THE HISTORY of the STRATEGY GAME
Some of strategy gaming’s most influential titles were developed for consoles, but by 2000 the genre had been synonymous with PC for a decade. The launch of the PlayStation 2 saw more and more people drift away from their PCs, prompting Microsoft to make the Xbox, which appeared the following year. It might have looked like a PC, but when it came to traditional strategy games, it was just as hostile an environment as any other console. The audience was shrinking, publishers were becoming increasingly risk-averse, and players were coalescing around stalwart franchises.
Out of this came oddities, hybrids, spin-offs, and more experiments with 3D maps and cameras, like Massive Entertainment’s real-time tactics game, Ground Control. Similar to Relic’s Homeworld, it gave you free rein of the camera, letting you zoom out for an overview of the battle— though not quite as far, given the smaller scale—and then all the way up to your beefy sci-fi units, watching them from ground level as they bombarded enemy fortifications or stormed bases. It looked great, and it boasted plenty of other noteworthy features, like 3D terrain that could modify accuracy, foliage that could hide troops, and customizable units.
At the same time, Shiny Entertainment introduced the world to Sacrifice. In another reality, Sacrifice is probably hailed as an important and influential RTS, but for some reason we’re stuck in the one where it’s more of a brilliant, overlooked curio. With a library that included Earthworm Jim and MDK, Shiny’s games were typically strange and inventive, but the studio had never worked on anything close to a strategy game. That might have been an advantage, as Sacrifice ripped apart RTS conventions.
Sacrifice looked nothing like an RTS, borrowing its perspective from third-person action games and keeping the screen devoid of clutter.
Players directly controlled just one character, a wizard, who could cast apocalyptic spells and summon all sorts of colorful, magical units. The summoned creatures followed the wizard around, and could be given orders or put into formations. Instead of fussing with resources, buildings, and large armies, all of your concerns were right there in front of you: The wizard and their crew of weird minions. And it looked incredible for the time. It was a surreal, broken dreamscape that looked like it leaked out of the brain of Salvador Dalí or Hieronymus Bosch. The unit design was just as strange, featuring a large menagerie of outlandish beasties that could be thrown into battle.
Essentially, you were a Dungeon Master, sending heroes out on adventures
These new strategy games were posing interesting questions about what ingredients the genre really needed to succeed, and what could be thrown away or reconsidered. Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom Sim, for instance, asked if we really needed direct control at all. Instead of commanding units, players had to tempt heroes to set up shop in their town by providing the appropriate facilities, and then encourage them to go and solve nearby problems by creating quests and rewards. Essentially, you were a Dungeon Master, sending heroes out on adventures to explore a new part of the world or murder some pesky monsters.
Established franchises were getting smaller, but still notable, shake-ups. Age of Mythology applied
the Age of Empires formula to ancient myths and legends, throwing monsters, magic, gods, and heroes into the mix. Command & Conquer: Generals, the first post-Westwood game in the series, switched the setting to another near-future crisis, ditched harvesters, and went 3D. Civilization had also returned home to its creator after some drama, litigation, and Activision’s Civilization: Call to Power. Civilization III would prove to be a divisive instalment, but it also introduced the culture system, changing the ways civilizations could expand and opening up new paths to victory that didn’t involve conquest.
In 2002, Blizzard returned to Azeroth with a story of unlikely ententes, demonic armies, and superpowered heroes. Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos was a fantasy epic not just driven by armies and resource-gathering, but by sympathetic, multifaceted characters whose stories continue to develop today. The plot actually started out as an adventure game, Warcraft Adventures: Lord of the Clans. With it, Blizzard wanted to chart the life of Thrall, the eventual leader of one of Warcraft’s factions, the Horde. It was ultimately shelved, but the story of Thrall got a second life in Reign of Chaos.
The importance of these heroes went beyond the narrative. When Warcraft III was first announced in 1999, it was a strategy RPG, reminiscent of King’s Bounty or Heroes of Might and Magic. A lot of the RPG elements ended up on the cutting room floor, but the role of heroes persevered. Heroes were powerful units who grew as they gained experience, developing handy new abilities. They could equip magical gear, too, and even do a spot of shopping to give them an edge. Sure, they were surrounded by small armies and fighting in a worldshaking war, but these were adventuring RPG heroes.
