Real-time strategy games are a staple in every PC game library. From Empire: Total War to Relic Entertainment’s classic Company of Heroes. The RTS genre isn’t the easiest to get into, though. From tactical positioning to resource management, the genre’s games focus on micro-managing, combat, and control in real-time is challenging. It’s like playing chess, but with more Zerg rushes.
If you’re interested in getting into the RTS genre, there’s plenty of solid titles available already on PC for beginners and strategy veterans alike. Here are some of our top picks.
|Most Immersive RTS Game||Napoleon: Total War|
|Fan-Favorite RTS Game||Star Wars: Empire at War|
|Best Historical RTS Game||Company of Heroes 2|
|Most Realistic RTS Game||Europa Universalis IV|
|Best Classic RTS Game||Age of Empires II|
|Best Overall RTS Game|| |
StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty
|Best Stealth RTS||Shadow Tactics|
Most Immersive RTS Game: Napoleon: Total War
|Release Date||Feb. 25, 2010|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||Face off against 19th century Europe’s most powerful military leaders in this incredibly immersive RTS based around Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power.|
There’s nothing like leading a group of 19th-century soldiers into combat throughout Western Europe’s greatest battlefields. When it comes to Creative Assembly’s Total War series, the developer’s standalone expansion Napoleon: Total War remains one of the most immersive RTS games to date thanks to the attention to historical detail.
Napoleon: Total War focuses on French leader Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power during the early 19th century. Players command the cavalry, riflemen, artillery, and enormous ships across land and sea. Players either fight as Napoleon or against him. The game even features multiple historical campaigns where players manage their standing in the world through a turn-based map.
While Napoleon: Total War has been out for some time now, the game’s battlefields are gorgeous. Skirmishes take place across beautiful green landscapes. Players can even zoom in on individual soldiers firing, charging, and bayoneting their opponents. Uniforms are not just highly detailed, they’re accurate, too, making players feel like they were actually fighting in the 19th century.
Fan-Favorite RTS Game: Star Wars: Empire at War
|Release Date||Feb. 16, 2006|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||Command the Galactic Empire or the Rebel Alliance in one of the best Star Wars strategy games to date. In particular, Empire at War stands out thanks to its focus on frontline combat over resource management, making it easy for fans to pick up and play.|
It’s one thing to have a real-time strategy game with exciting lore and immersive design, but one that accurately reflects one of the most critical film series in history is another feat altogether. Petroglyph and LucasArts knew how to take the RTS genre one step further. The team’s iconic title Star Wars: Empire at War remains one of the best strategy games to date.
In Star Wars: Empire at War, players choose between either the Rebel Alliance or the Galactic Empire and wage war across both land and space. The game does away with resource management and instead has players focus on the core frontline positioning to maintain ground. There’s plenty of iconic units to command, from Stormtroopers and AT-ATs to X-Wings and TIE Fighters. You can even send Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and other characters onto the battlefield to support your troops.
While Empire at War was released in 2006, the game is still available on Steam as part of the Star Wars: Empire at War Gold Pack. We recommend grabbing the game that way, as it includes the bonus Forces of Corruption expansion pack that lets players rule the Star Wars universe with an underground criminal empire.
Best Historical RTS Game: Company of Heroes 2
|Release Date||June 25, 2013|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||Lead Soviet or German troops across the Eastern Front’s bloodiest battles in one of the best World War II RTS games around.|
What’s not to love about Company of Heroes? Instead of focusing on resource harvesting and commanding individual soldiers, the World War II series has players build vehicles and recruit squads by capturing objectives. This streamlines the game, and lets players focus on sending reinforcements to maintain control of the map instead of looting far-off scrap heaps.
Company of Heroes 2 takes the franchise to the Eastern Front. Players can choose to play as either the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany, leading their troops from Stalingrad to Berlin. This time around, commanders have to prepare for intense blizzards, so soldiers must set up campfires to prevent their squads from freezing to death.
While it may not be the most realistic RTS game around, Company of Heroes 2‘s attention to detail is incredible. Players can lead T-34s, recruit conscript infantry, bully penal battalions, and drive SU-85s as the Soviets, laying waste to the German army.
