We can all agree that Age of Empires is fantastic, but the venerated RTS series need not be the only one in your strategy catalogue. After you’ve completed every one of its titles and campaigns, and firmly proven your might across its competitive multiplayer skirmishes, there’s an abundance of games like Age of Empires to keep your town-building and civilisation-destroying habits afloat. And we’ve picked out the best.
These games ape Age of Empires’ staple formula: resource gathering, base building, unit recruitment, economic management, and rock-paper-scissors-like combat. Some are historical epics, that will have you traverse the ages, and progress the development of your civilisation. Others lean into fantasy or sci-fi settings, introducing new elements of play, such as RPG mechanics, or a heavy narrative focus. All of them, however, are absolute fire.
In the interest of immediate satisfaction, we’ve opted for games that are readily available, and won’t have you trudging through eBay or the shelves of your nearest charity shop to find a copy. Whether you’re looking to relive your halcyon childhood days, or are taking your first steps in the RTS genre, these games will be more than enough.
So spawn the villagers and build the farms, we’ve got some exploring to do…
RISE OF NATIONS: EXTENDED EDITION
If you love Age of Empires for its historical progression, enjoying watching your civilisation develop through eras, then Rise of Nations has your back. Command a burgeoning empire from its ancient dawn through to the Information Age, seeing it advance from primitive swordsmen and archers, to gunpowder infantry, to attack helicopters, and eventually nuclear weaponry. All the while, of course, you’ll be battling for domination, and capturing enemy bases across historically-inspired campaigns.
Advance from primitive swordsmen to nuclear weaponry
Rise of Nations is particularly noteworthy for its ‘territory’ system. You’ll only be able to extend your empire’s reach within the bounds of your national borders, having to first build new cities or forts to create more space, or besiege enemy cities and grab their territory for yourself. It makes for an aggressive RTS, in which combat is always evolving and huge battles are favoured over small confrontations. You’ll never be sitting idly by, but planning your next heroic assault.
You’ll also be beelining technological innovations, while managing your economy to most effectively progress ahead of the enemy. And, in a nice change of pace, military units are spawned in bunches of three, rather than solitary soldiers, making for some visually impressive shows of force. Rise of Nations takes all the core concepts of Age of Empires and amplifies them, just a bit.
Northgard wears its inspiration on its sleeve. If not for its sleek, cartoonish graphics, it wouldn’t look at all out of place next to the original Age of Empires 2. You’ll lead a clan of Vikings to settle a newly-discovered shore using all the typical tricks of the trade: build a village, collect resources, recruit a force of warriors, and expand your territory in the face of combative clans and beasts that lurk in the snow. Build hamlets into progressively grander towns across a narrative campaign, filled with Norse mythology.
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Each clan carries a particular combat strength and playstyle, and mythological figures will pop up to help or hinder your efforts. In a nice shake-up, Northgard mixes elements of city building with its RTS combat, forcing you to stockpile food and manage your resources, lest your people succumb to the harsh grasp of the wintry cold. This indie game has become something of an RTS darling since its release in 2018, and with good reason.
Age of Mythology: Extended Edition
Developed by Age of Empires series creator Ensemble Studios, Age of Mythology takes the classic RTS formula and dunks it into a mythological soup. Handing you ancient Greeks, Egyptians, and Norse people, it ditches historical reverence for supernatural and folklore experimentation, as all manner of fantastical units are fielded in battle – hydra, sphinxes, fire giants, and beyond. There’s little more satisfying than calling upon the gods to summon a locust swarm on your enemies, or wheeling out a beefy minotaur to rip through your opponent’s trembling archers.
Summon a locust swarm, or wheel out a beefy minotaur
Alongside its alluring theme, Age of Mythology is also wed to an engaging narrative. Its three campaigns aren’t a series of discrete scenarios, but linked with persistent characters, units, and otherworldly happenings. It makes for a more dynamic experience, and one that shifts course and variety at each mission, from monumental skirmishes to pint-sized tactical unit management.
And with an Extended Edition (available on Steam) that includes the Titans expansion pack and some spruced up visuals, it’s never been easier to jump into. If you love Age of Empires, this is a natural next step.
Tooth and Tail
Tooth and Tail might look like a charming strategy romp, but behind its veneer of adorable animal antics lies a hard-nosed skirmisher of revolutionary ideals. Play as one of four commanders, each a hilarious, anthropomorphic political pastiche – including, of course, a communist rat – and battle in bite-sized, quick-fire skirmishes that are all killer, no filler.
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Rather than selecting troops, and commanding them with your cursor, you’ll use your character for direction. Each attack, movement, or retreat must be made by your character, putting them in harm’s way as they lead the charge into battle, and pushing you into the fray of combat. Base-building is light, with resource-gatherers created automatically to cut down the time spent hammering on your mouse. But besides its frenetic gameplay, Tooth and Tail is the closest we’re ever likely to come in seeing Animal Farm adapted into an RTS. And that should be enough to excite you.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
If any RTS game besides Age of Empires 2 could rightfully take the mantle ‘star of the genre’, it would be Warcraft III. Spawning a fervent multiplayer community that set the foundations for all strategy games after its release, and a modding scene that gave birth to the original DOTA, the game’s surviving legacy is unquestionable, but even its single-player experience remains a joy.
