A mainstay of gaming, the RTS genre is one that tests players ingenuity and intellect more so than most others. With settings taking inspiration from history, fantasy, and science fiction, here we’ve collected a list of titles from over two decades for you to peruse.
The Command & Conquer series is one of the most famous gaming franchises. Rising to prominence in the 90s, it is comprised of two main series, the alternate history time travelling romp that is Red Alert, and the science fiction wargame that is the Tiberian series.
The Command & Conquer series is known for its fast-paced action and gripping story. It has excellent singleplayer campaigns that allow the player to play through as any faction. Multiplayer matches are ranked by player skill and some games also allow players to enjoy the campaigns cooperatively.
One of the most popular RTS series of all time, the Age of Empires series comprises three award-winning games. Of these, the undoubted champion is the second, Age of Kings. Focusing on the middle ages, it remains popular today with expansions still being released nearly twenty years after its initial arrival.
Both of the original games have been remastered so that modern gamers can enjoy them. Age of Empires III also remains a contender, with two near full-length expansion packs and an updated setting as it offers players the chance to fight in the New World during the age of colonialism.
A reimagining of the popular tabletop wargame, Dawn of War brings the science fiction universe of Warhammer 40,000 to life. Comprised of three very different games, the one unifying factor is the presence of the Blood Raven space marines.
The first game is a traditional base building RTS. The second is more tactics focused on the player controlling a limited amount of squads, using cover and tactics to their advantage. The most recent game takes inspiration from the MOBA genre, with hero units and their special abilities allowing for game-winning maneuvers.
A franchise so successful that it’s spawned spin-offs and even a film, Warcraft 3 is a game no self respecting RTS fan should ignore. Taking charge of Orcs, Humans, Undead, and Night Elves, the player works through the campaign playing as each of the races.
Aside from the standard resource gathering and army building, Warcraft also has heroes which can level up and increase in power. Often crucial to victory, the heroes add a more personal touch to the campaigns. The addition of a day-night cycle is one that promotes careful planning as it grants advantages to different armies.
Old but gold, Warcraft 3 deserves more love. Most modern gamers will be familiar only with the prolific World of Warcraft MMORPG but its success would have been impossible without the earlier games.
A popular and fast-paced World War II strategy game, the CoH series is hugely successful both for its single and multiplayer gameplay. Your squads take cover and use tactics to eliminate the enemy in a completely destructible environment. The singleplayer campaign is a cinematic experience that owes much to classics such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
The second game takes the action to the Eastern Front and explores a side of the war lesser seen. Numerous expansion packs have added more campaigns as well as expanding the number of armies available to play in multiplayer. The varying options mean players can choose the army best suited to their playstyle. Company of Heroes plays like a dream and will continue to endure in popularity.
As famous for micromanagement as the Command & Conquer series, Starcraft’s popularity in the esports arena is unprecedented. This sequel matches and exceeds the standard set by its forefather. Taking charge of either the Zerg, Protoss, or Terrans in an expansive campaign, the game singleplayer forces you to learn the strengths and weaknesses of these distinctive factions.
Much emulated but seldom bettered, Starcraft is a game that thrives in multiplayer. The gorgeous graphics and smooth gameplay ensure this is a gem in the RTS genre. There’s not much you can say about a game this good, everything has already been written.
For those curious to see what the fuss is all about with the original, Blizzard has made it freeware. You can check it out here.
Stronghold is a game nearly unique amongst its peers. The game allows you to defend and assault castles of varying magnitude. There is an economic aspect but at the end of the day, the castle is the main star in this series of games. Stronghold’s battles are usually short-lived bloodied affairs where hundreds of units will die over a few minutes.
The defenders can enjoy mantraps, boiling oil, rockfalls, and a whole host of other devious tricks to foil the attackers. They, on the other hand, have catapults, siege towers, tunnellers, and all manner of siege equipment to smash their way in. The first few moments of every battle are chaotic with arrows
The settings vary across the series from the historical to downright fantastic. The Crusader mini-series focused on the titular battles in the Holy Land while Legends followed the likes of King Arthur, Siegfried, and Vlad the Impaler.