Most Realistic RTS Game: Europa Universalis IV
|Release Date||Aug. 13, 2013|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||As far as grand strategy games go, this is one of the best. Lead your nation through early modern European history as you grapple with diplomacy, economic stability, civil war, and warmongering nations, all through a real-time system that lets you gradually see the world stage change.|
As far as grand strategy games go, Europa Universalis IV is one of the best. It’s also a solid RTS game for players that prefer a complex and multi-faceted strategy experience. Just be aware of its steep learning curve.
In Europa Universalis IV, players take control of a nation during the Renaissance and Enlightenment-era, all the while trying to maintain influence in the world among the biggest political actors. Forge alliances, become a colonial mastermind or wage war with as many nations as possible to gain control of the entire European continent (and beyond).
Unlike many other nation-building strategy games, Europa Universalis IV plays out in real-time. For players that are interested in learning one of the most realistic real-time grand strategy games around, we recommend checking out Quill18’s YouTube tutorial on the basics.
Best Classic RTS Game: Age of Empires II
|Release Date||Sept. 30, 1999|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||Can your civilization survive through four Medieval eras? Age of Empires II tasks players with leading their nation through 1,000 years, all the while upgrading their buildings and units to keep up with their opponents.|
There’s been plenty of great RTS games over the years, but few compare to Age of Empires II, Ensemble Studios, and Microsoft’s classic 1999 RTS title. The game takes place during the Middle Ages, and players choose from over a dozen civilizations across Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Lock horns with other civilizations, growing your army while attempting to destroy your opponents.
Age of Empires II spices things up thanks to its four separate ages, covering 1,000 years in world history and across the Dark Age, Feudal Age, Castle Age, and Imperial Age. Players build towns that can be upgraded over the years as new ages dawn. This makes Age of Empire II pretty complicated: While the game uses initially easy mechanics, the game’s tactical and strategic endgame involves maintaining your economy and planning for technological progression.
If you’re interested in playing Age of Empires II, we recommend picking up the game’s Definitive Edition from Steam, which offers support for modern operating systems as well as ranked multiplayer online play.
Best Overall RTS Game: Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
|Release Date||July 27, 2010|
|Price||Free to play|
|Where to Download||Official website|
|Reason to Try||Play as the Terrans, Zerg, or Protoss and conquer the Korpulu Sector in one of the best RTS titles ever made. Easy to learn but difficult to master, StarCraft II offers a thrilling asymmetrical tactical experience that rewards players with sharp reflexes and strategic awareness on the battlefield.|
That said, if there’s one game that every RTS fan should own, it’s StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty.
Released by Blizzard Entertainment in 2010, StarCraft II pits the Terrans, Zerg, and Protoss against each other in the Korpulu Sector. Split between 29 single-player campaign missions with new units and tweaks expanding on the original, StarCraft II features all the elements that make a great RTS: Manage your resources, build a well-rounded army, fight to hold your own, and overrun your opponent’s base with your military might. Nearly ten years later, StarCraft II truly stands out thanks to its easy-to-learn, difficult-to-master premise.
StarCraft II’s multiplayer is a beast of its own. The game’s ranked multiplayer system is legendary for its intense focus on min-maxing unit construction. If you want to become a skilled player, prepare to spend your time building a strong economy and deploying units and buildings as fast as possible to counteract your opponents’ offensives. While hard to master, there’s always a challenge to be had online in StarCraft.
If you want to play through the game’s campaign mode on your own or run a few LAN parties with some friends, you can do that too. That’s the great thing about StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty: It’s genuinely an RTS with a feature for everybody. StarCraft II is now available as a free-to-play game, making this the perfect time to get started with one of the best RTS series out there.
Best Stealth RTS: Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun
|Release Date||Dec. 6, 2016|
|Where to Buy||Steam|
|Reason to Try||In Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, you will find a beautifully crafted, small scale, tactically driven stealth game. Keep yourself hidden as you deal with threats and explore levels, while every move needs to be meticulously planned and timed to perfection.|
Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun is one of the finest examples we have of small scale RTS. Carefully move your character through a living world while carefully planning every move. Death comes quickly if you make a mistake, and weigh the possibilities of what your enemies will do is vital. Study their behavior, then execute your deadly plans.
The graphics, world design, and incredible attention to detail all make this game stand out amongst its peers, and the challenge it presents is both troubling and addictive. On top of dealing with external threats, you also have to worry about how your team will behave, how to fully utilize each member. There is nothing but options here, and each one can have a deadly result.
Ana Valens contributed to this guide.