Despite its current relevance to contemporary political dynamics and compelling what-if scenarios, the Cold War setting remains one of the less popular periods amongst other historical games. This simply means that this setting is an untapped well of potential for innovative and engaging strategy games.
Remarkably, unlike other historical settings, most Cold War strategy games are consistently solid across the board. To shine a light on this vital period in history, here are the best Cold War strategy games of all time, limiting ourselves to one entry per franchise.
The Best Cold War Strategy Games
10. Möbius Front ‘83
Platform(s): PC, Linux
There are few if any truly historical combat-centric Cold War games as it luckily never became hot, so most games with military action are literally alternate history. Why not go all the way and have multiple universes clash on the battlefield in a Marvel comics-style Secret Wars crossover? Zachtronics’ Möbius Front does exactly that.
Players will take command of US troops stationed in Europe standing guard against a potential Soviet invasion, but instead, an alternate universe US invades Europe and sends the troops on the ground into chaos. You’ll command a variety of forces – from tanks and helicopters to infantry and artillery across a number of puzzle-like scenarios, a la Unity of Command 2, complete tactical objectives, and delve deeper into this multiverse mystery.
The game’s greatest strength, the AI, while making each scenario a mind-boggling affair, is also its greatest weakness as it’s perhaps so punishing in its aggression and bonuses that it may lead to frustrating restarts and a feeling of gruelling repetition. However, for players really looking for a challenge that will push them to their limits in unit control and tactics, Möbius Front is an excellent choice.
9. Phantom Doctrine
Developer: CreativeForge Games, Forever Entertainment
Publisher: Good Shepherd Entertainment, UF Games
Platform(s): PC, PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Alongside the arms race and ideological conflicts, the Cold War is best known for the mass expansion of organized espionage and counterintelligence operations. Phantom Doctrine puts players in control of a special operations task force pursuing its own goals amidst rising global tensions.
Phantom Doctrine can best be described as an XCOM-like turn-based tactics game with a greater emphasis on stealth and player freedom of choice in approaching objectives and missions. More impressively, the game sports an in-depth and compelling strategic layer that lets players manage their agents, investigate cases, and expand their network, all giving Phantom Doctrine a distinct spy thriller feel that sets it apart from strategy games of similar genres.
Unfortunately, several moles sabotaged some components of the gameplay, mostly in the technical department with a myriad of bugs and glitches making the tactical gameplay unintentionally funny at best, and immersion-breaking at worst. It’s Phantom Doctrine’s setting, though, that really makes it stand out as a Cold War game and, as a result, is one of the best spy-focused strategy games on the market.
8. Armored Brigade
Developer: Matrix Games
Publisher: Veitikka Studios
Tactics games are some of the most popular in Cold War strategy gaming and this extends even to simulation wargames, such as Armored Brigade. In a way, this game is like a far more realistic version of Eugen Systems’ Wargame Red Dragon (more on that later), which comes with a few perks, but also annoyances.
Armored Brigade invites players to take command of varied formations from different nations with an emphasis on mobile units and maneuver warfare that’s characteristic of this era of military development. Safe to say, Armored Brigade nails the nature of combined arms warfare to a tee and will challenge players in their ability to synergize disparate units into a cohesive force, even more so than in Möbius Front.
Getting into Armored Brigade is quite the hassle, though, as it suffers from the typical simulation wargame issue of clunky UI, graphics, and controls that will be sure to intimidate many and make the learning curve steeper than it needs to be. As a realistic real-time tactics game with a huge variety of units and weapons, Armored Brigade is hard to beat.
7. Cold Waters
Developer: Killerfish games
Publisher: Killerfish games
Platform(s): PC, macOS
Though spy-themed strategy games are quite sparse, naval combat games aren’t too far behind in their lack of representation, especially in the Cold War-era. Thankfully, Cold Waters is one of the best naval combat games not only in its setting, but also across the entire genre.
Cold Waters sees players taking command of their very own submarine, silently stalking Earth’s oceans for vital targets. As a simulation wargame at its core, with decent graphics and UI to boot, the amount of command options, from navigation to detailed torpedo control, is mesmerizing and will have players sinking many hours perfecting their tactics and command skills.
Cold Waters’ authenticity and attention to detail does come at the cost of uneven pacing since most of the action is concentrated in short intense bursts that break up the monotony of long stretches of sailing and hunting. On the flip side, this slow burn pace heightens the tension and makes the payoff for well-executed ambushes all the more rewarding. For up-and-coming silent hunters and sea skippers, Cold Waters is the perfect playground.
Developer: Introversion Software
Publisher: Introversion Software, Ambrosia Software, Valve Corporation, Encore Software
Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux, DS
One of the defining features of Cold War strategic warfare was the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction – each major power bloc maintained enough destructive strategic nuclear armaments to wipe out the opposition’s population, industrial capability, military power, and will to fight. DEFCON was one of the first strategy games to truly illustrate the strategic nature of nuclear warfare in broad strokes.
Ironically, DEFCON actually ends up being a cerebral, almost meditative game of nuclear devastation, which makes it easy to get into, understand, and then master, even though realistically nuclear war would likely be over as soon as it starts. DEFCON’s setting may be more abstract than something like Armored Brigade or Cold Waters, which are explicitly set during the Cold War, conceptually it captures the strategic landscape, military assets, and flow absolutely brilliantly.
