The Year in Strategy Games 201926 Dec 2019 0
So here we are, at the end of the great year 2019. I’m going to come out and say it: I don’t think strategy games have ever been in a better place than it is now. We’ve got new IPs, sequels to games we thought had been long forgotten, and plenty of exciting stuff coming down the pipe for next year.
Let’s reminisce, shall we?
If you’d told me 5 years ago, or hell, even last year, that a strategy game would launch and sell over a million copies in a week, I would have not only thought you lying, I’d have laughed in your face. Well serve May 23rd 2019 Jack a slice of humble pie because Total War: Three Kingdoms did just that, selling many more over the following months. This was in large part due to a huge Chinese audience excited to play a game about their history instead of just the western world’s past, but the success of Three Kingdoms can’t be ignored. We’ve hit the big time as a community, and other hits like Fire Emblem: Three Houses (on the Nintendo Switch, no less!) have certainly brought the greater eye of gaming to our no longer humble niche.
But the mega-hits alone aren’t what made this year great, we’ve had a ton of other great games this year, from a sequel to a very old game in Fantasy General 2, to sequels of more recent games that one-upped their predecessors in Unity of Command 2 and Steel Division 2. Pathway, Wargroove, and Field of Glory: Empires all released this year as well, all being fantastic games in their own rights and innovating in the strategy gaming genre by being assertively unique. Look at all the games we’ve reviewed recently! Look at all those 4s and 5s!
SWITCHING IT UP
While Steam is still the undisputed king of strategy games, several interesting alternatives have presented themselves this year. The Nintendo Switch has a lot of really good strategy options, and I’ve found myself forgoing my PC to plug the Switch into the TV to play games instead. I’m very fond of Three Houses myself, but Bad North plays quite well on the Switch too, and was my go-to for downtime at my day job for months.
We’ve also seen a direct competitor to Steam in the Epic Games Store/ Launcher, which managed to snag some interesting strategy titles for itself. Phoenix Point is almost a worthy successor to XCOM 2, which itself is quite the feat, and John Wick Hex is an oddity that I’ve heard is something special, if eccentric. There are other games on the store as well, and more coming in the next year, such as the intriguing The Settlers (games shouldn’t have The as the beginning of the title), a city build-em-up that looks to squeeze into the RTS 2nd Renaissance we seem to be headed into now.
There are other noteworthy players in the field as well. Discord, the well-known IM app (join the official SGamer Discord!) developed itself a storefront and started selling games straight out of itself. As someone who is frequently in a call or alt-tabbing to chat with friends, the integration is neat, though a recent update hid the games tab to non-Nitro users, which is obnoxious. For shame, Discord. At least it’s not Skype. Elsewhere, the Xbox Game Pass started allowing Xbox players to play PC games on their console, which can seem downright heretical to many PC gamers, but it apparently works pretty well. They’ve gone and got themselves a Stellaris: Console Edition, which is an impressive feat in itself. That’s a lot of windows and tabs to manage with just thumbsticks, but they’ve managed to make it work, so good on you, Paradox! The PS4 also has its own fair amount of strategy games, including Valkyria Chronicles 4 and Civilization VI, both pretty bang-up games in their own rights.
I would be remiss to not mention another alternative for a strategy gaming platform in Google’s Stadia. There’s not much there right now, with Football Manager 2020, Farming Simulator 19, and Orcs Must Die! 3 being the closest the platform has to strategy games at the moment, unless something major slipped by while we weren’t looking. Google has had a shaky start with Stadia, and I wouldn’t be too surprised if they decide to ditch it within a year or so. I tested Stadia for the beta, and was not particularly impressed by the framerate or the graphical abilities of the system, and I imagine the lag-time on multiplayer games would not be welcome, to say the least. For my participation, they gave me Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and unless the system shapes up soon, that might be the best thing to come out of the whole platform.
In more positive news, strategy gaming has made quite the impact on Twitch this year, with Total War: Three Kingdoms being one of the most streamed games on Twitch for a fair amount of time after launch. As I’m writing this, Teamfight Tactics, Riot’s take on the new Auto Battler craze, is one of the top streamed games on Twitch, which is no small feat when paired up against such juggernauts as Fortnite, Call of Duty, and the other ones you probably are already thinking of from just those two names.
Auto Battlers are something that really have to be mentioned here as well on their own. Starting with the highly popular mod for DOTA 2, DOTA AUTO CHESS popularised setting up a team of heroes to duke it out with a mixed mob of AI enemies and other players’ teams. It’s certainly an innovative direction for games, and since the mod released, we’ve seen the team behind it release their own game in Auto Chess. As the mod came from MOBAs, the main 2 MOBA developers, Valve and Riot, released DOTA Underlords and Teamfight Tactics respectively as soon as they caught wind of the craze. What is neat about these games is that they all have or will have mobile versions so you can play on the go as well as at your PC. While these were all huge for a period of time, much like other contemporary fads such as fidget spinners or dabbing, they’ve receded into a still popular but less hyped-up space.
