There are few things more gratifying in gaming than skillfully turning the tide of a conflict. And few genres provide as many opportunities to abruptly reverse the odds via skill and forethought as tactical strategy. To be sure, we are more often than not talking about turn-based tactical mobile games, specifically titles in line with the iconic landmark series (XCOM and Jagged Alliance) that made the genre a genre.
Unfortunately, mobile gaming, with its ocean of pay to win flotsam, has not been particularly kind to armchair tacticians. Five years ago we would not have even been able to compose a list like this. But, mobile represent two vast gaming markets and if you look in the right places you’ll find a decent-sized cache of tactical mobile games, developers porting classic titles, indie devs creating compelling cross-platform games and, on occasion, even Android-only titles that are bona fide gaming goodness. And showing you some goodness is what this is all about. To that end, we have done the heavy lifting for you. Enjoy.
10. Star Chindy: SciFi Roguelike
Creators MASTgames call their baby a roguelike but you will find neither asterisk characters nor procedurally generated dungeons inside. Instead, you’ll command a spaceship with a ragtag crew hurtling through the cosmos to find and destroy the vile Mechrons, the robot race that nearly destroyed humanity and then mysteriously disappeared. Star Chindy combines FTL-style space exploration with both ship to ship combat and tactical combat. Aside from the ship combat, Star Chindy’s various elements work well together. There’s a trove of loot and leveling for both ground units and ships that are well integrated into play. The game’s combat is nuanced and challenging and it sports a fun story line. The overall package is a genuine achievement for a small indie developer.
9. Space Hulk
As is sometimes the case, Space Hulk made a few stops before making its way to Android. Hoplite Research, LLC’s ported Space Hulk to Android based on Full Controls iOS adaptation of the circa 1980s board game classic. For the uninitiated, the board game was developed in the early years of the Warhammer franchise and a few years after Alien. The game combines much of the best of both. You control huge armored space marines in a bid to exterminate stabby xenomorphs who have overrun old abandoned space vessels.
Part of the challenge is your standard XCOM paradigm, optimizing movement, skills and action point allotment; the other half of the game’s tactics are predicated on the particular trappings of Space Hulk. Your bulky marines can only traverse the claustrophobic corridors of space hulks single file, are seldom able to back one another up in a fight and take two actions just to turn around. To make matters worse, the Xenos attack in hordes and the game’s virtual dice system is awfully fond of critical damage. Overall, it’s a winning combination that makes for some hair-raising gameplay. The game’s difficulty and crit system, however, sometimes means either playing a mission over several times or down shifting the difficulty level. A pain but we didn’t mind too much and found the overall package to be a barrel full of monkeys.
8. Templar Battleforce
Influenced heavily by the Warhammer franchise, you might be surprised by the fact that we placed The Trese Bothers’ Templar Battleforce a tier above a game that is in some ways its progenitor. (However, to be fair, the concept of Warhammer’s Space Marines was heavily influenced by a host of older sources beginning with Robert A. Heinlein’s 1959 novel “Starship Troopers”). You are no doubt a lot less surprised if you have played this richly nuanced title.
In Templar Battleforce, you control a squad of Templars: elite warriors kitted out in hulking cyber-armor, who are tasked with protecting a faction of space-colonists. If you are familiar with the Trese Brothers’ body of work, you know that: one: They have been a godsend for core gaming on mobile and two: They are a passionate, devoted and generous group of developers. Though they are a small development group, they often provide weekly updates to their excellent games. What’s more, this generous quality plays out in the games themselves. Templar Battleforce, like most of their titles, not only provides tens of hours of pay-once excellent gaming but the game itself features a host of missions, rich and comprehensive leveling trees, a pile of loot and a host of smartly-designed tactical missions. What is also particularly impressive about this title is how the game’s mechanics tie into both story and gameplay. One of the Trese Brothers’ most polished games, you owe it to yourself, if you love tactical mobile games, to pick this one up.
7. A Ticket to Earth
We loved Robot Circus’ superlative match 3-SRPG hybrid, so much that we named it best Android indie of 2017. We were at first skeptical about the idea of blending a match 3 puzzler with a turn-based tactical strategy title. But, like the vast majority of folks who tried it, A Ticket to Earth won us over. The game tasks players with navigating a multicolored chess board of sorts with a small team, usually two or three of the game’s four pre-made characters. Within two actions per turn, you attempt to move your character along a contiguous path of similarly-colored squares. Successfully doing so fills up one of your character’s color-corresponding skill gauges. Once filled, you can employ the skill, often on your turn’s second action, and wreak havoc upon the enemy. The game also features a host of RPG bells and whistles, including loot, a competent comic book-like story and comprehensive character skill trees that often play out to great effect in-game. Hardcore tacticians may at first scoff at the idea of merging a match 3 puzzler with a tactical game, but if you are open-minded enough to try it out, you will be pleasantly surprised.
