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Buried Treasure: Strategy Game Edition

We’re back for another round folks, exploring the deepest recesses of the Steam Store to bring you a treasure trove of the old, the odd, and the obscure. This time though, we have a plan: Rather than the usual scattershot approach, were honing in with clockwork precision on the wonderful world of strategy games. So prepare yourself for a tank-blasting, line-marching, city-burning good time, as we let slip the dogs of war and unleash the latest Buried Treasure.

 

1: Battle Academy

Wars don’t come much bigger than the Second World War, so it’s no surprise that plenty of games have used it as a setting. Battle Academy is one of those games, but don’t think that the familiar setting means that this game is lacking in ideas. While not groundbreaking by any means, it combines a few interesting mechanical twists with some solid AI and level design to make a game that really stands out from the pack.

The first thing that you’ll notice about Battle Academy is the sky-high levels of tension it evokes, a rare feeling in turn based strategy games. Most of the map is covered in fog of war, and sightline-blocking obstacles litter the battlefield, so you never know when you’re going to stumble into a trap. Worse still, carelessly moving into the enemy’s line of fire provokes a free attack. That might not sound like much, until you learn about the games other innovation: Your vehicles, which form the bulk of your offensive strength, don’t have hit points. Instead, each attack has a chance, influenced by strength, armor, distance, flanking, and some other factors, to penetrate your armor and score an instant kill. Carelessly walking into an ambush can thus quickly cost you half your army, and with no way to replace lost units, that’s a punishing loss. Naturally, you can do the same, luring enemies into vulnerable positions or looping round to strike them from behind. Each round is thus an exercise in careful maneuvering and calculated risk-taking, where a wrong move or a lucky shot can drastically shift the tide of battle. Things get particularly intense in the games urban combat missions, when enemy infantry can hide in buildings and narrow streets make maneuvering difficult.

If urban combat isn’t your thing though, the game does have plenty of other scenarios for to try. In addition to the three starting campaigns, there are a whole lot more available as DLC, and each has its own set of challenges to overcome. As you zip between the various theaters of war, you’ll fight tank battles in the open desert, lead paratroopers through enemy territory, and struggle to hold the line against vastly superior numbers. All of these scenarios are easy to grasp, though certainly not easy to beat, thanks to a simple and intuitive set of mechanics and an accessible interface. Fans of tank based strategy games will find a lot to like in this one, and newcomers  might just find it a good entry point  to the genre

2: Battleplan: American Civil War

If Battle Academy is one of the most tense and visceral strategy games out there, Battleplan: American Civil War may be one of the most relaxed and abstract. Your forces are represented by simple cubes, marching across a very basic map. It gives an impression of distance, as though you’re a commander sitting in a war room, devising strategies and  pushing tokens around a map.

That impression is surely deliberate, as the game’s unusual mechanics serve to reinforce it. While strategy games often give you a seemingly omnipotent ability to command your far-flung troops, Battleplan introduces you to some of the difficulties a real commander would face before the invention of instantaneous communication. Before your troops can act on your orders, they must first receive them, a process that requires a messenger to travel all the way from your general to the troops. Properly positioning your general is an important part of the games strategy: Too far from the front lines, and your orders will take forever to reach anyone, too close and you risk the general being lost if his position is overrun, resulting in a hefty hit to your armies morale.

The difficulties don’t end there either. Once an order is received, your loyal troops will carry it out or die trying, so getting too ambitious in your advances can result in you watching helplessly as your soldiers valiantly march into certain death if they fall into an ambush or meet the enemies reinforcements. That is, of course, if they decide to follow orders at all. Sometimes, your commanders take on a mind of their own, either refusing to move at all or simply charging toward the nearest enemy. It’s chaos, and trying to impose any sort of order on it requires an ability to both plan ahead and adapt to quickly changing situations. In other words, exactly the kind of challenge you want in a strategy game.

Admittedly, it is a bit lacking in content, with only 20 battles in the campaign and only 3 types of units. Still, if you’re looking for a strategy game that’s a little bit different from the norm, this is a good pick.

 

3: Card Hunter

From World War 2 to the American Civil War, this list has had some pretty heavy subject matter so far. Maybe you want something a little less grim. Maybe you want a bunch of Dungeons and Dragons references on top of a hybrid strategy/collectible card game. Well, Card Hunter is here to grant your oddly specific wish, because that’s exactly what it offers. Taking control of a customize-able 3 man party of fighters, mages and clerics, you’ll battle the forces of darkness in a series of turn based conflicts in which your available actions are determined entirely by the cards in your deck. From powerful attacks and magic spells to defensive maneuvers and even basic movement, Card Hunter is all about using the right cards at the right time.

Naturally, if you want to use the right cards, you’ll have to collect them first, and Card Hunter has a highly unusual card collection and deck building mechanism for you to play with. Rather than dealing with individual cards, you acquire and equip items which grant cards as a set . A sword, for example, might give you a set of single target attacks of varying strength, while a magic staff offers a host of spells for attack, defence, or support. The number of items you can equip is limited, so picking the right cards for your strategy is essential. To further complicate matters, the more powerful cards often come in sets with much weaker, or even detrimental, cards, forcing you to take the risk of unhelpful or harmful draws in exchange for the possibility of getting the strongest attacks.

There’s a lot of strategy involved, both in building your team and in the battles themselves, which feature a variety of situations and enemies. The game never feels overwhelming though, in part because of it’s goofy presentation. Rather than saving the world from destruction or conquering an empire, you take on the role of a group of nerds playing a Dungeons and Dragons style tabletop campaign, facing the age-old challenges of tyrannical Dungeon Masters and confusing assortments of pole-arms. The maps are even presented as a paper battle-map, and the units and creatures as cardboard stand-ups.

Card Hunter manages the impressive trick of being funny, accessible, and strategically engaging, and best of all, it’s free. You really have no excuse not to give it a shot.

 

4:Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic

Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic is, to put it simply, one of the best strategy games ever made. An epic fantasy story of war, magic, and demonic invasion, it features everything you could possibly want in a strategy game. Gameplay revolves around large scale empire management, requiring you to recruit armies, build upgrades, and capture cities. The strategy here relies heavily on resource management, with limited supplies of gold having to be split between a host of different priorities. Gamers looking for a more small scale, tactical experience shouldn’t be too upset though, as the clash of armies is resolved by zooming in for close-up tactical battles where unit positioning, magic, and special abilities are the real determinants of victory. Much like in the better Total War games, the two halves of the game blend seamlessly into a single whole, creating a game that can suck you in for hours at a time.

There are over a dozen fantasy races to choose from, ranging from the standard humans, orcs, and elves, to the cat-like Tigrans and the mighty Shadow Demons, and each has it’s own distinct set of units upgrades and strategies. Each is also led by a wizard, whose powerful magic is one of the things that most sets this game apart from the competition. In addition to the expected magical options (powering up units, summoning monsters, etc), wizards in Shadow Magic can unlock spells that change the very face of the map. With enough mana, you can smite whole armies with flames from the sky, turn forests into wastelands, raise mountains or flatten them. It’s a rare thing to be given so much power in a video game, and it makes the game feel as much like a particularly impressive fantasy novel as a strategy game.

You’ll need all that power and more though, because this game is ludicrously difficult. Later levels of the campaign are just plain unfair, pitting you against enemy armies composed of massive stacks of top tier units while providing you with scant resources with which to fight back. Blatant exploitation of the most overpowered spells, along with frequent application of save scumming, are the only way you’re going to make it through in one piece. If you can get over the punishing difficulty though, this is a must play for anyone with even the slightest interest in strategy games.



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