GamesCom 2019 Special – Seven Strategy Games To Watch Out For

By Joe Robinson 21 Aug 2019 1

As I write this my plane is currently cruising above the fields of France as it takes me back home to England. This year's GamesCom expedition was short, but sweet, and I've seen a wide range of upcoming strategy projects that warrant keeping an eye on over the next year.

Here's a quick summary of what I saw and what excited me the most:

Humankind (Amplitude/SEGA)

I'll admit, I wasn't expecting Amplitude to so deliberately and directly challenge Civilization's throne, but here we are. We're probably going to come back to Humankind in a more dedicated piece but let me just say that this is definitely a game to get excited about. We suspect it's not going to break as many moulds as perhaps people might think it might, but Amplitude have spent the past decade perfecting their 4X craft through Endless Space & Endless Legend, and you could see the legacy of those games within the demo we were shown – it's all been leading up to this moment.

Humankind is definitely going to give some smart innovations – an early/mid game that incentives genuine exploration, a cultural progression centred around historical civilizations that allows you to build upon your choices, and even the little things like the history of your game leaving visual artefacts upon the aesthetic of your faction. It's important not to let hype get in the way of reason – this is already shaping up to be a very legitimate contender to the throne, but even if it doesn't end up replacing Civ, it's going to be a viable alternative.

Stronghold Warlords (Firefly Studios)

Returning to Stronghold is both an exciting and foreboding prospect for Firefly – its essentially the 'golden goose', a brand that's loved and is a proven success in a genre that doesn't generally see much competition. The classic Stronghold games continue to be popular, warranting HD versions (Firefly did this before it was cool), but genuine sequels and innovations have struggled.

If Stronghold and Stronghold Crusaders are two distinct pillars of the series, then Warlords seeks to be its own third offering. Being set in Asia is something the team have always been interested in, but they're very much prepared to put mechanics before setting. The early proliferation of gunpowder weapons in China means the team can have fun with new technology, but it's still fundamentally 'Stronghold' no matter the culture.. although Genghis Khan wasn't exactly known for 'building' castles. Or Walls. Still, new ideas such as minor NPC lords, coupled with the fact that making a new game has allowed them to really go back into the code and modernise the engine with new quality of life features means that Warlords is definitely an exciting prospect. Just don't expect it to be something it's not.

stronghold warlords gamescom 2019

A Year of Rain (Daedalic Entertainment)

This new RTS will have a fight on its hands – built for co-op it may be, but at the moment it's very much a game that has clear and obvious roots in classics like Warcraft & Age of Empires. If you wanted to be uncharitable, you could just say it's “faux-Warcraft except there's two of you”, but considering many recent attempts to iterate on the RTS haven't really been received that well, perhaps playing it safe will be to its advantage.

There are three factions you can choose from, and then beyond that you can choose one of three 'roles' which will define your general playstyle and what units you have access too. You also have a hero unit which will have a class, i.e. Paladin or Ranger. Map design have elements of MOBA inspired mechanics, such as neutral mobs dotted about the map that you can farm for XP. It played well and the co-op play is definitely fun, so we'll see how this shapes up - Early Access date is currently set for October

a year of rain gamescom 2019

Knights of Honor II: Sovereign (Black Sea Games/THQ)

It was hard to get a good read on this one – 2019 seems to be the year to bring classic strategy franchises back from the dead, and I did feel a pang of guilt when I realised I had no idea what Knights of Honor was. What really threw me off though was essentially a presentation that seemed to almost pretend that Crusaders King 2 hadn't happened?

Odd demonstration aside, Sovereign has a lot that shows promise, even at this early stage. It's not as tied to a historical date as something like CK2 is, describing itself as “timeless”. It essentially takes a snapshot of 12th century Europe and then tells you to make your own 'history'. The world map though is visually impressive and gives off the feeling of a living world in a way that Paradox have only really started doing in Imperator. It'll have all of the design objectives of Crusader Kings 2 – characters, lots of room for espionage and Diplomacy, holdings to expand and develop etc... It then also features free-roaming armies and a Total War style tactical engine. Crusader Kings 2 is definitely its main rival, and I imagine it'll do something better or in a more interesting way, and other things not as well (or at least, not as deep). It's scheduled to release during 2020 but we're guessing the latter half. We may even be seeing it again at next year's GamesCom.

