The Best Turn-Based Strategy Games05 Dec 2018 5
Turn-based strategy games bring out the more cerebral undertones of the genre – the break afforded by ‘turns’ allows us to think, ponder and plan our moves with as much expert precision as we can muster, and see the mater plan unfold without a hitch creates untold levels of satisfaction. Below are some of our favourite turn-based strategy games to play in 2018, as told by our TBS guru Alex.
Tired of turn-based strategy games? How about some great 4X strategy games instead?
This is a ‘living’ list, in the sense that there are many worthy candidates and not enough room to fit them all in. Every so often (especially as new games come out), we’ll give this list a refresh and an update to bring some other titles their turn in the spotlight.
Whichever way you cut it, Battletech is a colossal title and a long time coming. A meaty, ruminative turn-based mech battler that does as much justice to its FASA tabletop roots as it does to making a ponderous, complex miniature game come alive in digital form. Its depth and sprawl is the product of thirty-odd years of lore and gaming, and the game most mech-heads were chasing.
This is a game that demands commitment, selling the idea of mechwarrior combat being anything but brief. There's lots of crunchiness to encounters on the tactical level, with heat and weapon management coalescing with environmental factors and position. Mechs are beautifully detailed, evoking just the right mix of old Ral Patha miniatures and the thankful modernisation of MechWarrior Online's artistic precedent.
Higher levels of command stretch the battlespace into the stars, with players developing their lancemates and machinery in acute detail. The universe is detailed and beautifully represented. this game has recently received its first piece of premium DLC titled Flashpoint, which is largely aimed at players loitering around the endgame.
Space Hulk: Tactics (Review)
Publisher/Developer: Focus Home Interactive/Cyanide Studios
Given how hit and miss digital adaptations of Space Hulk have been in recent years, we were pleasantly surprised how good this latest adaptation turned out to be. It's not perfect - the Tactics is almost a little too "true" to the original table-top experience, with a very punishing asymmetrical set-up that favours the Genestealers. It's mean't to be a challenge, but some things deft modern gaming conventions in way that's already rubbed more than a few people the wrong way.
Still, it's a game with very solid foundations and beautiful production values. The two factions have been wonderfully designed, and both manage to feel quite different in how they play, despite sharing common underlying mechanics. The card system is also quite innovative, and all round this is a tense, highly tactical affair that comes close to being the best Warhammer 40,000 game on the market. With good multiplayer and deep customisation to boot, once the early technical issues are sort out, Space Hulk: Tactics' place on this list will be cemented for life.
Valkyria Chronicles 4 (Review)
Valkyria Chronicles is a seminal entry in turn-based tactical gameplay, and it's come out of Japan, not less! The cultural history of his series means there's a healthy does of RPG mechanics and a core narrative to boot, which blends together to create an experience unlike anything you've played before. When the series failed to return in the west (outside some handheld spin-offs), it's absence was felt... but no longer! Valkyria Chronicles 4 is a triumphant, if at points predictable, return to form.
It doesn't experiment too much with new mechanics, but there's enough there to keep things fresh, and it's still a well designed turn-based system. Using command points, you choose which of your units to activate in a turn, and you can control those units in real-time. Each unit has a certain amount of movement and action points it can use, and when those points are depleted you're stuck in place. You may also not be able to activate all your units every turn, either. Read our review if you want to know more, but fans of the original game will find themselves right at home, and newcomers don't want to miss out on this tactical masterpiece.
Frozen Synapse 2 (Review)
Publisher/Developer: Mode 7 Games
Indie sensation Frozen Synapse is very much deserving of its accolades. A simultaneous turn-based breakdown of CounterStrike at its heart, Mode 7 Games condensed the fundamentals of the first-person shooter -- movement, stance, speed and vectors -- into five-second parcels of plotting direction and behaviour. While the sequel didn't try to mess with this simple and effective formula too much, it did try to instil a sense of purpose.
Frozen Synapse 2's main offering is a grand-strategy layer. You run a private security firm in a procedurally generated city, and your goal is to grow, keep the other organisations in check, while also deal with a mysterious new foe that's appeared on the scene. Take contracts, hire recruits to fill out your squads, and fight your enemies in battlegrounds that vary depending on where the action takes place. The initial offering is functional and imperfect, but it's already proven to be a great way of filling Frozen Synapse's excellent WEGO tactical experience with meaning and persistence.
Phantom Doctrine (Review)
Publisher/Developer: CreativeForge Games/Good Shepard Entertainment
We know we're one of the outliers when it comes to how good we thought Phantom Doctrine was, but no one can fault the ambition that's been displayed by this XCOM-meets-Cold War tactical romp. Your mileage on the various technical niggles will vary, but it''s probably he most ambitious stealth/turn-based tactics title in recent memory. The turn-based mechanics are easy to parse, immediately recognisable to any genre fan. Players shunt their agents around the map on a grid, throttled by action points and feats.
The multi-disciplined blend of standard tactical cation, mixed with stealth, management and the pre-planning that can be involved (not to mention the investigations and lore) elevates Phantom Doctrine beyond the constraints and norms of its peers. It's not a smooth ride, and we're not saying it handles everything successfully, but if you consider this a foundation on which the developers will build on, there's bright future in store for this game, and we can't wait to see it. Essential strategy gaming.
Banner Saga 3 (Review)
Publisher/Developer: Stoic/Versus Evil
This iconic strategy series comes to an end with the long-awaited third-instalment that manages to send everyone off in style. New characters and new gameplay elements keeps the action fresh while you delve into the mysteries of the world. And crushing enemies with the same varl that's kept you company through previous games – and end game saves – is a surprisingly touching experience.
