There was a time, stretching from mid-90s to mid-2000s when strategies were thriving, easily one of the most popular types of PC games. Especially real-time strategies were on a roll, with many classics originating or gaining wide-spread, lasting popularity during those years.
If you’re starved of cool strategies, and are looking for something more old-school: one of the classics, maybe something that was unduly forgotten in the modern era, this list should give you a few useful ideas. Most, if not all, of the games below have been re-released for digital distribution, and some of them even got remastered, which makes getting them to run properly so much easier.
Without further delay, let’s take a look at
|Age of Empires: Definitive Edition||Forgotten Empires||2019-08-19||-77%|
|Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition||Forgotten Empires||2019-11-14||-63%|
|Age of Mythology Extended Edition||Ensemble Studios||2002-10-30||-65%|
|Command & Conquer Remastered Collection||Petroglyph Games, Lemon Sky||2020-06-05||-89%|
|Heroes of Might & Magic 3: Complete||New World Computing, Inc.||1999-06-01||-48%|
|Heroes of Might & Magic 2: Gold||New World Computing||2008-01-04||-47%|
|Homeworld Remastered Collection||Gearbox Software||2015-02-25||-95%|
|Command & Conquer Ultimate Collection||Victory Games||2012-10-02||-|
|SimCity 3000 Unlimited||Maxis Software Inc||2000-03-18||-|
|Heroes of Might & Magic III HD Edition||DotEmu||2015-01-29||-75%|
|Empire Earth Gold Edition||Stainless Steel Studios||2001-11-12||-|
|Stronghold Crusader HD Steam Key GLOBAL||FireFly Studios||2002-07-31||-65%|
|Stronghold Crusader 2||FireFly Studios||2014-09-22||-87%|
|Warcraft 3: Gold Edition||Blizzard Entertainment||2002-07-03||-|
|X-COM: UFO Defense Steam Key GLOBAL||MicroProse Software, Inc||1993-12-31||-73%|
|The Settlers 2: 10th Anniversary||Ubisoft Blue Byte||2006-10-07||-48%|
|SHOGUN: Total War - Collection||Creative Assembly||2000-06-13||-83%|
|Europa Universalis||Paradox Interactive||2000-10-20||-|
|Black Moon Chronicles||Cryo Interactive||1999-01-01||-89%|
|Empire Earth 2 Gold Edition||Rockstar New England||2005-04-26||-20%|
|Cannon Fodder||Sensible Software||1993-12||-31%|
|Anno 1602 A.D.||Max Design||1998-10-24||-42%|
|Army Men||Pandemic Studios||2002-03-28||-88%|
|Pharaoh + Cleopatra||Impressions Games||1999-10-31||-7%|
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
A venerable spin-off from the Civilization series, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri takes the classic 4X gameplay to the stars.
Instead of choosing from a whole bunch of civilizations from all over the human history, Alpha Centauri allows you a choice of seven factions (and seven more added in the Alien Crossfire expansion), each with its own agenda and uniquely motivated leaders.
Alpha Centauri also features a bit of meaningful customization, allowing you to design units out of components you researched. You’ll also be able to do a bit of terraforming, if you find the terrain not to your liking. Of course, there’s also a good bit of diplomacy involved, as well as sabotage options, in case your favorite Civ playstyle is being subtly frustrating to your opponents.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines was a fantastic game. While admittedly it’s more interested in tactic than strategy, the two are connected enough for Commandos to land a place on this list.
In a way, Commandos gave rise to a subgenre which has since bloomed into Desperados and Shadow Tactics: a real-time tactical game about specialists faced with complex stealth missions.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines takes place during World War II and puts you in the shoes of six experts such as a green Beret, a Sniper, or a Driver. Each has unique abilities and can exploit certain opportunities found during discrete missions. The levels tend to be contained, but complex, and require not only great planning, but also quick and clever use of character skills.
Black & White
|Genre:||Simulation & God Game|
Another non-standard strategy on the list, Black & White allows you to, quite literally, play god.
