Turn-based strategy is an old genre, nearly as old as video games as a medium, and sadly in a lot of cases its age is starting to show. The earliest games were rooted in tabletop war games and play-by-email (or, stay with me here, actual physical mail) game conventions, and some of those legacy features still persist today, some four decades later.
Luckily for modern players, some of the novel ideas born in the current indie game renaissance have seeped into the turn-based genre. While most of the games on this list don’t reject old school turn-based conventions entirely, they do twist or skew them enough to feel fresh and inventive. It’s a great time to be a fan of turn-based strategy, and not just because of the triple-A stalwarts.
Let’s start with an outlier for this list. In some ways, #Armello defies the current status quo not by bucking tradition but by enthusiastically embracing it. It looks — and largely plays — like a board game, albeit an incredibly beautiful board game enlivened by gorgeous animation and cinematics.
Players are tasked with either slaying or curing the king, who is infected with a wasting disease called rot (and who will perish even if cured), and the tragic undertone of the game lends it a sense of gravitas that most board games never approach.
But Armello diverges from the tabletop formula in some key ways, one of the most interesting and important of which is how it lets players affect the outcome of combat after they’ve committed. It blends in some light card game mechanics by allowing players to influence dice rolls in combat (and on the game board) by burning cards accumulated through play. Where traditional turn-based games tend to rely on predictable, static combat, Armello’s dynamic combat amps up the intensity of each battle.
Halcyon 6: Starbase Commander
#Halcyon6 is a great of example of more being better. It breaks rank with the formulaic turn-based strategies crowding Steam by blowing out the boundaries of what’s capable in game of its ilk, and blending together some of the best elements from a number of genres.
You begin in command of a starbase that will look familiar to anyone that’s played either of the new #XCOM entries, and that needs to be cleared room-by-room to unlock whatever potential spoils and functionality are contained within.
The combat that ensues whenever your fleet of intergalactic peace-keeping ships meets hostile aliens is the gooey turn-based center of this delicious confection, but it’s surrounded by a lovely candy shell of JRPG trappings, Masters of Orion-style interactions, and a quest log any MMO would envy.
Halcyon 6 shows us that (to keep chasing this candy metaphor) turn-based combat can be the smooth, delicious peanut butter mixed into the rich chocolate base of other genres, and that it doesn’t have to stand on its own.
God I’m hungry.
Hero Generations Regen
#HeroGenerationsRegen is an updated version of the original release called simply Hero Generations. It represents a risky experiment that largely succeeds — exactly the sort of thing I set out to recognize with this list
It makes time a commodity, subdividing into precious turns, each of which represent a year of your hero’s life. If you haven’t successfully spawned an heir (or finished the game) by the time your hero’s lifespan winds down to its natural conclusion, your reign is over, as is your game.
Making time and by extension turns a sort of currency adds a layer of strategy that other games tend to ignore. It takes the typical turn-based strategy formula and bends it just enough that gameplay feels like an addictive hybrid of RPG and puzzle. It’s also one of very few turn-based games — which are notoriously relaxed and low-key — that introduces a level of intensity to each move.
Full disclosure, I have a bit of soft spot for the works of H.P. Lovecraft. But luckily #HardWest has the chops to back up it’s weird, Wild West gothic setting regardless of your affection for the slimy elder gods that consumed old Howard’s mind.
While Hard West doesn’t diverge too radically from standard design tropes, it does incorporate enough new wrinkles to feel unique. The turn-based combat is distinguished by a number of items, abilities and environmental features that all embrace the quirks of Hard West’s setting, things like a bloodstained shirt, shaman’s pipe or church bells you can ricochet shots off of to hit enemies behind cover.
It all combines into a satisfying package that feels both eerily familiar and refreshingly new, and has layered depth enough to keep you coming back for more of its unsettling western charm.
One of the slickest, most polished entries into the turn-based fray in 2016, #AtlasReactor’s elevator pitch is instantly intriguing: turn-based strategy meets MOBA.
You won’t be battling creeps yet, as the game is constantly being retooled and updated, but it does deploy the teams of opposed hero characters to great effect.
But the most interesting departure Atlas Reactor brings to the table is its simultaneous turns. All players select their actions in secret before the turn begins and then they’re all executed, depending on type, in four phases. So players who are able to anticipate their opponent’s strategies have a huge advantage, putting their heroes out of harm’s way or catching foes moving into the line of fire of their abilities.
Just a match or two in and what seems like an intimidating system becomes intuitive, and the depth of mastery possible begins to reveal itself, making Atlas Reactor not just innovative, but also enduring, a game you can expect to keep hearing about for months or years to come.