With turn-based games making a small comeback this year, it’s time to take a look at one of the oldest genres. This week, I present the top 5 titles for fans who appreciate a slower style of game.
1Advance Wars (Intelligent Systems, 2001)
My first experience with Advance Wars was running across a news story about six years ago when I was working as an editorial assistant. After a heated battle on a forum dedicated to Advance Wars – Wars Central – a 21 year old German travelled to Nottingham in the UK, stabbed a forum moderator and was promptly arrested and convicted.
Instead of thinking, “Wow, that’s messed up,” my first reaction was, “Shit, Advance Wars must be a pretty good game.” I’ve got problems, clearly.
Still, my instincts were right. Advance Wars to this day is still one of the best games in any genre you’ll play on GBA. The campaign is a bit nonsensical and full of adolescent bullshit that the Japanese like to lather their culture in, but the core mechanics, design and missions are nothing but excellent. The game was understandably a huge hit outside of Japan and helped, reportedly, change the company’s attitude about the Western market.
You can get an Advance Wars bundle now on the Wii U Virtual Console, if you’re sad enough to own that. It’s actually worth breaking out for Advance Wars alone – it really is that good.
2Master of Orion II: Battle at Antares (Microprose, 1996)
Until Galactic Civilizations 2 hit the market almost a decade later, Master Of Orion 2 was the benchmark for 4X games in space. While there was a host of games to appreciate over the period, it took an entire decade until a game could properly rival the scale, scope and depth Microprose squeezed into this grand strategy.
Similar to the Civ series, you could leave your planets to be fully automated or you could micromanage every aspect of their development. There was a fully fleshed out diplomacy and espionage system, while all ships were customisable. Not one aspect of the game was lacking, which is often the case with 4X strategy. The original GalCiv, for instance, lacked ship customisation, while the newer Endless Space had a weak combat phase that was reliant on CCG mechanics.
But that wasn’t MoO2. It had everything. Literally everything. You could build custom races and choose their traits much like an RPG (a system that would be replicated in many other 4X turn-based games, like Empire of a Fading Suns and GalCiv later on).
Fans continue to enjoy MoO2 even today, tweaking and modding the old girl to keep it alive. (They did such a good job, in fact, that the Good Old Games MoO2 bundle comes with the unofficial 1.4.0 patch.) It’s an excellent entry point into turn-based 4X sims, particularly if you want to branch out from the Civilization-style of games.
3Worms (Team 17, 1995)
Worms doesn’t evoke images of hexes or turn-based gameplay. Instead, it conjures up memories of being with a group of mates, laughing uncontrollably at that one mine that slowly bounces down a hill, exploding next to your final teammate before triggering a string of explosions that ends up taking out half the worms on the map.
Worms is organised chaos, but it’s also a classic turn-based game. It’s a relatively quick one and it almost seems out of place when you consider the other grand and fairly tactical strategy titles on this list. (Even compared to what missed out – Civilization, Alpha Centauri, M.U.L.E., Jagged Alliance, Blood Bowl and so forth – Worms doesn’t quite fit.)
What’s most intriguing about Worms as a game, however, is the skill requirement. It’s a great leveller for whenever the randomly generated maps absolutely shaft you on position. It also makes for a great barrel of laughs when someone completely cocks up and sends a mine barreling into their face.
4Panzer General (SSI, 1994)
It’s difficult to properly appreciate the value of Panzer General or Strategic Simulations, Inc. in 2014, because it’s a game and a company that represents ideas and ideals hammered into submission so deeply that even Kickstarter hasn’t found a way to bring it back. A remarkably small, small crowd has maintained their love for the genre – think about as small as the amount of people still playing Quakeworld – but really, tanks? Helicopters? On board-like hexes? That’s basically died out completely.
Back in the day (and God do I feel old saying that) though, it was a big genre. So big, in fact, that SSI made an absolute metric shit-tonne of money catering to it. By 1987, the company, through in-house publishing and third-party, like-minded strategy buffs, had released a staggering 89 games and posted $5 million in sales.
But out of all of them, Panzer General was the crown jewel. The game essentially recreated the tactics of World War 2, the infantry, tanks and artillery support without the concentration camps, propaganda and millions of post-war refugees. War without actual death and destruction, if you will: just tactics.
5Heroes of Might and Magic 3 (New World Computing, 1999)
This is an indulgence for me; Heroes of Might and Magic 3 is comfortably one of my favourite games of all time. I used to spend hours just appreciating the hand-drawn art in the manual, picturing the lines of ink capturing a gargantuan battle between good and evil, angels and demons.
What kept you in, after the art, the cut scenes between knights and medusas and gryphons and the sight of archangels resurrecting fallen foes, was the sheer simplicity. The combat and magic systems have just enough depth to pull you in, but not complex enough that it ever becomes difficult or arduous, even at the later stages of the game.
Conveying emotion in words is hard enough, but perhaps the best compliment I could pay HOMM3 is how well it gives each of the individual races a sense of identity. There’s no major backstory to the various heroes, creatures and how they all came to be recruited under the same castle. This isn’t a Tolkien universe. Sure, there is lore, which plays out over the course of the campaign, but it’s not an oppressive beast. Most of it was contained in skippable scrolling text at the beginning of a mission, or through small signposts and odd triggers in a map (long before Bioshock cottoned onto the idea of scattering your story throughout the floors of Rapture).
The Age of Wonders series had a better combat system; it probably had a better story and lore too. Master of Magic was more complex and had more features. Emperor of the Fading Suns was a proper 4X title. But nothing else in the market quite had the magic that the Heroes series could conjure.
It’s sad that after HOMM3, and the fan-made expansion In The Wake of the Gods (affectionately shortened to WoG), the series would never reach those highs again. The last three Heroes games have been rushed, incomplete and just woefully inadequate. But it’s still one of my favourites, for nothing will be able to replace that magic of imagining a never-ending battle between angels and demons, over and over again.
So what some of your favourite turn based games? Drop down in the comments below and let us know!