There are plenty of real-time and turn-based strategy games, but few transpire in far-off galaxies and star systems. Of the best space strategy games, the most exceptional titles boast solid gameplay, deep customization options, robust micromanagement, a long tech tree and excellent graphics (for the game's time). Many developers did try to borrow the standard RTS and turn-based strategy elements to deliver a good space strategy title, but failed as this genre demands more than just fireworks in the vast stretches of space. These 10 stand out as the all-time greats.
10. Star Wars: Empire at War
One of the best Star Wars strategy games, Empire at War is truly massive because it features both land and space battles. Another of amazing feature is the dual battle mode, which makes Star Wars: Empire at War quite unique and fun.
Land combat in Empire at War is similar to any RTS title, but it’s the epic space battles that make it a complete space strategy game. The game has three modes including galactic Conquest, where players strive to achieve galactic supremacy in a sand-box campaign. The original campaign mode is quite linear, so majority of the fun lies in skirmish or conquest mode. In Skirmish mode, you can engage in a fierce battle against your enemies in space or land battles. Space battles allow you to have your own upgradable space station.
Casual players will love the space skirmishes as it quickly pits them against rival factions without worrying about micromanagement. Players will have to defend their space stations by upgrading them, which negates leaving units to defend your base, and allows you to plan your strategy effectively. With variety in gameplay, nice 3D visuals and solid space battles, Star Wars: Empire at War is recommended for both casual and hardcore RTS fans.
9. Space Empires IV
Space Empires IV is a turn-based strategy game that focuses on galactic conquest. While the game’s strength is deep customization, its weakness is the lack of challenging AI opponents. Graphically, the game is okay, but the classic Civilization style gameplay compensates for the lack of attention to detail and the not-so-challenging AI.
Space Empires IV provides various ways to win against enemy AI, including diplomacy. The thinking player will love to engage in political negotiations and micromanagement instead of one-on-one combat as resources easily are spent on space battles. However, the excellent customization options will encourage players to take advantage of the tech tree and upgrade their units with advanced weapons and improvements.That's where the AI has trouble keeping up.
The game has plenty of alien races of choose from and each race has a distinctive characteristics, making gameplay somewhat challenging. The enemy AI is not as challenging what is found in Galactic Civilizations or Master of Orion, and hence this game is not recommended for hardcore strategy fans.
8. Sword of the Stars
Gamers familiar with the gameplay of Homeworld and Sins of a Solar Empire will find this a surprise entry in this top ten PC games list. The reason I have included Sword of the Stars is because of its strong gameplay and strategic depth. It’s actually a turn-based/RTS hybrid with real-time space combat and plenty of ship customization options. What sets it apart from other space strategy games is its combat simulation, which employs a physics-based engine to deliver engaging space battles.
Sword of the Stars is a 4X strategy game, which means there is much more than just space combat. The turn-based strategy aspect of the game allows players to forge diplomatic relations and expand territory. The real-time combat is decent and provides plenty of ways to plan your tactics. The latest game adds more variations: Instead of 4 races, players have two additional races, each race having its own distinct strategic method to tackle enemies. This feature makes space combat more interesting and satisfying.
Sword of the Stars boasts randomly generated maps, which means there’s some replay value. The game is recommended for all strategy fans looking for a Homeworld alternative with broader focus on strategy.
7. Star Wolves
Star Wolves is a real-time game with plenty of role-playing options that make the game more interesting. Battles take place in space, but you control a small group of customizable battleships that fight against enemy forces instead of a huge fleet. Each battleship is in the control of a character whose skills advance as the game progresses. This is where the RPG part comes to play. Every ship plays an important role and hence choosing a wide range of special skills for each character is crucial to survive battles. New characters join your band of mercenaries from time to time, giving you a chance to upgrade and choose the best ones.
There are plenty of special skills to choose from and a wide range of ship customization options, allowing you to decide on the right armament for your ships. You can also purchase additional weapons and equipment from the in-game black market. These RPG features borrowed from old school role-playing games adds some variation to gameplay.
Real-time space battles are engaging and with the addition of smart pause, the game becomes more interesting. The smart pause feature allows players to pause at any time in battle to plan their strategy well in advance. Star Wolves' unique tactical battles can appeal to gamers who want to jump right into combat and don’t want too much micromanagement.
6. Starpoint Gemini
Starpoint Gemini (SPG) is another great tactical role-playing game that focuses more on the strengths and weaknesses of individual spaceships and not on the number of ships in a fleet. Like Star Wolves, SPG is character-centric and allows players to upgrade skills and based on experience points gained during battles. Players can move freely in the expansive Gemini star system and trade equipment & commodities, research technology upgrade their ships with over 300 systems that increase their speed and firepower. There are plenty of tactics to employ, including cloaking your battleships, targeting the subsystem of an enemy spaceship to cripple it partially and using enemy vessels to launch surprise attacks.
The extensive RPG elements and solid real-time tactical combat adds more depth and variety to gameplay. Players can choose their own career and are either free to roam space or play along all thirty levels in the main storyline. You can name your captain, choose a special skill and later upgrade his skills based on the XP points earned. Like any RPG game, Starpoint Gemini allows players to take up side-quests (called freelance missions) besides the campaign missions.