It was still undoubtedly an RTS, but amid all the
base-building and troop management were nods to RPG design, such as quests and NPC enemies that were hostile to every faction. Because they’d persisted through all the other changes, they weren’t novelties; they were built into the game’s foundations. Thanks to these innovations, as well as Blizzard’s brilliant balancing and clever mission design, Warcraft III and its expansion, the Frozen Throne, became seminal strategy games.
Frozen Throne marked the end of Warcraft, at least as a strategy franchise. The critical and commercial success of Warcraft III, instead of paving way for yet more RTS games, set the scene for its MMO successor, World of Warcraft. Its strategy legacy is just as important, however, with Warcraft III at least being partly responsible for the birth of multiplayer online battle arenas, or MOBAs.
Defense of the Ancients was a Warcraft III mod that gave players direct control of their hero, and nothing else. Armies and bases were still integral, but there was no construction, nor could these armies be commanded; instead they automatically marched down lanes, attacking enemy towers or any other units they came across, until they reached the opposing base. Defense of the Ancients was based on a StarCraft custom map, Aeon of Strife, but used Warcraft III’s RPG hero systems to create the blueprint for the vast majority of MOBAs that would follow in its wake.
Though it would take several years for the popularity of Defense of the Ancients to inspire commercial imitators and spiritual successors, plenty of variants were developed by other Warcraft III modders. Kyle ‘Eul’ Sommer developed the original mod, but when Sommer ceased updating his version, new mods filled the vacuum. DotA: Allstars attempted to capture the best of this burgeoning genre of mods, throwing an assortment of heroes from across multiple variants into one map. Allstars grew, and it eventually passed into the hands of eventual League of Legends designer, Steve ‘Guinsoo’ Feak.
Feak developed a lot of new features, heroes and items, but perhaps the most important thing to come out of Allstars was its competitive community. Tournaments had started kicking off, the forum was a constant hive of activity, and the mod was always being tweaked and balanced by a growing team and a community quick to give feedback. Allstars’ popularity was unprecedented, and it would sit at the top of the pile until 2009, when League of Legends
Frozen Throne marked the end of Warcraft, at least as a strategy franchise
launched. Valve’s standalone sequel, designed by another DotA modder, generally known just as Ice Frog, followed soon after.
Total War marched onto the strategy battlefield in 2000, mixing grand strategy and gargantuan real-time tactical battles with authentic historical settings. Shogun: Total War got the ball rolling, though it was almost a very different game from the one that gave birth to the series. Creative Assembly had been developing EA Sports titles when it got an opportunity to work on a new title for the publisher; the catch was that it had to be an easy win. At the end of the ’90s, real-time strategy couldn’t have seemed like a surer thing, thus the studio started work on its very first RTS.
Shogun quickly grew beyond expectations. With its 3D battlefields, thousands of warriors, and an unshackled camera, it seemed far-removed from a Command & Conquer knock-off. Once the team had settled on the Sengoku era and an approach to combat that was both historical and tactical, a military historian was brought in to make sure everything felt right. Creative Assembly’s rule of authenticity over accuracy was established early on, so Shogun wasn’t beholden to history, but it was convincing enough.
The campaign layer was a later addition. The real-time scraps needed something to glue them together, but instead of building a linear campaign that led players from one battle to the next, Creative Assembly crafted a map of Japan full of provinces, fortresses, and warring factions. All the big strategic decisions took place on this turn-based map, from diplomacy to troop movement. With those two layers combined, Total War had its formula.
Medieval: Total War followed in 2002, expanding the army size to a whopping 10,000 troops and setting the wars amid a massive map of Europe and the Middle East. Medieval also introduced sieges, though with mixed success. Of the first trio of Total War games, it’s the third and final entry that set hearts aflutter. Rome: Total War is where the series started to get dense, with its civil wars and Senate missions and family trees. It was no longer a Risk- inspired board that linked fights together, but a complicated 3D map that was supported by enhanced trade and management features. Though the tactical brawling remained the star, it was the first campaign that seemed like it could exist as a standalone game.
