Strategy Stratagems – Birth of a Genre
Take a Chess board, a game of Risk, a game of Parcheesi and action-figures from your favourite war-game, throw them into a cement mixer, add the ingenuity of a spike-haired, sleep-deprived, amphetamine-driven game developer and pray; in this peculiar melange, this pastiche made for grey matter, you have the forefathers of the strategy video-gaming genre which under its generic umbrella-term spawns numerous siblings, some uglier than others.
Roughly around the late 80’s enthusiasts begin to see the emergence of designs which break the monotony of space-SHMUPs like R-Type or Katakis, designs which reverse the trend of action-based hysteria in favour of slower-paced move-by-move calculations, for the benefit of some “Lt. Rumsfield” stereotype. Titles like Herzog or Rampart set the pace, soon to be followed by Dune’s sequel, the core mechanics of which still form the basis for many modern RTS titles.
Though strategy games for PC vary, whether turn-based 4X or artillery games like those lovable worms, they are all about the same thing; managing your forces and overcoming challenges (and opponents) by some stratagem or other.
So what is it that draws players in for hours, until they forget the basic tenets of personal hygiene to ultimately live in symbiosis with upholstery foam? While failures like “Stalin vs Martians” would draw you away from the genre, here we look at the winners that made PC strategy a solid niche in the market.
'Did somebody call for an exterminator?' There's no better place to start off than Blizzard's famous release which set off a craze amongst South Korean youth and shifted 11 million units worldwide, as of 2009. The latest game is Starcraft: Wings of Liberty which some fans of the old title find regressive in terms of complexity. Starcraft II sold over 1 million units in the space of 48 hours, with estimated sales exceeding 7 million units in the entire year.
Once again Blizzard’s design and marketing strategy has paid off, as with most of their previously released titles. Starcraft is a pretty good rip-off of the Warhammer tabletop campaigns, particularly in the universe depicted, and in terms of gameplay it doesn’t offer anything strikingly innovative straying little from the traditional RTS “gather, build, conquer” formula. Many cite the introduction of unique units for each faction, but wasn’t this already the case in Dune 2, with advanced battle-tanks for Harkonnens or the Ordos’s support vehicles? Granted there were not as many but I would think it hardly luminary.
The fact remains that Starcraft still enjoys immense popularity, perhaps because Blizzard always knows how to refine basic conceptions to perfection. Another important reason for its popularity is the mutliplayer, which satisfies that human longing for connection or competition. South Koreans hold tournaments and some of the “Pro” gamers involved even became Starcraft celebrities.
Cossacks: European Wars
Though not as thoroughly well received as other strategy titles, with reviews ranging from lukewarm to favourable, CEW is considered one of the best-selling games of all time with the latest figures reporting roughly 4 million units sold. This RTS features real-world historical scenarios and maps from the 17th and 18th centuries, such as the English Revolution or the Seven Years War. Cossacks II enjoyed less success though sales were still quite high according to Project Lead Eugene Grygorovich.
Cossacks is an interesting and fun game, and can also be instructional from an historical point of view (like AoE or similar titles); units like the Ottoman Janissary/Tatar or the Polish Hussars come across as authentic and you could do worse than learn the names. Another element of the game, usually only present in games like Total War, is the absolutely huge numbes of units which makes online skirmishes even more fun. Watching about 200 infantry men go against each other is definitely worth it.
Even if it may be difficult to find online opponents for the game nowadays, it is worth it for the scenarios/single-player campaign and expansions. Cossacks remains a more-than-adequate candidate in this list of strategy games with huge profits.
Age of Empires
AoE is another historical RTS (a pioneer at that) which sees the player leading a civilization through four different ages. Documented sales show about 3 million units shipped which is still quite a high number for this type of game. AoE was mostly well received when first released in 1998 and won a number of awards and praise from various magazines like the German Gamestar or French PC Jeux.
Developed by Microsoft and Ensemble Studios, this game is without a doubt considered one of the pillars of the RTS genre, bringing the idea of “ages” to the RTS table for the first time, a concept later employed in Empire Earth, Rise of Nations and other games; perhaps it was first seen in Civilization on which Bruce Shelley, programmer for AoE, also worked on.
Recently a version of AoE Online was announced at E3 scheduled for commercial release sometimes in August of this year. Many original fans raged over the watered-down, anodyne fluff which was delivered with immediacy by the expo video, though you are free to play the beta and judge for yourself.
Sid Meier, that lovable podgy-faced bright-eyed figure everyone knows, created the first Civilization game in 1991 though the series continues to this day with its fifth instalment. The franchise only really begun to see financial success with the third and fourth titles, which respectively sold 2 and 4 million units; Civ IV is really where it began to take off and perhaps still remains the most successful of the lot.
Civ IV plays further with the idea of leaders in each civilization, and offers a number of other AI and game-play improvements. The game still finds a healthy community online, despite the release of Civ V, which has been rejected by some hardcore fans as a proper successor.
Civilization IV won numerous awards, such as Best Strategy, Best Online Game and Best PC Game of 2005.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert
The C&C franchise is definitely unique and holds a place in every RTS-gamer’s heart. Despite its dated graphics and unpolished presentation it still appeals because of its compelling atmosphere and gripping game mechanics. Though I personally prefer the first game and Tiberian Sun (now freeware), featuring an ever sombre James Earl Jones, Red Alert is where the game really profited with 3 million units shifted: the game is now also released as freeware.
Red Alert is designed as a prequel to the Tiberian series of games, having you play as either the allies or the Soviets and offering a system which relies on utilizing the different strengths of each side you play. You can still play Red Alert, Tiberium Sun or a few other retro RTS’s on the XWIS server, which is still active.
The game’s music by Frank Klepacki has been praised not only by fans, winning the Best Video Game Soundtrack of 1996 accolade awarded by PC Gamer and Gameslice magazines. Red Alert is well worth playing, and not only for followers of the C&C games, though it could expose the sorry state of the more current C&C releases.
There are perhaps a few other strategy games for PC which could have been included in the list, like the Warhammer series, Warcraft or Anno 1503/1602, but I felt these are the most memorable and best candidates to define a genre. Don't agree? Feel free to rage below, in the comment section.
Author's own experience.
All other images from Wikipedia.