“Accessible” is a dirty word for some people. If games are a minor hobby or something you engage with to relax, it means they nicely cater to your desires, but the other group? They want something dense.

It’s games like those on this list—ones that reward your persistence and attention with a rich bouquet of challenge and stimulation, for the diehard crowd who really want to sink their teeth into an experience.. Care to join them?

Playing Europa Universalis IV is the closest you’ll come to embodying a country’s governing will. You aren’t actually its crowned head—he’s an asset/lame duck you’ll have the pleasure/misfortune of working with—but the matters of state are left to your full, if somewhat nebulous in description, discretion.

Guide your country’s course through a slice of history beginning just before the discovery of the Americas (by us European immigrants, at least). They’ll be looking to you in decisions of diplomacy, trade, warfare, and expansion. Through a cavalcade of info sheets and menus laid against a gorgeous world map, the specific minutiae of what makes your nation tick are at your mousepoint. In the year Napoleon’s remarkably average stature kicks the bucket, if you make it that far, we’ll see which states have devoured what.

Do peruse the rest of Paradox Development Studio’s library for similarly toothsome titles. Grand historical strategy in the vein of Europa is their specialty.

There’s a shared genealogy in this oft-mentioned set of games. Our community didn’t quite know the words to explain why we loved these so uniquely earlier on, but we do now: the sense of reward to be reaped from their cocktail of risk and resolve is intoxicating. These games feel abusive in terms of what they take from you when you fail, precisely so you can experience what it’s like to conquer their challenges.

Many crash, burn, and quit after the first push toward enjoying these, only to sense the suffocating and irresistible bite of the games’ jaws on subsequent attempts. Their special strengths aren’t as immediately evident as typical over-the-shoulder perspective action romps. Methodically dismantling enemies works well and their dismal worlds are interesting, but the slow, creeping tendrils of lore, intimidating immersion, and characteristic personal gratification take time to bloom.

Feel like you’re just mashing buttons? That’s all most of us can manage. Through sheer accumulated knowledge and experience, however, Street Fighter and its ilk transform into games of precision, prediction, psychology, and encyclopedic understanding. I don’t know if any other variety of game shares a similarly gargantuan divide between the competitive and the fledgling.

Any new toy carries a learning period. You’ll gain a handle on things as muscle memory and understanding take root, but the investment required to ingrain a combo so completely into functional use that you don’t need a pause to think about its execution? Immense. These are practiced like other people practice the oboe.

But once you reach that point— the one where you’re proficient enough to jam with others and truly lay your skill to the test—the depth and purity of challenge is superb. There’s a reason the fighting game community is so rabidly devoted.

’DOTA 2’
The premise is simple enough: knock over the other kids’ block fort. Choose a cool character to boot cubes with, and your gang of buddies can help you scramble past the other gang of buddies.

Trouble is, in practice, each match tangles into an inconceivably complicated flow chart of significant factors. Every character has an assembly of abilities that alter the flow of team competition. Players have access to a broad palette of equipment with which to alter their heroes’ performance. The catalog of mechanical designs and idiosyncrasies that affect play is figuratively bible-thick.

Movement of several bodies needs to be calculated, relative shifts of power felt as much as identified, and toxic player behavior disregarded. But as with fighting games, there is fulfillment in mastery. Further, though frustration will accompany the search, in those brilliant moments when cacophony crescendos into perfect, harmonious seconds of success and the enemy team is rendered a clay-textured smear on the board, the emotional high is unmatched.

Think postgraduate Call of Duty. You’ve got your slick veneer of ultra realism here, too, except it’s not a veneer. It’s bones and viscera. The function matches the form.

Your first task is to figure out how to operate this device. Broad pickings of key bindings will operate your avatar’s many parts and call various menus for you to navigate. These will tie into logistical complications like waypoints to scatter about the square kilometers of space you’re dropped into, things you’ve never worried about such as how pooped your soldier is, methods of communication with your team, and new rules for familiar things.

Achieving that, we’ve still got the issue of figuring out what you should be using those complications for. How do you move when speed builds fatigue and nobody’s telling you which direction bullets are whizzing from? What should you be telling companions to do? How the heck do you deal with an armored car on the field when there’s no developer-placed bazookas nearby?

Arma is slow and measured, and it demands study before you leap headlong into it. If you want something to pull you in as close to a real military engagement as possible, nothing beats it.

Lots of folks grow nostalgic and misty-eyed over a largely lost genre of computer games popularized around the turn of the millennium. It’s a heavily story-driven sort of thing that places you in control of a team of developed characters, each with their own combat prowess and personality. You look down upon them from the bird’s eye, choose where they go, who they talk to, and how they behave when things come to violence.

Pillars appeals directly to fans of all the complexity, nuance, and scope of the grand old games that championed the style. Townsfolk have their own problems and desires, their own lives. They’re not guideposts that lead you to the next story beat. They’re individuals with individual perspectives. The world revolves about its fantasy woes independent of you, and you’re free to explore and dig through its intricacies as you will.

When things get hot, the screen might flood with a dozen bodies, each representing a legitimately significant threat. Played live, in real time, you’d be overwhelmed. A stroke of the space bar, however, freezes everything in place and offers unlimited space to strategize and assign actions. You bet your butt it’s built with retain challenge despite this tool.

Kris Goorhuis is a freelance writer, nerd, and pathologically shy fish in a sea of eyes. Leer at him on Twitter @krisgoorhuis.

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