WHAT’S TO COME?
The new year looks to bring some pretty dang exciting releases. Crusader Kings 3 looks like it’ll be out in the latter half of next year, but the hype train is already running at full steam for a lot of us Paradox fans. We’re also looking at a new Total War Saga game in Troy, which seems to be drawing some influence from the more fantasy oriented games in the series. Other big names include Stronghold: Warlords, Kerbal Space Program 2, and Iron Harvest. We’re also seeing the strategy adjacent Mount & Blade 2: Bannerlord somehow releasing this century with an Early Access date set for March, and I myself am holding out hope for an Early Access release of the Dwarf Fortress Steam game. The next year looks to follow up on several already strong years of strategy gaming, so keep posted, we’ll have a lot to say over the next 12 months. Have yourself a great new year, and stay tuned.
AND NOW, A WORD FROM US WRITERS
Here’s a little segment from several of us that contribute to the site, covering our favorite games of the year:
Rocky starts be damned, I guess. Imperator: Rome has turned out to be a major time-suck for me with the recent update, and I’m quite thrilled at exercising my dominance across the Mediterranean with my unstoppable legions and roads. I’ve also been popping back into Battle Brothers, which has also gotten some nice updates from the recent expansions. Outside of those, I’ve been spending a lot of time playing Destiny 2 as a palette cleanser, though I feel another dive into Dwarf Fortress coming on soon. I can’t resist a good opportunity to strike the earth.
The big thing this year is that I just can't stop playing Frostpunk. It's one of those for me games that you can leave a little while and then come back to get a guaranteed satisfying result in a single evening. I've also been indulging in some masochism in the form of modded 2,500 turn Civilisation IV games. The AI even at "normal" difficulty I'd swear still cheats. Rage Quits happen with depressing frequency. When I finally get sick of that, Anno 1800 keeps drawing me in with a surprising drip feed of new places to explore and things to build.
For myself, I've really gotten back into the idea of good hex wargames. I was losing hope in them at the beginning of the year with Strategic Mind: The Pacific but really got into OOB's Red Star and Fantasy General II. The former did a really good job of being a traditional hex wargame, though it could have used a little innovation in campaign structure. The latter was just excellent and convinced me that there is still space for hex wargaming to grow and modernize. I'm hoping more will follow suit. I've also been diving into naval wargames. Rule the Waves II is absolutely excellent, but I've also been having fun with the Mount and Blade like Victory at Sea: Pacific and even more traditional fare like the Clad in Iron series. There's something still awesome about seeing a squadron in action, whether it's little shapes on a blue background or beautiful 3D ships.
Railroad Corporation, AI War II, John Wick Hex, Stellaris, Kerbal Space Program, Tabletop Simulator, Forged Battalion, EU4, CK2, HoI4, Endless Space 2, Battlefleet Gothic Armada 2, RimWorld, Phoenix Point, Elite Dangerous, Portal Knights, Superhot: Mind Control Delete, et al.
It's been a very solid year for strategy games, one of the better in recent years. The indie games' scene was really jumping and some long-term heavy hitters turned up excellent expansions and additions. Games like John Wick Hex showed even smaller studios can do good licensed games. Factorio showed extended development with early access could turn out games that promise ongoing improvement. Paradox in general maintained awesome continuing support and enhancement of some of the best titles, bar none. If 2020 can keep up that kind of pace, things are looking good.
It's been a busy year for me due to the ongoing development of games like Stellaris and Total Warhammer II, but I found time to experience some great new games, both professionally and personally. Total War: Three Kingdoms is an interesting yet repetitive game that has the only true example of immersive and reasonable diplomacy I have ever seen in a strategy title -- it treats characters like shifting opinionated people turn to turn instead of the machine-like logically inconsistent mess that other games like Civ or Paradox' titles employ, and the result is a deeply satisfying diplomatic experience that makes the campaign that much more fluid and exciting from start to finish. On the indie side, we got Crying Suns, which marries fantastic production values and UI to a very interesting take on the roguelite formula. You explore sectors, engage in battles, and take your ship through the universe via beautifully rendered scenarios and menus (as well as well-written dialogue), resulting in a sci-fi experience that surpasses many bigger budgeted games.
I've also completed yet another XCOM 2: War of the Chosen campaign, in anticipation of Firaxis' hopeful XCOM 3 announcement next July (c'mon, Jake Solomon!) Like XCOM: Enemy Unknown/Within before it, XCOM 2 remains one of my favourite strategy franchises, bringing both amazing tactical opportunities and a surprising amount of soul to the table for a uniquely enjoyable, and human game. Here's hoping XCOM 3 comes soon with a return to its military organisation roots of seven years ago, and it keeps building up on what made the franchise great (while giving the geoscape a lot of well-deserved love).
Editor Joe will be reflecting on his own thoughts for the year on Monday. In the meantime, what have been your strategy gaming highlights of 2019?