There was a good reason why the battles were always in the limelight. They looked incredible. The new 3D models made armies seem like real, tangible things, and when they clashed it looked like no other game. It was almost possible to feel the impact of these charges, especially when they involved thundering war elephants and many unfortunate soldiers being flung into the air. Total War’s battles have become more and more striking, but Rome still looks incredibly impressive.
Though all these hybrids were appearing, Relic proved there was still room for a more single-minded RTS. Following a second space outing with Homeworld 2, the studio set about bringing the 41st millennium to life. Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War flung Space Marines, Eldar, Orks, and Chaos at one another in the battlefields of Tartarus. The name should have been a giveaway.
At the end of the ’90s, realtime strategy couldn’t have seemed like a surer thing
Relic maintained a lot of the concepts from Games Workshop’s enduring tabletop game, bending them around a fast-paced RTS. Your typical RTS resources, for instance, didn’t feature in Warhammer 40,000; sending out gathering units or fiddling with your economy wasn’t really in keeping with the hyper-aggressive setting. Dawn of War used resources more to push players into conflict. Requisition points were required to plonk down buildings and recruit squads, but instead of being gathered, these were generated by capturing and holding strategic points.
The small number of strategic points ensured there was an endless supply of lively battles. Instead of hunkering down and protecting your base, you had to strike out, ordering your squads to travel all over the map, not just to find strategic locations, but to reinforce them, protecting them from enemy assaults. A morale and cover system made its way over from the tabletop game, as well. It was a tactical layer that necessitated a bit more thinking and a little less screaming, “Blood for the Blood God!”
With Company of Heroes, Relic swapped the grim battlefields of Tartarus for Normandy. The things that had set Dawn of War apart, Relic ran with. And it ran far. Morale and cover were refined to the point where playing an RTS without these systems suddenly seemed crazy. Every squad was this squishy, vulnerable group of soldiers which could be wiped out at a moment’s notice, or broken and forced to flee for their lives. But with the right commander, they could do wonderful things.
A tank might be able to make short work of some infantry, but hide footsoldiers behind a wall, wait for that tank to roll by, and you’d get a shot at its weak points. Or the tank could just smash the wall and kill all your lads. The Havok physics engine fuelled Company of Heroes’ destructible maps, so units couldn’t get too comfy. Luckily, cover was always clearly marked, not just showing you where your units could seek protection, but exactly how protected they would be. There was also an unusual delineation between troops and weapons. A weak squad of riflemen, for instance, could capture an anti-tank gun, letting them lock down a road all on their own. Infantry could pick up abandoned weapons and commandeer them from enemies, making them extremely versatile.
Company of Heroes often seemed more like a squad-level wargame than an RTS, evoking the likes of Close Combat rather than Command & Conquer. There were even supply lines, though they were heavily abstracted. Like Dawn of War, players fought over capture points, but each point was connected to the rest, simulating a supply line. Taking out just one part in the chain could destroy
another player’s economy and force another confrontation. It wasn’t like taking out an enemy harvester—the only way they could fix it was by taking back that location, even if it seemed hopeless. There was real drama behind the battles.
Company of Heroes heavily drew from Band of Brothers, 2001’s HBO miniseries, and was thick with the show’s atmosphere. The ruined countryside and villages
Company of Heroes often seemed more like a squad-level wargame than an RTS
of Normandy were unlike any other battlefields. Each map was elaborate, dynamic, and, of course, incredibly dangerous, full of places for snipers and mortar teams to hide. It was emotionally resonant, too. The pockmarked roads, the destroyed European towns, the terrified men trying to escape machine gun fire—even when it was explosive and exciting, a melancholy cloud loomed over everything.
It wasn’t enough to slow, let alone stop, the decline of the RTS. There were still notable titles appearing, but more often these were sequels and spiritual successors. A year after Company of Heroes launched, we saw Total Annihilation resurrected in the form of Supreme Commander, designed by original creator Chris Taylor, while Massive Entertainment followed up Ground Control 2 with the superb World in Conflict. RTS games were still alive, but only just. Today, the most popular RTS is still Star Craft II, which launched in 2010. Its excellent expansions and huge multiplayer support are responsible for its longevity, and it helps that it features some of Blizzard’s best mission design, but it’s still very familiar.