Empire of Sin (Romero Games/Paradox Interactive)

We'd be remiss if we didn't touch upon Paradox's current bae – The Romero's Empire of Sin is every bit the 'Untouchables meets XCOM' gangster game you'd imagine it to be. The game's interpretation of Chicago is divided into Neighbourhoods which can be up to 500m2. You can walk around within them in real-time or fast travel to specific locations of note, but you'll need to 'load in' to other neighbourhoods. What's really a feat though is a strategic map which can zoom out and take in the entire game world at once, and then allow you to zoom down again onto ANY point, regardless if you're in the neighbourhood or not. We talked to the game's chief engine architect, who said that was the most challenging aspect from his point of view, but he's rather proud of the way they've managed to obfuscated loading screen/time as the player navigates the world in this way.

The tactical layer seems to tick all the boxes so far, although on reflection I find it's incredibly easy to get XCOM's design 'wrong', or at least iterate in a way that's not as intuitive as you think. You can go out into the world and recruit people to your 'crew', which you can then take places to conduct raids – switching the action to turn-based. Key characters, like Al Capone (who is the player protagonist) represent 'bosses' in the tactical space that can provide unique bonuses and buffs. Each Boss is as closely based around a real person as possible. Fun Fact: Brenda Romero worked on Jagged Alliance 2, which is something I didn't know. I had a great talk with Brenda at the show so will be digging through that interview to see if there are additional snippets to share.

John Wick Hex (Bithell Games)

This game was especially fascinating to demo because I've honestly never seen the films. Not for any particular reason – just never got around to it. Mike Bithell and his team specialise in finding creative solutions to known IPs, and John Wick Hex is their latest brainchild. It really works, even as someone who doesn't really know much about the films, this game has many layers of depth that speaks in the universal language of strategy games.

It bills itself as a 'Timeline Strategy Game', which is essentially a made-up concept but Hex takes the WEGO design idea and roots it in the idea of 'time' being your one and only concern. Everything in the game takes an amount of time to accomplish, from moving, to shooting, to take-downs or bandaging yourself up. A timeline will show you what your doing and when that action will resolve, but layered on top of that is the timeline of the enemy. Not only can you see what you're about to do and when, but you can see your enemy's timeline as well. You'll instantly know if you'll be able to shoot them before they shoot you, or whether you can move out of the way before they spot you and so on. The more enemies on screen the more analysis you have to try and field.

I imagine the early game will be quite slow as you try to figure out what you can and can't do, but as you gain confidence, you'll also find  a rhythm to the game that's only really been seen in games like Crypt of the Necrodancer, or the mobile-favourite GO games from Square. If you're looking for something different, you don't need to look much further than this.

Iron Harvest (Deep Silver)

Last but certainly not least, Iron Harvest definitely deserves a mention. I’ve not really seen this game up close but it's one we’ve been keeping an eye on since the successful Kickstarter. I mean Company of Heroes, except mechs, set in the 1920+ universe (same setting as Scythe)? How could we not be intrigued.

We’ve got a beta key so we’ll try and do some more in-depth impressions on how the game handles, but so far so good. It’s important to reign in the Company of Heroes comparisons a bit - it’s not quite full-on CoH but it’s definitely in the ball-park. Depending on what units you have there’s a greater onus on stealth and hit-and-run tactics, and weapon load-outs seem a bit more homogeneous. If a squad dies it’ll drop a single weapon, and you can tell one of your squads to pick it up and change their load-outs, but it seems a very simple affair. Still, very impressive and we’re looking forward to digging around the skirmish mode.

Honourable Mentions

  • Commandos 2 HD - looking good!
  • Port Royale 4 - didn’t get to see it, but i’m kinda excited for another economic sim
  • Frostpunk Console Edition - control scheme is very slick, and it performs well on the hardware
  • Northgard's Conquest expansion + Switch version - an excellent free update that will add some longevity, and the Switch version works very well.
  • Super Secret thing - that we can't actually talk about till next month. How about that leaked Total War Saga trademark filing, eh?

What strategy games are you excited about? Heard anything from GamesCom that caught your interest? Let us know in the comments!

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