Innogames aren't newcomers to the real-time strategy genre (though the original Tribal Wars plays like a game whose developer's intentions are in the right place but result in a slightly lacklustre outcome), and Tribal Wars 2 bears all the hallmarks of a game that's been drastically improved. You're given a barebones settlement to start and must manage its resources, build defences, and raise an army whilst levelling up your buildings in order to stoke the fires of your resource production. It's progress to fuel progress essentially, but it's quite the entertaining little cycle to be involved in.
Tribal Wars 2 has drastically improved visuals that immediately put it ahead of its predecessor, as well as a few new features and building types to interest the veterans of the game. Annoyingly, the combat system still cannot be accurately described as anything other than a number-crunching affair; your battles with other players unfold through a table of numbers, pitting your tribal level (calculated by the sum of your building levels plus the state of your military) against theirs in a glorified numbers table. This is a disappointment, particularly when you consider that Forge of Empires allows you to actually experience the battlefield.
This medieval building game still deserves to be on this list because it's addictive, but its combat system still needs improving and it can be a little too time-intensive when you run out of your initial stock of money/resources.
Medieval 2 Total War
There's a lot to be said about the Total War saga, a series of games so legendary and epic that the very mention of them makes other developers very slightly ashamed that their games aren't quite measuring up. Medieval II: Total War is coming up on 8 years old now, but its name still resonates with force throughout the medieval real-time strategy community. The volume at which this game resonates is rather significant because of its mix of grand-scale real-time strategy and brutal turn-based combat depicted in more gory detail than most, and all set in the grizzly medieval period where you could casually strike down a peasant if he so much as even slightly underappreciated being allowed to breathe the same air as a noble lord or knight.
The game's campaign involved constructing and managing your own civilisation and all of its goings on such as its military and its economy as well as the social system that your civilisation inevitably divides into. The fact that you get to assume control of famous historical powers such as the Holy Roman Empire, Denmark, Milan etc. and control up to around 45 powers in the long campaign means that history buffs will be loving the attention to historical accuracy and the discovery of the New World towards the latter period of the game's historical scope (which ranges from 1080 to 1530). RTS fans with no appreciation for history on the other hand can still revel in the slick graphics (even for its time), gory battles, and the gargantuan nature of the entire affair.
Crusader Kings 2
Paradox Interactive embarked upon quite the task to create a game as all-encompassing as Crusader Kings 2, but they went ahead and did it anyway, and this game is the result. As one of the more recent games on this list - released in 2012 for Windows - Crusader Kings II's graphics are a little more advanced than many of its older competitors, though its battles still take place with relatively few troops hacking each other up on the screen in front of your eyes in order to depict larger-scale battles that each of these violently-hacking characters represent.
Along with its predecessor, Crusader Kings II is more of a dynasty simulator than the Total War series, requiring you to handle the affairs of your very own royal bloodline, acquiring spouses, forging relationships, and generally keeping up appearances as you balance the books between the various social classes of your kingdom. Military might is of course equally as important, though diplomacy between you and your aggressors can be equally as beneficial as straight-up war. The drawback with this game is that it can be so unbelievably detailed - every decision you make has potentially catastrophic effects on your relationships with your family as well as your subjects - that casual gamers may find it difficult to dip in and out of; it's a game which requires the spending of many consecutive hours on its gameplay.
Here's one of the titles in this list that has an unexpected position, though one that is has earned fairly and squarely. Instead of your usual RTS elements, Banished is more of a city-builder spectacular with an emphasis on survival. And not just casual survival where resources become readily available if you weather a few bad patches. I mean serious survival, where the fate of your entire population of banished subjects depends on getting the balance of resource production, population health, city building, and disaster relief just right.
Banished immerses you into a world where the four seasons run in a cycle as they would in real life. Times are good in the beginning since Spring is a time where crops will grow readily, but your first Winter shows you no mercy, killing off most of your crops and showing you just how harsh Banished can be. Its tutorial treats you like an adult, showing you the mechanics of the game and them demonstrating the importance of controlling them correctly by immersing you in the worst-case scenarios for each dimension of the action. Natural disasters like diseases, fires, and bad weather all take their toll in a game that's as realistic as it is immersive; this nets it the high position in this top 10 list.
Age of Empires 2
Age of Empires is basically synonymous with medieval real-time strategy in the eyes of most gamers. This is because it has been around for such a long time, though it could also be something to do with the series offering up some seriously old-school real-time strategy that some argue represents the whole genre at its very best. This should be considered a first-generation RTS, not least because of its 2D isometric design and interface, which was typical of contemporary games of its genre. For many, Age of Empires represents a classic age of real-time strategy that has since been left behind in the archives of gaming history.
