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Strategy Games of the Half-Year 2006

June 26th, 2006 by Troy Goodfellow · 1 Comment · Uncategorized

It’s been a good six months for strategy games. So good that I’ve had a hard time winnowing my list down to the top three of the year. I helped myself by excluding expansion packs from qualifying unless they introduced major new gameplay elements. This knocked both Hearts of Iron: Doomsday and Rome: Total War – Alexander off my list. Both are very good and highly recommended for fans of the originals.

I have also disqualified any game that I haven’t finished diagnosing yet, possibly knocking a credible European RTS from the list. OK, it was a long shot, but it’s not fair to include any game I haven’t played extensively. To that end, games I haven’t played at all don’t count either, same as before.

I’ve also decided to leave off board games I just happen to play online or on my computer, putting Caylus and Ticket to Ride (the CD-ROM edition) off the radar.

And that still leaves me with at least five games I want to reward. But this is all about the hard decisions. The two games that just missed the cut are Birth of America, an excellent wargame set in 18th century America, and Take Command: 2nd Manassas, the sequel to last year’s third place finisher.

Number 3: Rise of Nations: Rise of Legends (Big Huge Games/Microsoft) – I’ll admit to being a little disappointed that this wasn’t the runaway winner. RoL is the sequel to, in my opinion, the best designed RTS yet. And it took me a while to get over the disappointment that the game looked very little like the glorious screenshots. Now, there are a lot of criticisms that can be made about Rise of Legends. Its multiplayer is broken for some people, the end game takes on the swirling mass of crap look, the factions suffer from a cool imbalance with the Vinci being the kings of the neat-o units. But there is a lot going on here. The sides are very balanced in term of options, they are cleanly distinguised from each other in look and strategy and even if the end games all look fairly similar, there’s a myriad of ways to get there.

Number 2: Galactic Civilizations II: Dread Lords (Stardock) – A lot of observers were surprised by how well GC2 sold in the early going. This is your typical “long tail” game; releases to some buzz but continues to sell based on word of mouth. This isn’t a blockbuster title with a huge ad campaign, after all. I was not surprised. Not only was the community starving for a good 4x game in space, it knew where its next meal would come from. After the acclaim for the original GalCiv, the sequel could hardly be a surprise. No should people be surprised by the constant updates/patches/enhancements that have streamed from Stardock since the game’s release. Like Rise of Legends, there was a sense in the first couple of months that every game would end in the same general manner. Because it happens in space, there is less to distinguish one session from another than there is in Civ IV. But every update, every tweak, every addition makes GalCiv2 even closer to being the perfect turn-based game.

Number 1: Battle for Middle Earth II (New Line Cinema/Electronic Arts) – I feel a little dead inside putting a movie licensed game on the top here. But there is no denying that, aside from last year’s game of year, Civ 4, this is the game that I played the most. I played it the most in single player, I played it the most in multiplayer. I played all the factions. I played the freaking campaigns. The “War of the Ring” mode is the game’s single misstep; it’s a convoluted effort to integrate a turn-based campaign similar to the Rise of Nations campaign mechanic. BfME2 is not only beautiful, it is in your face with decision making at all times. What power do you burn those palantir points on? Is it worth building a tower in that pass to channel my enemy somewhere else? If I go for the ring, can I protect it long enough to summon my super-unit? How far into neutral territory do I build my economy? All of these are major decisions, all must be made quickly and many simultaneously.

This list is very different from last year’s six month check in. Last year we had a bunch of developers saving their energies for the last quarter, when a spurt of major titles were released. So my top three games had two indie titles and one obscure still underappreciated RTS. 2006 has one plucky indie TBS that is hardly obscure and two RTS publised by industry behemoths. This shows, I think, just how wide and varied the range of quality strategy games is. No other genre can boast as many good games made by marginal players as well as strong and serious attention from the giants.


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