Weekend Hot Topic, part 2: What’s your favourite strategy game?

GameCentral readers discuss the best strategy games ever made, from XCOM to Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II.

The subject for this weekend’s Inbox was suggested by reader Tolly and was inspired by the unusual number of new strategy games that have been released on console and PC this summer.

The most common suggestions included classics such as Civilization, XCOM, and Into The Breach, but while Advance Wars was also mentioned a lot, it was more in the context of people never having played it (since there hasn’t been a new one for years) than anything else.


Appeal to emotions

I wouldn’t necessarily claim it was the best anymore but definitely my favourite is Final Fantasy Tactics, because it was the first strategy role-player I played and got me into the genre. After enjoying Final Fantasy VII I was expecting something similar but this was something completely different.

I had to go to a lot of trouble to get the game because it wasn’t released in Europe and at first I was pretty bitterly disappointed. But naturally I wanted to get my money’s worth so I forced my self to stick with it and ended up loving it.

I don’t think strategy games will ever be popular with the mainstream just because they’re the opposite of sitting down and vegging out in front of the screen, which is what a lot of people want to do with games – and that’s absolutely fine. But when you want the opposite I find you can’t do better than a strategy for tension and emotional involvement.

On that level I’d also high recommend XCOM, Into The Breach, and The Banner Saga. All great games that will have you feeling more for minor grunts than I ever have for any main character with hours of cut scenes behind them.


War games

Great question this as I never feel strategy games get their full due, with people dismissing them as slow and boring which they usually aren’t. I imagine a lot of people are going to go for GC favourite XCOM, which is definitely good, but my personal favourite is Warhammer 40,000: Dawn Of War II.

All of Relic Entertainment’s stuff tends to be very good, and I’m a great fan of their early work on Homeworld and Company Of Heroes. But my favourite is the Dawn Of War games, with the best one being number two. I actually knew virtually nothing about Warhammer 40,000 when I played the first one but the crazy, over-the-top universe feels like it was always made for video games. Which I guess is why there’s always so many of them.

To me Dawn Of War always felt like a super evolved version of Command & Conquer. It has the same sort of fast action, point ‘n’ click combat but there’s more depth to it and more individuality to the units that raises it above that basic level. I don’t think the third one was as big a hit as they expected though, despite my liking it, but I hope they return to the series after the finish with Age Of Empires IV.


Sports tactics

Strategy games are one genre that I’ve not really dedicated too much time to exploring, probably because the ones that you do get into swallow so much of it. I’m sure it’ll be mentioned a lot in this Hot Topic, but Civilization is the first thing that came to mind. I only got into it at number IV and have enjoyed V a lot. I’ve not taken the plunge with VI yet as I prefer to wait for all the expansions to be released. The fact that it’s on Switch also makes me wonder whether I should purchase it on that platform – if the expansions make their way onto it.

The only other game I could think of was Football Manager. Is it a strategy game? In a way. I cringe thinking about the ridiculous amount of time I spent on the various iterations, especially when I should have been studying/revising for important exams. I now only own it on mobile, and it’s quite fun to dip into when it’s a slow day at the office.

Oh, I also bought Into The Breach on GC’s and others’ recommendations, but have to admit that I’m absolutely awful at it and can’t get past the first levels.

GC: Football Manager is definitely a strategy game, and the DLC is indeed coming to Civilization VI on Switch.


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Forever breached

My favourite strategy game is Into The Breach. But more than just my favourite strategy game I think it might be my favourite game of any kind. You’d never think that by looking at it, it is maybe one of the most unimpressive game ever visually (except maybe the same team’s FTL) but the depth and cleverness of the gameplay is unlike anything I’ve ever played before.

Everyone always takes place on a tiny little grid, smaller than a chess board, on which your team of three mechs land and do battle with what are essentially kaiju. The chess comparisons are even more obvious in terms of their moves as each can do only very specific things in terms of movement and weapons and every single move they take has to be considered with the upmost care.

You can go from easy victory to complete defeat with just one mistake. And since this a rougelike that means restarting everything from scratch, except the extra mechs you unlike. It’s amazingly replayable though and while the punishment for failure is harsh it’s never anything other than your own fault. I love I can imagine myself playing it forever.


Infinite progression

As I haven’t played the likely winner of this topic, i.e. Advance Wars (I know! The shame!) then it has to be the very first Disgaea, the game series that boasts you can level up to 9,999! Yay!

Of course, you could argue that the best winning strategy is to have bigger numbers than the enemy. That said, even if you are insanely overpowered, the geo-panels that change the conditions of the terrain you step on could still do you in. Or just make the map impossible to win.

One of the early maps for good power-levelling is one in frozen Jotunheim, A Bitter Cold, I think. There is an invincibility effect active everywhere except on one panel. You’re encouraged to throw all the monsters into one another (because that’s a thing you can, obviously) to make one super powerful enemy and place it on the vulnerable square. Now you can happily chip away at it while you take no damage from its presumably superior firepower. And get a massive XP boost at the end.