Stoic are still masters of 2D art, and their attention to detail – whether in the side-scrolling caravan sections or combat – has yet to diminish. We love the way they set the stage for battles with the static action surrounding the field. Banner Saga 3 is just one more proof that good 2D will always trump bad or passable 3D – something more developers could try to understand. The sound isn't bad, either – the music is top notch and we're getting more voiced narrative lines than before.
Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach (Review)
We're thankfully not short on Warhammer games, and when they're as satisfying as Straylight Entertainment's Sanctus Reach, I say keep them coming. Sanctus Reach is an interesting creation because it strikes exactly the right balance fans would want in retaining the ruminative cogitation of the tabletop with the flair and spectacle of a digital interpretation.
Snapped to a grid and letting the computer do the heavy statistical lifting, players are free to think three moves ahead as they smash Orks into Space Wolves and vice versa. Map design retains a tabletop physicality, strewn with exactly the kind of terrain assets you'd hope to roam amidst, and Sanctus Reach's scale is pitch-perfect for selling its interpretation of digital miniature battles. With asynchronous multiplayer, lengthy campaign and good skirmish, all the game really needs is MORE WARGH.
The Battle for Wesnoth
Publisher/Developer: David White et al.
What kind of turn-based list would it be without some sort of open-source or free elder statesman of the genre? Just inching out People's General, The Battle for Wesnoth is a sprawling suite of tactical turn-based hexery. The game itself is accommodating, the community modules vast and varied, and heck, it's even been ported to phones. Wesnoth in its base form feels like it’s at an aesthetic cross-roads between traditional Japanese SRPGS and Western heavy-hitters like Heroes of Might & Magic. Light enough to run on the most dismal of systems, and not costing a brass razoo, The Battle of Wesnoth is truly the people's game.
Battle Brothers (Review)
Publisher/Developer: OverHype Studios/OverHype Studios
Battle Brothers is ostensibly the Game of Thrones Bron Simulator. A deliciously low-fantasy mercenary manager that is refreshingly free of trope-ridden kings and kingdoms, OverHyper Studios' hex-based combat game is immediately accessible, balanced by brutality and permadeath.
There's a hand-crafted quality to the game, appealing in much the same way as Unity of Command. Grim little busts of ugly mercenaries plug their way across swamps and forests, paper-dolled with whatever arms and armor you assigned, engaging in violent combat with all manner of armies. What's most impressive about Battle Brothers is the impact with which it conveys every hit, stab, slice and shot. Each successful attack is incredibly visceral, making sure you know that there are no do-overs in the Battle Brothers world. By the end of each encounter, the field is littered with loosed arrows, blood and corpses. Those who died have indeed gone for good. And those that survive just may live a little longer.
OverHype Studios have crafted a terrific sandbox strategy game in Battle Brothers. The focus is perfect for a mercenary game in maintaining a small band of fighters in a dark, oppressive and non-linear world. With very modest system requirements and oodles of content, Battle Brothers should be on any discerning strategy gamer's hard drive.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen (Review)
Alongside Civilization, there are few games that can share as much clout as Julian Gollop's seminal X-Com. Firaxis spit-shone the formula in 2012 in an all-caps frisson of console-friendly overhauls. Still that same great punitive taste, but with all the bells and whistles of a modern interface. Selling gangbusters, the sequel came in 2016.
XCOM 2 might have had some initial technical niggles around launch, but thereafter has been patched up to shine as intended. Coupled with War of the Chosen, XCOM 2's pot-stirring expansion that throws antagonistic human factions into the mix, there's little reason not to have Firaxis' second tilt at this magisterial series in your library. Asymmetric constraints loom as the player's rag-tag rotation of freedom fighters make grounds against the established occupation, with an emphasis on hit and run missions. Secondary objectives also add an interesting tension to the game, as well as the looming threat of a grand alien program that cooks away in the background, harboring a fail-state if left to mature. War of the Chosen elevates XCOM 2 from admirable sequel to essential addition to the long-running franchise. The story might put humanity on the back foot, but XCOM has never been more ahead.
Don't to check our our tips & tricks guide for the game, as well as our complete break down of the franchise's DLC. The recently released Tactical Legacy Pack, which is rumoured to be the last bit of DLC for this game, is particularly special.
Total War: Warhammer II (Review)
Publisher/Developer: SEGA, The Creative Assembly
You can love or hate the real-time tactical battles, but the Total Warhammer (because they totally should be named that, right?) games are terrific in the turn-based strategy space. As with our nod to Total War: Rome II in our Best Modern RTS guide, this nomination for Total War: Warhammer II solely focuses on the campaign layer – the turn-based element. We’re not factoring in the real-time tactical engine.
Assembled from Games Workshop's flamboyant and grisly tabletop behemoth, Creative Assembly did justice to the source material in their departure from real-world historical epics. Army and kingdom management pops with greater factional distinction than the series has traditionally seen. The first game sees an old world sundered by the ever-present encroachment of Chaos, while the sequel in this as-yet unfinished trilogy has a fresh swathe of factions racing for a great vortex in order to change the fate of the world.
Above all else, the Total Warhammer games made the campaign map truly come alive in the way factions could influence the landscape around them. Whether it’s the encroaching corruption of the Vampire Counts, or the devastation caused by a faction laying waste to a region – these newer Total War titles really bring the idea of player agency to the Old World.
Hall of Fame
These games were featured in an earlier version of this list. For now, they're retiring to their place amongst the legends, but never to be forgotten:
What would your list of top turn-based strategy titles look like? Let us know in the comments!