5 Old Strategy and Simulation Games Worth Revisiting
Whether it’s leading legions to battle in Rome: Total War or servicing your patrons in RollerCoaster Tycoon, there’s an inherent pleasure in overseeing the operation of societies, masterminding projects from their inception up to their pinnacle. Having godlike control over civilizations satisfies our own human wants to design, build, control, and evolve on a large scale.
The human need to build shelter and infrastructure to better our lives translates directly from building forts as children to constructing castles in games like Stronghold. We like to protect our own and grow what we’ve established, organizing food supplies and trade, as well as navigating the politics and environments that shape our world. That is of course if you wish to actually help your citizens, as you can always be a tyrant too, conquering and enslaving your enemies or outright killing the innocent for your pleasure.
While these five games date circa 2000, they still hold up as pioneers for their respective franchises and inspirations for many games we love to play today. It doesn’t matter if the graphics or mechanics are old, as they still manage to indulge us in our desire to play the role of God, Amun-Ra, Zeus, or in Command & Conquer: Red Alert’s case, nothing, as we are talking about Soviets after all.
Since real-time strategy and simulation games are typically lengthy affairs, feel free to skip through the videos provided to get the gist of each game if you don’t wish to spend the time.
Release date: 1999
Sharing a lot of similarities to game franchises like SimCity, Pharaoh provides a surprising amount of depth when it comes to the management of your settlements and cities throughout the various campaign eras. Everything from housing and trade to city design and the worship of numerous gods provide many options for players to utilize to meet their agricultural, cultural, religious, or militaristic goals.
Attention to detail is key as even the placement of roads, a water supply, and entertainment are required to keep your citizens happy and maintain order. These elements were eventually expanded in Cleopatra: Queen of the Nile, adding things like zoos, more monuments, and tombs.
All city management aside, what also makes this game stand out is its sense of authentic atmosphere and general historical accuracy, providing an experience that transports you back in time. Once your city reaches a high level of achievement, it’s rather gratifying to witness the visual beauty and functional magnitude of the evolved housing, giant pyramids, and expansive infrastructure. And considering how military aspects of this game are the least important, Pharaoh makes for a mostly peaceful adventure, providing players who enjoy these sorts of games a real challenge without burdening them with too much combat.
Release date: 2001
Though Stronghold and it’s nearly identical sequel Stronghold: Crusader take place in the middle ages and revolve around historically tragic wars and conflicts, the games counter that possibly serious tone with comedic characters sporting goofy regional accents. Fictional antagonists like the dim-witted Duc “The Pig” Truffe and the high-strung Duc De Puce, aka “The Rat,” function as humorous villains balanced against more straight-laced and historically relevant characters like Saladin and King Richard I, “The Lionheart.”
Character have their own preferred units and castle designs, so encountering each foe makes for an interesting challenge, some being easier to conquer than others. “The Wolf” for example, will put up a much better defense and launch more effective attacks than “The Marshal,” an old cantankerous veteran crusader whose inept strategies usually leave him vulnerable and ill-prepared for conflict.
As in Pharaoh, you’ll spend your time managing the population and economy of your castle as you deal with your enemies abroad. However, the level of depth, while satisfying, is far more simplified and easier to handle, which is a benefit to the gameplay as combat takes a larger role throughout the game. Once you have set up a proper defensive strategy and enclosed your keep within the castle, you’re expected to either outlast or seek out and destroy your enemies.
Ultimately the best part of the Stronghold series is the most obvious one: castle building. Since the game allows for such a free approach to designing your castle, you can make fortifications as elaborate as you desire. You can simply put up just a few towers and fill them with effective crossbowmen, or you can set up tiered defenses, with layers of moats, spike pits, ballistas, pools of pitch which archers can set aflame, gateways, drawbridges, and the list goes on. It’s quite fun to watch enemy sieges fail against your superior design and tactics.
3. Rome: Total War
Release date: 2004
In a basic conceptual sense, if Pharaoh and Stronghold conceived a child, Rome: Total War would be it. Rome combines the complex management elements of Pharaoh and the combat focus of Stronghold. Regardless if you choose to play as any of the three Roman factions, Carthage, Egypt, The Seleucid Empire, or whichever faction you wish, conquering the world proves expectedly difficult, as you’ll have to manage conflict with other factions, civil unrest, construction, plague, and the strategic implementation of your military forces.
Rome can be a considerably long game if you desire it to be. Holding each city and further expanding your conquest takes much preparation and time but proves equally as satisfying when achieving victories. While the game allows you to essentially rewrite history by leading various factions to victories they never accomplished in real life, the game does provide a lot of true historical context throughout your playthrough, periodically alerting the player to inventions, natural disasters, and political reformations that affect things in game.
Though the Total War series has a lot of classics under it’s belt, Rome is often the most cited by players for its functional and epic RTS combat as well as its simulation aspects of governmental control. Equally as much time can be spent on adjusting taxes and construction priorities as coordinating armies for warfare, making Rome one of the most balanced, immersive, and rewarding experiences in gaming. Taking into account the monumental failure of Rome II, which was steeped in controversy, playing the original is highly recommended despite it’s graphical age. There’s always the plethora of mods out there as well if you really want to improve the textures and graphics.
4. Command & Conquer: Red Alert
Release date: 1996
Shifting from historical management games, Command & Conquer: Red Alert is an RTS game that spawned an entire franchise based off its alternate reality of history, taking place in the 1940s when the Soviet Union rose to even greater power under Stalin than Nazi Germany did under Hitler — because in this timeline, Hitler never took power. Solely focused on combat, the construction of bases and defenses is fairly limited compared to the past entries on this list, making the gameplay more kinetic and spontaneous.
Much like the Bioshock or Wolfenstein series, Red Alert includes technologies that would otherwise not have existed in real history, creating a greater sense of fantasy. It’s not exactly authentic to history when Tesla coil towers zap tanks into balls of flame.
Like Stronghold and its goofy tone, Red Alert uses live action cutscenes where real actors execute scenes with a moderately overacted and comical but dedicated tone. This further adds to the sense of historical fantasy and allows for the conflicts between nations to not be hindered by their very real-world possibilities and just lets you focus on the fun combat.
There have indeed been many successful Command & Conquer games, but the beautiful simplicity of Red Alert and its still attractive sprite style makes for a fun trip down nostalgia lane. Add in its multiple expansions, and you have a well-rounded world-war-esque experience that’ll last you for hours and hours.
5. RollerCoaster Tycoon
Release date: 1999
Lastly, RollerCoaster Tycoon removes the focus on conflict, as this one is mostly about running a theme park smoothly, unless you want to remove roller coaster structures and watch entire trains of cars crash and burn. Not to mention that you can can pick up patrons and drop them into bodies of water, watching them drown like the cruel CEO of your park that you are.
Anyway, this cheerful simulation allows you to build your dream theme park in a variety of settings, sometimes under objective restraints. There are a large variety of default rides and roller coasters provided, but creating your own custom rides is what proves most fun, especially once you complete a large project.
Like the objective of theme parks, fun is what takes precedent in this game. You can provide kiosks and food stands for your guests while also making sure to have enough personnel to keep your park clean, safe, and operating properly. The extensive customization of signs, colors, layouts, prices, and themes allows the park to be as personal as you desire, making the experience immersive and engrossing.
Unlike some simulation games, you can even alter the landscape, guiding tracks and tubes underground or elevating them up to extraordinary heights. Everything has a limit, but this extra effort to let players modify their park makes it even more fun. Be careful though, because if your rides are too crazy, your sidewalks may become plastered with puke.