Automation has changed the world as we know it, so it makes perfect sense that there’s a game centred around this world-changing evolution of machinery. In Facroio you find yourself stranded on a hostile planet after a not so planned crashlanding. With only the technology you have to hand you begin to gather resources in your new found home. Those resources soon grow, and, armed with your ingenuity as an engineer, you begin to design automated systems to do the heavy lifting for you. Those systems soon become a whole factory of automated machines as you grow your operation on the planet expanding it in scope and complexity.
Eventually, you’ll have a sprawling range of complex automation gather every resource from the planet to help you achieve your final goal: To get home, or so it seems. It’s no easy task to get to that point though, especially with the planet’s hostile indigenous life hellbent on destroying you and your machines. You’ll have to fight back against nature if you ever hope to escape what has become your home.
Factorio’s brilliance lies in its complexity. You can design intricate rows of highly efficient automated machines, up to the point of logic engines that can simulate life itself. Vast, interwoven railway lines that cut through the landscape all perfectly automated to transport resource around your facilities. And, eventually, launch rockets into space to reach your final goal. The freedom you’re offered heading towards that goal is endless though, literally in some senses. Although the game is still somehow in early access it already reaches beyond what most strategy games have achieved and definitely deserves your attention.
FTL starts off like many other space games – you’re on a dangerous mission to outrun a hostile fleet and deliver highly important information to the rebel forces. You’ll have to traverse through space with your enemies in hot pursuit as navigate the randomly generated path before you. In this time you’ll have to micro-manage your ship and crew, issuing orders and making decisions that could, at any moment, spell the end of your escape.
As a rouigue-like death comes swiftly, resetting your progress and giving you the foresight to begin your mission over again with fresh eyes. The random generation of the galaxy you’re escaping through continues to keep things unpredictable, but ultimately each death should imbue you with new and useful knowledge for the next run. The experiences you face on each run can be widely different also dependant on your chosen path. You could be locked in tense negotiations with alien races in one instance and fierce space battles in another.
It’s a tense atmosphere, anything could go wrong at any minute. The perfect run can turn into a nightmare should your shields fail in a crucial battle or an integral crew member get slain by a hostile boarding party. That the beauty of it though, you just never know what might happen. Making it to the end is not easy, it can seem like one hell of a challenge on your first few runs. Subset Games have perfected the roguelike sense and mentality that just one more try might get you that little bit further. Death is the greatest teacher in FTL, learn from it.
Northgard drops us into a beautiful and rich word of Norse mythology. Exploring a newfound land of opportunity with your clan of Vikings you’ll have to brave many dangers if you ever hope to plunder the riches it hides. Of course, being Vikings you love a good battle and this continent has plenty, including some of the more mystical enemies one can encounter. Taking inspiration from classic strategy games such as Age of Empires Northgard plays out as a fine balance between base building and resource management.
The combat is a relatively fast-paced RTS style that most strategy game regulars will be familiar with. It’s not just the locals you need to worry about though as the land itself can also be a formidable enemy. Surviving some of the harsher winters in the game can be as challenging as defeating its more difficult enemies. Although dependant on your style of growth – economic or military – it effects you in different ways.
Where it differs is its ‘fame’ system whereby tales of your victories are told throughout the land growing the reputation of your clan and emboldening them. That’s where the real variety of the game comes in – the clans. Dependant on play style you can build a heaving city that gathers vast resources and has ample defences. Conversely, you can focus on military might and build your clan’s name slaying mythical creatures. Still, the greatest enemy is often the land itself but Vikings are a hardy people, as you’ll find out.
Frostpunk takes the city-builder to new heights as more of a society survival game that asks the player to solve difficult ethical conundrums. With humanity pushed to extinction by climate change you’ll be left to manage the last city on Earth and save the human race from the bitter embrace of the new ice age. To do this, you’ll have to push your people to the brink testing your empathy as a leader. You’ll develop laws as you restructure society and find a way to establish a new way of life in the deadliest of environments.
Nothing will come easy and maintaining your people’s hope will be crucial. Heat will be your greatest resource in managing your fledgeling society, as without it your people could die in a day. keeping the furnace burning might require you make some difficult decisions. Sacrificing the few to save the many is a common theme in Frostpunk and something that doesn’t get any easier as you progress through the game.
Frostpunk questions your morality in a way many strategy games don’t. It tries to hit home the human cost of the choice you make when considering society as a whole. What’s good for the people may not help the individual – in fact, it might condemn them. It asks ‘what would you do to save humanity? What lengths would you go to?’ The answers you find might not always be very comfortable but there’s no right choice in a game of survival, just a variety of wrong ones.
6. Dwarf Fortress
What can you really say about Dwarf Fortress that hasn’t already been said? It’s coming to Steam, that’s one new revelation. Assuming you’ve never heard of it, Dwarf Fortress is often thought of as the deepest and most ‘intricate simulation of a world that has ever been created.’ Its strategic depth is notorious amongst PC gamers and its legacy in the genre is firmly cemented. In brief, the game centres around building a fortress for one or more dwarfs and then simply trying to survive. Sounds simple right? Well, it gets pretty deep should you venture in.
Imagine a whole generated world and not just the geometry as in other games. Every person, every civilisation, creature, culture and history. The depth of this computer generation comes as close as to the real world as you can. Described as a lifetime ‘living’ project which has been updated since 2003 this grand simulation also has no end. Things will never stop being added to it. Its scope is insane as a video game, beyond what most have tried so far.