You’re a disembodied hand floating around, influencing the lives of your soon-to-be worshippers with miracles and direction action in order to increase your influence in the region. Eventually you’ll start fighting for control with other gods, and it won’t always be bloodless.
While things were somewhat loosey-goosey in the original from 2001, the 2004 sequel B&W2 made things more structured and defined, losing a bit of whimsical flair, but gaining in strategic aspects. Both games are worth playing, and the extra treat is the Creature itself: a huge anthropomorphic animal which you can teach tricks and see it grown from baby to adult.
Dawn of War
Dawn of War came and smashed, ceramite pauldron-first, through all expectations.
Not only was it an exceptionally good adaptation of the Warhammer 40k setting, it was ALSO a fantastic real-time strategy in its own right. It puts you in command of a brand new (at the time) Blood Ravens chapter of Space Marines, and presents a satisfying number of challenging, complex missions.
The games was focus on capturing control points, which generated resources for upgrades, deployment of more units, and issuing construction orders. Although in singleplayer you can only play as Blood Ravens, in multiplayer you can also pick Orks, Eldar, and Chaos Space Marines.
Rise of Nations: Extended Edition
|Release:||2003-05-20 / 2014-06-12|
|Developer:||Big Huge Games|
One of the most traditional real-time strategies on the list, Rise of Nations is like a slightly fresher take on Age of Empires.
It puts you in control of a historical nation and lets you take it through several stages of development, from ancient times to the modern era. In a not to Civilization, you’ll also get to build Wonders of the World to get your chosen nation some extra oomph.
Rise of Nations originally launched in 2003, with the expansion Thrones and Patriots coming out in 2004. However, to bring it to speed with modern machines, in 2014 the game received an Extended Edition with refreshed graphics, Twitch integration, and enhanced multiplayer. Don’t be mistaken, though: it’s still the same old-school RTS gameplay from 2003.
Age of Empires & Age of Empires II
|Release:||1997-10-05 / 1999-09-30|
The Age of Empires games are some of the best-known classic real-time strategies, dating back to the 1990s, and turning historical nations into compelling playable factions, fighting for resources and domination.
And if the nations contained in the core game weren’t enough, there were also expansions coming with more scenarios and new factions, complete with unique units and buildings.
Age of Empires 2 even got a solid HD remaster in the modern age, which was so well-received that it got its own three expansions: The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms, and Rise of the Rajas. Each brings new factions and campaigns. Age of Empires II HD is an excellent option, making an old school game work well and look better on modern PCs. It’s the best of two worlds.
Age of Mythology
Age of Mythology spun off from Age of Empires, but decided to go in a more fantastical direction instead.
Much like Age of Empires II, Age of Mythology received a version updated to work on modern PCs, called Age of Mythology: Extended Edition. It even comes with the The Titans expansion. Despite that, the Tale of the Dragon expansion, launched in 2016, has to be purchased separately.
Instead of historical areas, AoM divides its progress into mythological ages: Archaic, Classics, Heroic, and Mythic, in sequence. The storyline involves an Atlantean general called Arkantos returning home only to be faced with more war and chaos. It features a number of famous mythological figures, such as Odysseus as well as various Greek, Egyptian, and Norse gods. It’s a great alternative to Age of Empires if you’d rather have something more fantastical.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
|Release:||1996-11-22 / 2020-06-05|
|Developer:||Westwood Studios /|
Red Alert was the second game in the Command & Conquer series, and it served as a prequel to 1995’s C&C.
It was so warmly received, that it became its own subseries, more humorous in nature than the serious predecessor. While there are still appearances from characters from the core series, they play a lesser role, because the story follows an alternate timeline.
Red Alert was a very capable strategy, benefitting from the developer’s previous experience with C&C and Dune II. Each side of the conflict (Allies vs. Soviets) has specific strengths and weaknesses, unlike some other old-school strategies which preferred the sides to be similar, or even symmetrical, in ability. You’re going to be collecting ores and minerals, because unlike in C&C Tiberium hasn’t appeared on Earth yet.
Empire Earth didn’t mess around and instead of tracking humanity across a few centuries or a millennium or two, it goes for 500 thousand years.
