Strategy games have been around since the early days of PC gaming, even if you go as far back as the 1980s. In a way, they evolved from the popular tabletop roleplaying and strategy games of those times. Manifesting into a format with infinitely more potential for interactivity compared to tabletop games.
So, which DOS strategy games are still worth playing today? Quite a few, as you’re about to find out. Strategy games unlike action RPGs or shooters don’t need pretty graphics or highly detailed environments.
Because most of what they provide lies in the gameplay itself (usually presented from an isometric or top-down perspective). That’s why early RTS titles such as Command & Conquer still feel excellent to this day. On that note, let’s take a look at the top 30 DOS strategy games of all time that you must play.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert
One of the earliest real-time strategy games ever made, Command & Conquer: Red Alert uses many of the game mechanics that are now commonplace in modern RTS titles. Queuing multiple commands lets your troops automatically organize and attack right after they are created (no need for constant micromanagement). And while the game is single-player (meaning you fight AI), you have multiple paths to achieve each objective.
This introduces a bit of variety into the gameplay and you can have different outcomes depending on which strategy you use. Red Alert isn’t very realistic, since it features sci-fi weaponry such as Tesla coils. You can see a similar theme in the narrative which doesn’t take itself too seriously and often parodies elements of the Cold War conflict.
Sid Meier’s Civilization
Quite possibly the deepest strategy game you’ll ever play on DOS since it offers several avenues to conquer your opponent. You can win a military fight like in Command & Conquer. Or you can fight an economic and cultural battle (which is harder to execute compared to war).
If you manage to impose your cultural influence on a foreign state, you can defeat them without firing a single bullet. Civilization also encourages you to explore and expand your kingdom. As opposed to most RTS games such as Starcraft that put you on a small self-contained map.
In Civilization you can grow your economy, research new technologies, establish diplomatic treaties with rival nations, and build new cities as you open up the map. You can even micromanage each city by planning out the infrastructure and setting tax rates.
If you still don’t know how to play DOS games, check out my other article How To Play Old DOS Games On Windows 10, Mac Or Linux?
Warcraft: Orcs & Humans
Command & Conquer pits the player against an AI in real-time battle while Civilization is a 4X grand strategy game with turn-based gameplay. Neither of the aforementioned games ventured into multiplayer. Which some regard as a missed opportunity, considering both these games were released during the dawn of the internet age.
However, the first Warcraft game didn’t have this issue thanks to a robust (for the time) multiplayer system. And it featured a narrative with excellent dialogue and characters- something that other RTS games lacked. While the gameplay wasn’t really that good with the first Warcraft, it nailed everything from world design to music.
X-COM: UFO Defense
A game about an international paramilitary organization formed by world governments to fight against hostile alien forces that are invading the planet. X-COM uses turn-based gameplay but features some roleplaying and management elements as well. You recruit special agents, each with specializations and attributes.
While fighting in urban centers, you must consider factors such as civilian casualties caused by collateral damage. Operatives within your team can get injured or even die during the battle, and this will affect your score at the end. Sometimes you can even retrieve alien weaponry for reverse-engineering at the X-COM headquarters.
Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
The second Warcraft game improves on a lot of elements from the first one, primarily controls and UI. Moving and attacking feels a lot more intuitive, plus you get introduced to a lot more characters as the story progresses. It depicts events after the Fall of Azeroth, allowing you to play separate Orc and Human campaigns.
Just like the first game, this one also has multiplayer. Maps are bigger and more diverse, accommodating a bigger range of tactical options compared to the first Warcraft. There are new controllable unit types, both friendly and foe.
If you are interested in RPG DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS RPG Games Of All Time That You Must Play
Command & Conquer: Tiberian Dawn
The first Command & Conquer game, it’s also called Tiberian Dawn. Red Alert depicts a retro-futuristic conflict between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. In contrast, this game is about the UN vs a militant group called the Brotherhood of Nod.
Many concepts for Command & Conquer are borrowed straight out of Dune. You see several powerful factions fighting to take control over a substance called Tiberium (similar to Spice in Dune). You can play as the GDI (United Nations) or Brotherhood of Nod.
Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares
A 4X strategy game set in space, Master of Orion 2 is the precursor to modern space exploration/ colonization games such as Lost Empire and Galactic Civilizations. In Master of Orion 2, you can play as various alien races or create your very own custom race from scratch. In the first game, you had one planet per star system but Battle at Antares features multi-planetary star systems.
