you’ll find a list of top 10 strategy games that are great for beginners, and when we say beginner, we mean those unfamiliar with digital games, not strategy game newbies. Strategy rookies and veterans alike will find something challenging and interesting in this list. Let’s get started! Find more strategy games in this guide to best strategy games of the year, or this one on newly released strategy games for PC, console, and mobile platforms.
Strategy Game Terms
Before we take a look at this list of top 10 strategy games, there are a few words you should know beforehand. These are terms you might be familiar with already, but many of them are used exclusively in reference to strategy video games, or at least need additional explaining in the context of the digital realm. Knowing what these mean will help you decide which game is best for you. Check out this brief introduction to game design for a better understanding of how these elements work together to make a game great.
Isometric (graphics): Also called 3/4 perspective, or 2.5D, isometric graphics are used in games with a slightly tilted, top-down perspective, where the element of three dimensions is there but the game itself is in 2D (though it doesn’t have to be pseudo-2D). Many strategy games use this perspective. Interested in doing art for games? Learn more about video game art in this professional game art course.
Metagame: A strategy or action used by players in a game that goes beyond the game’s perceived set of rules, and incorporates factors not yet revealed in the immediate game. For instance, a player can play a strategy game and make certain choices based on knowledge they received from a strategy guide. Or, a player can alter their own play style based on their opponent’s, if they know ahead of time what kind of tactics their opponent tends to use.
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Real-time strategy (RTS): A strategy game where time is constantly passing, and you and your opponent(s) are constantly planning and executing moves in real-time.
Resource management: An element in strategy games that requires players to collect, trade, spend, and otherwise manage resources needed to carry out specific actions in the game.
Top-down: A bird’s eye perspective, looking straight down at the game space.
Turn-based strategy (TBS): A strategy game where you and your opponent(s) take turns planning and executing moves. Time stands still in the meantime.
Now on to the list! Take note, this list is in no particular order. If you’re starting to feel like you want to make games, check out this course on how to land a job in the game industry.
1. Civilization V
Sid Meier’s Civilization V is the fifth in a long-running series that includes some of the most popular turn-based strategy games today for PC and Mac. The game is historical, but not based in any kind of realistic continuity. You pick a civilization, from the Greeks to the Chinese to the Byzantines and beyond, and work your way up from the stone age. This means building and maintaining cities, constructing monuments, researching technology, and waging war, though players are free to decide what kind of approach they want to take.
2. RollerCoaster Tycoon
The RollerCoaster Tycoon series began in 1999 for PC and has since had a couple sequels. While it’s more of a management simulation game, the genre does overlap with strategy. There are some serious tactics involved with running a virtual theme park, including managing finances, working within certain parameters, and meeting business goals. Unlike Civilization V, RollerCoaster Tycoon is of a more casual variety of strategy games. You get to build your own theme park, including customizing rollercoasters and other attractions… you can totally put the strategy part on the backburner if you want (though I can’t guarantee you won’t go bankrupt in the process!)
3. The Banner Saga
The Banner Saga is a turn-based tactics game set in a snowy fantasy world of Vikings and medieval warfare. You get to build up your own small army of warriors, train them on the battlefield, and duke it out in either a single-player story-based campaign or against other players online. With beautiful hand-drawn art and slower-paced action, The Banner Saga is great for beginners who might not be into some of the more abstract digital game concepts. It’s like chess, but with vikings! Plus, there’s a multiplayer-only free version you can play called The Banner Saga: Factions, so you can learn the rules and see if you like it before you buy. Check out this course on C++ game development and learn how to make your own games.
4. Plants vs. Zombies
Plants vs. Zombies is a tower defense game, which is a subgenre of strategy game that involves building and defending a base as continuously spawning enemies try to move across the “map” and attack. In this game, you’re trying to defend a house from an onslaught of zombies, planting various shrubbery and fungi that have different defensive or offensive powers. The better and more strategically you can build and place these organic outposts, the more zombies you’ll be able to wipe out before they reach your base. Because of its playful art and style, this one is great for a casual audience. Find more fun casual and mobile games in this guide.
5. Age of Empires
Age of Empires is a bit like Civilization V, only it’s a real-time strategy game. That means you pick your civilization, but the game won’t wait up for you to make your move… and neither will your opponents! You need to get started right away, foraging for resources, building up your base, and creating an army to fend off invaders. Unlike Civilization V, though, you can’t build yourself up into modern times. You’ll start in the Dark Ages and advanced into the Feudal and Castle Age before finally reaching the Imperial Age. With each Age comes new technology, buildings, and units to create with which to fight off your enemies.
6. XCOM: Enemy Unknown
Yeah, the Banner Saga looks nice, but maybe vikings aren’t your thing. Well, why not try out XCOM: Enemy Unknown? This one’s also a turn-based tactics game set on a battlefield, only you take on the role of elite paramilitary soldiers defending Earth from alien invaders. Back at your base, you can research and upgrade to new technologies, recruit new soldiers with different advantages, monitor what’s going on with your alien enemies, and send out soldiers for battle. This is a modern sequel to the highly acclaimed and original game in the franchise, X-COM, from 1994.
One of the most popular and critically acclaimed sci-fi real-time strategy games is StarCraft, developed by Blizzard Entertainment (also behind the popular role-playing game, World of Warcraft.) StarCraft is similar to Age of Empires, in your ability to pick a “civilization” (you only get to choose from three this time, the human Terrans, the insectoid aliens called the Zerg, and the humanoid aliens called the Protoss.) You build a base, mine resources, and, well… fight. There’s a story-based campaign mode as well as an extremely popular competitive multiplayer mode. Some highly skilled pro StarCraft players compete in tournaments for a living.
8. FTL: Faster Than Light
Unlike most of the games in this list, FTL: Faster Than Light incorporates roguelike elements. A roguelike is a game that includes permanent death, meaning you can’t load a save point if you lose. It also has randomly generated maps and events. Your goal in FTL, which you play in real-time, is to manage a spaceship and crew, exploring various space sectors. You’ll encounter enemies, asteroids, and other threats on your way to the end goal, which is to deliver information to an allied fleet of ships. The game is known for being extremely difficult… will you be able to survive?
9. Frozen Synapse
Perhaps the most abstract game in our list is Frozen Synapse, a turn-based tactics game where turns are asynchronous. Each player plots out moves and behaviors for their combat units, and once both players have committed to their strategy, the game sets these moves into action. The result is reported back to each player. It sounds complicated, and it kind of is, making Frozen Synapse one of the more strategically complex games on this list.
10. Command & Conquer
Like the sound of Age of Empires and StarCraft, and want more like that? The Command & Conquer series is a long-running real-time strategy franchise in the same style: base-building, resource management, and army building.
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