Welcome back, Commander
For a long time, consoles carried a strategy gaming stigma they simply couldn't shake. If you wanted to command more than, say, three dudes at a time, then obviously you needed a PC with its glorious mouse and keyboard setup. Trying to lead an army with a gamepad was simply a bad joke. Once the PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn entered the picture, however, that attitude began to change.
Games like StarCraft 64 and Red Alert did their best at boiling down a keyboard's worth of real-time strategy hotkeys into a few buttons on a controller. Meanwhile, Ogre Battle 64, Final Fantasy Tactics, and other turn-based strategy games from Japan expanded the tactical RPG genre started in the previous console generation. Today, the PC is still a cut above in the strategy genre - our friends at PC Gamer have picked the 20 best strategy games on PC - but consoles and handhelds still manage to hold their own with some creative strategy games you won't find anywhere else.
Advance Wars 2: Black Hole Rising
The Advance Wars series has been radio silent for a long time now, which is a real loss since it's one of the easiest strategy series to pick up and enjoy. Here, complex war stratagems are boiled down to a simple, rock-paper-scissors formula that plays fast once it clicks. You really can't go wrong with any Advance Wars game, but Black Hole Rising hits the sweet spot by expanding upon Advance War's core designs while omitting the overpowered units and combos found in Dual Strike.
Civilization has no business playing this well outside the PC. Typically, a Civilization game feels like a gladiatorial arena of micromanagement lasting for days, or weeks. The sheer volume of things to monitor per turn should have doomed this venerable strategy series outside its native platform, and yet Civilization Revolution does not falter. It expertly distills this 4X strategy formula down to its core parts; you still conquer your neighbors, build spectacular wonders, and guide your people to prosperity. It's a Civilization highlights reel.
Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3
The fact that Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 stars Tim Curry, J.K. Simmons, and George Takei basically gives it a free pass. But if you somehow need a better reason to check out the first console RTS on this list, know that you're getting an excellent adaptation of a PC mainstay. An easy-to-use radial menu gives you construction control with the pull of a trigger, and a stable framerate makes it easy to zip around the map highlighting multiple units. The entire experience feels surprisingly intuitive.
Disgaea: Hour of Darkness
The crown jewel of developer Nippon Ichi's strategy lineup, Disgaea: Hour of Darkness is a massive game that can easily eat up a hundred hours or more. You play as Laharl, demon prince of teenage Hell, where busty demonesses and peg-legged penguins are at your beck and call. Battles here are more relaxed - more comfortable - than others on this list. If the going gets tough you can always stop and grind for experience or to level up your weapons. Character development is at the heart of this game, and Disgaea dares you to make yourself overpowered.
Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions
Tragically, there's still not a definitive version of Final Fantasy Tactics. The original has a ramshackle script, War of the Lions slows down during attack animations, and the mobile port does the opposite; so pick your poison. War of the Lions gets the recommendation by adding new job classes and rebalancing old ones. Jobs let you get creative with a variety of different ability combinations: such as a Black Mage wielding two katanas or a teleporting White Mage with a gun. It's an extremely flexible - and rewarding - system the series has yet to match.
Fire Emblem: Awakening
Fire Emblem: Awakening is that rare intersection between dating sim and turn-based strategy that you simply don't see very often. Fire Emblem has a reputation for its difficulty and steep consequences for failure. Awakening tempers this a bit through various difficulty options, but that doesn't mean it's any less tactically complex than its predecessors. In fact, there are a number of interesting additions, such as characters being able to pair up and fight together. As they fight together they'll eventually fall in love, get married, and... well, I won't spoil it.
Front Mission 3
Front Mission is a fascinating series about highly customizable robot battles. It has a long history in Japan, but only 3 of its 11 games have landed in the West. Of those, Front Mission 3 is the best place to start. While not as complex or as difficult as other FM games, there's still a ton of creative flexibility to discover in how you kit out your machines. Fights play out like a mix between MechWarrior and Final Fantasy Tactics, with attacks damaging individual appendages. Blow off an enemy's gun-wielding arm, and that's it for that weapon. With a constant drip of new armaments and pilot abilities, you'll have plenty to experiment with across the game's 60 hour campaign.