6. Demon’s Rise/Demon’s Rise 2
Demon’s Rise and Demon’s Rise 2, by relative newcomer Wave Light Games, are abundantly fun, well-made and generous tactical strategy titles. I suppose, like most of the numbers on this list, you could cry foul as it has a number of SRPG trappings. But not only is there an awfully fine line between the two, the meat of Demon’s Rise, like all of the games on this list, is tactical combat. For a small indie developer, Wave Light’s Demon’s Rise games offer the player a ton of stuff to play with. The first game featured 30 high-fantasy characters to choose from, each with a backstory, a bunch of skills and stats, all of which jibe with the game’s characters and play out superbly in combat.
In Demon’s Rise 2, you play the baddies who support Demon King Something-or-other. Demon’s Rise 2 provides only 19 characters from which to compose your six-man party, but it is a wilder and more divergent group. Suffice it to say you get to play ogres, warrior polar bears and a werespider, to name a few. Combat in both games is well-balanced and par for the tactical course; that is, turn-based tactics played on hexagonal maps. Missions in both games are varied and well-thought-out. Both also provide players with a bevy of options and features: five difficulty levels, terrain effects, cover and line of sight mechanics, and all of the above has been fine-tuned, updated by Wave Light regularly, and work like a clock. If you’re a tactics fan who has yet to partake, do so.
5. Shieldwall Chronicles: Swords of the North
After the critical success of the Demon’s Rise games, some players and critics felt that Wave Light Studios’ Shieldwall Chronicles was simply more of the same. We didn’t. Yes, much of the game’s systems and combat are a short step away from the company’s three other titles (see the Demon’s Rise games above). It’s also true that the games’ production values are only a bit more polished than Wave Light’s older titles, all of which could use a little polish. That said, we loved Shieldwall Chronicle’s relatively low magic setting. As much as we loved the Demon’s Rise games, we grew a little weary of the Harry Potter level of magic: everything, everywhere, all the time. We enjoyed engaging Wave Light’s excellent systems in a game that featured among its various characters, a number that played more like medieval warriors: archers, spearmen, knights and the like. On the same page, we felt the gameplay, while statistic-heavy, offered a more realistic and challenging experience. Overall, we found it a better game than Wave Light’s previous titles and that is saying a lot.
4. Door Kickers
KillHouse Games’ superb cross-platform tactical game, in which you control a swat team taking out the bad men, came to Android 2015 and we could not have more pleased. It remains one of the finest tactical mobile games you can play on your Android device. You can rush through a couple of the game’s easier missions just having your team members follow your finger around in real time, which is fun, if often suicidal. Usually, however, you’ll be setting up waypoints and complex sets of actions for several of your SWAT team members at once. There is much joy to be found in the process of setting up a perfect door breach, then executing it in real time: throwing down a flash bang and taking a door while team members strafe in from behind to back up your point man. If done right, you abruptly find your team standing in a room full of wall spatters.
As the missions become increasingly complex you are given more in-game options in terms of weapons and team members, and though you are likely to hit some difficult snags along the way, Door Kickers invites you to retry each mission. Score one of three stars on a mission, not a problem. Not only can you replay it as many times as you want, but if you hone your approach and execution of your mission’s goals, you earn more stars and thus more stuff. Generously replayable, visceral and satisfyingly complex, Door Kickers is the perfect main stay game for a tactics fan’s device.
3. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions
Because I am not a Final Fantasy fan, I may be the perfect writer to assess this old school classic. In other words, I am not going to gush over every detail, and if I do, you know that I mean it. Don’t get me wrong, I get that the Final Fantasy represents a great library of games. I do. But I feel like most, if not all, of Square Soft’s early JRPGs are asking me to play around with a bunch of toddlers. Final Fantasy Tactics is no different in this respect. What’s more, it’s full of beautifully-rendered JRPG cut scenes that tell unskippable stories long-winded enough to cause you to reflect on how many hours you have left to live. And yet, there is a reason this game is iconic. There’s a reason that, along with the XCOM series, it’s probably the most critically acclaimed tactical game ever made. It is without a doubt, a masterwork of design, in terms of sound, visuals and gameplay.
