While fans of most genres of game expect the biggest and best games to come out during the autumn for the pre-Christmas rush, one group has already had an utterly fantastic year. That’s strategy gamers, who have been showered with quality, even classic games, in the first half of this year. The genre may not get quite as much press as it used to, but its variety and scope remain impressive.
I wasn’t certain if it was just my impression that this year had been particularly excellent, or if it was something more than that. I asked a few strategy game experts how they were feeling about the year so far. Several different games were mentioned positively, with a few overlapping. Rob Zacny, freelance writer and host of the “Three Move Ahead” podcast even stated: “So I have to say this is maybe the best year for strategy I've yet seen.” There’s been something for everyone.
The game that got the most love was Crusader Kings II, Paradox’s medieval grand strategy title. Set between the Norman conquest of England and the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire (1066-1453), Crusade Kings II initially seems to merely be another game in the Europa Universalis series. Yet its focus on dynastic politics, interpersonal relationships, and diplomacy keeps it dynamic and fascinating when most strategy games get boring. I thought it was mesmerizingly good when it was released, but it’s even better now: patches, mods, and the “Sword Of Islam” expansion have made it even better.
Both Zacny and 3MA co-panelist Troy Goodfellow cited CKII as one of the most exciting games of the year as well. Zacny called it “probably the best thing Paradox has ever done” while Goodfellow described it as “...a soap opera, with the usual strategy game element of power being reflected in how much land you hold. But it's also the kind of game that encourages you to roll with the punches, because the next ruler or the one after that could be the one to heal the wounds of your troubled kingdom.” (He also added, in the interests of full disclosure, that he’s done PR for Paradox before—but I haven’t and my experience aligns with his perfectly.)
Paradox’s strategy games are somewhat niche, which makes Crusader Kings II a difficult sell to some. However, two of the three strategy series with mass, crossover appeal have already been represented so far this year—Civilization and Total War each had well-received expansions. And the third of those series, Starcraft, has a very good chance of a release later on, with Heart Of The Swarm.
Last year’s Shogun II: Total War may have been the best installment in that long-running series since Rome in 2004, and its standalone expansion, Fall Of The Samurai, has been equally well-received. Set at the end of the samurai era, before the Meiji Restoration in 1870, it combines the conventional Total War model of real-time tactical battles with turn-based grand strategy with a traditionally unexamined setting allowing for both the traditional samurai of Shogun II and the musket/rifle tactics of Empire and Napoleon. "They've finally mastered industrial age, gunpowder warfare,” said Zacny.
Civilization V: Gods & Kings adds new depth and options to the original Civilization V, but it might not even be the best component of CiV to be released this year. Alongside the expansion came a patch that improved the game’s computer opponents as well as optimizing the code so it ran faster in the late game. Beyond that, it also added Steam support for mods, making them even easier to install, rate, and use. Yet as good as those improvements are, statements from Firaxis that they’re planning on releasing the .DLL files for modding could be the best news when it happens—that will exponentially increase the modification capability of the game, potentially to Civilization IV-like levels.
Several design concepts from Civilization V appear in one of the biggest surprises of the year, Warlock: Master Of The Arcane. It’s CiV redesigned as a fantasy wargame (but with a less intensive graphical engine, making it much more playable on older PCs.) There are dozens of surprising and creative little elements of Warlock that cohere into an excellent whole, making it well worth a look beyond its generic title and setting. Goodfellow also cited Conquest Of Elysium III as one of his favorites, a fantasy strategy game that “plays a lot like a roguelike,” and one I hadn’t even heard of.
Both Zacny and Goodfellow also raved about Wargame: European Escalation, a real-time strategy game from the makers of R.U.S.E.. Set during hypothetical conflicts of the Cold War, it doesn’t include economics or base-building—just combat and territorial control. Zacny: “Can you control the map and inflict greater losses on your enemy than you suffer? Then you win. As simple as that, and as unforgiving. It is a gorgeous game, and the destruction you unleash is breathtaking.”
He also had very kind words for the new Sins Of A Solar Empire game, Rebellion: “a game that's a significant upgrade from its predecessors and probably the best space-4X around right now.” That real-time game has some turn-based competition, though, with the freshly released and well-received Endless Space.
With these and other great strategy games already out, 2012 has been fine for those of us who just want to click one more turn or love our build queues. And with Starcraft, X-COM, and Civilization V modding potentially on the docket for the remainder of the year, it could get even better.