Essential Grand Strategy Games

By Alexander Williams 15 Apr 2019 2

Grand Strategy games are a uniquely compelling sub-genre of strategy games – encompassing long periods of history (or, if sci-fi, time), and involve many intricate layers that players need to contend with. It’s not just about winning that war or setting up this mine; you’ve got to develop infrastructure, set policy, and manage internal politics as well as international relations.

As a genre it shares a lot in common with 4X epics both old and new, and indeed one could argue that the only thing that makes a 4X unique is the ‘eXplore’ part, because the other three 'Xs' are common in every strategy game.

Speaking of 4X, check out our list of favourite games in this genre.

Grand strategy itself often involves the exploration of the map in order to better understand the resources at your command and the position of your enemies – or your friends. Lines blur when picking apart the edge cases, but by and large count on grand strategy games to make the management of your faction the primary part of game play. 4X titles typically puts the emphasis on managing military resources in particular, with other mechanics in a supporting role.

EU4 DLC Head 5

Paradox Interactive

Arguably the company that defines this genre, Paradox’s internal development studio have been pioneering very grand, very strategic experiences that run for decades across several eras. These games are the ultimate historical (or thematic) sandboxes and many elements get abstracted, but they also allow for very personal, very emergent gameplay. If you’re not playing at least one Paradox grand-strategy game and are reading this, then you may have stumbled into the wrong room. Or you are about to be awakened to a new world of wonder!

Paradox have been making grand-strategy games since forever, but here are some current highlights:

Crusader Kings 2 (Link)

This is the game that put Paradox and grand strategy itself 'on the map.' The sequel to the original (and experimental) Crusader Kings, this 2011 release doubled down on the idea that you weren’t just managing a kingdom or nation, you were managing a person and their family.

From the lowliest of Counts to the highest of Kings, you are put in charge of an entire dynasty of characters and were tasked with ensuring its continued success and domination amidst the back-drop of Medieval Europe. It’s a great one to start with if your a grand-strategy newbie, although eight year’s worth of DLC has managed to make it a fairly complex game in its own way.

ck2

Further Reading:

Europa Universalis 4 (Link)

The current gold-standard of Paradox-style grand-strategy, this is the fourth iteration of a series that was originally adapted from an old-school board game of the same name.

Pull your nation through the turbulent times of the 15th Century all the way through to the Age of Reason and Napoleon's revolution, upgrading your technology, your political acumen, and your ability to judge your neighbors along the way. Among historical grand strategy games, EU4 is notable for not focusing exclusively on Europe but giving access to much of the world for the whole span it covers. Want to turn a North American Indian tribe into an industrial powerhouse to invade Europe? Want to dissolve the HRE and form Germany early? You got it.

eu4

Further Reading:

Stellaris (Link)

The first of Paradox's grand-strategy game to stray into '4X' territory thanks to its sci-fi theme, in Stellaris you're no longer limited to simple terrestrial life: Create a new sapient species, decide on its political and social inclinations, then take to the stars to spread an empire across a randomly generated galaxy, vying for resources and position against your equals, and the polities of long fallen superiors.

Stellaris is the newest of the Paradox titles (at the time of writing), but already has several DLCs which extend and expand options for your space empires. While it may not have the historical depth that other Paradox titles can depend on, it is more focused on evolving new experiences with new situations as often as it can with heavy emphasis on player customization. Plus you get to design your own spaceships, which is always a bonus for these kinds of games.

stellaris

Further Reading:

Hearts of Iron 4 (Link)

This series is unique in it’s attempt to be a “true” grand strategy WW2 war game, as opposed to other war games that operate at similar strategic scales but generally forgo the breadth of the entire war. Much like EU4, here you can play as any nation on any continent during the era and politics that served as the backdrop to the second world war and do your best to profit and survive, not necessarily in that order.

Hearts of Iron 4 is going through somewhat of a transition - since launch, it's been torn between the need to try and provide an authentic 'as it happened' WW2 experience (Hearts of Iron III, while flexible in some areas, was largely WW2-on-rails), and an emerging playerbase that enjoy a more sandbox approach, allowing for alt-history and 'what-if' scenarios. Because of this, not all countries have equal access to interesting decision trees at the moment, with the focus currently being on those which were significant players at the time. It does currently seem to be favouring alt-history with each update, however, so bear that in mind if you're a WW2 enthusiast.

Man the Guns 2

Further Reading:

Imperator: Rome (Link)

Releasing on April 25th 2019, this will be the next grand-strategy game from Paradox. It’s the spiritual successor to a previous game, Europa Universalis: Rome, and blends concepts from Crusader Kings, Europa Universalis and another franchise that's worth checking out, Victoria 2.

Starting not long after the collapse of Alexander the Great's empire (304 BC), you can pick any entity that existed around this time period and attempt to lead them to greatness, with the timeline officially ending just before 0 AD and the time of Augustus. You could play Rome itself, which at the start of the game is far from dominating the Italian peninsular; or you can try and play one of the successor Kingdoms, Gallic Tribes or even further afield in Britain. Starting so early and offering so many historical (and theoretical) polities will mean no version of ancient era Europe will look the same.

Imperator wg Head

Further Reading:

Total War Series

It may not seem as obvious, and certainly Creative Assembly have never officially used this term to describe their Total War games, but this iconic strategy series fits the bill of grand strategy quite well. The meat of the game takes place on the turn-based strategic layer – big sweeping maps covering large areas of land, whether it be entire continents or just one country. Of the Total War franchise games, only Empire: Total War has come close to matching the global nature of Paradox games, but the maps are still big, and their focused scope allows for more provincial depth and character.