Final Fantasy Tactics’ jobs system allows for players to customize their characters in a great variety of ways, combining not only different jobs, like knight and white mage for example, but it also allows players to earn skills from other jobs, resulting in seemingly endless combinations. What’s stunning is how well this plays out in tactical battles, how it can be finessed to create an absolute five-man wrecking crew, even if it is a wrecking crew of toddlers. Not only is the tactical combat played out on stratified isometric grids engaging and challenging, but the game also features a slew of hardcore tactical elements like terrain considerations, line of sight rules and our favorite: permadeath. Even if, like me, you are biased against the JRPG milieu, Final Fantasy Tactics: War of the Lions is one of the most well-designed, detailed, enjoyable and hardcore tactical games you’ll find on any system.
2. The Banner Saga/ Banner Saga 2
Beautiful production values combined with elegant and challenging gameplay mark Versus Evil’s tactical cross-platform indie series. Much of the game is played using an Oregon Trail mechanic; that is, your band of Vikings and Varls (giant Nordic humanoids with horns) automatically move forward from place to place while you manage a series of unfolding random events, all in and attempt to keep said band safe and sound. As with its predecessor, your prospects are bleak. It’s a well-written, epic-sized story that is also pretty bleak, but even if you go in for cheerful Hobbiton-type stories, this one features a great high-stakes plot full of wonderfully vile, heroic, flat and bombastic characters, making the whole pretty damn good.
The other half of the game has you engaging in some of the most elegant tactical combat you’ll find anywhere. Instead of hit points, your units have two main stats to worry about in combat, strength and armor. Armor generally functions per usual but strength functions as hit point as well as the ability to damage your opponent. For every encounter you have to weigh whether your unit’s strength can overcome your opponents armor. If it can’t, you have to break down the armor first. Also, once an enemy’s or even your own unit’s strength/hit points are depleted, they are effectively hobbled and you can choose to leave them hanging around the battlefield to block the way of more powerful enemies.
Beneath the hood is a longer list of stats, some that are cool and unique for this type of tactical game, such as the exertion and break attributes. The former allows you to stretch out your unit’s maximum capacity to move or attack while the latter denotes the ability to break armor, which by any measure is a magnificent quality to possess. There are skills and a bit of loot too, both systems have been paired down to bare essentials to good effect. The battles themselves, absent high ground and cover, seem at first glance relatively simple affairs, but there is a lot going on under the surface. Between the Banner Saga’s take on skills and attributes, the different types of cohorts you’ll face, the new paradigms Banner Saga creates via armor/armor-breaking stats, the merging of strength and hit points, Versus Evil has created a unique gaming experience rich in tactical choices. Add in the Banner Saga Series’ compelling, unique story and superb production values and you have what is hands down one of the finest tactical mobile games available on mobile devices.
1. XCOM Enemy Within
While it’s not Shakespeare, XCOM’s overarching story, the one told in short cut scenes, wherein you head up Earth’s last line of defense against a massive alien invasion, is just a small part of XCOM’s whole. What’s more, the game’s cooler stories are by far the emergent ones: the bona fide fear you feel entering your first terror mission followed by palpable relief when you have actually destroyed the alien incursion and saved some of the locals; the elation you experience after deftly dismantling a sectopod in a proper ambush; the genuine pang you feel watching a character you leveled up, customized and named fall at the tail end of a mission.
XCOM creates these emergent experiences from out of the depth and brilliance of both its strategic and tactical layers. The strategic layer has you trying to keeps Earth’s big-hitter nations happy by quickly and adroitly building XCOM into a functioning anti-alien force. You build a base, maintain aircraft, do R&D on alien artifacts, craft your own badass anti-alien stuff and keep your soldiers leveled-up and looking cool.
As fun as all of that is, XCOM’s tactical battles are an absolute blast. The turn-based game represents pitch perfect turn-based strategy, with combat punctuated by short in-game animations dramatizing mission highlights as they unfold. Everything is about as good as it gets: enemy design, mission design, destructible environments, smart AI, the arrays of goodies: weapons, skills, classes, all present and finely tuned. Originally designed by Firaxis, Chinese developer Virtuos ported XCOM Enemy Unknown to Android in 2014 and then XCOM Enemy Within later that same year. The latter, essentially a bunch of enhancements for the former, is really all you need. Most of us who are looking to play core games on our mobile devices slip Virtuos into our prayers at night. I know I do. XCOM has been on the top our Best Android Strategy Games of All Time list every year since 2014. ‘Nuff said.
If you are into this stuff, you might want to try some of the runner ups namely: Metro 2033 Wars, Partia 1-3, Battle for Wesnoth and Warbands Bushido.