Its legacy is certain, and its single-player experience remains a joy
The four playable factions – Humans, Orcs, Undead, and Night Elves – are distinct in traits and playstyles, and small bands of warriors make up the bulk of your forces, rather than grand armies. Despite its fantasy setting, Warcraft III is one of the more grounded RTS games out there, sticking to small unit micro-management. But it’s most noteworthy for its narrative commitment. Campaigns aren’t played across sequential skirmishes, but connected scenarios, weaving questlines and sub-objectives into a coherent, character-driven plot. Hero units take centre stage, levelling up, gaining new attributes and spells, and equipping magical items for a hint of RPG flair.
A word of warning: if you’re keen to relive your childhood, it’s probably best to refrain from the recent remaster, Warcraft III: Reforged. Stripping back its multiplayer elements and removing much of its customisability, fans of the original might be disappointed. If you’re solely interested in the remaster as a single-player experience, though, it offers the original game with a graphical improvement.
CoMmand & Conquer: Red Alert 3
Take a goofy Cold War action movie, add in a flair for the ridiculous, combine with a dollop of outlandish characters, and smother it all in tongue-in-cheek humour so extreme that the side of your face will tear in two, and you’ve something akin to Red Alert 3. Battle dolphins, electricity-shooting tanks, and mech suits capable of shape-shifting into jet aircraft all make an appearance, as do the series’ famous FMV cutscenes, featuring none other than Dr Frank-n-Furter himself, Tim Curry.
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Criticised at launch for overhauling its predecessor’s resource system, and its inclusions of superweapons that can suddenly, and somewhat unfairly, level your base in a matter of seconds, Red Alert 3 still stands proud as a hilariously silly, and overtly fun RTS. No historical accuracy, and no burdensome mechanics are included – this game is all about the preposterous.
Adapting a perennially popular, triple-A FPS series into a real-time strategy game sounds like a recipe for disaster (albeit a very profitable one). So, it was with some trepidation that the world declared Halo Wars to be quite good, actually, when it first released in 2009 – followed by a renewed enthusiasm for the game when it was ported to PC in 2017.
Intense bursts of gun-blazing action fuel its gameplay
Besides seeing all of your favourite Halo vehicles, infantry, and weaponry from a birds-eye view, and wrapping the campaign in a story that sits admirably next to the plot of any main title in the series, it offers a pleasantly straightforward strategy experience. There’s no fat. Intense bursts of gun-blazing action fuel gameplay, and light tech trees, combined with limited unit management, retain a persistent momentum. Construction is stripped back, to keep action front and centre.
Some will decry Halo Wars as overly dumbed-down, and reliant on the nostalgia of its original Xbox fans for its continued acclaim. But dispense with these naysayers and see the game for its strengths: a persistently gratifying, intensely colourful, sci-fi lark.
Another entry in the ‘build a base, collect resources, recruit lots of units, and smash them together on an open battlefield’ style of historical RTS, Cossacks 3 has one major appeal – size. Battles are huge, with hundreds of line infantry storming across vast maps, and regiments of cavalry charging around its undulating terrain in glorious offensives. Warfare is granted first priority at every step, and the combat, while not replete with tactical nuance, is more demanding than the simple point-and-click systems of other entries in the genre.
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Construction and resource-gathering take the back foot, and quickly fall away to all-out warfare. But with 20 playable nations – each with unique units and tweaked playstyles – and the possibility to field tens of thousands of soldiers in a single battlefield, these lighter elements won’t be much concern when you’re directing a heroic siege or naval invasion. Cossacks 3 is all about big armies, big battles, and big, cinematic fun.
If you enjoy Age of Empires for its base-building, then Stronghold should be next on your list. Closer to a castle management simulator than a typical combat-focused RTS, the game takes the meaning of tower defence to a whole new level. You’ll build beefy medieval forts, complete with concentric layers of stone walls, turrets, and tar-spewing traps, to defend against waves of invaders. Sometimes, you’ll get to take the fight to the enemy, as you recruit your own force to climb their walls and raze their fief.
The meaning of tower defence is taken to a whole new level
Its siege-heavy combat is just plain satisfying. Watching lines of archers atop your walls rain arrows onto advancing pikemen, or ordering a group of bombardiers to scurry underground and blow up your opponent’s walls from below, before muscling your way into their keep with heavy cavalry, can’t be beaten. Stronghold knows what it does, and it does it well.
Despite its aged isometric visuals, the game plays as well as ever, and is yet to be surpassed by the series’ later entries. Firefly Studios have tried for nearly 20 years to replicate the success of the original, and haven’t come close.
A venerated classic, Starcraft 2 might be the most refined game in the entire RTS genre. Its three races are hugely distinct, and put to shame other games’ claims of unique faction playstyles. Units are varied, and must be played in complementary arrangements, and a slew of upgrades on branching tech trees shift the dynamics of skirmishes midway through. Its single-player missions are designed to foster specific tactical arrangements and tailored sequences, but open enough for experimentation.
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Starcraft 2 is best known for pioneering competitive esports, and its continued multiplayer community. But even if you don’t fancy being Zerg rushed by an opponent that’s put more hours into the game than you’ve spent sleeping, its single-player missions, their impressive narrative focus, is where the game can be best enjoyed for most players. Plus, the first game in Starcraft 2’s trilogy of launches, Wings of Liberty, went free-to-play in 2017, and includes access to unranked multiplayer. It’s just begging to be played.