A cult hit, Stronghold could never lay claim to the snazziest graphics or the most fiendish AI, but it had heart, character and a genuine affection for its own gritty, grisly, yet blackly comic spin on the Middle Ages. Even more importantly, it was an absorbing dual simulation and strategy game that let the player indulge their fantasies of medieval despotism, wage war against teeming enemies or just build the best damn castle they could. Stronghold’s strength lay in that it could be enjoyed in multiple ways. There were the wholesome pleasures of logistics, in which the player immersed themselves in the economics of running a castle. There was the appeal of castle design, crafting impressive, sprawling fortifications. And there was war, lots and lots of gory, desperate battling, against swarms of lemming-like soldiers and cartoonish theme-named villains like the Snake and the Wolf.
Red Alert 2
Kane aside, the colourful, ludicrous Red Alert games have the highest camp entertainment value of all the various Command and Conquer franchises. Set in an increasingly convoluted alternate timeline, it pits teleporting Allies with laser weapons and shape-shifting tanks against extra-dastardly Soviets with zeppelins, mind-control and killer squids. The second entry in the series is perhaps the most popular, with straightforward mechanics and a wide range of memorably deadly units. Play tended to be accessible, frenetic and ultraviolent, with a storyline (told through those infamous cut-scenes) that preferred overacting and no-nonsense objectives (Destroy that base! Zap those nukes!) to subtle drama and strategic intricacy. What’s more, the Soviet war machine so cheerfully stereotyped real-life Communist propaganda that it made the return of the Cold War seem a weirdly appealing prospect. In games, at least.
Warcraft’s popularity remains massive, even if the venerable RTS franchise will forever languish in the shadow of its MMORPG successor. Its game-play, with four distinct feuding factions and some basic RPG elements for Hero characters, was entertaining but not ground-breaking; it was simply a solid, well-crafted game. Its lasting appeal came from its lavish game-worlds (which rewarded critter-hunting exploration), it’s plethora of units and (fantasy clichés aside) it’s surprisingly epic story, which gave genuine motivation to some of the savage single-player battles. More about micromanaging special powers than assembling vast hordes, it made ripping the Scourge to shreds with a well-timed barrage of spells endlessly satisfying.
Age of Mythology
A spin off from the legendary Age of Empires franchise, Age of Mythology is still a very good-looking game, with lovely environments that evoked ancient mythologies while playing fast and loose with the source material. It married familiar AOE game-play mechanics to nifty new features like God Powers, giving conventional warfare a fantasy twist. Having a deity on your side added excitement to the usual RTS brawling, as you rained flaming meteors on the heads of enemy hoplites and Minotaurs. The different mythologies had different styles, with the Egyptian religion rewarding frantic monument-building and hordes of cheap troops, while the Norse literally earned their god’s favour through combat, encouraging speed and aggression. Even a slightly awkwardly-inserted Atlantean faction in the expansion pack couldn’t ruin it, though sadly a proper sequel looks unlikely.
Age of Empires 2
One of the grand-daddies of the RTS genre, Age of Kings may have crude graphics by present-day standards, but it makes up for it through sheer potential for epicness. The game can produce vast armies without breaking a sweat, locked in sprawling, rock-paper-scissors medieval warfare. The game is both ideal fodder for back-stabbing LAN parties, and a challenging single-player experience, especially with the Conquerors expansion pack bringing Aztecs, Huns, and Koreans to the party. Massed cavalry charges, castles under storm from scores of rams and knights, cannon galleons sacking elegant towns in a frenzy of destruction…the strategy genre may be evolving, but classics like AOK still have the power to entertain armchair warlords everywhere.