Top 5 Strategy Games Every PC Gamer Should Play
3. Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares
Sporting a similarly sci-fi setting, Master of Orion 2 (colloquially, MOO2) is often held up as a prototypical example of the “4X” genre of games. Coined in a review of the original Master of Orion, the term’s four exes refer to “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate.” The gameplay does indeed consist of these elements, letting players loose in vast galaxies full of solar systems ripe for colonization. There’s really something special about sending a scout ship to a new planet and discovering a mineral-rich, earth-like paradise orbiting lazily. Competition is fierce for such gems, however, and the game’s 13 pre-defined races will all vie for territory and supremacy. Endowed with inherent advantages and disadvantages, these diverse species also evince distinct AI personalities. Woe to the leader who finds himself sharing a border with the aggressive, implacable Silicoid.
Players can also chose to customize their own races, though they are required to combine advantages with disadvantages to preserve balance. Even more crucial, however, is the ability to design individual units, to be deployed on the game’s tactical combat screen. As the culmination of research strategy and the application of design tactics, these customized spacecraft provide endless entertainment; the player is free to experiment with any number of different configurations. When your battle fleet cuts through an opposing force like so many blades of grass, you can take extra satisfaction, knowing it was your decisions that led to such overweening supremacy.
2. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Alpha Centauri has a similar unit customization system, although it has a smaller impact on the overall experience of the game. More integral is the title’s other similarity to MOO2: the strong, diverse personalities of the playable factions, and the complex relationships that form between them. Attempting to build on the success of Civilization II, game design gods Brian Reynolds and Sid Meier combed science fiction literature to invent a plausible next step in human development. Using the Alpha Centauri victory condition from Civilization as their jumping-off point, they created an addictive, unique strategy game that holds up impeccably today.
On their way to their new, extraterrestrial home, the U.N. colonizing mission devolves into chaos after the captain of the colonial spacecraft is assassinated. In the wake of this catastrophe, the colonists align into seven factions, derived from dominant themes in human thought and philosophy. Capitalism, Communism, Religion, Science, Militarism, Pacifism, and Environmentalism are all represented, and each A.I. faction behaves in a way that is consistent with its assigned theme, without denigrating any particular choice.
Players also have to contend with the alien life forms they encounter on the planet’s surface, which impede colonization and rise enraged to cause bigger problems if the environment is terraformed too aggressively. Only by effectively managing the alien flora and fauna, along with six competitive, AI-controlled human opponents, can the player expect to win.
1. Sid Meier’s Colonization
This list concludes with another Sid Meier/Brian Reynolds collaboration. Sure, Firaxis released a Colonization expansion based on the Civilization IV engine, but for the best experience, I recommend returning to the 1994 original. With a setting and concept more focused than Civilization, Colonization allowed Meier and Reynolds to focus on specific aspects of government: trade, infrastructure, and manufacturing.
The game is an amazing object lesson in (and eventual subversion of) the Mercantilist school of economic thought, which pervaded the Early Modern period. in Colonization, Colonies begin by harvesting cash crops to export to the mother country, before eventually developing the capacity to manufacture finished trade goods and eventually produce industrial commodities like weapons and tools. “Founding Fathers” (accrued by generating metaphorical “liberty bells”) act as the game’s substitute for technology, and provide more history lessons. As a 12-year-old, I knew that Jakob Fugger was a German banker in the 16th century, even though that knowledge would not prove useful to me for almost a decade.
To be fair, Colonization doesn’t get all the history right. It glosses entirely over slavery, and its endgame, which requires players to break away from the mother country in a war of separation, feels a little American-centric. When it comes to the gameplay, however, there are few missteps. Selecting their nation of choice, players will engage in a heady mix of exploration, settlement, and colony optimization, fending off Native Americans and European rivals as they prepare for a cataclysmic military showdown. Winning independence is a thrill, but when you’ve got galleons laden with pricey exported goods leaving every turn or so, that’s when the game really shines. Though it can be difficult to get a copy to work these days, it’s well worth the effort.
Got a favorite PC strategy title that we didn’t include? Love one of the above-mentioned games? Let us know in the comments!