Ah, December. The time when the video games press' thoughts turn to Game of the Year awards, arguing about which 8-12 hour big-budget action-adventure deserves the award most. But all of the Dooms and Uncharteds and Titanfalls aren't the biggest story of gaming in 2016. The biggest story is that this was the best-ever year for strategy games, a genre that's only becoming more important.
For an example, let's take The Game Awards, the game industry's most specific attempt to create an "Oscars for games." Its five GOTY nominees are three conventional action-adventure blockbusters (Doom, Titanfall 2, Uncharted 4), one now-conventional artistic side-scrolling indie (Inside), and a multiplayer shooter/awesome fanart generator, Overwatch, which won the award.
While perhaps expecting Civilization VI to crack the GOTY list was a bit much, it doesn't get a whole better in lesser categories. The only game that might be considered strategy to be nominated outside of the Best Strategy category was Fire Emblem: Fates, the tactical RPG, in Best Mobile/Handheld. Even the subcategories are tilted toward a very specific style of game: Best Performance, Best Direction, Best Art Direction—all of these are aimed at defining gaming as a specific type of narrative experience. There is no sign of, say, a Best Interlocking Systems award that could go to RPGs, card games, or strategy games.
Despite some high-profile games in decline like Starcraft 2 and other real-time games, especially as esports, strategy games as a whole are on the rise as an essential genre. The rise of digital distribution, especially Steam, has made the games that Best Buy once shoved into a corner aisle an essential part of the digital ecosystem. Strategy games have also been, alongside roguelikes and survival sims, one of the primary beneficiaries of streaming/Let's Play culture, which is built on opposition to linear narrative games. Let's Plays benefit from games you never have to reload; games where losing is fun.
But let's talk about just how good the genre was in 2016, because, holy shit, this year was something special. Pretty much every major subgenre got something good: grand strategy, 4x, accessible wargames, survival strategy, and tactics had something great.
I mentioned tactics games above with Fire Emblem, and this is a great place to start, because it was a wildly successful year in the subgenre. The biggest name in tactics, XCOM, got a sequel in 2016, although it was a bit messier than it should have been (especially in terms of bugginess), the tactical combat is still absolutely top-tier. Combine this with a very clever premise—XCOM is now the resistance against alien conquerors—and XCOM 2 was a real winner.
There were also a ton of successes in the grey areas between RPGs and strategy games. Between XCOM 2, The Banner Saga 2, and Fire Emblem: Fates, this was a great year for "moving little people across squares." But my favorite tactical game of 2016 didn't even use squares. That's Darkest Dungeon, which, at a glance, looks like a pure RPG.
Strategy games don't have to be boring to look at.
But it has an overarching strategic mode, where you attempt to keep dozens of characters sane and focused, for one thing. And while the combat may look like side-scrolling RPG, it's a set of simple, interlocking systems of movement, damage, and buffs/debuffs that combines into something as interesting and, yes, tactical as XCOM 2. It's probably my game of the year, and definitely the one I recommend to anyone asking what they should play from 2016. (For another game that turns the XCOM model sidewise, Halcyon 6 is also fascinating, if perhaps much more flawed variation.)
It's also been a huge year for grand strategy games, which are probably the games you think of when I say "strategy games." Grand strategy means games focused on kings and queens, nations and empires. Just like tactics games, this was a banner year for grand strategy, with arguably the genre's two biggest franchises seeing releases (Civilization and Total War), as well as several other big new games and continued expansions.
Grand strategy can be divided into two major categories: 4X games, and, well, games that aren't. The four 'X's stand more: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate. Basically, these are the games where you start with a single city, explore the world, and take it over (or, you start with the world and take over the galaxy). Other grand strategy games usually take at least one of those 'X's out.
Civilization is historically the essential game in the 4X subgenre—most successors have tried to be "Civ in space" or "fantasy Civ." Its latest installment made the clear case for the series still being the top of the genre. Civilization 6 does much of what's great about the series so well, with some great additions like research quests and building directly on the map. It's also an astonishingly gorgeous game, both technically and stylistically, demonstrating that strategy games don't have to be boring to look at.
But Civilization VI wasn't the most interesting new 4X game of 2016. That honor belongs to Stellaris, the Paradox Development Studio's first-ever non-historical game (they're most famous for Europa Universalis) and their first-ever pure 4X game. Stellaris, at a glance, appeared to have it all: a robust exploration and expansion system that slowly morphed into a Paradox-style giant, interlocking diplomatic system. While I, uh, didn't exactly like the game on release thanks to a dull mid-game and lack of diplomatic/factional complexity, it did garner a fanbase—and Paradox's post-launch support of their games and patch plans suggest Stellaris could still convince me.