5. Galactic Civilizations
A turn-based strategy game, Galactic Civilizations is best known for its challenging AI. Hardcore strategy fans will love the diverse civilization choices, a robust diplomacy system and a huge technology tree. The AI civilizations are quite realistic in their approach to other races and each has a distinct personality.
Players play as humans (Terran) and their objective is to achieve galactic supremacy. Different victory conditions provide more than one way to achieve goals. Players can win through diplomacy, tech, or war. There are different alien civilizations to play against, including the evil Yor Collective, the “neutral" Arcean Empire and the dangerous Drengin Empire. The gameplay will remind you of Master of Orion and Civilization, but with an advanced AI, the game’s more difficult to master.
4. Master of Orion
Master of Orion was one of the very first 4X turn-based strategy games. Even today, the game is considered to be one of the best space strategy operas of all time. Released in 1993, Master of Orion received accolades for delivering a complete 4X strategy gaming experience. Players could explore, colonize, research technology, dominate planets and engage in space battles against rival races. The micro-management as well as diplomacy features were hailed by game reviewers as quite in-depth and full of variety.
The objective of Master of Orion is to lead your race to dominate the galaxy. You can win by vanquishing the remaining 9 races or be elected the galaxy’s supreme leader at the High Council meeting. The game provides various diplomatic options to forge alliances with rival races and has a comprehensive tech tree to research weapons, technology, construction and many other fields. You can engage in space battles, although you cannot control battles as the outcome is decided by the number of ships, technology used and various other factors.
Following the release, a sequel called Battle at Antares was released 3 years later. In 2003, the third sequel to the original game was released, but was not as good as the first two games. Inspired by Master of Orion, a free-to-play game called FreeOrion was released in the same year. Turn-based strategy fans shouldn’t miss this massive space opera and can download the original game and its sequel from GOG.com for about $5.
3. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Very few turn-based strategy games are as deep as the critically-acclaimed Alpha Centauri. After all, the game is the brainchild of the developers of Civilization and Civilization II, so you can expect a massive turn-based strategy title with a solid gameplay style and an ingenious plot.
Following mankind’s space race triumph in Civilization II, the UN sent a space mission to colonize a distant planet called Chiron in the Alpha Centauri star system. Upon landing, the captain is murdered and soon the colonists split into different ideological groups seeking to achieve planetary supremacy. The story unfolds with new schisms, developments and several twists in store for players, making it as immersive as any acclaimed sci-fi novel (the game’s plot has been compared with Kubric’s Space Odyssey and many other science fiction works of Isaac Asimov).
Alpha Centauri’s post-space race victory setting makes it a worthy sequel to Civilization 2. The game pioneered several features that are now common in games, such as fully customizable units and terraformabl terrain. Though it uses the Civ 2 engine, this game provides better visuals. It also barrows features from the original game, including the tech tree and secret projects (in Civilization 2 it this was called Wonders of the World). Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri has a riveting storyline, immersive gameplay and is a must-play game for all strategy game fans.
2. Sins of a Solar Empire
Sins of a Solar Empire redefines space strategy by combining micro-management with tactical space combat. Sins does not have a single-player campaign mode, but a sand-box mode where players are free to choose their solar systems, engage in battle against rival factions, conquer orbiting planets and explore distant interstellar systems. The game assimilates some elements of the 4X strategy genre (“explore, expand, exploit and exterminate") and simplifies the technological and micro-management aspects, thus heavily deemphasizing the deep, complex gameplay normally associated with 4X games.
Instead, Sins of a Solar Empire relies on real-time combat. Players have to choose any one of three factions and fight against other players online or against AI opponents in sandbox mode to achieve galactic supremacy. The full 3D environment is massive and contains randomly generated galaxies, asteroids, planets and stars. Thanks to the game’s Iron Engine, players can see how the differences in distance, size and scale are perfectly executed in this game.
This game is simple to learn, but difficult to master, as skill in both management and combat is required to survive and rule the universe.
Homeworld’s compelling narrative, revolutionary 3D graphics and superb soundtrack offers a never-before gameplay experience for space strategy gamers. Released in 1999, Homeworld was the first space startegy game that allowed players to utilize the full 3D space presented by space rather than playing on a simple 2D battlefield.
Homeworld’s exceptionally well-designed cut-scenes convey the plot beautifully. An ancient spaceship discovered on your home planet Kharak holds vital clues about the origin of your species. You, along with your dedicated team, set on an interstellar expedition to uncover the truth, but are stopped by deadly alien swarms on the way. Your enemies will do anything to stop you, and it starts to become clear that your race's history is far deeper and more important than anyone imagined.
You will have to build battleships to fight of hordes of aliens and research different technologies to counter their advance measures to destroy your mothership. You will find the same old harvest-build-research RTS formula. However, while battling enemy units, the unique control system and a variety of battle formations and attack styles will provide plenty of tactical options to counter your enemies. The stunning 3D visuals let you zoom-in and enjoy a front-seat view of your battleships. Along with 16 intense single-player missions, the game also supports online multiplayer and a skirmish mode, which allows you to play against computer opponents. With visuals far ahead of its time, Homeworld is one of the best space strategy games that feature a good plot and deep gameplay.
All images are courtesy of the game’s respective publisher