The Best RTS Games

By Brandon Casteel 09 Nov 2018 3

Everyone has their personal list of the best RTS games of all time, and many of those lists a packed with the classics from the 90’s and early 2000’s. We think it’s fair to say that these legends have quite rightly earned their place in the real-time hall of fame for all time, but this status quo sees the same handful of titles appearing time and again, with little new to say about them. It can leave newer releases in the cold.

Real-time not your thing? How about this list of the best 4X games instead?

The rise of MOBAs has challenged the RTS scene quite significantly over the past decade, but that hasn’t stopped some worthy games rising to the top ranks to earn their own place in a future generation's hall of fame. We’ve drafted RTS aficionado and blogger Brandon Casteel (of Wayward Strategist fame) to give us a hand with our own list.

Recent Releases

Not every RTS release makes it into one of the top spots, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve a chance to be heard. Here's a quick round-up of some recently released titles you might be interested in:

Bad North (Review)

Developer: Plausible Concept
Publisher: Raw Fury
Buy From:  Discord, Steam

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Self-styling itself as a 'micro strategy' game, Bad North is the poster child for minimalist design facilitating tight tactical decision making. Evoking the best bits of games like FTL, this game sees you taking your modest force from island to island, protecting them against waves of blood-thirsty marauders. As you progress through the game you can earn coins to level up your troops, recruit new troops and find powerful items to aid you.

It can be a bit slow to start, especially if you've already played it once before, but it's focus on positioning, timing and tactical trade-offs makes for wonderfully addictive and short bursts of play. At the time of writing, Bad North is only available via Discord's new storefront, as it was a 'First on Discord' launch title. It's due to hit Steam at some-point, though.

Ancestors: Legacy (Review)

Developer: 1C Company
Publisher: 1C Company
Buy From:  Steam

Ancestors Best RTs

Ancestors pillages the traditions of Company of Heroes, raids up and down the genre for good measure and then at the end brings it all back together again to start a new kingdom of its own. For those who may feel a bit jaded by endless sequels, 1C’s Dark Ages themed RTS Ancestors: Legacy is a welcome change of pace. While the genre has had trouble breaking away from the lure of MOBA's or the tried-and-true formulas of old, this game offers perhaps one of the best attempts at a 're-imagining' that we've seen in a while.

Units are small, no more than ten men a squad, and the focus is upon the capture of territory, with resources a convenient by-product of that capture. Whilst Company of Heroes focuses upon small unit actions that consciously ape TV shows like Band of Brothers, Ancestors is fought in a world where the old-fashioned sword and spear are king. If you enjoy Vikings and The Last Kingdom then you’ll be right at home. Formations, positioning and flanking, rather than cover and suppression, are the name of the game. The game handles these intricacies pleasingly well, with debuffs, charge bonuses and special abilities being handed out liberally. A simple but satisfying veterancy system provides the player with a range of ways to upgrade their units to suit their taste and rounds out a system that generally rewards thinking rather than pure micromanagement.

Frostpunk (Review)

Publisher: 11 bit studios
Developer: 11 bit studios
Buy From:  Steam

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Frostpunk took the RTS genre by storm with it's wintery mix of brutal survivalism and emergent story-telling. Adding fuel to the theory that snow makes everything more badass, 11 bit studios seems to have really created something special in this game, as it's 5-star rating more than earns it a place on this list and makes it an easy GOTY contender. Charles' review encapsulates our thoughts best, so here's an excerpt from his closing statement:

I’ll admit to being worried when I first launched Frostpunk. It was easy to feel like there wasn’t a lot there. You had, so it seemed, a second-rate city builder. Good, but there are plenty of other games that pure management better. How wrong I was. City building isn’t really the point of Frostpunk. What makes Frostpunk special are its choices. Every choice matters, every decision counts. Over the course of two hours (yes, just two!), you are in for a rollercoaster of emotions. 'Success' (the way the game handles this means success is relative to your personality) is deeply satisfying. It handles its morality with a fine touch. I’ve never cared about the people under my command in any game more than in Frostpunk. The window-dressing isn’t perfect. Aspects of the experience are frustrating; a couple of failed games can leave one a tiny weeny bit annoyed. I am not even sure if some of the scenarios are even possible! Yet if the perfect game is a series of choices where every choice has meaning, then Frostpunk is it.


Offworld Trading Company

Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Mohawk Games
Buy From: Direct

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Offworld Trading Company is an object lesson in RTS design. It’s a competitive strategy game in which there is no actual direct combat. And no units. Inspired by classic Atari game MULE and systems like Age of Empires’ Marketplace interface, Offworld Trading Company has players compete by cultivating the economic portfolio of an ambitious, hostile company.

Players are tasked with choosing which resource(s) to harvest to produce income which they can use to, ultimately, buy out their opponent's companies one by one. To this end they are aided by intermittent auctions, the ability to freely buy and sell any resource in the game as well as attack their opponent's production with Pirates, EMPs, nuclear warheads or temporary takeovers of their operations. Ultimately, OTC is a game of efficiency, coupled with prediction and daring. It is, in every sense, the essence of what RTS games are about laid bare for all to see.

Tropico 5

Publisher: Kalypso Media
Developer: Haemimont Games
Buy From: Steam

Trop5

Ah, Tropico. The Banana Republic sim, the Castro sim, the tin-pot dictator sim. Tropico 5 a modern revival of this classic formula, a refreshing twist on the city builder that puts players in the aviators and oversized cigars of not just one, but an entire dynasty of male and female despot wannabes. Starting in the late 1800s, the player’s role is that of the manager of a new colony on a Caribbean isle, who eventually earns their independence and then proceeds to navigate the literal and political waters of the World Wars, the Cold War, and into the modern era, with the player choosing such roles as either a socialist dictator, or crony capitalist.

