Grab some coffee and draw the curtains, armchair generals, because it’s time for some great strategy gaming on the cheap.
Whether you’re looking for some easygoing, low-stress mental stretching or some mainlined brain strain, we’ve got some of the best picks the web has to offer, and each is cheap enough to avoid breaking the bank.
In this frequently funny title, small selection of stupidly silly cartoon samurai populate the afterlife, heeding your beck and call and slashing and pincushioning your enemies as your betrayed general seeks revenge. The chattering of your league of the vanquished precedes turn based matches of the grid system variety, only without the grid. Skulls opts instead for range-indicating circles, potentially loosening precision but granting a more forgiving and freeform method of control. With the cast rounded out by a smattering of otherworldly creatures like oni demon-ogres and fox monks, this game presents a relatively light but thoroughly enjoyable strategy romp.
Unless you’ve played it before, this title will be unlike anything you’ve laid hands on. Turning normal tower defense paradigms on their heads, Anomaly places you in the combat boots of human forces attempting to retake terra from the entrenched alien forces who have laid stake. You’ve got it: tower offense is now a thing. Your forces are tasked with pushing their way along a player-defined path through devastated city streets, their course altering as you react to events the game throws at you or reevaluate the importance of resources and enemy placements. Commander level abilities will help you support your troops as they bleed for the effort.
For a single tenner, what is widely regarded as one of the greatest strategy games to ever grace the PC can be yours. This modern real time classic follows the American campaign through a Europe ravaged by the second world war, treading many of their most significant battles along the way. Company of Heroes eschews the traditional methods of resource gathering for a system of capture points scattered about the map, urging players to hold onto strategic territory for reasons beyond advantageous positioning. Unit combat, too, strikes its own style: rather than trading blows until the weaker blob dies, factors like aim, morale, and quality of cover come into play. Chatter amongst the men, conspicuously human behaviors and movements, and dynamic, persistent scarring and fortification of the battlefield drive home a harrowing and personal feel to it all.
In Molyneux’s effective absence from the god game genre he arguably created with Populous, Reprisal is happy to wallow. This open homage casts you as the deity behind a civilization, unleashing elemental magic tied to collectible totems and guiding your clientele to the recovery of their lost tribes. While you don’t have direct control of your flock, they’re usually happy to acquiesce to the demands of the mighty. A striking minimalist pixel art style rounds out a rather divine title.
Do you tend toward the more cerebral end of the gaming spectrum? Because Frozen Synapse is perhaps the closest thing you’ll find to pure crystalline brain candy this side of chess or the puzzle genre. You are Tactics, a duly named AI responsible for coordinating the exact movements of several mostly-mindless warm bodies. Ponder, simulate, and counter the moves you think your enemy might perform with the tools provided, then pit your combat solution against what your opponent actually has in store for you. There is no squish or randomness here: cold, sharp tactical superiority and forethought will decide the victor.
The Steam version is inexplicably still available only in 25 USD two-pack form, but its iOS incarnation is identical save control schematics and a slimmer price.
Greed is good, if for no other reason than it engendered the creation of this game. Rampant industrialization has brought us to some strange places, the very land itself subject to the resource hunger of those in power. Towering landmasses sink, crumble, and eventually topple as they’re consumed for material or blown to bits for strategic purposes. The potentially miserable subject matter is doodled over by bright colors and goofy two-legged tin can robots, giving this turn based strategy affair a fun contrast in themes.
Nobody knows what it’s like to be the bad man. Well, you might, if you’ve played Evil Genius. In this spoof of old Bond film antagonists, you take refuge in a super-secret super-villain hideout and plot your domination of the world. First, though, you’ll need to manage your malefactor’s empire: henchmen need training, doomsday devices need building, and government agents sent to infiltrate your base need “interrogating”. Kung fu academies, deadly traps, and a hefty assortment of other interesting doodads beg for installation.
Okay, so it’s a tad long in the tooth, but its somewhat recent induction into the Steam fold is excuse enough to include this beloved title. Explore twisted, bizarre worlds of gods and conflict from over your wizard’s shoulders, leading bands of fantastically strange creatures into battle as you go. The next rank in your repertoire of spells and summonables is defined by whichever deity you chose to champion for that round of missions, allowing you to string together custom amalgams of units, abilities, and chunks of perspective on the overarching story for each playthrough. Each figure has their own full-sized missions and personal motivations in the absorbing and surprisingly dismaying story, and the bits you miss the first time around are absolutely as enjoyable as the ones you played. As an added bonus, the cast of actors is phenomenal. And not just because of Tim Curry.
An unusually heady take on war theater strategy, R.U.S.E. fogs the action by treating players as the recipients of fallible information rather than semi-omniscient blimps. Deception is a force as potent as any body of armor or flight of bombers. The titular Ruse mechanic sees you playing cards to employ various forms of subterfuge or spying that your regular units couldn’t accomplish on their own. Though real time, you’re asked to take a step back and consider your actions and planning before committing, making the game about as anti-Starcraft as you can get without “pause” or “end turn” buttons.
With the renaissance well underway, players construct cities and establish trade in one of the most good-natured strategy games to date. Peasants and patricians alike don grand smiles as you build the production and refinement buildings necessary to meet their needs and desires. Progressively more luxurious goods enable ecstatic citizens to move up in life, producing more taxable wealth and unlocking new structures as they climb. When more exotic goods are requested, imports from colonies in the orient will be necessary for advancement. Natural disasters and hostile forces may rear their heads in the campaign or more difficult scenarios, but for many, the bulk of the game’s fun lies in peaceful endeavors – a realm you and your friends can engage in exclusively if you so choose.