Strategy games and the PC are made for each other. With the precision of a mouse and the power of a good graphics card, the depth and complexity inherent to their design can be fully fleshed out into massive, expansive worlds that offer dozens, even hundreds of hours of entertainment.
Best of all, many of our favorite titles are free-to-play, letting you choose if you want to pay for expansions or content beyond the base game. You can try out any one of our top picks for yourself, without worrying our differing tastes will fool you into spending money on a game that just isn’t for you.
These are a few of our favorite strategy games that you can play for free on the PC today. We’re including promising Early Access titles, strategy titles beyond the usual war strategy games, and more.
Hearthstone had a meteoric rise in popularity, hitting more than 100 million total players in 2018. Nowadays, it has a small, dedicated fanbase of players all striving to achieve the Legend rank every month, and is still adding new card classes and game modes like the popular Battlegrounds mode.
The game is similar to many other CCGs in the same category, such as Magic the Gathering. You build a deck of 30 cards using one of 10 different classes (Mage, Shaman, Druid, and more) that you think will have the best chance of beating your opponents.
Equal parts devastating frustration and jubilant triumph, Hearthstone takes all the best elements of tabletop CCGs and throws them into a giant number generator to see what comes out the other side. Because the game is digital, many of the card effects can be randomized, meaning no two matches ever play out exactly the same as the last.
So strap on your card playing gloves and get ready to pray to RNGesus, because Hearthstone is free to play on your PC, tablets, and phones. Blizzard will encourage you to spend money to buy booster packs so you can catch up to other players with more cool cards than you; however, many players have succeeded for years without spending any real money, gathering cards slowly simply by winning new cards after each match.
League of Legends
Born out of a mod for Warcraft 3 back in 2005, the MOBA (short for multiplayer online battle arena) genre has come to dominate the F2P PC gaming scene in the past few years, with titles like Heroes of Newerth, Heroes of the Storm, and DOTA 2 flooding onto our desktops by the handful.
On the outset, the premise of League of Legends is simple. Two teams of five players fight each other on a battlefield containing three lanes. Neutral monsters, or “minions” periodically feed down each lane, and players try and kill as many as they can while also trying to kill each other at the same time. As bots die, you’ll gather gold to shop for stat-increasing items and XP to level up and strengthen their core abilities.
Lightning-fast reflexes combine with relentless action to provide an adrenaline-fueled ride that entertains from start to finish. The skill curve can be punishing for newbies, but LoL’s tutorial and co-op system make it easy for players of all ages and backgrounds to ease into things before diving into a full-on 5v5 on Summoner’s Rift.
Start with practice modes and bot games to get acquainted with the mechanics and figure out your favorites of the over 140 champions to choose between, watch some LoL eSports championships to get a sense of the pro strategies, and make some friends to team up with and show you the ropes.
If you ask anyone who’s older than 12 what the quintessential real-time strategy game of our era is, Starcraft is the answer you’ll get.
Starcraft wasn’t the first of its kind, with other series like Command and Conquer and Age of Empires preceding it by almost half a decade by the time it came out in 1998. It was, however, the king of the RTS genre for the next 10 years, with perfect mechanics and a deep meta-game that continued to evolve through patches and expansions.
Now we have StarCraft II: Wings of Liberty, which went free-to-play in late 2017. With a free Battle.net account, you can download Starcraft II today and dive right into the action, though the Heart of the Swarm and Legacy of the Void expansions will still cost you.
You can choose between three armies and four game modes, and can play as many A.I. matches as you need to before you take on real-life opponents. Unlike games like LoL where you have teammates who will yell at new players for getting things wrong, Starcraft II is mainly 1v1, so the only person you’ll disappoint is yourself. And it has multiple league levels like Bronze and Silver that will pit you against similarly skilled players so you’re not out of your depth as a beginner.
With a dedicated fanbase and new custom games to enjoy when the main modes get stale, you’ll never have to wait long for a match. Plus, get good enough at StarCraft II and you may end up training robots with your brain waves.
Gwent: The Witcher Card Game
The latest CCG to challenge Hearthstone‘s throne is Gwent, the strategic card game originally found in Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. Unlike the mana-driven, one-round rulesets found in Hearthstone or Magic the Gathering: Arena, Gwent faces players off in a best-of-three match in which they can play as many cards as they want per round, but must hold some back in order to win the later rounds.
Originally available on Xbox One and PS4, it’s now only actively updated on PC, iOS, and Android. Choose between five deck factions — Monsters, Nilfgaard, Northern Realms, Scoia’tael, and Skellige — that each support different play styles and strategies.
Apart from your starter decks, you’ll unlock some new cards and leaders with single-player challenges, but your best way to improve your decks (without paying) is to play against opponents. Gwent is somewhat challenging for beginners because you need to win to gain ore currency for unlocking new cards, but you’ll start off playing against people with better decks than you. Keep in mind, however, that you get ore for winning a round even if you don’t win a game, so you can grind to better deck quality even if you’re on a losing streak.
Crusader Kings II
Offering up to four centuries of Medieval European alt-history, Crusader Kings II is set between 1066 and 1453 and has you control a kingdom during the Crusades, attempting to maintain power across generations of rulers. The base game is free, though all of the DLC will cost you a couple hundred dollars unless you wait for a sale. These DLCs offer new nations, empires, and periods of history — Islam, Rome, India, Japan, and many, many more — but the original campaign is definitely worth playing.
The core of the game is single-player. There is a 32-player multiplayer mode that any player can join regardless of which DLC they own, but with the game in its ninth year and Crusader Kings III out, you may not see a large multiplayer presence these days. But single player hasn’t gotten old yet.
