2017 was a strange, though good, year for strategy games. After the sensational 2016, with five major releases and some fascinating indie games, this was always likely to be a consolidation year. So while we didn’t see too much new and exciting to blow strategy players away, we did get a bunch of improvements and enhancements to existing games in the form of sequels, expansions, and mods. Good? Sure, but perhaps not the explosion of amazement that gaming at large had in 2017.
So here’s my top 10 for the year, bearing in mind that this was a period of subtle enhancement more than a period of bold strides forward. Side note: Due to professional conflicts I am unable to include Sega’s Dawn of War 3 and Total War: Warhammer 2. You can read some reviews and decide if they’re worthy of inclusion for yourself. Also, my lack of a Nintendo Switch prevented a full play of Mario + Rabbids, which I enjoyed in preview. (Although I suspect it’s more of a hyper-tactical RPG like Divinity: Original Sin 2, so I possibly wouldn’t include it here anyway.)
But these exceptions leaves us with a strong group of games this year, and here are the most worthy.
Honorable Mentions: the city-builders
There are two kinds of city-builders. There’s the kind that are a pool of math you can dive into, pulling out blueprints and using protractors to create the ideal set of industrial suburbs without excess pollution. (That’s Cities: Skylines, which itself received a couple of interesting expansions this year.) And then there’s the kind where you chill out, put on a podcast or three, and make cute or shiny buildings pop up, defend against some Vikings, and waste a few happy hours. That’s Aven Colony and Kingdoms & Castles, in quite different ways — the former deceptively simple, the latter deceptively tough.
All three of these games seemed quite fun, I just didn’t quite make enough time with each to confidently include them.
EU4 is the best grand strategy game on the market, and has been pretty much since its release … over four years ago. It’s also been a difficult game to make expansions for, since it already starts with every country in the world being playable. Yet Paradox keeps finding ways with its expansion packs to tweak EU4 just enough to maintain interest. Mandate of Heaven, the biggest of their three expansions this year, adds even more of an ebb and flow to a game already built to simulate that by dividing it into four eras, with bonuses to chase and Golden Ages to trigger. It’s just enough to keep the game feeling fresh after, uh, 542 hours of play.
As tired as I am of the, well, endless attempts to try to iterate on Master of Orion, games like Endless Space 2 demonstrate just why the theme is so appealing. Wildly diverging empires, like interdimensional vampires and trees whose roots extend from system to system, are the chief appeal of this space 4X game, and empires even have more interesting choices of internal factions, with different races and political parties. Meanwhile, a clever interface and technological progress web helping mitigate some of the genre’s key annoyances. Amplitude did a wonderful job of supporting and expanding Endless Space 2’s predecessor, Endless Legend, but things haven’t gone so well for ES2 yet, with some big early proponents casting a side-eye at recent updates. 2018 should be better.
The survival-strategy genre is poised to explode into the mainstream the way that roguelikes did a few years ago. The key thing they’re missing? They need to look and feel good, the way that Dwarf Fortress and RimWorld, and excellent as they are at generating stories, just don’t feel. Klei’s Oxygen Not Included may be the turning point. It came out in Early Access this Spring in an already-promising state, and has steadily been adding new mechanics. Look for it to be higher on this list next year, if all goes well.
All right, raise your hand if you saw this coming: First, that a Battlestar Galactica game would be released in the year of our Twelve Lords of Kobol 2017, and then, that it’s actually quite good? Another tactical management game, Black Lab Games’ Deadlock has a very XCOM-like strategic layer combined with its own fast, fun turn-based ship-to-ship combat system. It’s a pretty remarkable success at making the most of a great license for what’s clearly a game on a tight budget, much like BSG itself was a great show on a tight budget. If you missed the words “DRADIS contact,” this was made for you.
The dream of cracking the real-time strategy genre for a console audience has been alive almost as long as the genre itself, with varying success. Pocketwatch Games’ Tooth and Tail is one of the most successful attempts, simplifying the genre down to its bare bones in order to keep it fast and accessible to controller play. But that’s not really what gets it stuck in your head. The story of a Russian Revolution-style civil war in an animal kingdom, based on stronger animals devouring weaker, is enthusiastically creepy in a way that ends up serving the game overall.
I am more conflicted about Ultimate General: Civil War than any other game this year. I was tremendously excited when it came out in Early Access in late 2016, seeming like it would be my dream of game of a detailed, accessible Civil War battle engine. But Game-Labs’ development on it focused more on a single-player campaign that I didn’t care about instead of making the battles more varied and fun, or adding multiplayer. It’s still a blast to play slightly less well-covered battles like Chickamauga and Chancellorsville as well as Gettysburg and Antietam, and I enjoyed my time with the game overall. I’m just permanently stuck with the dream of what might have been.
Beyond XCOM itself, it was a great year for tactical management games (or XCOM-likes), primarily this little gem of a dark fantasy game from Overhype Studios. Controlling a small mercenary company on a shoestring budget in a world headed toward an apocalypse is like catnip, and Battlebros’ goofy/violent aesthetic stylings and simple, effective tactical combat only enhanced its pull. Only a lack of continued support (Battle Sisters, nooo) and a slight undercurrent of medieval meanness held this one back.
XCOM 2, already an impressive game, received not one but two effective expansions this year. Firaxis’ official expansion, meanwhile, went about upgrading the base game’s resistance leader fantasy in a totally different, more colorful way. Adding resistance factions — with their own hero units — fleshed out the world and gave players more options in fantastic ways. Meanwhile, the addition of new enemy leaders, the Chosen, fleshed out the plot. This didn’t address all of the difficulty and motivational issues with the vanilla XCOM 2 game, but it still helped make a good game that promised more into a great game with a few aspects I wish were a little better.
Long War 2 was a sequel to a major mod for the first XCOM, given official promotion by Firaxis, a rare feat. Pavonis Interactive’s goal in The Long War’s is to shift XCOM from more of a tactical RPG, where you have increasingly powerful elite squads, to a wargame, where you’ve got dozens of troops, many of whom will be casualties. Long War 2 dives into the fantasy of being the resistance commander, pushing the player to make hard decisions about which aspect of rebelling against the aliens will be most successful. The XCOM 2 interface, sadly, isn’t built to manage that level of depth, which is the only thing keeping my most-played game of the year off the top spot. It gets the nod above the official expansion, only because I like its class system slightly better.
I had several options for the top slot — games I perhaps played more, or games I perhaps talked up more. But it’s Eugen Systems’ Steel Division: Normandy ’44 that best captures what I want to say about strategy games in 2017. This is an astonishing achievement: a ridiculously detailed, hardcore wargame that plays like an accessible RTS. It’s a game where you play very specific tanks and squads in the hedgerows of Normandy, but it also feels like a metaphor for World War II strategy and tactics overall. Sending a group of tanks bursting through a hedgerow to turn the flank of an enemy, only to find a nest of anti-tank guns and be driven back until you can get air support, sounds like it should be an abstract concept — but here it’s directly literal. No strategy game I played this year made me think that a genre had shifted quite so much as Steel Division did for the tactical wargame.