Dragons, Magic, Orcs and Dwarfs... where are all the fantasy strategy games as of late?
In the world of strategy, fantasy has become perhaps the most neglected genre. Considering that the fantasy genre offers the RTS genre one of the best platforms for potential of a mix of units, style, scope and range adds to the puzzle. The majority of fantasy resides in the RPG scene. I mean, after Blizzard’s WarCraft III the scene was set. With a game that is still being played today and regarded as one of the babies of eSports alongside StarCraft it offered very little room for competition. Even one of the most popular RTS-type games, the MOBA/ARTS genre has spawned into popularity from Blizzard’s WarCraft III.
Originally I wanted this list to be strictly and purely RTS yet this is where I faced my first challenge. I ended up with a list populated with games 5-10 years old. In this list I’ve removed all FPS Hybrids, 4X, MOBA and ARTS and focused purely on the RTS and turn-based strategy games. I have, however, left the hybrids of RTS and RPG in that still utilise RTS mechanics.
10) Warhammer: Dark Omen
Released in 1998 and developed by Mindscape, Warhammer: Dark Omen is one of the many games from my teenage years. Warhammer: Dark Omen stood amongst the few that my friends and I would play for hours. Figuring it was cheaper than the figures and less time-consuming than painting we’d battle it out in the universe we loved to read about.
The game was one of the first games to utilise the 3DFX GFX cards and was a marvel to play. WH:DO was in fact a RTT game (Real-time Tactics) focusing more on the battles than any resource management. The list of “tactics” you could utilise like a flank, a charge, wheeling, ambushing and the like made you feel like a tactical genius.
9) Armies of Exigo
Released in 2004 and developed by Black Hole Entertainment, Armies of Exigo felt behind its time. With gameplay akin to Warcraft with three armies, The Empire, The Fallen and the Beast it did offer exclusive features. The underground mode which turned the map into a multi-tiered battleground forced extra thought about flank attacks, and a unique levelling system for units of each race gave it a little extra but the gameplay still lacked. To be released after WarCraft III and to offer nothing new to the table gave this game a short life span.
Released in 2000 and developed by Cyberlore studios, Majesty: The Fantasy Kingdom sim offered players the chance to develop, create and manage their organisational skills in a fantasy setting. Building up your city, hiring guards, collecting taxes, trading and so on, players would have various quests or scenarios to complete. Yet the game was not praised and remembered for its scenarios but rather the sandbox aka freestyle play with random maps that The Northern Expansion introduced. Majesty 2 was released but never really became as popular as the original, making Majesty stand proudly alone. In March 2012, Paradox Interactive released Majesty Gold HD edition, allowing larger resolutions and native support to Windows 7.
7) Battle for Middle Earth Series
Released in 2004 and developed by EA The Battle for Middle Earth was highly anticipated mainly due to the franchise. Middle Earth retained the basic RTS mechanics but removed the freedom of building anywhere, instead creating predefined plots where players would choose to place buildings. Most units had upgrades and individual unit skills. The game utilised a very obvious rock- paper-scissors system and utilised a hero system allowing the player to use an iconic hero from the series. The game used the SAGE engine, made popular by Command and Conquer: Generals the year before but suffered a sluggish feeling. Critics claimed the SAGE engine was not made for mass melee sprawls and thus suffered. Regardless, the game was amongst the better fantasy RTS titles and seemed yet again to take on the mix of RTS and RPG. The game is no longer for sale as the online servers were permanently closed at the end of 2010 due to the expiration of the LOTR gaming rights.
6) Black and White 2
Released in 2005 and developed by Lionhead Studios, Black and White 2 blended RTS, city-building and the iconic god-gameplay elements. The player would take the role of a god that depended on the worship of his followers to remain in existence. The player would help his village of believers expand, build, conquer and take over the land competing against other gods and villages. The main gameplay, however, rotated around the anthropomorphic creature that was the physical representation of the god. As an ape, lion, wolf, cow or tiger the creature would grow to a huge size and develop a persona. Teaching it to help villages gather trees, attack bases, build structures would encourage it and develop it in an assisting role. It could be disciplined when it did unsavoury things like eating a villager. It was entirely plausible and valid to allow such actions and rule through fear and tyranny. Black and White featured a gesture system allowing the player to move the mouse in a gesture to cast spells and issue commands. B&W is a sequel I’d love to see.