The game’s scope stretches from prehistoric times to the high-tech future. This massive span of time is divided into 14 Epochs, each representing a different age in the history of human civilization. There’s a 15th epoch added in an expansion.
There are several campaigns, each focused on a different nation during a certain age of Earth’s history, like Ancient Greece, or Medieval England. Moving from epoch to epoch requires meeting certain requirements, but also opens up new technologies. There’s a total of 21 civilizations, each with a number of unique traits such as an affinity for a specific unit type.
Heroes of Might and Magic III
Out of all Heroes of Might and Magic games (up to seven core entries as of 2020), HoMM 3 is probably the one to have the greatest cult following.
Gameplay is divided into two layers: overworld exploration and positioning, and the tactical turn-based battles. There are eight types of town, each providing you with different units which you can then use in battles for resources and locations.
Both exploration and battles are done through hero units, who in addition to being powerful characters in their own right also represent your recruited armies. Each hero has up to seven slots for recruited creatures, which can be stacked to increase their strength. Battles themselves take place on a hexagonal grid and play out in a turn-based manner. It’s a solid, clear basis for a great game.
Your civilization was almost completely destroyed for unknowingly violating an ancient treaty prohibiting the development of hyperspace technology.
Now what remains of your people and your fleet needs to go on a long space voyage to a long-forgotten and recently remembered homeworld. Each battle’s results carry over from mission to mission, so you have to play carefully.
Homeworld is a fantastic real-time strategy, and it uses its deep space setting very well, both on a mechanical and aesthetic front. You have to manage your fleet, trying your best to avoid Pyrrhic victories. It’s remains a great game even years later, and the 2015 remaster of both Homeworld 1 and 2 made them much easier to run on modern systems.
|Genre:||City building simulation|
The SimCity games are a very different kind of strategy, focused not on warfare, but on city planning.
Your job is to design city districts, ensure they are supplied in power and water, have access to services, education, etc. In short: making a functioning city for people to happily live in. Like in many such games, watching a city you designed functioning smoothly is very satisfying and relaxing.
On the flipside, the moments when some crisis strikes and you have to scramble to minimize losses can be quite tense and frustrating. SimCity 3000 introduced a number of new features, relative to SimCity 2000, such as waste management, agricultural zones, and utility buildings which degrade over time and face decreased efficiency unless you run maintenance. There’s a lot on your plate in this game.
StarCraft is the science fiction-themed counterpart to Blizzard’s Warcraft.
It’s one of the most famous, and influential real-time strategies in history, and it created quite a few careers in professional gaming. There were many factors contributing to StarCraft’s success: evocative factions, asymmetrical balancing, and well-designed mechanics are certainly among them.
StarCraft’s story revolves around the conflict between militaristic Terrans (humans), highly advanced psionically powerful Protoss, and the insectoid Zerg hivemind. The campaign covers all three perspectives, moving from Terrans, to Zerg, to end with the Protoss chapter. The story would continue in the Brood War expansion, novels, and, eventually, in StarCraft 2 and its substantial expansions.
Starcraft 1 & 2 are free to play games.
Stronghold & Stronghold: Crusader
Stronghold’s premise is already quite well explained by the title itself. At its core it’s a game about building and running a medieval fortress, which includes defending it from attacks.
Occasionally you’ll also field your own army and besiege an enemy fortress, whether in multiplayer or in singleplayer. The first game takes place in England ca. 1066, while the Crusader sequel is set in the Middle East.
While the events of Stronghold campaigns are historical fiction at best, the game still represents the settings quite faithfully, without outlandish displays of power or superhuman hero units. There are a couple more Stronghold games, the latest being 2021’s Stronghold: Warlords, but the original ones are still well worth playing today, to see where it all began.
Warcraft III hardly needs introducing: it’s one of the most famous RTSs in history, and its influence can’t be overstated.
Its story was the basis for World of Warcraft, and Dota 2 traces back its roots to a Warcraft 3 mod. Even without this powerful legacy, Warcraft III is still a great game, with a great, dramatic storyline, and diverse campaign showcasing all factions very well.
