The Best Grand Strategy Games24 Sep 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.
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.
- Crusader Kings 2 DLC Guide
- Essential Tips & Tricks Guide
- Review of Crusader Kings 2's most recent expansion - Holy Fury
- Essential Crusader Kings 2 Mods
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.
- A Guide to Warfare in Europa Universalis 4
- Europa Universalis 4 DLC Guide
- Review of EU4's most recent expansion - Golden Century
- Essential Europa Universalis 4 Mods
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 three years old now and 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 DLC Buying Guide
- Tips & Tricks for getting good at Stellaris
- Review of the most recent expansion - Stellaris: Megacorps
- Essential Stellaris Mods Guide
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.
- Hearts of Iron 4 DLC Guide
- An analysis of the game as of 1.6 Ironclad
- Review of the most recent expansion - Man the Guns
- Essential Hearts of Iron 4 Mods
- Essential Hearts of Iron 4 Tips
Imperator: Rome (Link)
Released in April 2019, this newest grand-strategy titled represents the culmination of nearly two decades' worth of learning in terms of designing games like this. Starting not long after the collapse of Alexander the Great's empire (304 BC), you can pick any nation or polity that existed around this time period and attempt to lead them to greatness, with the timeline officially ending when Augustus was proclaimed Emperor.
It's had a bit of a rocky launch, with Steam reviews plummeting to the 'Mostly Negative' area and critic reviews a bit divided, but there's no denying that it has one of the best technical foundations of any Paradox grand-strategy game released to date. The content offering and historical flavour is Imperator's weakest element at the moment, and this is something that will improve over time with the usual roll-out of post-release patches and DLC. The most recent patch, 1.2 Cicero, completely changes a number of fundamental aspects of the game. The dev team are proving very mobile and willing to completely re-think aspects of the design, which is a good thing.
- Imperator: Rome Review
- Imperator: Rome Gameplay Tips
- The Art of War in Imperator: Rome
- Essential Imperator: Rome Mods
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.
- Total War: Rome 2 DLC Guide
- Review of the most recent expansion - Rise of the Republic
- The Best Rome 2 Total War Mods
Total War: Warhammer I & II (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.
- The Complete Total War: Warhammer DLC Guide
- Total War: Warhammer II DLC Guide
- Review: Total War: Warhammer II
Total War: Three Kingdoms (Link)
Released in May 2019, the latest Total War game attempts 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.
It's been largely a success - Three Kingdoms has made the campaign layer better than it's every been, with some very meaningful character interactions and dynamics between the various factions. Real-time tactical combat sits somewhere between the Warhammer and other historical titles, and while there are certain aspects that will come down to personal taste its still a very robust and very decent tactical battle engine that really helps give weight to the political machinations of the turn-based layer.
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 (Review)
Released in July 2019, Field of Glory: Empires is a new historical grand-strategy game from Slitherine. It attempts to occupy the space between Rome 2 and Imperator and brings with it some smart ideas and decent design choices. It's a *tad* old-school, but then the developers have a history of creating hardcore, old-fashioned war games so some of that was going to bleed through. It definitely has the military-focus of older Total War and Paradox titles, but as some really interesting mechanics in terms of empire & population management. It's also not gone for the same 'breadth' that Imperator has, instead going for some very focused abstractions and key factions that remind us of the original Rome: Total War.
In all honesty, given how Imperator turned out, this is probably a good thing - "less is more" still holds true today. Empires other ace-in-the-hole is the ability to sync up with another Slitherine title, Field of Glory 2, and export the battle data from Empires so you can play out the fight in-full like you can in a Total War game. It's an extra step, but the process is as smooth as it cane be and FOG2 is a really good tactical turn-based wargame, to be fair. Now that it's out in the wold it'll be interesting to see where Slitherine take it - they're not known for Paradox-levels of support but they're certainly more attentive than most.
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.
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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