Simplicity is at once Halo Wars' greatest strength and weakness. The basics of base building and troop movement are simple, fluid actions - which feel great. But when you're ready to take greater control over your army, that functionality simply isn't present. Custom unit groups and waypoints aren't an option, and your base is restricted to a handful of pre-selected build sites. The campaign is easy enough that you don't miss these finer controls, but the action ends up feeling dull at times.
Nobunaga's Ambition: Sphere of Influence
This game is an unfriendly beast of micromanagement, belying one of the most engrossing empire-management games on consoles. This Sengoku-era strategy game drills down into the minutiae of empire management, and it takes considerable trial and error before the larger strategies reveal themselves. But once they do, that degree of control lets you shape your empire to your exact specifications. On the flip side, battles have an arcade feel as large clusters of troops are treated as single units - making it easier to direct your army around the battlefield - and each cluster has its own special ability to use in battle.
Warning! We're now dealing with near-lethal levels of cuteness. Pikmin are just too freaking adorable, from their little button eyes to their dopey little run. And you control a whole army of the little guys, commanding them to collect items and battle monsters. Pikmin come in all sorts of different colors, with each color having its own special ability. Mixing and matching different colors, and making sure you have the right ones for the job, lends an amount of depth and variety you might not expect from such loveable trappings. Pikmin 3 is also considered the easiest of the trio, making it a great place to start.
Plague Inc. Evolved
Unlike the other games on this list, Plague Inc. Evolved doesn't put you in charge or any nation or army. You are a disease, and your entire purpose is to wipe out human life. You do this through evolution, which unlocks new abilities and symptoms you can use to target different regions of the world. But there's a balance that must be struck: become too lethal too fast and the world government will close their borders; but if you remain weak you could end up being cured before the last humans take their final breath.
R.U.S.E. is a real-time strategy game about getting in your opponent's head and screwing with perception of the battlefield. Having the best tanks or the most troops is a plus, but here information is what wins the day. Ruses are special abilities you can deploy in combat to obfuscate troop movements, unit types, or other pieces of key information to basically trick your opponent. Because of this emphasis on deception, this game is best enjoyed with a friend so you can fully enjoy the fruits of your trickery while avoiding the game's subpar campaign.
Skulls of the Shogun
This is probably the silliest game about dead samurai warlords you'll ever play. Skulls of the Shogun's small-scale battles and simplified play style are easy to comprehend, offering just enough strategic depth to keep you engaged. Battles are a classic, three-way struggle between infantry, archery, and cavalry, but numerous unit upgrades and environmental tricks (like hiding in bamboo) let you flex your creative muscles. All this is wrapped up in a silly, sitcom-esque tale of two rival samurai carrying on their grudge in the afterlife.
Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together
This loving recreation of a 1995 strategy classic adds a ton of new content to an already rich tactical strategy game. Chief among these is the Chariot system, which lets you rewind the game back to previous turns, effectively resetting the fight so you can undo your mistakes. Having this safety net lets you experiment freely with different strategies in battle, letting you make the most of the complex combat mechanics. A massive, wonderfully translated narrative and tons of unit customization options are sure to keep you entranced as you fight through this game.
Valkyria Chronicles is a strategy game unlike any other on this list. It's a hybrid of turn-based tactics and third-person shooting, where individual units are controlled in real-time but combat stills plays out in turns (it's not as complicated as it sounds). It just means when a unit somehow misses that point-blank shot, you have no one to blame but yourself. This system can feel loose or inaccurate at times, but the control it provides lets you position your troops and pull off tricky shots that would be impossible using traditional turn-based inputs.
Worms 2: Armageddon
Worms is a different flavor of turn-based strategy, where failure may result in some of your favorite moments. The point-and-shoot gameplay is more nuanced than it looks, almost like golf: you must carefully consider the angle of you shot, the weight of your (typically ridiculous) munitions, and even which way the wind is blowing. Of course, when things go awry and you horribly flub a shot, the hilarity of the resulting chaos - with your team of worms squealing in high-pitched Sean Connery or drill sergeant voices - ensures that you can't help but laugh at your own misfortune.
XCOM: Enemy Within
Despite releasing on PC first, XCOM's grid-based arenas and minimalist interface feel right at home on a gamepad. This frees you up to fall into the game's satisfying cycle of killing aliens, unlocking new weapons using alien tech, and then using that tech to kill bigger aliens. Dire consequences - namely perma-death - lend every action an extra tinge of anxiety as one wrong move could spell death for your outclassed soldiers. But these steep punishments make each victory that much more rewarding.