The 2018 Strategy Game of the Year
2018 was an incredible year for strategy games. This genre, which usually only gets a few releases per year, was super saturated with content.
We saw a grand return to form as Valkyria Chronicles 4 went back to its roots. We saw a classic come back in HD with Age of Empires: Definitive Edition. We saw a new expansion for the king of 4X games in Civilization VI: Rise and Fall. We even saw the classic borderline obsessive time waster, Disgaea, hit the Switch.
But these four nominees were more than time wasters, they were day devourers. Anyone who picked one of these up can attest to the hundreds of hours they spent micromanaging units and planning out base construction.
There are two types of turn based strategy games out there. There is the army game that puts you in control of tons of different units, and then there is the squad game that only puts you in control of a few units but lets you customize them to a great degree. Battletech is the latter and might actually be the best example of such a game, ousting Final Fantasy Tactics for what I personally would consider the “best in genre” slot.
You can do anything you want with your mechs, anything! Customize their armor, weapons, even methods of movement. You can create a team of slow moving tanks or high mobility scouts or anything in between. You even get to control nitty gritty details like your mechs turn radius or where you put its heat sinks. You can even customize your mech pilots and their individual skills. There are so many things to customize that your little four person squad feels like a full blown army.
As for the narrative, well it’s a treat for anyone who is a fan of BattleTech and Mechwarrior properties, but like XCom and so many other military strategies before it, it’s really just an excuse to get from one battle to another. That’s probably the biggest weakness of Battletech and what keeps it from getting game of the year. Still, if you are looking for an amazing turn based strategy game, this is one of the best on offer right now.
OK, imagine Sim City but horribly depressing. What? Am I not selling this hard enough?
Frostpunk is a true work of art and innovation that brings the relatively stale genre of city sims to a new world, a frozen post-apocalyptic world. Instead of laying our roads so that people can get to their jobs on time, you are laying out roads to make sure that workers don’t die on their way to salvage sites. Instead of managing energy to make sure every house can keep the lights on, you are managing the heat of a giant coal furnace and generator, keeping survivors warm through cold-snaps that can freeze carbon dioxide out of the air. Instead of deciding on tax rates, festivals, and where to build stadiums, you are choosing whether to force your children into labor, or whether you should eat the amputated limbs of the injured when food gets low.
Mmmmm… finger soup.
On top of all of this bleak yet interesting innovation, Frostpunk further innovates on the idea of the city sim by adding a rather compelling narrative. The scenarios you choose not only provide you starting conditions and goals, but also several different incredible events from citizen uprisings, religious takeovers, and wild steampunk robots. However, not every event has to be a grand spectacle. Frostpunk will tug at the fringes of your moral tapestry every time a single child gets sick because you decided to mix saw dust into the food supply to make it last longer.
That is Frostpunk’s great success: it’s a city sim that makes you feel things. It’s not a cold numbers game, it’s a story of survival, tragedy, and the endless determination of the human race. It’s rare to find a narrative like that in any genre, much less the city sim genre.
Runner-up: The Banner Saga 3
The Banner Saga 3 was more than just a one-off strategy game. It was the end of an epic tale four years in the making. It was a conclusion to the journey of a band of survivors at the end of the world, retracing the steps of gods and heroes of old yet simply trying to hold out such that they have food for another day of weary travel.
The Banner Saga 3 was special in that it took the trope of “actions have consequences” very seriously. Decisions you made back in 2014 had rippling effects through this end-game scenario. While there were only a few endings to achieve, playthroughs varied greatly. When comparing my own playthrough to that of my fellow Gamecrate writers, I ended up with different armies due to permadeath, different final battles due to choices I made, and even different protagonists! My playthrough was truly my own, influenced by my own decisions. Granted, The Banner Saga 3 may not have meant as much to people who hadn’t been playing since the beginning, but around the same time all three chapters became available in a bundle for any curious strategy gamer to try.
And beyond this narrative, The Banner Saga 3 still scores massive points for totally inverting the strategy formula. The same old “find the weakest enemy and pick them off” strategy doesn’t work in The Banner Saga. Instead, you want to keep as many enemies alive but weakened as possible, causing them to be a drain on the rest of their troops. It’s a strategy experience unlike anything else you’ll find in the turn-based genre and it’s seriously worth a look if you’ve missed The Banner Saga up until this point.
Winner: Into the Breach
Many games have tried to express the feeling of a giant robot battle to the plyer, but Into the Breach does it with so little. All of its action takes place on a simple eight by eight grid and you only ever control three units. You’d think that this would make Into the Breach simple, but you’d be so wrong.
Into the Breach is the follow-up game to FTL: Faster than Light, and it shares a lot in common with it. For one, each run is semi-roguelike forcing you to juggle a lot of randomized variables but always dangling new upgrades in front of your face to get you to play a little more. Second, each run asks you to manage a lot of resources. In this case it’s the health of your mechs versus the health of civilian buildings which enemy kaiju will attack relentlessly. It doesn’t matter if you can defeat the enemy if they destroy downtown while you are at it.
It’s hard to find a flaw with Into the Breach. It does exactly what it wants to do, provide a compelling rogue-like turn-based tactical experience. Few developers have attempted to combine these two genres and the fact that Subset Games managed to do it so well on their first try says wonders about their creativity. I talked earlier about how all of these games can be gigantic time sinks. Well I know people who have literally maxed out the Steam “hours played” counter on Into the Breach. It’s that addicting. It might be a bit minimalistic, but sometimes big things come in small packages… like giant robots.
Congratulations to Into the Breach our winner for 2018 strategy game of the year.
Check out our full 2018 award list for more.