WC3 mixes a bit of RPG mechanics into its strategy gameplay: heroes have levels, their own powers, and can equip rare items bought in shops. Aside from that, virtually every mission has you build a base, recruit units from the faction you’re playing as at the given moment, and go to complete the objective posed by the given mission. So many years later Warcraft 3 and its Frozen Throne expansion still remains a fantastic game.
X-COM: UFO Defense/UFO: Enemy Unknown
|Genre:||Turn-based Strategy with Aliens|
|Developer:||MicroProse Software, Inc|
Another turn-based strategy on the list, X-COM: UFO Defense is a great old-school game about running an anti-alien organization and directing soldiers in combat scenarios.
You may be familiar with its more modern spiritual successors, like Firaxis’ XCOM reboot, or Snapshot Games’ Phoenix Point, but if you haven’t played the original: it’s still a cool, interesting game, challenging in its own ways.
X-COM is undeniably an old school game, without the streamlined nature of the modern incarnations. The game is surprisingly detailed in its gameplay, which can turn into micromanagement both on the strategic geoscape layer and the tactical battlescape. Picking the missions which can provide the most benefits and keeping your soldiers alive is a lot of engaging work.
The Settlers IV
|Genre:||RTS with City-building elements|
|Developer:||Ubisoft Blue Bytes|
The Settlers series dates back to 1993, to the MS-DOS times.
Before The Settlers IV came around, developer Blue Byte had three prior instalments to polish their craft and gameplay ideas, which resulted in a really good real-time strategy about conquering a land as one of three factions: Romans, Vikings, and Mayans, who fight between themselves until a bigger threat emerges to unify them.
A lot of the gameplay revolves around managing the workload of your settlers. You don’t control them personally, AI deals with that, but you must decide on your own how the resources get divided among various buildings and projects. You’ll also form a military presence, just in case. Each faction also has deities who can occasionally help out, and limited magic which can help more often.
Shogun: Total War
Nowadays the Total War series is a strategic powerhouse, with over a dozen installments taking place all over the world, across history, and even in the fantastical setting of Warhammer Fantasy.
All of that begun in 2000 with the release and sweeping success of Shogun: total War. Over the years Creative Assembly perfected their gameplay model, but the original Shogun: TW remains a really good game.
Set during the Warring States period, the player takes control of one of the clans and the end goal is for the clan’s head to become a shogun through conquest and politics. Like in all future Total War games, you’ll move armies and forge diplomatic relationships on the turn-based strategic overworld, but when it’s time for armies to clash, battles are waged in real-time, and take a lot of tactical acumen.
Paradox games have a reputation of being very complex and hard to get into, and there’s definitely something true about this perception.
Europa Universalis certainly makes a strong first impression. It’s a complex grand strategy letting its players take a almost complete control over a European nation. It plays out on a grand-scale map of Europe divided into provinces, and there’s a lot of option players can pursue.
You’re going to field and manage armies, establish industry to support the war operations, control the diplomacy, and direct the economy in relation to many different factors. The game was a hit and became the basis for not only a dedicated EU series, but also spin-offs taking place during different time periods. If you enjoy complex, detailed strategies, give the original EU a chance, it’s still great.
Black Moon Chronicles
Black Moon Chronicles is a strategy game based on a French comic book series of the same title, and it follows the story of Wismerhill, a half-elf of dark elf ancestry who finds himself in a realm torn by conflict between several factions.
You can ally yourself with any of them, which not only changes the expected difficulty level of the campaign but also gives you wildly different units and playstyles.
There are three elements to the game. One is the turn-based overworld travel, which has you move from place to place taking quests, meeting allies and confronting enemies. The other is the fortress view, with lets you roam your castle, manage your army, and build new structures. And then there are real-time (with active pause) battles and sieges against fairly large armies.
Ready your troops and maintain your roads
That concludes our list of the best old strategy games worth dusting off.
It covers more than just retro RTSs to give some alternatives to people who aren’t keen on real-time strategies all that much. There are plenty more classic strategies worth playing, and this list is just a taste of the topic, with some solid appetizers from across the genre.