From the makers of Age of Empires, this game takes a journey to the age of mythic Greek legend. Field minotaurs, gorgons, and colossi alongside armies of hoplites and archers. Choose gods to worship and receive gifts and unique units. The base game allowed for three cultures and their respective pantheons, Greek, Norse, and Egyptian, all with their own distinctive units and styles of play.
Perhaps the biggest change from Age of Empires is the addition of the resource Favour, representing your goodwill with the gods, needed to recruit heroes and mythic units. Greeks gain it by worshipping at temples, Egyptians by constructing statues, and the Norse by waging war. Each god grants a power
Expansion packs added Chinese and Atlantean cultures as well as Titans, colossal creatures that can destroy entire armies.
Exactly as it says on the tin, Rise of Nations has you control a nation through one of several ages. This tends to be a fun exercise in alternate history as you can command even the Aztecs, Inca, and Maya in the modern era against others. Every nation has unique units
There’s a great sense of achievement in the games as you see your units evolve with the ages from the hoplites and cavalry you might have in the Ancient Age to the stealth bombers and tanks that you’ll have by the end of the game.
The Thrones and Patriots expansion added the usual mix of new nations, units, and technologies, but the series as a whole is an enjoyable one and worthwhile playing. Often toted as the rival to Age of Empires, Rise of Nations is well capable of standing alone as a classic in the genre.
It is hard to know where to begin here. No other series of games encompasses such an expanse of history in such detail. From the days of Alexander to the last days of the samurai, the Total War series takes you through two millennia of history. Rome, Medieval, Shogun, Empire, Napoleon, Attila, and now Warhammer,
A series that has come from strength to strength, Total War shows no signs of stopping. The recent change to a fantasy setting with the release of Total War Warhammer was one that risked dividing the fanbase but the bold move was such a success that a second was immediately commissioned.
The strategic game has received praise for its complexity but its tactical battles that the players come to Total War for. The sight of massed ranks of thousands is an unforgettable one, battles are a glorious and bloody affair.
The series shows no signs of stopping with Creative Assembly expanding and planning to release games set in more and more eras.
This stand alone expansion to the original game improves upon its forefather in almost every way. The initial three factions have doubled in number to six with each race now having a Loyalist and Rebel faction.
New ship classes such as Titan super capitals and light combat corvettes have been added. The tech tree has been expanded in addition to updated graphics. It’s never been a better time to try out the series, Rebellion is what the original game should have been.
A spiritual successor to the Total Annihilation series, Supreme Commander is a game on a scale unlike any other. Three distinct factions wage unrelenting war with a combination of massive armies and huge experimental war machines.
The strategic map allows you to zoom from a satellite level view all the way down to focus on an individual unit. The game is designed for macro-level play as the player can automate production and supply lines, allowing them to focus on crushing the enemy. Players can swarm their enemy with hundreds of low-cost tier one units or annihilate them with a superweapon.
From the makers of the critically acclaimed Ground Control, World in Conflict is set in an alternate history where the Cold War turned hot. The game puts you in charge of an American armoured company fighting the Soviets in Europe and North America.
While reinforcements are granted for completing objectives, World in Conflict is primarily a tactical game that rewards a careful player. Every unit has their strengths and weaknesses that force proper planning and preparation. An expansion pack added a playable Soviet campaign that humanized the invaders.
A variety of American, NATO, and Soviet units are all usable in multiplayer. Players share responsibility for units with different commanders controlling one of four branches, infantry, armor, air, or support. The online aspect of the game is a clever one that forces close cooperation between team members.
This is the third entry from Ensemble Studios on our list. The first RTS entry in the Halo saga, Halo Wars puts you in charge of the UNSC Spirit of Fire and its crew as they support ground operations during the Battle for Harvest, site of the first contact with the genocidal Covenant.
All the hallmarks of the series are there, the beautiful visuals, the haunting soundtrack, the desperate battles. The game is fast paced and easily familiar to fans of the series. This expansion of the game universe is a welcome one with the focus being more on the Human-Covenant war rather than the adventures of Master Chief.