5) King Arthur 2
Released in 2012 and developed by Neocore Games, King Arthur 2: The Role-playing Wargame pretty much snuck out of nowhere. The game describes itself as an RPG Wargame and that is almost spot on. If I said a it was a Fantasy Total War game with spells it would be a great description. King Arthur utilised the campaign map for the management of resources, and battles were a RTT. The RPG elements spread across morality, items, loot and development of individual generals. I think KA2 is one of the most underrated games where its only failing is a complete lack of advertisement. I would also state that it is not Total War, whilst it holds a similar feel to the TW series it is a less subtle game in terms of battle and more reliant on the RPG elements working in tandem. KA2 fails to bring everything cleanly together and feels like it is trying to achieve too much yet it also offers a mix of gameplay which is, I’ll say again, underrated.
4) Dungeon Keeper 2
Released in 1999 and developed by Bullfrog Productions, Dungeon Keeper was a one of its kind: a strategy game that has become almost cult-like in following. Dungeon Keeper has had many attempts to create a sequel but each one missed the point, missed the feel and was heavily criticised for its failed attempt. Even Dungeon Keeper 2 was frowned at for not living up to the beauty of Dungeon Keeper 1. The game skirted around humour, and fourth wall-breaking jokes. Putting you in command of the bad guys, you’d manage, build and carve out your dungeon, creating rooms to any size and assigning the contents. The game is a great example of sandbox play and allowed players in the linear campaign multiple ways to complete the mission. The multiplayer and sandbox modes were in fact two of the main features that were held in high regard. Dungeon Keeper 2, whilst skirting the RTS genre, still remains one of my top games.
3) Heroes of Might and Magic Series
To cite just one game in the HoMM series would be a crime. I would say my preference is of course HoMM III and easily King’s Bounty was one of the great RTS of its time yet instead I’m going to group them all into one. HoMM was developed by New World Computing, then 3DO and finally Ubisoft. The series began in 1995 and Heroes of Might and Magic III was released in 1999. Each game was ultimately the same with improvements over UI and graphics with each step. HoMM III was released in 2000 with the complete pack and has a bustling community porting it to android and releasing native support and higher resolutions still today. It is a turn-based game, a step away from RTS yet firmly in the realm of fantasy. Playing a leader of a race you can hire heroes, raise units, upgrade towns and research spells. Each turn units move around the campaign map attacking and conquering outlying lands, taking over the map. Heroes meet on the field or end up defending gates, towns or keeps. Battles are turn-based combat. Usually the gameplay has various quests, scenarios and items that would add the RPG element to upgrading your heroes and armies. HoMM is no traditional RTS but easily a defining game in the fantasy genre.
2) Age of Mythology
Released in 2002 and developed by Ensemble Studios, AoM is one of the best Fantasy RTS games available. A spin off of the Age of Empire Series, it is no wonder that AoM still holds high regard today as one of the best RTS games out there. A true RTS, AoM has base building, resources, armies and advancement through ages. A true clone of Age of Empires and easily a great example of “it if isn’t broke, don’t fix it”. AOM allowed players to play as the Norse, Greek, Egyptian and so on, and it introduces god-like powers that utilise favour. Playing heavily on the mythology (give-away in the name huh?) AoM sold over one million units within four months of release. AoM stands proud today as a game that people remember alongside Age of Empires 2, and that in itself says something.
1) WarCraft III
Released in 2002 by Blizzard Entertainment, Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos stepped up and took the RTS Fantasy cup and held it. In fact, it still holds it today. Warcraft III and later on the expansion The Frozen Throne both held fantastic gameplay. It was a traditional RTS with resource management, buildings, units and hero units. WarCraft III changed the RTS scene for fantasy by merging all features of RPG, RTS and Fantasy into one. The use of heroes in armies, items, upgrades and levelling became normal. The campaign, the storyline and the lore was ground breaking. Warcraft III sold over one million units within a month. ItI took art and made it a style, a style which still holds up to today’s judgement. Sure, it may seem blocky but it has a style which allows it to sit comfortably within that range. In addition, the game introduced a balanced understanding that multiplayer gameplay was not just a race to the best units but instead offered varying tactics and gave a constant threat. Warcraft III was one of the babies of eSports alongside StarCraft, and with the multiplayer and custom map options it gave birth to DoTA and the entire scene which lead to HoN and League of Legends.
If you were to award a game for influence, Warcraft 3 took the fantasy RTS genre and shaped it, moulded it and made a perfect example. Since then games have struggled, and to dethrone such a game would be akin to straight-up cloning or some serious innovation.
Like I mentioned before I avoided 4x sims and hybrids that leaned on the FPS camp yet fantasy games that should be mentioned are: