There are video game genres that are universally accepted as having one of the most passionate fan bases, and nowhere is that more true than with real-time strategy games. Introduced in the mid-1990s, the real-time strategy or RTS genre exploded in popularity and quickly grew into some of the best-known video game titles ever.
Games like Warcraft, Starcraft, Command and Conquer and Age of Empires all require a combination of quick thinking and strategic decision-making which were not found in other genres like first-person shooters. Even as many of the most popular titles in this genre belong to the PC world, that isn’t to say there are no surprises along the way on other platforms.
Let’s take a look at the absolute best real-time strategy games of all time and see if your favorite game makes the list.
What is a Real-Time Strategy Game?
The definition of a real-time strategy game has always been focused on a game type where players battle in real time. Unlike a turn-based strategy game where player moves are based on actual turns or rounds, in a real-time game, players are setting up defenses, building up farms, securing more territory, and preparing for conquest.
These games are generally won or lost based on either possessing enough of a map or completely destroying your opponent. Real-time strategy games are heavily focused on resource-gathering like wood, gold, or food, as well as base-building and developing new technologies to help find an advantage over your opponents.
#7: Ages of Empires II: The Age of Kings
- Command ancient peoples, from the Franks, Byzantines, Japanese, Celts, Mongols, or Vikings
- Develop trade, armies, and technology
- Span 1,000 years of strategy and conquering
Arguably one of the best-known names in the RTS genre, Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings is not just the best-known game in the Age of Empires series, but one of the best RTS games of all time.
Earning a 92 Metascore upon its release in September 1999, there are a total of five different single-player campaigns to play through across four different time periods. Important historical figures like Joan of Arc and Genghis Khan all appear as part of the campaign with the goal of defeating enemies and having them surrender.
Like most RTS games, players start off in control of villagers who must gather wood, food, gold, and stone to help advance through the different ages in the game. As new buildings are built, technologies expand and as they expand, new types of buildings become available to help find the edge over the enemy.
Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings has spawned numerous expansion packs and sequels including a PlayStation 2 port and a Nintendo DS release. In 2022, Microsoft announced plans to bring this classic title to Xbox Game Pass and released the game for a whole new generation to discover on January 31, 2023.
#6: Rome: Total War
First published in September 2004, Rome: Total War has continued to live on as one of the most popular examples of the RTS genre.
Taking place between 270 BC and 14 AD, players take control of three different Roman families and live through the rise and fall of various Roman factions. Gameplay is split between two different modes with the first being a real-time strategy system with 3D battles and the second being a turn-based, single-player campaign.
What really sets Rome: Total War apart is its unique battle view which you will soon discover, whether you start with a re-enactment of a historical battle or as part of a larger campaign. Taking place on a huge battlefield, players need to consider how the landscape is shaped as it will influence the outcome of any many battles. Are there hills, trees, or water? These factors all influence offensive and defensive strategies. You may also need to manage unit morale as well as place different units into different battle formations based on the time period to help weaken your enemy’s defenses.
Rome: Total War achieved a 92 Metascore which would help drive the creation of expansion packs as well as mobile releases on the iPad, iPhone, and Android.
#5: Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!
Developed by one of the biggest names in early PC gaming, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (Sid Meier is a legendary developer) Is unsurprisingly a game focused on the American Civil War.
Within this game, you have the option of controlling either Confederate or Union troops and can take part in one-off skirmish battles or play as part of a campaign of linked battles that help recount the history of some of the most famous battles of this war. The campaigns extend across seven battles and tie together depending on how well you perform.
Overall, the game encompasses more than 25 different scenarios along with a random scenario generator that all but ensures a deep replay value. As soon as any battle begins, you need to quickly develop your strategy, as the real-time component of Side Meier’s Gettysburg! is that your enemies are not sitting around waiting. Instead, they are taking positions and looking to establish firing lines.
How long a battle lasts is up to you so you may be able to finish in 20 minutes or keep trying new tactics and extend your battles until you win. What’s best about this title is that the graphics still look great, and for a 26-year-old game, it still looks like it’s deserving of its 92 Metascore.
Please note: As of July 18, 2023, Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! – PC is out of stock on Amazon. Check the retailer for future availability.
First published in September 1999, Homeworld is set in space and is one of the first truly special science fiction entries in the RTS genre.
As the highest-rated computer game according to Metacritic in 1999, it’s no surprise Homeworld is met with a 93 overall Metascore. As is the case with most RTS titles, your immediate focus here is building up the size and strength of your forces by gathering resources and then destroying your enemies one by one.
The story driving the game is that your home world has been destroyed, leaving your people with only a fleet of ships left to fight. It all feels very Battlestar Galactica-like and that’s perfectly okay as TV shows like that provide excellent source material with which to draw from.
The single-player campaign spans 16 different hand-drawn levels where you start with a mothership that builds out smaller ships that will mine resources, build battlecruisers, and offensive ship types to battle your enemies.
Homeworld’s popularity and strong sales would lead to numerous expansion packs as well as three more Homeworld games that would continue the story arc. A remaster of the game would be released in 2004 which reinvigorated the series for a time and would lead to more sequels.
#3: Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty
- Collector's Edition
- 176-page artbook, soundtrack CD with 14 tracks, behind-the-scenes DVD
- 2GB USB flash drive replica of Jim Raynor's dog tag
When a sequel is released to a massively popular game, there’s always a chance it won’t be as good as the original. Thankfully, that was not the case with Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty, which was released in July 2010 for both Microsoft Windows and macOS.
Today, Wings of Liberty is free-to-play which is highly unusual for a game that has sold more than 4.5 million copies and earned a 93 Metascore.
The single-player mode spans 29 different missions and returns all three of the original species from the original Starcraft title. Of the 29 missions, 26 are the principal missions where you’ll find the most gameplay depth with the remaining three missions introducing a few surprises and upping the replay value. The game itself takes place four years after Starcraft: Brood War as major characters and worlds all while introducing new character arcs and new locations.
One of the biggest highlights of Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty was the addition of an editor mode which not only included support for mods but also gave players total control over maps allowing everyone to create maps any way they see fit.
#2: Company of Heroes
The highest-rated RTS game set in the World War II era with a 93 Metascore, Company of Heroes is a must-own for anyone who is a fan of more practical titles that doesn’t involve science fiction or imaginary technologies.
Released in 2006 for Windows and macOS, the series continues to be popular to this day with the release of Company of Heroes 3 in February 2023.
Set immediately after D-Day in Normandy, players control a small unit known as Able Company that plays a fictional part in real-life battles that shaped the outcome of the war. Built on Relic Entertainment’s Essence and Havok Physics engines, the visual detail of Company of Heroes immediately attracted both diehard RTS players and attracted new fans to the genre. These combined engines meant smoke from explosions looks and behaves as it would in the real world and the same with flying debris. It’s a true visual treat.
Another major highlight of the game was its destructible environment which gave players the opportunity to achieve their mission by any means necessary. It’s also fantastic for replay value as you can try a near-endless number of approaches and tactics to take control of a bridge or clear a building.
#1: Command and Conquer
- Online game code
- Windows Vista, Windows 7 compatible
Arguably the best-known name in the real-time strategy genre, Command and Conquer was released in 1995.
Taking a run at an alternate history, the game pits two separate groups: the Global Defense Initiative and the Brotherhood of Nod in an all-out, winner takes all battle for control of a special resource known as Tiberium. Achieving a 94 Metascore, Command and Conquer currently sits alone with the highest Metascore across the RTS genre.
Having sold over three million copies, this was the game that helped introduce thousands and thousands of new players to the idea of resource gathering and real-time strategy. Mining Tiberium is the focal point of each mission across both single-player campaigns and it’s this resource that gives you everything you need to build up tanks, troopers, and air support.
Driven by its massive popularity, numerous ports for Command and Conquer were developed for macOS, Sony PlayStation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64 before the game was made available as a free download in 2007. Since its release in 1995, the Command and Conquer series has sold over 30 million copies and continues to enjoy success to this day.
The real-time strategy genre has been around for almost three decades and shows no signs of slowing down. While it remains a format best played on PC with a mouse, games like Age of Empires II have shown they still have a place on home game consoles through the likes of Xbox Game Pass.
Regardless of how you play, what’s most important is that these seven titles are just a snapshot of the excellent titles that score well on Metacritic like Pikmin 2, Empire: Total War, Command & Conquer: Red Alert, and Rise of Nations. That’s good news for RTS fans as there is always a new game to try, even if you go back in time to find it.
The image featured at the top of this post is ©Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock.com.