Age of Empires II is a game that received widespread critical acclaim and it's not difficult to understand why. Those that appreciate a bit of a realism will enjoy Age of Empires II's buildings, which are represented in true scale - town halls fill the screen with their grandness whilst smaller buildings cower next to them in their miniscule existence. The varying architectural styles - these range from Middle Eastern and Eastern to the styles of Western and Eastern Europe - show an attention to detail that many titles barely even touch upon. You'll play as any one of the 13 civilisations in the game such as the Byzantine or Turkish empires, each speaking their own native language in occasional outbursts.
Age of Empires II is a fantastic real-time strategy that may seem a little dated to some, but for those that truly appreciate historical context and massive quantities of strategy-heavy action, then this game is the perfect pastime.
If the original Stronghold is an appetiser in the banquet of tasty real-time strategy that is Firefly Studios' series, then Stronghold Crusader is the main course. This game's trailer that preceded its release promised an improved interface, better visuals, and most importantly a more substantial feel to the gameplay and the content of the game in general
Crusaderdefinitely delivers on the substance part of the promise. As is the usual procedure here, you get to command your own territory by managing its economic, social, and political affairs, as well as fortifying its location with a castle to ensure proper defence of your position. You've also got more units this time around with increased powers and with more variation than in the original. Fancy being part of the Crusades? Well, that's what Crusader is all about, offering you the chance to involve yourself in some RTS-themed events that represent some of the bloodiest conflicts and times in the history of the world.
Long-term fans of this series will enjoy the improvements here in this sequel, as well as the return of the classic Pig, Wolf, and Snake campaign where you must take territories that were taken by people that murdered your father. Crusader's depth is an essential component that the original Stronghold was missing, and this makes it a better title by far.
The RTS action of Knights of Honor is grand to say the least. In the game you get to control around 100 territories throughout 3 distinct eras of history. It is an ambitious effort that Black Sea studios has managed to pull off spectacularly. Whether you're promoting your knights or conquering nearby territories, there's always something to do in Knights of Honor, with your responsibilities being so far-reaching you could spend 10 hours a day on the game and still have things to do. Its epic campaign is incredible to play (though isn't available as part of multiplayer), making this one of the better RTS games you can play.
Stronghold's attempt to attack the RTS genre from multiple angles is admirable, with the blend of settlement management and engrossing castle defence/attack being extremely enjoyable. The problem with Firefly Studios' first Stronghold title is that it suffers from overstretching itself in reaching for multiple gameplay dimensions. Though its castle defence and castle siege campaigns are some of the only opportunities in the entire genre to besiege/defend various strongholds in this level of detail, they still suffer from a number of bugs as well as an ill-designed and shallow economic campaign that highlights the game's focus on siege action in lieu of the social, economical, and political factors of conquering territories.
Original may be great but it isn't always best: this statement has never been truer in this instance. Crusader Kings is where Pardox's series began, and it's not a game that can be dismissed easily as being one of the better grand-scale strategies out there. Players get to experience the epic action through three main campaigns that focus on events that are historically accurate to an impressive degree. The battle of Hastings is one event whose after effects are the subject of one of these campaigns, and both the 1187 crusade (known as the third crusade) and the Hundred Years' War are also represented in stunning social, economic, political, and historical detail.
Each campaign allows you to try your hand at assuming control of pivotal figures such as King Richard I, with each of these characters having particular traits and attributes that make the whole thing feel like an RPG in addition to being a grand-scale RTS. These attributes bestow both positive and negative dimensions to each of the characters, with positive attributes leading to great leadership qualities but also making you the enemy of those that are on the more negative end of the spectrum. Family lineage also has an important part to play in your international standing; William I's lack of father makes him a bastard and therefore viewed negatively by other rulers with what is seen as a more perfect family tree.
Serious RTS fans will absolutely love this original (though not as much as the sequel), though the game isn't for the faint of heart as it can eat up hours and hours per day of your time. Its depth is such that those looking for a more casual experience may as well not even bother with this game's colossal breadth and stunning historical depth.
Stronghold Crusader 2
Remember the food analogy I introduced in the paragraphs about Stronghold: Crusader? Well, if the original Crusader was the impressive main course in the RTS banquet, then Crusader 2 is unfortunately the disappointing dessert that manages to taint an otherwise adequate meal. This game is concerned with the same subject matter as the original, which is managing territories during the time of the Crusades with a particularly detailed focus on siege-based warfare, but it's just disappointing this time around.
Things appear to have been simplified this time around, taking away a lot of the elements that made the original Crusader's simulation of the challenges of managing and defending your own territory challenging in the first place.