There was a time, stretching from mid-90s to mid-2000s when strategy games were thriving. Especially real-time strategies were on a roll, with many classics originating or gaining wide-spread, lasting popularity during these 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.
15 Classic Strategy Games Still Worth Playing
Age of Empires & Age of Empires II
|Release year:||1997 (AoE), 1999 (AoE2)|
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 expansions coming with new 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 involves a number of famous mythological figures, such as Odysseus or various Greek, Egyptian, and Norse gods. It’s a great alternative to Age of Empires.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
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 Command & Conquer. While there are still appearances from characters from the core series, they play a lesser role, because the story follows a timeline alternative to that of core C&C.
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 weakness, unlike some other old-school strategies which preferred the sides to be similar in ability. You’re going to be collecting ores and minerals, because unlike in C&C Tiberium hasn’t appeared on Earth yet.
|Developer||Stainless Steel Studios|
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 145 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 civilisations, with a number of unique traits, like affinity for a specific unit type.
Heroes of Might and Magic III
|Developer||New World Computing|
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 a fantastic game even years later, and thanks to the 2015 remaster of both Homeworld 1 and 2 makes made it much easier to run on modern systems.
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 to function smoothly is very satisfying and relaxing.
On the flipside, 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 SimCity 3000.
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: great, 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.
Stronghold & Stronghold: Crusader
|Release year:||2001 (Stronghold), 2002 (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 2014’s Stronghold Crusader II, 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 DotA2 traces back its roots to a Warcraft 3 mod. And 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, they have their own powers, and can equip items bought from rare 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. WC3 remains a great RTS even today, so many years later.
X-COM: UFO Defense/UFO: Enemy Unknown
|Genre:||Strategy, turn-based tactics|
Another turn0based 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 haven’t played the original, and it’s still an 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:||Real-time strategy, city-building|
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 how the resources get divided among various buildings and projects on your own. You’ll also form a military presence, just in case. Each faction also has deities, who can occasionally help them out, and limited magic, which can help more often.
Shogun: Total War
|Genre:||Turn-based strategy, real-time tactics|
|Developer||The Creative Assembly|
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.
|Developer||Paradox Development Studio|
Paradox games have a reputation of being very complex and hard to get into, and there definitely something true to this perception. Europa Universalis certainly made a strong first impression. It’s a complex grand strategy letting its players take control of a European nation, virtually full control. It plays out on a grand-scale map of Europe divided into provinces, and there’s a lot a player can do.
You’re going to filed and manage armies, establish industry to support the war operations, control the diplomacy, and 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 of 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 the list, and it covers more than just 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.