When World War I and II are depicted in the various forms of entertainment, it is more often than not an interpretation that favours land-based warfare, and understandable so because of the incredibly deep-seated impact of trench-based warfare of the Great War and the major land-based campaigns that marked so many turnings of the tide in World War II.
With such focus on land warfare, it can be easy for some to forget that a significant number of wins and losses also hinged upon events at sea. This is one of the reasons why the focus of this article is to rank our favourite naval combat games to play in order of greatness: it is important to remember the sacrifice made by so many of the men who gave their lives to the navy of their country by appreciating and further understanding the intricacies of the naval warfare which they fought.
1. Naval Warfare: World War I
The NWS: Naval Warfare series has for years been a consistently impressive offering that deals exclusively with board game-based naval warfare; their games are extremely comprehensive in nature and as a result should be the first choice for serious board gamers looking for the most detailed naval game out there. Naval Warfare: World War I offers players the chance to assume control of the major naval forces of the world that fought during 1914-1918.
Expect to find thoroughly detailed data cards for sea-faring vessels including submarines, cruisers (armoured and light), carriers, battleships as well as land-based units such as batteries and vehicles on the ground. Because of the detailed data cards and the impressive scale of the game, the relatively easy-to-learn rules can actually give rise to some fairly complex scenarios and outcomes as well as letting you shape some of your own battles or even rewrite history on a single-player or multi-player basis.
The only drawback here compared to sets like Axis and Allies is that you aren't issued with miniatures and have to rely on monochrome-printed cards instead. That said, you do get around 700 of said cards as well as various colour marker cards, and a variety of coloured maps. This is one of Naval Warfare Simulations' finest achievements and consequently the top pick of naval warfare games here.
2. Modern Naval Conflicts: 1970s
Whilst Naval Warfare: World War I allows you to play through some major historical scenarios from the First World War, NWS' Modern Naval Conflicts 1970s had to take second place because it parts and rules contain all you need to create a variety of hypothetical battles from the proposed World War III. Further earning this game's keep in the number two spot here is the ability to create a virtually limitless number of customised scenarios. The kind of longevity that such a dramatically large quantity of scenarios makes possible is rarely seen in some of the more popular naval warfare games out there (Axis and Allies' efforts for example).
This game is quite comparable to naval warfare giant Harpoon 4, but the rules for Modern Naval Conflicts 1970s are arguably simpler whilst producing superior results. When un-boxing the game, you'll find the aesthetics to be very plain along with the data cards, but the combat counters add a little colour and variety and it can also be played with your own miniatures.
3. Axis and Allies: War at Sea
Though Axis and Allies cannot quite compete with the complexity or loyalty of the NWS games to the accurate simulation of historical scenarios and the vessels that fought in them, you cannot deny that their miniatures are an attractive prospect for many. Axis and Alies: War at Sea is a collection that is comprised of 64 pre-painted miniatures that represent a variety of historical vessels that fought in World War II (the USS Enterprise, for example). In addition to the miniatures you of course get the vessels' data cards and can obtain an advanced rules set that facilitates the creation of an impressive number of scenarios.
The problem that die-hard fans of historical accuracy have with Axis and Allies is that the rulebook cannot provide scenarios as complex or customisable as its rivals, instead relying on the novelty of collecting the wonderful-looking miniatures that come along with it. Third place is fitting for a game that is fantastic for beginners looking to start a miniatures set or intermediates looking to expand theirs, but if you want serious detail then this isn't the best place to find it.
4. Naval Warfare: World War II
Another NWS game here with Naval Warfare: World War II. This game is based on the same core concepts and rules as the World War I iteration of NWS' fantastic series, but this one obviously deals with the 1939-1945 conflict instead, and in the usual incredible detail that has come to be expected of Naval Warfare Simulations.
Again, you don't get flashy miniatures with this set: the same 500+ set of data cards is the main wad of content you get here, but the rules allow you to play either a basic game or an advanced game that involves hex-based movement on the provided maps. There are also optional rules included that allow you to customise scenarios and make the more complex, as well as allowing for solitaire (single-player) enjoyment of the game as well.
Tactical rules here dictate play with surface-based and submersible vessels whilst the strategic-level scale deals with carriers, aircraft, and engagements that take place on the fleet level. The complexity of the scenarios vs. the ease of learning the rules is again why this game has earned its place at number four; it is available as a PDF download.
5. 1805: Sea of Glory
By no means least impressive on this list is 1805: Sea of Glory, a game that is much more narrow in its scope than games mentioned previously. Dealing with a narrower period (in this case, one eventful year) means that the game covers Trafalgar in spectacular detail, and does so with quite a complex set of rules as well as a wonderful-looking map and wooden fleet pieces that give it a unique edge. It is a turn-based affair and the rules do a very good job of representing the unequal nature of the naval forces at the time.
You will struggle to find a game that manages to create the sheer sense of history and authenticity of GMT's Sea of Glory. The individual data for the ships as well as details about the Admirals themselves are really nice touches, and the role of weather/wind force is an addition that really steeps the game in authenticity.
Which game you end up loving the most will depend on your preferences; all of these offerings are top notch, which is why they are featured here. NWS' Naval Warfare: World War I is simply our favourite because of the attention to detail and comprehensive nature of scenarios from one of the most devastating wars in history. Modern Naval Conflicts was a sure-fire number two because of its hypothetical imagining of World War III and the sheer level of fun that entails, even without provided miniatures.
Some people may disagree with Axis and Allies being in this list at all, but the miniatures do give you something to collect and allow you to construct a much better-looking game than any other titles in the list. Another NWS at number four was another obvious choice, and its greatness rivals that of the WWI iteration: it's just up to you which war most fascinates you. 1805: Sea of Glory may also be number one for many because of its authenticity and unique approach, but it fell short of its more epic rivals here.