With threats of starvation, dragons and madness things can get unbelievably tense in the old fortress. Diggin deep underground in search of riches the dwarfs etch ever closer to their inevitable doom. It’s hard to describe in a couple of sentences the huge depth of a game like Dwarf Fortress, it’s a simulation without end. So, if creating and building cultures from scratch is your thing this is definitely for you. It’s a heavy simulation, so not for the casual at heart but should you get into it you’ll lose hours even years of your life.
5. Prison Architect
It’s only fair that we have equal representation from both sides of our criminal justice system. So after our earlier entry of The Escapists, check out Prison Architect to experience life on the flipside, building secure facilities for prisoners and doing your best to keep the buggers locked behind bars where they’re supposed to be.
Prison Architect became something of a phenomenon, selling over two million copies to date across a number of platforms. Its prison building and management systems are disarmingly addictive, always providing something new to work towards and improve. There’s also a solid story mode to tie everything together and take you through various scenarios.
What truly provides Prison Architect with character and memorability is its deep character mechanics. Prisoners have different personalities and attributes that you’ll have to keep an eye out for, a constant source of emergent storytelling as anarchic crims start a riot or opposing gang members clash with deadly results. The content here is near-infinite thanks to mod support, and recently the majority of modes have had multiplayer support added in.
4. Dawn of Man
Dawn of Man is a newcomer to the hefty roster of indie strategy games and became a surprise hit on Steam when it released last month. Coverage by popular YouTubers helped skyrocket it into Steam’s top sellers, outstripping any expectations that devs Madruga had for the game.
But all this attention isn’t unjustified. Dawn of Man is an enjoyable survival romp through over 10,000 years of prehistoric humankind. From a handful of settlers in a couple of huts, you’ll hunt and gather and build and research and hunt and gather some more until you have a large, thriving community of our dear ancestors.
If you’ve played Banished then Dawn of Man will be familiar; however, it’s arguably simpler and less threatening, making for a more laid-back experience. It also benefits from great visuals, truly bringing the Stone Age and beyond to life.
3. Phantom Doctrine
X-COM’s influence isn’t over yet, with Phantom Doctrine being another clear product of its inspiration. But it transplants those familiar mechanics in a fascinating setting of its own, during the height of Cold War tensions. Throughout Phantom Doctrine’s long and absorbing story – something that will take you in excess of 40 hours to complete – you’ll unravel a conspiracy that threatens to bring the world and civilisation to its knees.
Whereas the standard guns-blazing approach to tactics is still viable, Phantom Doctrine’s warfare is often best tackled with its deep stealth systems and equipment and other clandestine options. You can utilise spies to gain the upper hand, as well as choose to conduct reconnaissance before a mission – if you have the time and resources available.
In line with the best in the genre, there’s a lot more to take into account than just mission combat, however. You’ll be in charge of recruiting from the CIA, KGB and even through more nefarious means; researching new technology, or simply stealing it from your enemies; and stocking an arsenal of effective weapon and gear.
A stroke of genius that further adds to the richness of Phantom Doctrine is its procedurally generated characters, map layouts and intelligence, meaning if you wanted to undertake the hefty campaign a second time, you’re guaranteed a fresh experience.
2. Into The Breach
The strategy genre is infamous for its level of complexity, often involving a steep learning curve with layers of systems to get your head around before you can confidently march into battle. Into the Breach flips these conventions on their head, paring back turn-based tactics to leave only the fundamental elements, which shine through ever more brightly as a result.
That said, simplicity does not translate into easiness here. Into the Breach is relentlessly challenging, something you’d expect from the creators of FTL. And just like that marvellous spaceship sim, procedural generation and replayability are the name of the game; expect to fail and retry then fail and retry some more, each time with different scenarios. These all revolve around protecting the population from the invasion of the Vek, tenacious bugs that have been breeding underneath the earth and tunnelling out to wreak havoc.
Countless times, you’ll have excruciating decisions to make between the destruction of civilian buildings or the sacrifice of a beloved unit. Each turn is an uphill struggle to make as much of a dent in the enemy forces as possible while defending important structures. What’s also notable about Into the Breach is its wonderful pixel art and soundtrack, effortlessly drawing you in for yet another go.
As mentioned above, Dwarf Fortress is legendary for its mind-bogglingly intricate base-building simulation, hidden by deceptively primitive visuals. RimWorld takes heaps of inspiration from this classic to develop its own endlessly deep world, but this time with a science fiction spin that has a flavour of Firefly. The results are stunning.
RimWorld is very much a strategy game and civilisation sim, but it primarily describes itself as a “story generator.” Not the sort of story that’s premeditated or delivered to you through glossy pre-rendered cutscenes, but rather a story that’s generated by an AI with contempt for your existence, throwing unimaginable – and sometimes bizarre – scenarios your way. A story that’s never the same twice, that depends upon the complex relationships of your colony settlers and the planet they inhabit. A story that’s unforgettable, that you’ll want to share with anyone who’ll listen to your mad ramblings.
The systems that you’ll uncover throughout RimWorld are astonishingly deep. Colonists with distinct personalities, emotions and interactions. Health systems which affect each individually simulated body part. Addictive and extensive base building features. But it’s not inaccessible, you’ll just have to be patient. And when RimWorld inevitably hooks you, if you’re still begging for more you only have to refer to the impressive catalogue of user mods to expand your experience even further.
As you can see, strategy games have evolved over the years to create whole worlds and civilisations at the click of a button. Equally, the destruction of entire planets has become just as easy with vast fleets of starships at your fingertips. Indie games have played a huge part in that growth and innovated the genre with unique angles mainstream strategy titles have shied away from.
Somehow got more time on your hands after wading through 50 of the best indie strategy games? Then check out what we think are the Top 100 Best Indie Games of All Time.