The societies, cultures and histories of the ancient world will always present a series of compelling puzzles to those who study, explore or otherwise interact with it. For the players of games set in the ancient world, its perceived distance far away in the past is a reliable narrative hook. And it’s a great place to go if you want to practice managing an empire.
These are the best games set in ancient times.
Ryse: Son of Rome
One of the Xbox One’s more visually impressive launch titles, Ryse sees players take on the role of a Roman legionnaire leading the city’s defence against an oncoming barbarian invasion. During its story, players will move from bloody battles in the streets of Rome to siege works outside a barbarian stronghold. They’ll even find themselves in the Colosseum fighting gladiatorial battles in front of a roaring audience.
It’s a barmy hack and slash fantasy, to be sure. But Ryse captures the atmosphere of the best ancient epics and is one of the most eye-catching games made for any platform.
Assassin’s Creed: Origins/Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey
Assassin’s Creed developers are fond of repeating the mantra “history is our playground”. In the time since the first instalment dropped, players have been placed in myriad historical back-drops including Victorian London, pre-revolution France, Renaissance-era Italy and the American War of Independence. For our purposes here, though, AC: Origins and AC: Odyssey are two fantastic journeys set in the ancient world.
Set in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece respectively, these two games not only put players at the centre of epic adventures, but they also boast the series’ eye-popping attention to detail and boast lush and – in many instances – historically accurate environments. There are even tour modes that players who just fancy a walkabout in the ancient world can enjoy, complete with commentary. It’s the closest most of us will come to travelling in the past.
Centurion: Defender of Rome
A long-lost gem – you can find it on retro gaming sites – Centurion: Defender Of Rome plonks players into the sandals of a general in the Roman army, and then follows their progression from Centurion to Caesar. One of the earliest turn-based games, Centurion is a two-handed quest to ensure success – on the one hand, players earn status by presiding over campaigns throughout Europe and on the other, they have to manage the civilians in the territories they control through bread and circuses.
On top of that, there’s the role of diplomacy to be observed. While it’s possible to roll into foreign territory and declare war, the game also offers players the chance to sweet-talk their way into alliances. Heck, you can even romance Cleopatra if you play your cards right!
God of War series
If you can’t step into history, you can always step into myth and legend. This is the prospect that the God of War series offers, in which players take on the role of Kratos, a grim and stoic Spartan who earns the ire of the gods for his unwillingness to toe the line.
Shot through with balletic, visceral combat and a score that Hans Zimmerman would’ve been proud to have composed, the God of War series pits players against all manner of Greek mythical monsters. On top of that, they’ll run into figures from Greek myth, such as Perseus, Hercules, Icarus and Pandora among them. This is before we mention the gods and titans, all presented in gorgeous detail, and many of them featuring in epic boss battles.
It’s in no way historically accurate, but this franchise is a sand and sandals epic that’s well worth exploring.
Total War: Rome series
Arguably one of the finest strategy series ever made, the Total War: Rome games (Rome: Total War being the first iteration) begin by having players choose a faction in ancient Rome and then set out to conquer the world.
Beyond resource management and the occasional bout of diplomacy, the huge, turn-based based battles are the main draw for this franchise, as players oversee the movement and tactics of their troops play out over numerous – and at times – tricky environments. The games looked so historically accurate that they were even used to represent battles on the History Channel at one stage. A must for strategy fans and anyone with an interest in the ancient world.
If you’ve never played one of these games, the good news is that Total War: Rome Remastered has just been released. If you owned a copy of the original in the past, you can pick it up on Steam at half-price.
Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece
While not as graphically as impressive as the Total War series, Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece is a fine trip back to the past, in which players can wage war in Philip of Macedon’s campaigns in Greece, or take part in pitch battles in the Peloponnesian War and the Ionian War.
The action here, though, is not turn-based. Rather, Hegemony Gold: Wars of Ancient Greece is a real-time-strategy (RTS) game in which units move concurrently and require quite a lot more attention. Not only that, but players will need to micromanage any city states they’ve conquered in order to keep their army’s supply lines strong. Overall, the game is a little on the hard side, but it’s incredibly satisfying to master.
In the time before his murder on the steps of the Senate, Julius Caesar, you may have heard, took part in some pretty impressive campaigns around the ancient world. Perhaps his most famous was that he waged against Gaul – a campaign documented in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico memoir, which some historians have dismissed a clever piece of propaganda.
Praetorians lets players take on the role of Julius as he seeks to ‘pacify’ the barbarians, or they can attempt to rewrite history by playing the Gauls, the Egyptians, the Germans or the Britons.
Like Hegemony, it’s an RTS so micromanaging units is key, but helping matters along lots of units have special abilities unique to each faction – Roman troops can form a testudo (or tortoise formation) to draw archery fire, while pikemen can for a static row to fend of charges. More than the units and their advantages, players are encouraged to use the terrain of each battle to their advantage – charging uphill, for example is never a good idea.
If you think you could be the next Caesar, give Praetorians a whirl.
In this grand strategy game from Paradox Interactive, the player leverages a character system and country management to build up their provinces and conquer the antique Mediterranean.
Released in 2019, Imperator: Rome is sometimes regarded as one of the best of Paradox’s ambitious historical titles.
Age of Empires: The Rise of Rome
Right, this is a bit of a cheat because The Rise of Rome is an expansion pack for Age of Empires and the base game does kick things off in the Stone Age. That having been said, Age of Empires progresses to the Iron Age which puts it in this list’s wheelhouse. The Rise of Rome brings Roman conquest to the party. Age of Empires is a fantastic strategy game set in the ancient world. If you’ve never played it, it should definitely be on your radar.