Said star systems contain resources that you and your opponents fight to control. Both diplomatic and militaristic means are available to the player, and it’s your choice which route to take. Apart from your economic and industrial advances, you also have to monitor the food supply within your kingdom to keep troops and civilians fed.
One of the earliest games to combine both roleplaying and turn-based strategy, Warlords II is set in a fantasy world featuring giants and elves. You fight against AI to secure control of various cities across a vast kingdom, gradually expanding your empire through both diplomatic and militaristic means. The original Warlords II was praised for its excellent AI and variety in customizable scenarios that encouraged players to take different tactical approaches.
An expansion was released 2 years later in 1995, called Warlords II Deluxe. This expansion added fog of war, support for 256 colors, and more maps. Warlords II Deluxe also came with a map editor.
It’s one of the earliest strategy games with an active online community. Players were sharing user-created maps and terrains, along with custom scenarios that provided unique challenges not found within the base game.
If you are interested in Adventure DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS Adventure Games Of All Time That You Must Play
The original SimCity (also known as Micropolis) had been in development since 1985, only for publishers to delay its release because they feared it wouldn’t sell very well. After all, this was a period in gaming that was dominated by action-packed shooters and platformers. A game with no combat or arcade elements wasn’t favored by any publisher.
And while the initial sales were poor, the game eventually gathered a cult following. It got a successor in the form of SimCity 2000, another city-building simulation. But this time, you had an isometric perspective instead of the top-down view.
Compared to its predecessor, SimCity 2000 has significantly better UI and graphics. It also lets you interact with your city in more ways, while constructing buildings that weren’t available in the original. You can even build docks, railways, and airports in this SimCity.
Starflight is a space-sim sandbox game with strategic elements. Making it an endlessly replayable experience with each playthrough letting you explore various life paths and quests. In Starflight, there is a very basic narrative that opens up once you get past the initial “tutorial” phase.
After that, you are free to explore the entire galaxy and various star systems in your own ship (that can be upgraded). You also recruit new crew members, each with their own specializations and experience points. You can explore new planets, collect resources, and fight/ befriend alien races.
Heroes of Might and Magic II
Back in 1997, PC Gamer declared Heroes of Might and Magic II to be the 6th best PC game of all time. Not just in the strategy category mind you, but PC gaming in general. Which is high praise coming from one of the top gaming publications, back when games journalism had a lot more integrity compared to today.
How does the game actually play? Heroes of Might and Magic II is a 4X turn-based strategy in which you build armies and castles so you can defeat other armies and castles. Might sound simplistic, but in practice, this game is a lot deeper than that.
For starters, this game features “Hero” characters that are stronger than regular units. And it also added new factions, each with its own unique abilities. Heroes have both primary and secondary skills, as compared to the first game which only gave Heroes primary skills.
Back in the old days of PC gaming when microtransactions and paid DLCs weren’t the driving force behind EA’s existence, they actually made innovative games. Like Archon, which is basically a more action-oriented version of chess with even deeper strategic elements. A turn-based game that takes place on an 8×8 board, Archon has both light and dark colored units.
And when your unit moves to take an enemy unit, you actually play through a mini-battle sequence to decide the victor (instead of an instant kill like in chess). And these battles are usually won by the stronger unit, but that’s not always the case. An additional layer of complexity is introduced by color-based advantages.
A unit gains HP when it stands on a square of its own color. Sometimes, a fight between two units can result in both knocking each other out. And the squares themselves can switch up colors mid-battle.
You can think of Star Control as an evolution of old-school space shooter arcade games. Sure, there is 1 v 1 ship combat in this game but it also features heavy doses of RPG mechanics and a massive world for you to explore. In fact, Star Control is inspired by two separate games- Archon and Spacewar!.
Archon provides the strategic elements while Spacewar! is where all the action comes from. You have 3 action points per turn, and you can use these to explore or colonize new star systems. If you meet an enemy ship along the way, you enter a battle screen with arcade-style controls.
In Steel Panthers, you’re both the military general and the tank commander. This game lets you switch between planning and combat in a seamless manner that was honestly quite ahead of the curve back in 1995. And every move you make is on a hexagonal grid, via turns against an AI or human opponent.
