The 2016 Strategy Game of the Year
We saw some incredible releases in the oft overlooked strategy genre in 2016. Major franchises released with new installments and indie games continued to show they can reinvigorate the genre with new ideas.
If you are the type of person who likes to move units on a grid and develop the perfect army, 2016 may have given you too many releases to keep up with. Here are the best of the best.
Runner-Up: The Banner Saga 2
Each of the entries on this list are worthy of an award in their own right. While The Banner Saga 2 may not win the award for best strategy game of the year, it easily wins the award for best strategy narrative of the year. The sad tale of Rook/Alette as they travel a dying world and attempt to find safety and sanctuary for their people is easily one of the best stories told this year in gaming. While the bleak Oregon Trail-style, perma-death laden gameplay may not be everyone’s cup of tea, those willing to tough it out through the harsh condition, along with their characters, will find themselves developing emotional bonds with their units unlike we have seen in any strategy game before.
Unfortunately, The Banner Saga 2 isn’t quite worth the purchase if you haven’t played The Banner Saga 1. You’ll be put into a story already in progress and won’t be taught the basic mechanics of the game. This prevents it from eligible for the title of “best.” But for fans who have played and enjoyed The Banner Saga 1 there was perhaps no better strategy release this year, and The Banner Saga 2 was so good it’s honestly worth picking up a copy of its predecessor just to experience it the way it should be played.
Runner-Up: XCOM 2
If we were to give out an award for “most improved sequel” XCOM 2 would win it easily. Its new units filled the gaps in battle that its original release suffered from, and its new base mechanics turned what was the most passive aspect of the first game into a more active and engaging experience. If you were a fan of the previous game you’ll still find the precise, cover based, risk vs. reward battles you loved, but if you are new you will find that XCOM 2 does everything it can to make its otherwise punishing gameplay accessible to a more casual audience.
Once again this could have been a contender for the “best game of the year” slot, but despite all of its fantastic innovations and accessible features, its difficulty, even on the lower settings, is just too high to appeal to many gamers. But if you are into the sort of gameplay that requires you to save early and save often, then XCOM 2 delivers in practically every way possible. One second you’ll be starting up another new playthrough and the next you’ll find that you’ve logged over 300 hours trying to build the perfect squad of alien fighting super-soldiers.
Runner-Up: Civilization 6
Civilization 6’s individual award would be for cultural relevance. It’s hard to deny that the Civilization franchise is practically synonymous with strategy games. After the controversial showing that was Civilization: Beyond Earth, Civ 6 was a breath of fresh air for Civ fans worldwide.
Nearly every innovation in Civ 6 makes the game more accessible, deeper, and generally more fun. The new district system makes city planning far more intricate, but somehow still more straightforward than it was in past Civilization titles. The game's new take on wonders makes building these massive monuments a bigger ordeal than clicking a button and waiting. Roadwork has been shifted to traders, while builder functionality has been more highly specialized. It’s just a more robust gameplay system all around.
But this robustness is largely built upon innovations of the past, and that’s Civilization 6’s biggest weakness. It’s very similar to Civ V in many ways. It doesn’t reinvent the wheel, which in many aspects is a good thing, but more of the same isn’t quite enough to get you the strategy game of the year title. Still, if you have ever been a fan of the Civ series, then Civilization 6 is a worthy purchase and a fine successor to a magnificent franchise.
Winner: Fire Emblem: Fates
Of all the strategy games that came out this year, Nintendo’s Fire Emblem: Fates is by far the one that impressed us the most. While it’s somewhat goofy anime-laden storyline was enough to put us off at first, its incredibly robust mechanics kept us playing year round. To this day we are still completing DLC chapters and working on new playthroughs in order to produce the perfect army, and while there are some elements of this title that could have put it in our RPG of the Year battle, its strategic depth and tactical combat make it much more at home in this category.
Fire Emblem: Fates just has so much content to offer. There are three distinct stories, each the length of a full game, and each with its own unique mechanics that flesh out the gameplay. You can also enjoy a fantastic asynchronous online system allows you to challenge your friends, recruit their units, learn their skills, and buy their items, all while building up a perfect base of your own. If you are the type for more direct competition, you can take your best army into a simultaneous online battle, to see who reigns supreme as the best strategist. Or maybe you just want to run the best shop and reap the rewards from all your friends visiting you on StreetPass.
There’s something for every type of strategy fan here. If you were a fan of the old ultra-hard perma-death Fire Emblems, then play the Conquest chapter. If you are a fan of new, easier, aggressive Fire Emblems, play Birthright. If you are a fan of more traditional strategy games, play Revelations. But really you should play all three. The price of admission is well worth it for one of the most fun and engrossing strategy titles of the year.
While we took points off for story and presentation in our review of Fire Emblem: Fates, we gave the gameplay a perfect 10 out of 10, and if we could have given it a higher score we would have. It’s fantastic mechanics, interesting units, and challenging stages more than make up for any of its faults. This is an experience that has only gotten better after release, and we cannot wait to see what Nintendo has in store for the Fire Emblem franchise when the Nintendo Switch launches.
Congratulations to Fire Emblem: Fates!