The Rise of Strategy Games

Jack Coles runs down the ABCs of the RTS.

Jack Coles
16th October 2017

Strategy games have been a staple of video games for years. Not the biggest staple, admittedly. If sandboxes and shooters are rice and potatoes, strategy games probably cornered the soybean market; possibly why they’re so popular in Western Europe and East Asia.

The first strategy game ever was something called Empire, released in 1977; just five years after Pong was developed. It was something like an early Civilization precursor, with turn-based movement and various units with different attack strengths.

If sandboxes and shooters are rice and potatoes, strategy games probably cornered the soybean market.

It was over a decade later before we get a name that we meme-faring millennials would recognise: a tie-in game for The Lord of the Rings, called War in Middle Earth. It was also one of the first movie tie-ins that received mixed reviews, a pattern that would constantly rear its head for the rest of gaming history, like a cobra waiting for its Amazon delivery.

1991 was where one of the giants of strategy was born. No, not Age of Empires (that was 1997), but Sid Meier’s Civilization. As in “one”. The original. The one with micromanagement so far up its butt that it can smell the price of hydrogen gas (£26.46 per kilolitre). Since then there have been five more games, ranging from “thoroughly excellent” (Civs 4 and 5) to “what the buggering Christ” (Civ 6). Speaking of Firaxis’ franchise, XCOM UFO Defense was released in 1994, and is generally considered to be as welcoming to newcomers as an introductory course to Quantum Mechanics in Klingon.

In 1995 Worms came out. That’s all I want to say about that.

Age of Empires II (Image:

Age of Empires II (Image:

At this stage, most strategy games had been turn-based affairs, based off board games but benefitting from increased complexity. In 1996 this changed as of the most enduring real-time strategy franchises began: Command & Conquer, a game that started with a toxic meteorite landing on Italy, and ended three sequels later by being utterly butchered by EA. C&C also had other settings, such as the Cold War-esque Red Alert, or the Middle-East-went-berserk Generals.

1991 was where one of the giants of strategy was born. No, not Age of Empires (that was 1997), but Sid Meier’s Civilization.

1998 and 1999 saw the release of Starcraft and Age of Empires II, respectively, the two real-time strategy games that arguably endured better than all others. They also had polar opposite design philosophies: Starcraft opted for three core factions with completely different units and tactics each, while AoE creates different factions by limiting access to certain units and technologies depending on which civilisation you go for. (Personally, I always went for the Turks).

From the 2000s onwards, strategy games took a bit more of a backseat as first- and third-person shooters dominated the market. Not to say that strategy completely disappeared off the minimap. Galactic Civilizations was released in 2002, with one, maybe two good sequels. Shogun: Total War came out in 2000 and combined both real-time and turn-based strategy in a formula that was eventually perfected in Rome II (albeit with more issues than The Courier’s archive).

FTL: Faster Than Light (Image:

FTL: Faster Than Light. (Image:

Nowadays there are fewer strategy games released by triple-A publishers, so the indie market has taken over and made things weird. FTL: Faster Than Light combines real-time strategy with turn-based elements and roguelikes. Tower defense games (such as Bloons Tower Defense) are a distinctly indie invention from around 2007, and Space Run took it a step further by turning your spaceship into a reverse tower. Strategy’s not dead. It’s just plotting.

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