The Top Strategy and Tower Defense Games for the iPad

An illustration of a strategy game on an iPad.

Theresa Chiechi ©Lifewire

The iPad's intuitive touch-screen controls make strategy games a natural fit, and developers have provided would-be gamers with a great game selection that range from games high on tactics to tactical games with a sense of humor. These great iPad games include traditional turn-based strategy games, real-time strategy games, and classic tower defense. And while games like XCOM set a high standard for graphics, it's tough to ignore the retro-style awesomeness of a game like Faster than Light.

XCOM: Enemy Within

XCOM: Enemy Within

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What We Like

  • Fun multiplayer system.

  • Vast amount of content. Never grows boring.

  • Intense story line.

What We Don't Like

  • Skimpy, confusing tutorial.

  • Not updated for iOS 12, causing some freezes.

As the iPad has grown up, more and more complex games initially designed for other systems have been ported to the tablet. But XCOM: Enemy Unknown may have been the first current game designed for high-end systems to receive a full, feature-complete port to the iPad. This is great news for strategy fans. Regardless of platform, XCOM: Enemy Unknown was among the best strategy games to be released in the past few years. The turn-based tactics allow a greater depth of strategy and the alien invasion setting is a nice change of pace.

Oddly enough, 2K chose to remove Enemy Unknown from the App Store when the sequel was released. But this makes perfect sense when you realize that Enemy Within contains everything from Enemy Unknown in addition to the new content of the sequel. That's a great move on 2K's part. 

Civilization VI

Civilization VI game

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What We Like

  • Nearly identical port of popular PC version.

  • More relaxing for long-term play than computer versions.

  • Awesome game for new and experienced players.

What We Don't Like

  • Free download limited to 60 turns.

  • Full game in-app purchase is pricey.

  • Requires iOS 11.4.1 or later.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate just how far the iPad has come in gaming is to look at Civilization VI. This isn't a mobile-sized version of the long-revered strategy game that plops you down in 3000 BC and lets you control a civilization through the ages. This is the entire just-like-the-PC-version game. And it works like a charm. 

Turn-based strategy games have always gone hand-in-hand with tablets. There's something about the thin devices and actually touching the map to move around it that makes a strategy game really come to life. Combine that with one of the best strategy game series in gaming history, and you have quite a combination.

If there is a problem with Civilization, it is with complexity. Players familiar with the other editions of this game know what to expect, but if this is your first full-fledged Civilization, be prepared to spend your first hours with it trying to get your head around just how much detail there is in the game. It should be noted that Civilization VI has a hefty price tag, which is understandable when you consider it is the entire PC game. As a bonus, you can play for a limited number of turns for free.

FTL: Faster Than Light

Faster Than Light

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What We Like

  • Randomness means endless replay opportunities.

  • Offers three difficulty levels.

  • Rich story line provides immersive sci-fi experience.

What We Don't Like

  • Frustratingly difficult even on Easy level.

  • Depends too much on luck, not skill.

  • Tutorial not much help.

How about a strategy game that takes place on the Star Trek Enterprise? Okay, this isn't the

Enterprise, but it doesn't take long to figure out what inspired this game. FTL: Faster than Light is a rogue-like game, which means each game features a random adventure. There are also many different ways to play the game, which means you'll spend many nights at the command of your own starship.

If you've ever wanted to know what it feels like to command a red shirt, knowing full well what a ​redshirt means, this is the game for you.

Rome: Total War Collection

Rome Total War game

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What We Like

  • Great strategy/war games.

  • Addicting gameplay.

  • True to the spirit of the PC version.

What We Don't Like

  • 6.9 GB download for collection.

  • Requires iOS 11 or later.

  • Mastering touch controls takes awhile.

Taking over the Roman empire harkens back to the earliest days of computer strategy, but perhaps no one did it better than The Creative Assembly when they released Rome: Total War back in 2004. A mixture of turn-based strategy on the map and real-time strategy within the battles, the Total War series successfully knitted together the two genres to create something epic.

Rome: Total War is one of many classic games to see rebirth on tablets, and it has lost none of the magic that made it such a great strategy game. The bundles include the classic Rome: Total War, the Barbarian Invasion, and the Alexander variants. Each can also be purchased separately.​

Civilization Revolution 2

Civilization Revolution II

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What We Like

  • Better graphics than original Civilization Revolution.

  • Less complex than PC version of Civ game, but ideal for mobile.

What We Don't Like

  • Clunky interface.

  • Games are brief.

  • AI less sophisticated than in previous Civ games.

It may seem odd to have two different Civilization games on the list, but that's just it: these are two different takes on the Civilization theme.

Civilization Revolution 2 is an attempt to bring the game back to its roots, simplifying certain aspects of the game to create a game that appeals to both the casual gamer and the hardcore strategy nut. And it succeeded. Civilization Revolution 2 has the same epic feel as the PC line of games and contains hours of fun for anyone who loves strategy games.

Civilization Revolution 2 expands on this with new technology and units. There's also a new way to play: scenarios, which will put you right smack into historical events.

There's no doubt that Civilization VI is the super-sized version. It also has a super-sized price tag. If you are unfamiliar with the Civilization games, Civilization Revolution 2 is a great place to get your feet wet before you move on to the more complex Civilization VI.

Plants vs Zombies 2

Plants vs Zombies 2

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What We Like

  • Time-traveling zombies. What's not to like?

  • Great sequel to a great game.

  • Clever minigames add variety.

What We Don't Like

  • Some free plants in first game are for purchase now.

  • No more daily gems, gauntlets, or coins.

  • Random ads to switch play areas. In a paid game?