Never fear though, Spartans still make an appearance! Though they are still a threat on the battlefield, the ones present in Halo Wars aren’t quite one-man armies. As should be expected in an RTS, they work best as part of a team.
Planetary Annihilation is another spiritual successor to the popular Total Annihilation series. It takes the original game’s concept of a galaxy at war, expanding it tenfold. This stand-alone expansion expands on the game and smoothes out any bugs or glitches that were present in the original.
The main draw in TITANS is the distinct Titan class super units that have the potential to be gamebreakers. Units like the Atlas bot or Zeus airship can annihilate entire armies while the Ragnarok titan can destroy a planet. The game allows for armies of thousands to fight simultaneously across numerous planets whether on land, sea, air, or orbit!
The second World War II game on our list, the Men of War series is a more complex beast than Company of Heroes. An in-depth tactical simulator; infantry uses a cover and toss grenades, tanks drive through buildings, units must be constantly resupplied with ammunition and fuel. Units can function in squads or singly.
The games have covered several different stories. Condemned Heroes follows a Soviet penal battalion while Vietnam has you command a small elite squad in the midst of the controversial 60s conflict.
The later Assault Squad games have a thriving multiplayer community as well as extensive modding support. As well as the base games 1940s setting, modders have adapted it to the 18th century, Warhammer 40k universe, and Star Wars.
The Cossacks series offer massive battles with soldiers from a variety of nations amidst the violence of the 17th and 18th centuries. The graphics are glorious with soldiers looking resplendent in their finery on the battlefields. The game engine claims to support up to 32,000 units at once but even battles a tenth of that size look awe-inspiring.
The game has a strong focus on the economics of building an army but the battles are the real gem. A good tactical sense is needed to avoid defeat. Pikemen counter cavalry but are vulnerable to musketeers and artillery. Seemingly impregnable fortresses will devastate armies but fall to the massed bombardment of mortars.
From a setting point of view, the game covers periods of history seldom covered by others. Battles range from Nieuwpoort in 1600 all the way to Soor in 1745. Over 20 nations can be played; including the Ottoman Empire,
The prequel to the legendary Homeworld series, Deserts of Kharak focuses on land-based combat instead of the space battles the series is famous for. Despite the change of setting, fans of the series will still be familiar with the music and central importance of the story to the game. The formula is unchanged with the game’s controls, design, and structure nearly identical to the previous games.
Instead of a mothership, you now have a Kapsi as the centerpiece of your army (fleet). Your smaller vehicles swarm around the larger ones like fighters. The Kapsi can be upgraded and improved over missions which really helps to build an emotional connection with it, just as you had with your fleet in the original Homeworld.
The terrain is fantastically varied with expansive desert plains, huge craters, imposing rock formations. It can be used to the player’s advantage as high ground grants attack bonuses and terrain can impassable to some units.
Overall the game is a fantastic tribute to the originals but the change of setting is welcome.
Tooth and Tail
This game is what happens when you drop the characters from Redwall in amidst a situation akin to the Russian Revolution. The onset of famine has caused the animals to war amongst each other to decide who will be eaten to alleviate the food shortage. Four factions with varying ideologies compete for control in this fast-paced and entertaining RTS. Even the art style is inspired by that of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, harkening back to the age of rebellion and thought.
Tooth and Tail is an RTS stripped down to its bare bones, focused on enjoyment and strategy more than micromanagement. Matches rarely last longer than fifteen minutes! Actions can only be taken in the vicinity of your commander meaning battles usually are hit and run raids with retreats to the base needed to heal troops and build up the economy. Compared to the incredible scale that many RTS games boast these days; it’s almost a relief to have this much more accessible style of game, almost an introduction to the genre.
Grey Goo offers three distinct single-player experiences as well as allowing a fourth faction to be available for multiplayer matches. The focus is a three-way war between the Beta, Humans, and the titular Goo. Each faction has their own distinctive playstyle as well as unique units, forcing players to use different strategies to counter each race.
The game offers an extensive map editing function to allow you to create your own custom battlefields. Players can also take advantage of the Observer and Replay modes to rewatch battles and learn from their mistakes.