There is no singular unit for you to control, even the smallest group is a squad (you can even control entire brigades). You can restructure the command chain, allocate ammo to various units on the battlefield, and bolster troop morale. Steel Panthers is one of the earliest military strategy games to feature multiplayer (via hot seat or email).
It’s like regular chess, but with pretty 3D animations (which were revolutionary back in the late 80s and early 90s). If you want, you can set the game to a 2D mode where there are no animations (but where’s the fun in that?). There was also a special version of this game for the Amiga with voiceovers that explained what each piece does, pretty useful for beginners.
For the DOS version of this game, you get digital audio that doesn’t require and soundcard and can directly play through PC speakers. Apart from the animations, game rules are the exact same as chess. A CD-ROM enhanced version was released with VGA graphics and better audio in 1991.
The only mainline Jagged Alliance game available on DOS (not including Jagged Alliance: Deadly Games, which is more of a spin-off than a sequel). You should definitely check this out if you’re a fan of turn-based strategy. It has a plot straight out of Just Cause, in which you recruit mercenaries and rebels to free an island from the rule of a dictator.
You can make money by gathering resources, primarily consisting of tree extracts that are used to make medicine. This money is used to recruit and equip your mercenary teams who open up new areas on the map for you.
The precursor to games like SWAT, Sabre Team puts you in control of a 4-man S.A.S. squad tasked with hostage rescue and reconnaissance missions. You go deep into enemy territory, armed with state-of-the-art equipment on counter-terrorism missions. The gameplay is turn-based and presented from an isometric camera perspective.
Each member of your squad has attributes and special abilities. You must choose the right combination of 4 team members from a selection screen prior to each mission. Once you choose the operators, you can customize their loadouts (armor, weapons, etc.).
A sci-fi squad tactics game in which you take turns maneuvering single members of your team around a map. Each movement uses up squad action points, and team members can execute various commands. Like attacking, picking up objects, turning, etc., with heavier units using up more stamina (so they get fewer turns).
Troops in Laser Squad have a morale level that can go up or down. If one of your squad members sees a mate die in front of him, he might panic and run away. There are various mission profiles in the game- infiltration, sabotage, demolition, hostage rescue, assassination, etc.
Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods
Much like the first game, you’re in charge of managing your worshippers and guiding them to destroy the enemy god’s civilization. The main difference between Populous and Populous II (apart from the updated UI and graphics) is the heavy usage of Greek mythological figures. While the first Populous had ambiguous deities that were never clearly defined, this game lets you play as a demigod.
You are one of the many children Zeus had with mortal women. And you must now take down your siblings to be accepted into the Pantheon at Mount Olympus. While the first game has a total of 8 divine interventions (special god powers you can give to your followers), this one has 30.
The very first god simulator game in which you manage a civilization, bestowing powers and benefits on your worshippers. The goal is to destroy civilizations that worship enemy deities. You can use divine powers depending on how much mana you have, which is shown via a bar on the screen.
Apart from giving your worshipers special powers through divine intervention, you can also guide their expansion across the map. Your powers let you change the terrain and open up new resources for your followers. You can even unleash natural catastrophes such as floods or volcanoes.
Master of Magic
A fantasy game in which you’re a powerful wizard with his very own castle. In your base, you can research spells and plan operations to invade enemy cities. Master of Magic plays like Civilization (if it were set in a medieval fantasy land with witches and dragons).
Each new playthrough will be different since the game lets you customize map size, enemy types, difficulty, etc. You can even choose a starting race and initial spells for your wizard, which almost makes this game feel like an RPG. As you expand your city, you can order new buildings to be constructed which can help your town’s economy.
Dungeons & Dragons Stronghold
A city building simulator with Dungeons & Dragons rules. Like SimCity, but with elves and dwarves who use their special powers to mine resources and build structures. If you like the idea of fantasy mixed with resource management and building, you’ll love this game.
Not only do you have to plan out your city, but you also need to choose warriors who will defend it from invaders. There are different classes of units, with special abilities derived from their respective races. You can also focus on conquest, by building an army that will march upon an enemy’s city and take over it.
The Settlers 2
Another city-builder game, although it feels quite different from SimCity 2000. The Settlers 2 has an expansion that adds multiplayer along with a bunch of new maps, along with a level editor. In Settlers 2, your goal is to build a thriving home city with a good economy that can sustain your civilians and military.