Elsewhere in the strategy genre, people could satisfy some of their turn-based cravings with Total War, but empire-building wasn’t quite what it used to be. Wargames had become a niche satisfied by a few specialist publishers. In the 4X realm the long-awaited sequel to Master of Orion II launched to disappointed grumbling in 2003, and aside from a few exceptions like Galactic Civilization, new titles became increasingly hard to find.
There were bright spots amid the gloom. In 2005, Civilization IV saw designer Soren Johnson re-evaluate everything, right down to the series’ foundations. Along with being the first 3D Civilization game, it was also the first to be built from the ground up as a multiplayer game. It introduced upgradable units, a religion system, and more accessible modding, giving it a second life as a platform for not just new scenarios, but entirely new games. Civilization IV marked the beginning of a new
generation of Civilization games, with its successors featuring even bolder redesigns.
Carving out an empire didn’t have to take place turn-by-turn, of course. Sins of a Solar Empire made a great case for 4X games to dip their toes into real-time action, mashing up empire management with gorgeous RTS space battles. You could quickly dash between commanding a fleet of ships, laying siege to an outpost, and governing worlds, seamlessly. And where other 4X games could be slow-burning, Sins of a Solar Empire had the pace and aggression of an RTS. Alliances could be forged, but conquest was always on everyone’s minds.
Throughout the ’00s, Paradox Development Studio had been creating some of the most complex and dense grand strategy games around. All of them played out in real time, but with speed controls and liberal use of the pause button. Years could fly by in-game, but equally you could spend hours not moving time forward at all, obsessing over trade deals and assassination plots with your nose buried deep in the menus. The Europa Universalis series, set in the late Middle Ages, is the flagship of the bunch, giving players control over the fate of a historical nation across centuries. There’s the economy to juggle, along with wars, colonial ambitions, religious crises, civil wars, and political relationships with countless other nations all across the world.
The success of the first Europa Universalis spurred Paradox on to create more grand strategy romps, including Hearts of Iron, set during World War 2, and Victoria, which honed in on the industrial revolution and the dramatic political and social changes that the era brought with it. All of them were liberating simulations that let players chart their own course through history, creating bizarre alternate realities that only made sense if you’d read the after action report. They were also incredibly rough around the edges, buggy and a nightmare for newcomers to get their teeth into.
Sporting a new engine and an extra layer of polish, Crusader Kings II was a turning point for Paradox. Though its predecessor had been tepidly received in 2004, Crusader Kings II found a much larger audience, who then spread bizarre stories and anecdotes of the histories of their characters and dynasties. Instead of running a nation, players controlled the leader of a medieval family; you might be a powerful empress or a count with no vassals and no ducats. Through political marriages, wars, and Choose Your Own Adventure-style events, you could end up losing everything, including your head. Or you could kill your spouse, marry your horse, leave everything to your children, and flee to another continent to start a new, more enlightened kingdom. Crusader Kings II could get weird, especially when you throw in expansions that include Aztec invasions of Europe and Satanic cults.
Paradox’s peculiar grand strategy RPG arrived during a more hopeful time for strategy games. The first decade of the 21st century had not, when all was said and done, been particularly kind to the genre, but things seemed to be slowly changing. More new 4X games were appearing, like the extremely complex Distant Worlds and the Master of Magic-inspired Warlock: Master of the Arcane. After overextending with the massive and ungainly Empire: Total
War, Creative Assembly returned with a focused and refined standalone expansion, which it then followed up with arguably the best game in the historical series, Total War: Shogun 2. Then, in 2012, aliens invaded Earth again.
Developed by Firaxis, XCOM rebooted the ’90s tactical titan, UFO: Enemy Unknown. It had been a whopping 15 years since X-COM: Apocalypse, the last successful X-COM, with the proceeding years only seeing a mixed bag of spin-offs, culminating in 2001’s completely forgettable third-person shooter, X-COM: Enforcer. Though it was designed without series creator Julian Gollop, XCOM nonetheless felt like a return to form. More than just a modern update to the original game, it was a slick reimagining. The large, loose teams were switched out for specialized squads full of soldiers who could be obsessively customized, while randomly generated maps were replaced with hand-crafted environments. There was streamlining, but there was also plenty of expansion.