The obvious conclusion in nuclear war does lead to one of DEFCON’s major drawbacks, which is that it can get repetitive, as there’s little in the game to push beyond its premise or approach nuclear war from a different angle. For anyone anxious that the Doomsday Clock is getting too close to midnight, DEFCON is an excellent game to get a better understanding of the dynamics of nuclear war.
Developer: SoftWarWare, K-Project
Publisher: Slitherine Software
ICBM is essentially DEFCON, but better in every way as it develops and expands on several key areas. The basic premise of the game is the same: win (as best as you can) as your selected region in a global nuclear war.
ICBM adds an expansive technology tree, a greater array of units, and most importantly a vastly improved suite of scenario options that let players customize the experience to their liking and try different strategic setups. If in DEFCON there was a relatively clear one-sided approach to winning, ICBM does its best to give players alternate paths and options in approaching their nuclear strategy.
The game does suffer from DEFCON’s repetition issue, though to a lesser extent, but also has more pronounced balancing issues in the tech tree and unit capabilities. Nevertheless, ICBM’s improved options for player scenario customization make it the definitive nuclear war strategy game.
4. Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2
Developer: Westwood Studios, EA Pacific
Publisher: Electronic Arts
If you take Möbius Front’s multiverse premise, dial it up to eleven, and throw in maximum camp for good measure, you’ll get Command and Conquer: Red Alert 2. All the other games on the list do their best to at least resemble the actual Cold War, but Red Alert 2 is the opposite as it’s an absolutely campy B-movie Hollywood over-the-top interpretation of this period, complete with mind-controlled squids, a time-hopping Albert Einstein, and bonkers double-barrelled tanks.
Red Alert 2 adheres to classic RTS design principles with a mix of resource gathering, unit production and command, combat, and plentiful base-building. The true selling point of the game, though, is its absurd humor, vibrant aesthetics, creatively hilarious live-action cutscenes, and decent faction design.
Red Alert 2 does go by the style-over-substance principle more than some of its RTS counterparts, with the management aspects feeling a bit barebones in comparison, it more than makes up for it with sheer wacky creativity. As a solid representative of the Command and Conquer series and as a fun action romp, Red Alert 2 is one of the best Cold War strategy games on the market.
3. World in Conflict
Developer: Massive Entertainment
Publisher: Sierra Entertainment, Vivendi Games, Ubisoft
Platform(s): PC, PS3
The last three entries are all equivalent in quality and could easily take the number one spot, as they all represent the best that Cold War strategy games have to offer in their own way. The first of these is World in Conflict, which stands out as an excellent, innovative team-oriented real-time tactics game, as much as a solid representation of the Cold War in its own right.
World in Conflict truly gets team synergy and coordination down with distinct combat roles, troop specialisation, and team communication tools – something many strategy games don’t quite succeed in implementing. In addition, World in Conflict bothers to include a lengthy and meaningful campaign that actually has solid writing, compelling character arcs, and even impactful heart-wrenching moments.
For all of its high quality, World in Conflict’s multiplayer has been discontinued and the fan-led open source software and support aren’t the smoothest to use. Nonetheless, World in Conflict has made its mark with its fantastic, tactical team gameplay that has yet to be topped.
2. Wargame: Red Dragon
Developer: Eugen Systems
Publisher: Eugen Systems, Focus Entertainment
Platform(s): PC, macOS, Linux
If World in Conflict’s tactical gameplay went for small-scale tactical team synergy, then Red Dragon goes all out with its scale and sheer overwhelming amount of options. The number of nations and their unique units is enough to make even the most experienced strategist stuck in analysis paralysis.
Despite not being a simulation wargame, Red Dragon is arguably the most authentic representation of Cold War combined arms warfare, with players encouraged to master multi-role formations and the synergy of different weapon systems. Though Steel Division 2 built and almost perfected the campaign system, Red Dragon on paper has a solid single player campaign with multiple scenarios looking at potential conflicts in the East Asian theater. This mode is let down only by the subpar and spam-prone AI.
Red Dragon isn’t the most accessible strategy game, especially from Eugen, lacking a number of quality of life features and a robust tutorial system. It is, however, still the pinnacle of Cold War strategy game design and deserves a spot in any strategy fan’s library.
1. Twilight Struggle
Platform(s): PC, macOS, Android
For our pick for the best Cold War strategy game of all time, we’ve chosen a humble digital adaptation of one of the best tabletop strategy games ever made – Twilight Struggle. It’s the quintessential authentic Cold War experience that adapts the conflict into a compelling duel board game.
Aside from being the most authentic and, dare we say, realistic representation of the Cold War, due to incorporating actual historical events into the core gameplay, Twilight Struggle depicts the Cold War less as a military conflict and instead as primarily a global struggle for influence. The two power blocs are quite evenly balanced and the possibilities of how the game plays out will greatly vary from game to game and will easily keep players locked in for its snappy pace and competitive dynamic.
The digital version improves upon the board game by quickening the pace even further by abstracting and simplifying logistical board game clunkiness, focusing player attention solely on the decision-making and maximizing their strategic gains. Twilight Struggle stands head and shoulders above the rest for being not just a great historical game, but a fantastic strategy game that comes closer to perfecting strategy game design than many other games beyond the Cold War setting.
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