What sets Total War games apart from most grand-strategy games, and indeed, has helped cement their unique place within the strategy genre, is that there is a fully realized battle engine, which has used 3D graphics since Rome: Total War. This allows you to fight all of the tactical battles yourself (should you want) and is an added layer of content that’s helped propel this series to being one of the better mainstream strategy franchises around.

Here are some highlights, although you should check out our list of the best Total War games for a better overview.

Rome 2: Total War (Link)

At the time of writing, Rome 2 has the honour of being Creative Assembly’s most-played historical strategy game by a significant margin. It’s had a loyal core of around 10,000 players for a couple of years which has inspired CA to create more DLC for the game despite it being nearly six years old at this point (no other CA game that old has received such support).

Rome 2 had a very rocky start, but it’s in a very good place these days. Rome: Total War is the cult classic favourite for many older series fans, and Rome 2, by and large, is a better, more encompassing game. It’s not perfect, but unless you’re really turned off by the glory of Rome, this is an excellent one to try out.

Rome 2 Grand campaign map

Further Reading:

Total War: Warhammer (Link)

A departure from their usual fare, Creative Assembly landed quite the coup when they won the Warhammer Fantasy license from Games Workshop at a time when the IP itself had been axed in the table-top world in favour of the Age of Sigmar Nu Fantasy lines.

Going fantasy for the first time also allowed the design teams to let their hair down and get creative, with everything from the strategy map to tactical battles getting fantasy-fueled twists and innovations. Some are great, others are very much subjective (we’re really not a fan of tactical battles in the Warhammer games), but no one can deny it’s been a success. If you're looking for a more fantastical spin on grand-strategy there are few better.

total war warhammer

Strategy Gamer Articles Include:

Total War: Three Kingdoms (Link)

Releasing on May 23rd 2019, the latest Total War game will attempt to marry the hardcore, historically based sensibilities of the classic games with some of the better innovations to come out of the Total Warhammer titles. Creative Assembly have been threatening to do a Three Kingdoms-era China-based game even before Rome 2, so it’s nice to see them finally realize this particular goal.

total war three kingdoms

Battles are more in line with the older TW games, so time-to-kill is more reasonable, but the campaign map is the largest its ever been. The design team have learned from the excellent work done on Warhammer’s campaign, so it's very vibrant and full of interactive elements. As a concession to those who’ve enjoyed the more fantastic take of the source material, there’s even a “Romance” mode (the entire game is partly based on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms book, China’s oldest and arguably most well-read novel) where your heroes can fight in true wuxia style, taking on hundreds of men alone.

Other Recommendations

Paradox may have largely defined grand strategy in the mainstream sense, but they are not alone in this space and there are other worthy games, both existing and upcoming, that are worth a look-in as well.

Field of Glory: Empires (Link)

Recently announced from Slitherine & Matrix Games, this is a grand-strategy game that looks like it wants to occupy the space between Rome 2 and Imperator Rome. Set broadly in the same period, it will probably lack the “play anything you want” scope of Paradox games but will still feature a grand-strategy approach to empire management and general game play. It also offers something close to what Total War offers in the sense that you can export save files to another game, Field of Glory 2, and fight the tactical battles there, importing the results back into Empires. Neat, if not as smooth.

field of glory empires

The developer is known for making games that could be considered grand-strategy, although before now they've all had a very unique commitment to warfare and logistics, making them decidedly more in the realm of 'war games' than anything else. Empires represents their first attempt at a more 'mainstream' grand strategy experience, and we're excited to see how it stacks up against its competitors.

Medieval Kingdom Wars (Steam) (Review)

This is a recently released medieval grand-strategy game set during the 14th Century. It’s wholly real-time, although there is a separate tactical battle engine a la Total War. We finally took it for a proper spin and you should read our review for the official verdict, but tl;dr, it's not very good.

The choice of setting is certainly inspired, and there's some great attention to detail here, but by and large this is a game that probably needed to stay in Early Access. It also may have in a past life been a free-to-play game, which might explain some odd design choices present. Unfortunately, plenty of the other games in this list do what MKW does, and far better. Still, there arn't many genuine non-Paradox grand-strategy competitors on the market right now, so for posterity at least, it can remain on the list.

medieval kingdom wars

Distant Worlds Universe (Steam)

Much like Stellaris, this is a space 4X grand-strategy game that's a far sight meatier and more expansive than its Paradox counter-part. If you're still not finding Stellaris to your tastes or are up for a challenge, this is definitely worth checking out. Distant Worlds is a deep game with a very steep learning curve, and past a certain point empire management can become quite taxing. On the flip-side, the game has a wonderful trick that lets you give nearly all functions over to an AI handler, allowing you to focus on whatever bit interests you the most. If you wanted to, you could even relinquidh control over all but a single vessel, boldly going where no AI has gone before as you explore your procedurally generated galaxy.

distant worlds universe

Being an older game Distant Worlds has a decidedly 'old school' flavour about it, and more than any other entry on the list represents the nexus where 4X and grand-strategy merge - and where the differences lie.

Do you have any favourite games that could be considered ‘grand strategy’? Let us know in the comments, and they might just work their way in to this guide!

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