Eventually, you can expand your kingdom and explore other parts of the map. But before that, make sure your military is strong enough to engage in battle with surrounding kingdoms. Even the DOS version of this game has a “windows-based” point-and-click HUD that shows you all your unit commands and necessary information.
This is the 3rd X-COM game, and it introduces a real-time combat mode in addition to the classic turn-based system. And unlike previous X-COM games where you have bases all around Earth in management mode, here you have just one megacity to look after. In this megacity, you’ll organize all your operatives and research new technologies/ weapons.
In Apocalypse, your managerial duties have been extended beyond UFO interception and investigation. Now, there are rival human organizations you have to contend with for resources. You also have to manage the finances of X-COM headquarters, while minimizing collateral damage that harms civilians (else you lose finances).
X-COM: Terror from the Deep
The sequel to X-COM: UFO Defense, this is yet another excellent tactical war simulation game. And when I say war simulation, I mean everything from combat and tactics to scientific research and planning. The setting is similar to UFO Defense, with one notable addition- you’re now underwater.
X-COM’s base has been moved below the oceans since the invading aliens can’t go there (their equipment doesn’t work in saltwater). Management and moving around the map happens in real-time through GeoScape which is like a satellite view of the entire Earth. Here, you can recruit new staff and request supplies (combat is still turn-based).
What does it mean to be a patrician? Usually, the word is used in reference to someone who is an aristocrat or nobleman. In this game, you’re a patrician who is looking to further increase his wealth through trading.
So you build new trading centers and ports to move goods around the world through your ships. You also open up offices and hire people to expand your business, while building new industries and factories around the city. If you want, you can even get into politics and interact with various NPCs (some of whom are your enemies).
Conquest of the New World
A game about European explorers discovering and settling in the American continent. Conquest of the New World can be played against AI or with friends via LAN (it also supports hot-seat and play-by-email multiplayer). You have 3 primary types of units in this game- explorers, settlers, and soldiers.
In that sense, it is quite similar to AoE (age of empires). Since you can’t play Age of Empires on DOS, this is the closest possible experience. One neat little feature is the fact that anybody who discovers a landmark in the game world has the landmark named after themselves.
Combat is turn-based and happens on a 3×4 grid where the goal is to kill all enemy troops or capture their flag. You can build structures such as colony centers (similar to town centers in AoE), and upgrade these buildings. Resources are needed for troop production and construction, but you can also trade resources.
An old wargame simulator primarily designed around WW2 tank combat, and heavily inspired by the Japanese video game series Daisenryaku. War maps use a hexagonal grid structure, and units are divided into levels based on the command structure of that time. Combat is turn-based, you can play as either Axis or Allied forces.
In campaign mode, you take up the role of a Reich General who’s commanding multiple battalions on the field. Most events of the game take place between 1939 and 1945, and any units that survive gain experience which increases their combat effectiveness.
M.A.X.: Mechanized Assault & Exploration
A space colonization simulator in which you command specialized vehicles. Combat is fluid and action-packed, plus you’re given the ability to switch between real-time or turn-based modes. There is a huge variety of stuff for you to do in-game.
From resource collection to reconnaissance and combat, M.A.X. has everything a strategy games enjoyer could want. Your goal is to find new planets for colonization, mine resources, build defensive structures, and sustain a good economy. There is a giant range of military units as well as economic structures, each offering a unique benefit.
Do you love the Warhammer 40K games? Well, this one is based within the same universe. Space Hulks are derelict objects drifting around in space, usually the size of a large space station.
You are commanding a Space Marine squad that is investigating distress signals coming from one of these space hulks. Upon arrival at the derelict station, you find out that it’s populated with hostile aliens known as Genestealers.
This list contains everything from turn-based war simulation to 4X strategy, so take your pick. Or play all of them, it’s not like modern gaming where each game takes up 50+ GB on your hard drive. You can easily create a DOSBox emulation folder with all 30 of these games inside and not even notice the loss of space on your computer.
Most of the games I have listed are either abandonware or available for a couple of bucks on sites like GOG. Trust me, the gameplay and storytelling provided by these retro games will keep you hooked and coming back for more. Yeah, the pixelated graphics and janky UI can be annoying for some (not to mention compatibility issues with modern hardware).
But once you get past all of that, what lies in front of you is an awesome experience built entirely around tactical decision-making. Sometimes, a lot of these strategy games even incorporate roleplaying elements into their design (take X-COM for example).
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