The Best Turn-Based Strategy Games08 Jan 2020 8
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.
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.
What are the best Turn-Based Strategy Games?
- Unity of Command 2
- Fantasy General II
- Battle Brothers
- Space Hulk Tactics
- Frozen Synapse 2
- Phantom Doctrine
- Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach
- The Battle for Wesnoth
- XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
Let's take a look at some of our favourite turn-based strategy games:
Unity of Command 2
Publisher/Developer: 2x2 Games
An excellent strategy game that doubles up as a viable gateway to the world of digital war games, Unity of Command 2 does everything its predecessor did and more. By changing up the scenario design and adding in new elements like HQ's and more meaningful meta-campaign, few repeats of the same mission will play out the same, although UoC has always had a trace of 'puzzle' DNA within it, which is still true but not to the same extend as the first game.
Unity of Command 2 takes players to the more known waters of the Western front, starting with the closing stages of the Battle for North Africa, before moving on to the invasion of Sicily, Italy before finally allowing you to re-live the Normandy campaigns. As you play through the grand campaign, your army units and HQs will grow and improve over time, and there's also a light card mechanic that allows you to play a limited number of special actions that can make or break an offensive. Read our Unity of Command 2 review for more.
Fantasy General II
Publisher/Developer: Slitherine / Owned by Gravity
If you're old enough to remember the original Panzer General, you may also remember one of the other experimentations in that series called Fantasy General. Essentially, replace all of the tanks and WW2 with a Fantasy realms, wizards and medieval technology. Slitherine, who've long been carrying the Panzer General legacy through their wargames such as Panzer Corps and Order of Battle, have decided to attempt a revival of sorts with Fantasy General II. You don't actually need to have played the original to enjoy this - other than being set in the same universe (which is your typical generic fantasy) it bears few connections to the events of the first game.
You can read our Fantasy General 2 review for the full details, but what you have here is a pretty decent strategy/war game where you must lead your barbarian armies into the heart of civilization, rampaging and pillaging as you go. The game has a 'larger than life' aesthetics that's similar to Slitherine's other games, like Panzer Corps and Field of Glory 2. It has a very strong narrative single-player campaign that features branching choices and army progression. There is also a skirmish component. The only real draw-back is that the game ships with limited factions, so until more turn-up the longevity of this game is limited. Still a cracking game, though.
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. Ina's BattleTech review goes into more detail if you're interested.
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. We have a Mech Build Guide available to help people get to grips with the wealth of options available. 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.
As far as DLC goes, Harebrained Schemes have been working on essentially doing a big Content drop every six months as part of the initial Season Pass offering (as well as free updates every other month). Flashpoint was the first piece which largely catered to players loitering around the endgame. The second pack to release was Urban Warfare, which was pretty good if a little bit limited in what it offers (but then those urban environments would have taken a lot of resources to make). The third and final expansion in the initial run was Heavy Metal - it mainly focused on adding new mechs (eight new chassis!) and new weapons, lots etc... with some limited campaign content.
Publisher/Developer: 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. You should read our Battle Brothers review to find out what we thought of the base game.
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.
It's been modestly supported with DLC & updates with the most recent being Warriors of the North, which is probably the most interesting pack they've released to date. It features new starting set-ups, new Norse & Barbarian themed enemies and items and lots of other new content as well. The 'new' shine can wear off quite quickly - even the new starting conditions eventually fall-away and the familiar game-play loop sets back in, your mileage will definitely vary.
While not the perfect successor to the legacy of Advanced Wars, this highly anticipated turn-based tactics title certainly did not disappoint when it finally released in February 2019. An excellent visual design coupled with a rich tactical experience across all the factions meant that this was a game that was easy to learn, challenging to master, but never anything less than a delight to play.
The real strength of Wargroove however is its build-in future proofing. There's plenty to do and try out straight out of the box, but a powerful and robust editor means that there will be some fantastic user-generated content coming down the pipe in the months ahead. People are already recreating maps and entire campaigns from other TBT classics like Fire Emblem and Advanced Wars, so we can't wait to see what the else the community does with the game. Read our full Wargroove review if you want to know more.
If you've been waiting for more Wargroove the past couple of months, a free DLC called Double Trouble will be landing on February 6th, 2020!
Space Hulk: Tactics
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 - 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. Read our Space Hulk Tactics review for more.
Frozen Synapse 2
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. You can read our Frozen Synapse 2 review for more, although it's wort noting that development on this title has officially ended - what you see is all you're going to get.
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. Read our Phantom Doctrine review for more. The last we heard, the devs were looking to bring this game to mobile.
Warhammer 40,000: Sanctus Reach
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. Read our Sanctus Reach review for more.
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.
XCOM 2: War of the Chosen
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.
Honorable Mention: Phoenix Point
Phoenix Point released in December 2019, and while it's pretty good it doesn't quite knock XCOM 2 off its top spot just yet. The strategy layer is definitely superior, but there are things about the tactical layer that, at the time of writing, don't quite site well with what the game is trying to do overall yet. Still, it's a pretty good game and you should definitely check it out if you're interested. It's currently on the Epic Games Store, the Xbox Store and is also available via the Microsoft Store for PC. It's also included in the latter's 'Games Pass for PC' subscription. Read our Phoenix Point review for more details.
More Turn-Based Strategy Game Recommendations
From recent releases, to reader recommendations and previous entries on this list, here are some other great turn-based strategy games you should check out:
- Crying Suns
- Narcos: Rise of the Cartels
- Invisible Inc.
- Into the Breach
- Total War: Warhammer II
- Field of Glory: Empires
- Mutant: Year Zero - Road to Eden
- Slay the Spire
- Invaders from Dimension X!
- DOTA Underlords (Early Access)
What would your list of top turn-based strategy titles look like? Let us know in the comments!