At GDC, I moderated a panel on the future of strategy gaming. My opening premise was that the genre is in a golden age, thanks to the range of great games spanning AAA big-budget titles, mid-sized developers working with larger publishers, garage developers working with smaller publishers, and even some amazing titles developed and published by just one person.

During the panel, I mentioned six such games. I mentioned them again on the latest episode of the strategy gaming podcast, Three Moves Ahead. And I’ll expain here why you should play them. Although, to be fair, at least two of these games hired artists, so it’s not entirely accurate to call them one-man projects in terms of the development process. But they are all self-published and well worth playing.

After the jump, six great strategy games made (mostly) and published by one dude

AI War by Chris Park

I still think AI War is a revolution in terms of how RTSs play. It’s built like a comp stomp in a more traditional 4X environment in which the AI doesn’t have to play by the same rules. Instead, it’s a huge implacable foe that you have to carefully manage by pushing, probing, and surgically striking, but not too hard and not too indiscriminately lest you piss it off. Although it’s got a considerable learning curve, Park has given it an artwork and interface overhaul since its released. It’s even gotten a few expansion packs.

You can buy it here for $20. It’s also available on Impulse, Direct2Drive, Gamers Gate, and Steam.

Ancient Trader by Peter Levius

Ancient Trader sports a regal boardgame elegance in portraying a race against other traders to track down the artifacts you need to beat the ultimate sea monster. But it’s main claim to fame is its production value, primarly the cardboard cut-out cartography graphics that look like something from a Terry Gilliam movie. This is the sort of gameplay perfect for the iPhone, but with visuals and sound you’ll want on your PC.

You can get Ancient Trader here for $10. It’s also on Xbox Live

Atom Zombie Smasher by Brendon Chung

Like Ancient Trader, this is a best-case example of production values in an indie game. Former Pandemic level designer Brendon Chung has far too distinct a creative vision to be making maps for a three-quarters-baked Lord of the Rings action game. In Atom Zombie Smasher, he combines his unique vision with bite-sized real time strategy puzzles, a white-knuckle boardgaming meta-game, and a canny take on how zombie mythology fits into the modern world.

Atom Zombie Smasher is available here for $15. It’s on its way to Steam.

Creeper World by Virgil Wall

Creeper World isn’t exactly a looker. But that doesn’t matter. Because it’s an example of focused gameplay shrewdly based on a simple accessible concept. I’ve often complained about AI in strategy games. But what is AI? Really, it’s just a set of rules for the computer to follow. What if the AI governing the other side in a strategy game was just physics? Simple physics we all know and understand, like water running downhill and forming pools. In Creeper World, you build a logistics network to hold back fluid dynamics. And while that might sound simplistic and boring, Virgil Wall manages to use the concept to create a cool game that plays a bit like a city builder or puzzle game, but without betraying the core feel of an RTS.

Creeper World is available here for $10, or you can play a free browser version. Wall is currently working on a sequel.

Gratuitous Space Battles by Cliff Harris

Cliff Harris used to make these sort of text-based, decision tree, statisticky games about politics and boring daily life. Interesting diversions, mostly for the chin-stroking indie games set. So who knew he’d come up with a glorious orgy of real time space battles fought by the AI with fantastic toys carefully pieced together by you? Setting up a battle is almost like composing a score, which you then turn over to the orchestra, at which point Beethoven’s Ninth plays. And while you wonder if these tactical interludes feel naked outside a larger strategy game, you’d be wrong. The unlockables, challenges, and social metagaming stuff is more than enough context for Gratuitous Space Battles to be anything but gratuitous. Harris has done a wonderful job with post-release support and reasonably priced add-ons.

Go here to get Gratuitous Space Battles for the PC or MAC for $20.

Solium Infernum by Vic Davis

Although it’s of questionable value as a single player game (see Davis’ Armageddon Empires for your single-player needs), Solium Infernum is a clever multiplayer marriage of theme and gameplay. You and other players will fight to control hell, which isn’t just a matter of casting spells and moving armies. You’ll have to scheme, duel, negotiate, bully, and bluster, all expressed in the context of the game’s rules. Davis has taken all the petty, gratifying, and infuriating psychology of gaming with and against your friends, and he’s turned it into gameplay.

Go here to get Solium Infernum for $30.