Tropico 5 is a great game. It hits many of the right notes, and has that “just a little longer” feel that will keep you in its sandbox (and coming back) for quite a while. It’s an easy pick for fans of sim games, especially with coop mode. And of course, there’s always the benefit that you can lord over the lives of hundreds of virtual people with as iron or velvet a hand as you desire – and that’s always a good time!

Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak (Review)

Publisher: Gearbox Software
Developer: Blackbird Interactive
Buy From: Steam

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A new take on the classic series’ mechanics and a prequel to the original Homeworld, Deserts of Kharak is beautiful, haunting, powerful and intense. While I was initially sceptical of how the “six degrees of freedom” RTS would pan out on a flat plane, Blackbird Interactive has packed Deserts of Kharak with nuance and heart. One of the best RTS solo campaigns in history, coupled with gameplay that hides surprising subtlety, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak has been sadly overlooked by the larger RTS community.

Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Relic Entertainment
Buy From: Steam

005 Ardennes2

With the advent of the Western Front Armies, the overhauling of its War Spoils system and years of balance refinement, Company of Heroes 2 has cemented its place as a respectable and enjoyable competitive strategy game. With the creation of the Ardennes Assault campaign, Company of Heroes 2 has now also earned the honour possessing one of the best replayable single player experiences in modern real-time strategy gaming.

Ardennes Assault provides players with a strategic territory-capture metagame layered over the single-player missions, including semi-random events and time-based objectives that change with each playthrough, four Companies to command (of which you can utilize three in each campaign playthrough) and hard choices in an Iron Man setting. These force the player to think through each move and live with sub-optimal strategies across the length of the campaign. Where the Soviet storyline in the core game was seen as sub-par or at the very least not supremely creative, Ardennes Assault is a well-crafted take on RTS single player.

Age of Empires 2: HD Edition

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Developer: Hidden Path Entertainment
Buy From: Steam

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I feel like I’m cheating, sneaking an older game into this article; while Age of Empires 2 HD came out in 2013, the original was released in 1999. Age of Empires 2 HD is a testament to the enduring quality of classic RTS games. Also of note, three expansions (The Forgotten, The African Kingdoms, Rise of the Rajas) have been released, something kind of unprecedented in the real-time strategy space as far as I know.

The depth and complexity of this classic Age of Empires title is reaching, enchanting, challenging, and captivating the imaginations of a new generation of strategy gamers, and was perhaps the inspiration for Microsoft announcing remakes of virtually every other Age title ever made.

StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty

Publisher: Blizzard
Developer: Blizzard
Buy From: Direct

008 StarCraft3

You knew this was coming. You might have nodded grudgingly, or groaned inwardly. There’s nothing so contentious as the enduring popularity of StarCraft. It’s common to blame the ‘esports-ification’ of the genre on this phenomenally popular strategy game. But, love it or hate it, you can’t deny that StarCraft has continually set the standards for game polish and features for almost a decade now.

Through relentless balancing, aggressive additions of content, engaging unit designs (yes yes we all hate the Sentry, but that’s the exception not the rule), and a multiplayer scene that virtually every other strategy game is jealous of, StarCraft 2 has rightly earned it its place at the top of the competitive strategy world. Co-op was an absolute coup, and I actually had a sobering day mourning RTS developers everywhere when they announced that SC2 was going to be free-to-play for multiplayer and arcade.

Total War: Rome 2

Publisher: SEGA
Developer: Creative Assembly
Buy From: Steam

Rome3

It may not have had the best of launches, but five-years later Total War: Rome 2 is Creative Assembly’s most popular historical Total War game, which is why it’s still getting supported with free updates and premium DLC, like Empire Divided. As a hybrid real-time tactics and turn-based strategy game, we’ve based this on which Total War entry’s real-time battles excelled above all others. We’re not factoring in the strategy layer here, where games like ATTILA, and the recent Total War: Warhammer titles stand as better examples than Rome 2.

On the tactical side however, Rome 2 strikes the perfect balance. It allows units to suffer heavy damage while still giving you time to tactically manoeuvre troops around for pincer movements and other ploys. Units neither die too quickly, nor too fast and Rome 2 is the best game where facets like facing, formation, terrain etc… matter as much as they do to the tactical flow of battle.

Ashes of the Singularity: Escalation (Review)

Publisher: Stardock
Developer: Oxide Games
Buy From: Direct

011 Ashes2

While it is undeniable that Ashes of the Singularity launched in a pretty weird place, with a somewhat characterless campaign and what felt like a dearth of unit options, it’s matured in a big way via a long cycle of continued development and optimisation. It now stands as one of the more interesting takes on large-scale RTS that exists in the modern time.

Ashes of the Singularity takes nods from Total Annihilation-style games, but also from Company of Heroes with its squad-based light vehicles, and interconnected resource nodes which function similarly in many respects to territories from Relic’s seminal World War 2 RTS. It uses structure-based support powers similar to those found in Command and Conquer 3, and constrains player upgrades and unit counts through the scarce Quanta resource (which is also used to activate support powers). The campaign DLC has vastly improved in quality, and while the game’s specifications make it difficult to run on all but higher-end machines, Ashes is shaping up to be a serious contender in the large-scale RTS space.

Hall of Fame

The below games featured on our list in the past, but have since rotated out to join their brothers and sisters in the hall of heroes:

What would your list of top RTS games look like? Let us know in the comments!

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