The 4X genre also has some intriguing games in Early Access. Endless Legend was a surprise hit in 2014, infusing the genre with beauty, personality, and storytelling—all qualities that the upcoming Endless Space 2 is attempting to employ at the galactic level. The just-published Dawn of Andromeda seems to have potential (and a searchable name that's gonna be reaaalll helpful for them when Mass Effect comes out), and I'm keeping a close eye on the Civ-in-China style game Oriental Empires.
In terms of non-4X grand strategy, Paradox may not quite have succeeded with Stellaris, but they had a stellar (oh god, I'm sorry) year otherwise. Their two flagship games, Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis 4—complex historical simulations covering a dynasty through the Middle Ages and a nation in the early Modern era, respectively—both received some great expansions. CK2, a four-year-old game, got the superb "Conclave," which added Game of Thrones-like Small Council shenanigans. EU4's "Rights of Man" expansion brilliantly made its technology system significantly more interesting, and made its simulation of history less inherently eurocentric in the process. (Their World War II game, Hearts of Iron, also got a great new incarnation, covered below).
But even with that, the real gem of grand strategy games in 2016 is Creative Assembly's Total War: Warhammer, or, for those of us typing it more than once, Total Warhammer. The usually-superb series seemed to hit a nadir in 2013 with the release of the messy, virtually broken Rome 2: Total War, but after a decent repair with Attila, Total Warhammer managed to cram almost everything the series could potentially do well into Warhammer, while taking full advantage of the new fantastic setting. The tactical combat is finally balanced to feel right, the different factions all play with the right amount of variety, and the only issue I have really have with it is that I want more—the bigger map and more factions promised by its goal of a three-part series.
One of the most impressive games of the year was RimWorld, a game that mixed the best of survival strategy and city-building. All in a package that, despite being "Early Access," knew exactly what it wanted to be (a sci-fi/western accessible Dwarf Fortress) and how to go about doing that. A recent controversy took some—or perhaps a lot—of the luster off its release, but if you were able to take the game on its own, it's an impressive achievement. (And if you weren't, or still aren't, I can't blame you.)
For a less uncomfortable success story, there's Stardew Valley, a farming sim/RPG hybrid that took Steam by storm earlier this year. With a hybrid of western and Japanese influences, as well as a superb pixel art aesthetic, it's easy to see why it garnered so much love.
In fact only major subgenre to not get a major release was real-time strategy (specifically, the basecraft style), but even that had two major positive surprises. First was the release of Homeworld: Deserts of Kharak, a sequel to the classic Homeworld series that, initially, seemed like it might miss the point by taking the space-based games and setting them on the ground. Instead, Kharak provided the best of both worlds, using the desert as a kind of vast ocean, and creating a superb combined arms RTS with an interface to absolutely die for.
The big question: is this the new normal?
There was also the full release of the fascinating economic RTS, Offworld Trading Company. Offworld is the combination of the classic 1983 economic game M.U.L.E. with modern RTS-style interface, and it works very well with it. (Another piece of positive RTS news: Relic is now scheduled to publish Dawn of War 3 in 2017.)
Strategy games are historically descended from wargames, which also had an interesting year. I can't speak for the hardcore grognard games specifically in terms of new releases, but one major piece of news was that a wider variety of wargames, like Panzer Corps, finally got Steam releases. I hope we'll start seeing some of the more complex and fascinating wargames see wider audiences.
For more accessible strategy/wargames, the year ended with a sweet surprise: the straightforward Ultimate General: Gettysburg got a major sequel and upgrade in Early Access and Ultimate General: Civil War, which combined all of the war's biggest battles with a grand campaign. But perhaps the biggest gem of the genre is Paradox's Hearts of Iron 4, a game that attempts to simulate the entire of World War 2 economically, diplomatically, and militarily—and succeeds shockingly well at it. Its use of resources and assembly lines, once grasped, really demonstrates how the war was one of production, and makes that fun at the same time.
Then there's a grab-bag of interesting other games. Atlas Reactor combines the tense decision-making and teamwork of a MOBA with XCOM-style turn-based tactics. I'm looking forward to digging into Shadow Tactics, which takes Commandos-style real-time tactics/puzzles into a samurai setting. Plus there are a few Early Access games in progress, like Battle Brothers' medieval tactics and Block'hood's environmental building sim, that I'm looking forward to.
The big question: is this the new normal? Are strategy games so important now that we'll be seeing multiple major releases every year, alongside dozens of compelling smaller games? It's certainly not impossible, although the genre may need a bit of a breather in 2017. It's clear that publishers are recognizing the genre's potential, but we'll see how many of these games turn into sustained successes and potential franchises.