There’s nothing quite like pulling off the perfect strategy in a video game and sitting back, immensely pleased with yourself, as you watch what you’ve done play out. The template for the strategy genre is Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty, which codified many of the tropes we now see as endemic to real-time strategy games, including base-building, a range of different unit types, and factions with special units. Now, of course, strategy games are far more advanced, but the essence remains the same: outfox your opponent, be they CPU or player. Here, in no particular order, are the 15 best strategy games on Xbox Game Pass.
Frostpunk is a city-building strategy game with a difference. Here, you’re not only tasked with constructing a civilisation and looking after its needs (although that is a huge part of the game). You’ll also need to make a lot of very difficult moral decisions involving your settlers, and you’ll never be able to make everyone happy at once. If you order your workers to do something unpleasant, their “discontent” meter will increase, but their “hope” meter will go up if you give them good news.
2. Age of Empires IV
Relic Entertainment and World’s Edge have done an excellent job of continuing the rather impressive legacy of the Age of Empires real-time strategy series in Age of Empires IV. Largely speaking, it’s more of the same city-building, military-constructing, exploration-based RTS, but with revamped graphics and more streamlined gameplay. If you love Age of Empires, you’ll like this too; in fact, if you play IV first and like the way it feels, consider that an endorsement for the other games in the series as well.
Humankind is very much an attempt to compete with the Civilization model of 4X games; it’s a large-scale civ-builder that progresses through several eras, each of which grants access to new discoveries and things you can build. However, unlike Civ, there’s more of an emphasis on choice here; you don’t choose your starting civilisation at the beginning of the game, instead progressing through different culture trees and customising your civilisation that way.
4. Two Point Hospital
If you love Theme Hospital, then you owe it to yourself to check out Two Point Hospital, because it’s effectively the same wacky combination of hospital management game and comedy slapstick sideshow. All of the diseases in Two Point Hospital have funny names; it would be a little harrowing to actually lose patients to bone cancer or emphysema, after all. The game itself is joyously addictive, full of the minutiae and micromanagement you’d expect from a hospital management sim.
5. Gears Tactics
The Gears of War series may not seem like the most natural fit for an XCOM-style turn-based strategy game, but remarkably, developers Splash Damage and The Coalition find a way to make it work. Indeed, despite the addition of a loot system, Gears Tactics actually adds some interesting innovations to the formula, like soldiers being able to revive one another (and not just medics, either). The story may not be much to write home about, but Gears Tactics is great fun. Looks like XCOM will now have to share its throne.
6. Halo Wars
Halo Wars has been pitched as the RTS for people who don’t usually play RTS games. This makes sense, given that the Halo audience is largely one that enjoys first-person shooters and action games, and it gives Halo Wars a more accessible and immediate feel than its peers. Everything is simplified here; you won’t find massive menus full of micromanagement tweaks, or really anything that gets in the way of sending hordes of Spartans to give the Covenant what-for.
7. Rise of Nations: Extended Edition
Like many RTS games, Rise of Nations takes place across multiple eras and lets you build wonders from throughout the history of civilisation. However, this one incorporates elements from grand-scale turn-based experiences like Civilization to create a real-time strategy game that feels both epic in scope and intimate in execution. Sure, Rise of Nations looks a little dated today, but don’t let that put you off its impressively deep and detailed gameplay loops.
Set in the world of the BattleTech board game, this turn-based title is the strategy game for those who thought XCOM: Enemy Unknown was too forgiving. You’ll have to choose your mechs’ model and loadout before missions, and you can customise everything from armour right down to the actuators and components that influence your turning circle. As you can imagine, this isn’t a game for those who like to leap right into the action, but if you’re an option-tweaker, you’ll find plenty to love here.
9. Crusader Kings III
No list of the best Xbox Game Pass strategy games would be complete without a mention of Paradox’s long-running Crusader Kings series. This is the third instalment in the franchise, although you wouldn’t know it from how many DLC packs are available for the second game. Crusader Kings III continues the series’ legacy of complex, deep grand strategy; you’ll take a single empire and control its fortunes throughout history, forging alliances, waging war, and hopefully not dying too early.
10. Cities: Skylines
Paradox’s city-builder is everything SimCity was not. It’s so good that it’s stopped other developers wanting to create straightforward city-building games, and for good reason; Cities: Skylines is simply so good at what it does that there’s no real reason to want to play anything else. You can micromanage everything in your city, from water to waste and traffic through to district placement, and the host of DLCs available make this game even more of a rabbit hole.
11. Tropico 6
There’s a lot of overlap between the city-building and strategy genres; they usually require you to exercise the same part of your brain, after all. Tropico 6 is no different. Like the other games in the series, you’ll take control of a small island republic and try to lead it through its many difficulties, but this sixth instalment has fully-rounded NPCs who will respond to your actions and potentially even stage a revolution if they feel you’re not doing a good enough job.
12. Evil Genius 2: World Domination
Evil Genius 2 isn’t really a sequel in the traditional sense. You won’t need any experience with the first game to enjoy this one; it’s very much a sequel-remake hybrid that takes many of the concepts of the first supervillain base-building game and expands and modernises them. You play one of a number of different supervillains, and it’s your job to keep agents out of your base. To do so, you can construct traps, train henchmen, and if all else fails, do the job yourself, as any great supervillain inevitably must.
13. Empire of Sin
We’re putting Empire of Sin on this list as something of a vote of confidence. It’s not the best game it could be right now, but we’re confident Romero Games and publisher Paradox (yep, it’s them again) will brush it up to competition standard. The concept is brilliant; you’re a 1920s Prohibition-era mobster, and you must build the titular “empire of sin”, with your fingers in all sorts of pies including alcohol production and smuggling, casinos, and brothels.
14. Wasteland 3
Wasteland 3 is something of a curious hybrid. It marries CRPG-style exploration and skill check-based decision making with turn-based combat, so we’re including it here as a combination of strategy gameplay and RPG storytelling. It does have a somewhat odd mixture of tones – a ranger bleeding out in the middle of a snowy waste sits rather strangely next to skills called “Kiss Ass” and “Nerd Stuff” – but this is a robust, stimulating post-apocalyptic wasteland sim with some surprisingly strong turn-based combat to boot.
The high priest of strategy games, Stellaris is often so off-putting to new players that they pass over it completely. This would be a mistake if you’re a strategy fan, though; it’s a massively absorbing and engrossing space epic with lots of parameters to micromanage. Every species in Stellaris feels markedly distinct, and your game will transform depending on which of the species you’re playing and what victory condition you’re chasing. Since this is a Paradox game, it won’t come as a surprise to you that there are also a huge amount of DLC packs and expansions to enjoy for Stellaris.
Xbox Game Pass really is a repository of some of the best games around, so if you’re a PC gamer or an Xbox player, you owe it to yourself to at least sign up for the free trial. As ever, some of these games may have departed the service by the time you come to read this; unfortunately, the lineup isn’t static. However, this does also mean that new games may come to the service to replace the ones that are leaving, so who knows – you may yet have an all-new crop of great strategy games to play by then!