A single campaign may take you 50 hours to complete, thanks to the complexity of the mechanics and varied directions you can take your family house. Unlike most games with a clear goal like “conquer the rest of the world” or even “keep your country safe,” you can choose the scope of your ambitions. Protect your one stretch of land across centuries from one religious or political threat to the next, or try to conquer the country or continent and accept the complexities that go with total rule. You’ll monitor house politics and succession, manage spy networks and armies, conduct diplomacy (or assassinate your enemies), choose to support particular religions or orthodoxies, and so on, all according to your choices.
Magic the Gathering: Arena
The third in our CCG F2P strategy trifecta, Magic the Gathering: Arena takes the classic, beloved card game and transfers it to your PC, where you can get a decent amount of starter cards for free that would cost you a decent chunk of cash in the real world. Of course, you’ll have to either grind for gems or pay for them to get the rares, legendaries, and mythics that will make your decks competitive.
Unlike some card games that make you build decks around individual factions, Magic offers the versatility of a game that’s been around for decades. You can build single-mana decks, multi- or even all-color decks if you want, based around creature hordes or direct damage, particular creature types that buff each other, countering opponents’ spells to leave them vulnerable, sacrificing your weak cards to remove their strong ones — you can really build your decks in whichever way sounds fun to you, rather than there being a right or wrong way to play.
For thoses who spent all their pocket money on physical MTG cards for years, only to move away from all the friends they used to play Magic with, Arena is a great way to reconnect with old friends and dive back into the game without spending too much money. The negative is that you don’t own your cards outside of the game, but it’s a fair trade-off for the cheaper cost.
Bloons TD Battles
Originally a free flash game series that people played for dozens of hours in their browsers, Bloons has expanded to an official single-player Steam release (Bloons TD 6), and this free multiplayer spin-off, Bloons TD Battles. Don’t let the cartoonish graphics fool you: You’ll need some deep strategy in order to survive the onslaught of balloons an experienced player will send your way.
Defensive Mode is most like the classic Bloons gameplay, in which you strategically place monkey towers that pop bloons, slow them down, or buff other nearby towers, except you’re trying to outlast your opponent. With Assault or Battle Arena mode, you must actively send bloons to attack your opponent while defending against their assaults. You must win games in order to unlock Medallions, which you then use to unlock higher tier towers and tower upgrades.
Everything in the game should be unlockable simply by playing, but you can spend money on NK Coins, which in turn can be used to buy Medallions or Battle Energy. Battle Energy can be used during a match to spy on your opponent and see what towers they’ve played, which could give you a competitive edge. The gameplay can get somewhat repetitive after a while, but a few fast-paced rounds offer plenty of tense fun.
Any fans of the classic RTS Total Annihilation should immediately give this spiritual successor a try. Built off of an open-source RTS engine that mimics TA game mechanics, Zero-K is a mech strategy title set at the “end of the universe.” It offers 70-plus missions, skirmishes, and horde survival mode for solo or co-op play that give you tons of experience before you jump into the multiplayer.
The core gameplay has you start with a single mech commander that you must protect at all costs. From there, you build any number of the 100-plus unit types to form your robot army and march on your opponent. What’s particularly exciting is the physics-based combat and ability to terraform the environment. If a mountain lies in your path, you can have your units arc projectiles over it to hit opponents, or literally dig through it to reach enemies. If an enemy is coming at you from one direction, seal off that path so they can’t reach you. The strategic possibilities are enormous.
Multiplayer game modes range from 16v16 and FFA to tournaments and ladders. What we appreciate most about this free throwback is that it doesn’t have any of the trademark free-to-play pressuring to spend money. Every in-game feature is unlocked to all users, with no superior units locked behind paywalls that give certain players an advantage. The only DLC is a donation to the devs, which we highly recommend “buying” if you enjoy Zero-K.
While you’re waiting for the new Dune film, revisit one of the first-ever RTS games, remastered. Dune Legacy is an open-source remaster of the 1992 game Dune II, available for PC, MacOS, and Linux. The game has been updated with HD graphics, modern control sensibilities like right-clicking and selecting multiple units, and new additions like multiplayer, map editing, and limited modding.
The game has been stalled at v0.96.4 since 2016, so it’s safe to say that a “final” release may not be in the works anymore. But if you can get this working on your PC, you’ll be able to see where RTS games first began. You can choose to join the campaign as House Harkonnen, Atreides, or Ordos, or as the Fremen, Sardaukar, or mercenaries.
Sid Meier’s Civilization I and II
MyAbandonware offers gamers over 15,000 classic P.C. games, most of which are no longer available for sale and therefore legal to download. They don’t allow you to pirate the games that continue to be sold elsewhere but instead connect you to their manufacturers and retailers. Still, the Strategy genre tag alone contains a whopping 2,000 games, and most of them are up for grabs for free download. With this timeless collection of gems, you can take a trip down memory lane by replaying your favorite games of past generations that you thought were gone forever.
Out of all the games available, we chose a pair with plenty of history: Civilization I and II. Sid Meier’s Civilization began the classic franchise that still exists today in Civilization VI, and the formula for each game is the same. This game takes you through the sands of time as you go from ancient civilization to the final frontier of space exploration, all the while gaining territory, innovating technology, and protecting your nation from outside attacks. You shouldn’t expect anything complex with this game, however, because not only is it a basic format, but its A.I. is rigged. Hence, we recommend you try Civ I for the nostalgia and put more of your time into Civilization II.
The second game improved upon the original in every way, adding new playable civilizations, city structures, technological advances, updated A.I., and gameplay mechanics that stand the test of time. There’s so much to Civilization II that you could spend ten years if you wanted, although think of all the other games you’d be missing out on. You can build a world that revolves around Despotism, Monarchy, Fundamentalism, Republic, Communism, or Democracy. You can leave the human realm and deify yourself for the greatest challenge.
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