XCOM didn’t just appeal to the diehards who had been keeping the flame alive for over a decade, or even just the general strategy crowd; its accessibility and flashy presentation opened the doors wider, but not at the expense of the challenge. XCOM proved to be a demanding game at times, forcing players to make hard choices and sacrifices, but it usually stopped short of
XCOM rebooted the ’90s tactical titan, UFO: Enemy Unknown
being overwhelming—unless you were playing in Ironman mode. That forced commanders to live with their mistakes and decisions, including the loss of a soldier or even entire squads, by only giving you a single save file that got overwritten with every turn.
A lack of publisher confidence had been holding strategy games back for years, but here was XCOM, a niche tactics game, getting lots of attention and launching on everything from PC to mobile. XCOM was published by 2K Games, which had acquired Firaxis in 2005, but publishers were becoming increasingly optional thanks to crowdsourcing, early access platforms, and more accessible game development tools. Suddenly it was impossible to keep track of all the new games popping into existence.
Invisible Inc., Klei Entertainment’s espionage-themed tactics game, appeared on Steam Early Access in 2014. It was endlessly inventive; simultaneously an exceptional stealth game and a landmark tactics affair. There was something liberating about its pure-stealth focus. There were no drawn-out gunfights after you’d been spotted. You either used one of your agent’s tricks to get out of the way, or you were done for. Every mission was a randomly generated puzzle that could blow up in unpredictable ways, leading to agents needing rescued or even a playthrough that ended in failure. But it was also a game that begged to be played over and over again.
It wasn’t just independent developers taking advantage of new models like early access. Endless Legend launched on the platform in the same year as Invisible Inc., and quickly set about rewriting the 4X genre. Amplitude’s previous game, Endless Space, had been a competent, Master of Orion- style 4X with an unusual card-based combat system, but it was as sterile as the cold vacuum of space. That wasn’t a problem Endless Legend had. No 4X
game since Alpha Centauri had featured such a fascinating, rich set of factions, and here their differences went far beyond ideology or well-written flavor text. Take the Necrophage — they’re an endlessly hungry species of plague-spreading insects, which means they will never make friends with anyone. The Cult, meanwhile, is manipulative and influential, but can’t build cities. There are mages, space marines, and even a group of dragons who just want everyone to get along, and each represents a distinct way of playing the game.
Evolutionary dead ends were springing back to life, and old franchises were making comebacks. It was strange to think that strategy had been looking sickly only a handful of years before. Darkest Dungeon, Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, Eugen’s Wargame series, Offworld Trading Company, Ashes of the Singularity, Northgard, Battle Tech, Into The Breach— the list is vast, and features every kind of strategy game imaginable. And while a lot of series have fallen by the wayside, plenty have survived. Civilization is probably immortal by this point, Star Craft continues to be massively popular, and Total War now counts the Warhammer fantasy universe among its battlefields. Even tabletop games, where our trip through the history of strategy began, have seen a resurgence. Strategy games are as vital and creative as they’ve ever been.
while a lot of series have fallen by the wayside , plenty have survived
BELOW: Sacrifice’s creature designs were fever dreams brought to life.
RIGHT: There’s nothing cowardly about hiding behind a big hill.
ABOVE: Frost Wyrms just want to help everyone cool down. Honestly!
BELOW: Don’t let the teeth fool you— Thrall’s a big softy on the inside.
ABOVE: ‘Lots of War, But Also Other Stuff’ didn’t have the same ring to it.
Every good siege needs a trebuchet. Or two. Any number, to be honest.
ABOVE: The only thing that could be prettier than Homeworld: Homeworld2.
CompanyofHeroes’ fights were full of smoke, fire, and crumbling buildings.
ABOVE: Relic left spaceships and Space Marines for World War 2.
ABOVE: Worldin Conflict lit a fire underneath the Cold War.
LEFT: StarCraftII sold like no other RTS before it, or since.
ABOVE: Map porn doesn’t come better than a Paradox game.
BOTTOM: XCOM: EnemyUnknown reignited the fight against aliens and RNG.
Below : Every InvisibleInc. mission could cost your agents their lives.
ABOVE: That security guard probably isn’t getting a raise this year.
Amplitude’s Endless Legend was a lesson in how to design compelling factions.