Plants vs Zombies was a refreshing take on the tower defense strategy game, and the sequel stays true to those roots. This game is perfect for those who want the addiction of a strategy game without the need to spend hours on a single game session. The levels get more intense as you go along, and you'll be able to play through different themes such as the Wild West and Ancient Egypt.

This is one of those rare entries when if you've never played the original Plants vs Zombies, the sequel is the best place to start. The free-to-play model used in the game isn't as aggressive or as annoying as some other apps that feature in-app purchases, so you can check it out without paying a dime. And the original is so fully-featured and entertaining, you'll still have a ton of fun with it even if you play through the entire sequel first.

Rymdkapsel

Rymdkapsel

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What We Like

  • Minimalist space strategy/puzzle game with great visuals.

  • Tons of atmosphere.

  • Easy to play. Hard to master.

What We Don't Like

  • Must play it once to understand it.

  • Particularly difficult after wave 20.

  • AI could use some improvement.

It might be hard to pronounce the name of this unique game, but it isn't hard to become addicted to it. The minimalist graphics might normally turn some people off, but they really work for Rymdkapsel, adding to the atmosphere of the game. The object of the game is to build a space station capable of warding off alien attacks while reaching out to research some strange monoliths.

In many ways, Rymdkapsel is reminiscent of the old Dungeon Keeper games, where you build a dungeon with different types of rooms while preparing your minions to ward off intruders. It's unfortunate that the Dungeon Keeper remake went too heavy with in-app purchases, but for those that like that type of passive real-time strategy meets tower defense game, Rymdkapsel is a load of fun. 

Star Command

Star Command

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What We Like

  • Good game with a lot of potential.

  • No in-app purchases.

What We Don't Like

  • Short game. Promises of additional content never materialized.

If you've ever dreamed of captaining the Star Trek Enterprise, don't read any further. Just go download Star Command and start playing it. Designed for those who love the space-faring genre, Star Command gives you the mission of helping Earth defend its borders by commanding your own ship, allocating resources to different areas of the ship. There are even red shirts in the game, and because red shirts are mainly tasked with the ship's defenses, they do tend to die a lot. In addition to the red shirts, there are yellow shirts who serve as engineers and blue shirts who are science officers.

The retro-style graphics and light-hearted take on the genre only add to the fun. As you maintain the ship, you'll face off against enemies who beam onto your ship. The only downside to the game is the linear story-line that makes playing through the game a second time something only hardcore fans will want to do.

TowerMadness

TowerMadness HD

 Apple iTunes Store

What We Like

  • Great classic tower defense game.

  • Lots of variety in gameplay.

  • Two-player, split-screen battle mode.

What We Don't Like

  • Developers slow to respond to needed updates.

  • Would benefit from new maps and weapons.

Perhaps the best tower defense game on the iPad, TowerMadness challenges you with humanity's most important task during the alien invasion: to save the sheep. It's a little-known fact that aliens really love sheep, so in order to save your flock, you'll need to pull out all the stops, including a tower that electrocutes aliens to make them run slower an artillery tower, and an amplification tower that improves surrounding towers.

TowerMadness features free-form tower defense gameplay and an excellent tutorial that will quickly get you into the game without completely boring longtime tower defense nuts. A 64-bit HD version of the game for iOS 11 is also available.

Battleheart

Battleheart

 Apple iTunes Store

What We Like

  • Quirky and funny animations.

  • Amazing soundtrack.

  • Simple design.

What We Don't Like

  • Repetitive combat.

  • Could use more levels.

For those that love mixing up some role-playing in their strategy games, Battleheart starts you out as a single knight, but you'll soon be able to recruit more mercenaries to your side. The intuitive swipe controls allow you to control the action on the screen, which is a hybrid between action RPGs and real-time strategy. Played out as a series of battles, the missions are highlighted with intense boss battles. Battleheart 2 is also available for the iPad

Modern Conflict 2

Modern Conflict HD

 Apple iTunes Store

What We Like

  • Fascinating single missions and campaigns.

  • Good quick-break game.

What We Don't Like

  • In-app purchases to advance in game.

  • Some features tied to advertising.

The real-time strategy genre has a difficult time making the jump from the PC to gaming consoles and tablets. There's just something about a mouse and keyboard that makes flying around a map selecting groups of units and ordering them into battle an intuitive exercise rather than a competition of manual dexterity. Modern Conflict gets around this with a one-touch control scheme that will let you send battalions of tanks and helicopters against enemy bases without working up a sweat.

Great Little War Game

Great Little War Game

 Apple iTunes Store

What We Like

  • Good turn-based fun.

  • Good graphics, funny voices, cool dialogue.

What We Don't Like

  • No update since 2012.

  • Not compatible with iOS 11 and later.

Great Little War Game is what a good real-time strategy game would be if it were turned into a turn-based game. The standard elements of collecting gold and building troops that you might find in a real-time strategy game are here, along with the importance of building smartly instead of just going for brute force. But the action happens in a turn-based environment, allowing you to take your time and plan out your moves.

The cartoon graphics just add to the fun, and as you progress, you'll unlock new levels of strategy as the game throws more at you. Each scenario has its own goals, but most of the time you'll be simply blasting the opponent into smithereens. A 64-bit Great

Risk: Global Domination

Risk HD

  Apple iTunes Store

What We Like

  • Online multiplayer mode. Spectator mode.

  • Fast, satisfying gameplay.

  • Modeled after Risk board game.

What We Don't Like

  • Would benefit from more maps.

  • It takes a long time to set up and play the game.

  • Frequent crashes have been reported.

While not the best strategy game for the iPad, there's something to be said for sitting down to a classic game of world domination with Risk HD. This is a great game for those who remember sitting around the table, moving your army pieces around the board and hoping your strategy of taking over Australia will lead you up into Asia and onto the rest of the world. The graphics are great and the game really evokes its classic origins.