It’s been a pretty good year for games, altogether. Sure, there were some high-profile disasters that made headlines in gaming media – the GTA fiasco, the advent of NFTs, Activision Blizzard – but those of us who just want to chill and enjoy turn-based games have a lot to be happy about. A few titles, in particular, rose above the rest; here are my picks for the best turn-based RPGs & Strategy Games of 2021.
By the way, the article contains affiliate links. These allow us to earn a bit of money, used to support the website. If you buy something through one of these, you’ll really help us!
5 – Star Dynasties
Crusader Kings in space seems like a slam-dunk of a pitch, and despite not having the budget of last year’s Crusader Kings III, this indie title from Pawley Games provides all the backstabbing, warmongering, adulterous drama you could ask for. It’s even more about politics than most dynastic games thanks to its slow-building economy and military; you can command the mightiest fleets in the galaxy, but that won’t amount to anything if your vassals and allies want to see you fail. In addition to the usual narrative events centered around courtly life and double-dealing, a large part of the game’s storyline focuses on rediscovering lost technology and handling the ramifications of doing so.
A particularly innovative system introduced in Star Dynasties is its honor system. A character’s reputation is largely determined by whether their actions are seen as just or unjust by the galaxy at large. Note that “just” doesn’t necessarily mean “moral” or even “good.” If your brother triggers a war with a neighboring polity by murdering a diplomat in cold blood, you’re expected to support him – he’s a blood relative, which takes precedence over seeing him held accountable for his crimes. This naturally leads to some tricky situations where the player has to weigh the practical ramifications of their decisions against the reputational ones. The game’s first major update made these decisions a little easier by teaching AI characters to recognize when a player is forced to choose the lesser of two evils – there is now a much less severe reputation penalty for an unjust action if the alternative would be even more unjust.
If you like emergent narrative and a world of barely-understood sci-fi technology, Star Dynasties is definitely worth a look. I’d tell you more, but I’ve been informed that I’ve just inherited a throne after the Duchess was murdered in a drug-fuelled rage. Time to see who is getting ejected from the airlock for this crime…
4 – Wildermyth
Speaking of emergent narrative, there aren’t many games that develop relationships between unscripted characters like Wildermyth. Sure, there are plenty of games that can tell a beautifully-crafted story about deep characters painstakingly developed over years of writing. How many games can bring a tear to your eye with characters who hadn’t even been conceptualized before you clicked “New Game?” With Wildermyth, we can now say with confidence that there is at least one such game.
At its core, Wildermyth is a game about ordinary people becoming heroes before passing into legend. Everything that happens to your party members – their rivalries and romances, their wounds and worries – gives them an organically-developed, living history. When they die, whether it’s in desperate battle to save the world or simply from old age, you’ll remember their story. If they’re legendary enough, they might even make an appearance in a later playthrough (much to the awe of the current crop of adventurers). It’s the kind of narrative that is at once universal and deeply personal; the world-saving heroics are as old as storytelling itself, but the specific tale that you’ll weave as a player will be yours and yours alone to cherish.
3 – Fights In Tight Spaces
In the real world (or at least, the world that was real before the pandemic) I design stage fights for theatrical productions. It’s incredibly fun and rewarding, and it’s given me an appreciation for safety, teamwork, and coordination. I can’t watch action movies like a normal person; I’m always trying to work out how each fight was shot when I should just be eating popcorn and enjoying myself. All this is to say that Fights In Tight Spaces feels like it was made for me specifically.
FITS is a card-based tactical brawler. Players plan out their moves which play out as pulpy, two-fisted action sequences. Men in suits and ties throw punches, struggle for control of guns, and throw each other into strategically-placed set pieces. The game also sports a minimalist aesthetic that’s perfect for its spy-thriller narrative. It’s a delight for anyone who appreciates a good bit of choreographed violence.
Lest you think it’s all style and little substance, Fights In Tight Spaces is also fantastic on the merits of its gameplay. Having a limited hand of cards means you have to make meaningful decisions all the time, and a constantly-refreshing hand means that thinking on your feet and improvising are key skills. Beware – playing this game might make you watch movies like me (if it’s ever safe to return to a movie theatre).
2 – Slipways
Let’s be honest – lots of our favorite games take a long time to play. As someone who often feels like I have to finish something I start in one sitting, this can present some tough situations when I just want to unwind and play some games. Should I really start up a new Civ 6 run when I know it will keep me up until three in the morning? Maybe I should play a game I’m not really feeling right now because I know I’ll be able to stop when I need to.
Slipways solves this problem by being a great game that’s playable in an hour or two. When in doubt, I can always have plenty of fun and challenge linking up trade networks between planets. The fact that each seed not only provides a unique map but also a unique set of available technologies adds to the game’s depth. Spamming Ascension Gates in the last run got me a great rating as my people left their mortal flesh behind, but that isn’t an option on my current run – maybe I’ll just dilate time to give myself a few more months in office and squeak out those extra points.
This 4X puzzle game has become a go-to pick for me since it was released earlier this year. It’s still being updated, including unique campaign missions and weekly challenges. It’s made all the more stunning by the fact that it was developed by a single person. Packing a satisfying game experience for a strategy nerd like me into only an hour is no mean feat. In fact, Slipways is so good that it would probably be my game of the year, if not for…
1 – Humankind
2021 was always going to be the year of Humankind for me. I actually pre-purchased the game in 2020, anticipating an April release. Then Humankind was pushed back to August; that was fine, I’d rather have a good game later than an okay game right away. When the time finally came, I lived and breathed Amplitude’s self-proclaimed magnum opus for weeks.
Humankind is a stunningly gorgeous game that shakes up traditional 4X gameplay in myriad ways. Its culture draft system allows for mid-game strategy shifts and limitless replay value. Its economy, styled on Amplitude’s Endless games, encourages exponential rather than linear growth so the mid-and late-game are entirely different animals than the early turns. Players don’t even start with the ability to find cities – they need to jockey for the best territory and earn their way into the Agricultural Revolution during a brief Neolithic Period at the beginning of the run.
I could go on and on about Humankind’s merits, but I recognize that it’s not perfect. My primary gripe is that the cultures still need a lot of balancing. Having a limited number of viable builds, especially at higher difficulties, negates a lot of the excitement around choosing your next culture. If the main draw of the game is that you’re building your own civilization from a mix of cultures that can change each game, why do I always find myself playing Egyptians into Carthaginians into Khmer?
Despite these issues, I’m looking forward to many years of Humankind, watching it grow and develop into its unique niche. Perhaps, though, I’m even more excited about what impact Humankind will have on other games. How will its ideas be adapted and improved upon? What new twists are on the horizon? Whatever the future holds, at this moment in time Humankind is a masterpiece and easily my favorite game – in any genre – of 2021.
Let me know what you think about my picks of the best turn-based RPGs & Strategy Games of 2021 in the comments below and if you want, show us yours.