Though, I think I’ve managed to bungle it at least twice so that every space on the map was invincible meaning that while I couldn’t be killed, I couldn’t win either. Reset! Yes, you will have to save before taking on every map.

Then there are the geo-panels that will deal ally damage regardless of how powerful or well equipped you are. 20% of a million hit points is still going to sting. A lot. Then there are the clone panels. Oh, do you have a level 1,500 Laharl with the best weapons and armour your money can buy? Well, here’s another one! And he’s coming after you and your whole team!

Your options are just so immense, from passing bills in the Dark Assembly to increase your movement or counter attacks to enhancing items in their own randomised world – once you go down the rabbit hole, there’s no coming back.

And, if the grind becomes too much, you can always just capture a high-level character. If you whittle down a monster’s health and magic as much as you can without killing them, you can then throw them onto your base panel where you choose which characters you want to attack the area. They will then ‘wreak havoc’ inside, using their remaining pool of health and magic to attack all the characters you have in reserve. If successful, you will capture a real nuclear bomb for you to exploit on the harder, optional maps. If you fail, the base panel is destroyed and it goes back to either kill or be killed.

Oh, and I haven’t even talked about all the character types you can create yourself! The game is practically infinite…


Second nature

I imagine there’ll be lots of mentions of XCOM and its sequel for this Hot Topic and I would 100% agree with all of them. It’s a fantastic game that I would never have even known about if it weren’t for GC and the Inbox singing its praises.

I hadn’t played anything like it before but for those that are put off by that the tutorials are very clear and the controls surprisingly simple. By the time it gets complicated you’re already totally sold on the game and everything seems like second nature.

I guess games like that will never be that big, not even on PC, but in terms of entertainment and value for money they absolutely deserve to be.


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Saturnian strategy

My favourite strategy game is Shining Force III, Scenario 1 to 3 on the Saturn. I guess it’s cheating a bit as it’s three games rather than one, but the three very well written scenarios (that are full games in their own right) form a complete story, with your saved game used between them. Each game has its own characters, and the games are fully (or partially for scenario 3) parallel to each other chronologically, so the heroes from the different games sometimes meet, and you can occasionally see the same event occur twice but from the perspective of a different protagonist, which was very cool.

Quite humorous too, as the Shining Force III games had a silent protagonist but when protagonists meet in the shared events, you will suddenly find the protagonists of the other games very chatty. The best element of this system is that decisions you make in one scenario affect the others. For instance, a non-player character you have the ability to save early in Scenario 1 becomes a playable character later in Scenario 2 if you save him.

The actual battles are extremely fun. Shining Force III has features that are fairly commonplace now (though far rarer back then), like characters helping an adjacent one on the grid in battle in some way giving a chance of resulting in a better friendship, kind of like the new Fire Emblem game. Though in Shining Force III this is purely battlefield related and gives them benefits such as resistances or stat gains when next to each other from then on.

Different terrains give movement penalties/defence bonuses. Each weapon type has its own set of special attacks that randomly hit (like criticals) that must be learnt, with some exclusive to certain special weapons. There are terrain advantages too. Some of the battle scenarios themselves are very fun, like the ‘protect the refugees’ stage in Scenario 1, which relies on getting to a junction point and perfect timing.

I like that one particularly because it take you out of the strategy role-playing ‘turtle’ comfort zone (where you very slowly push your characters across the battlefield together), and forces you to move forward aggressively to stop the refugees from dying. It took me quite a few goes to get this done back in the day. The character, Medion, in the cut scenes is the protagonist of Scenario 2 (this is one of the shared events I mentioned earlier, he battles the character General Varlent as part of this in Scenario 2).

And then there are the tombs. I love these, they’re almost like a mini-game with even more strategy. Some maps have tombs with items in them and if you have previously gotten a map to that tomb (generally from searching around during the town sections) you have a decision to make as to whether to split some characters off to get the treasure, which makes the main fight more satisfying as you have to make an assessment as to who you can spare for however long the tomb takes to clear without losing the level.

And you also have to work out whether those characters can even catch the thieves to make them spit the items out (your characters cannot unlock the treasure chests so you must wait for the thieves to get them first, and the thieves have a wider movement range then many characters). Plus, you don’t want to kill the thieves before they drop every item (thieves will only drop one item they hold per attack, even if a killing blow is launched).

There are other games that do some of these things better (and a special shout-out to Vandal Hearts I here, which has the best battle scenarios in any strategy role-player ever), but for me, none hit high notes so consistently in every aspect of the game like Shining Force III does.

Unfortunately, Scenarios 2 and 3 were never officially localised, but thankfully fans have translated them and created patches for the Japanese versions to add English text so they can at least be enjoyed via emulation.

There’s also a patch for US/UK Scenario 1 (which had its ending changed as Sega knew Scenario 2 and 3 would never come out in the West) that restores the original cliffhanger ending).

An interesting side note is that this is the game that caused the rift between Camelot and Sega, as Sega started focusing on the Dreamcast while Scenario 3 was still in development, causing major issues for Camelot that eventually led to them working with Nintendo on the Mario Tennis/Golf games and Golden Sun.
Lord Darkstorm


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