I was introduced into the board gaming hobby at large by hex and counter-esque Wargames. I got my first Bachelor’s Degree in history, so seeing battles take place on the table in front of me always was a selling point (which is why I probably have too many Normandy wargames).
There are a lot of people who think Wargames are super involved and detailed and the rules take forever to learn and twice as long to play. And they are partially right. There are definitely wargames that I have tried to read the rules for, was unable to understand them remotely, and (at the time) didn’t have YouTube tutorials to look up, so I passed on them. But there are also very accessible wargames as well. The games on this list present both a wide range of complex options and entry points into the wargaming hobby. I think I’ll probably do a “wargaming primer” post for people who are interested but don’t have any idea what ZOC means (zone of control) and what the difference between tactical and operational level games are. For now, I’ll try to keep the jargon limited or explain if I use a term that doesn’t translate well to overall gaming. Also, some of these games are solitaire only, where you play against the game system itself. A lot of them are, actually, because most of my gaming group aren’t that into wargames. I’ll note those as well.
One final point before we get to the important stuff: These all fall in to my definition of a wargame (which is I know it when I see it). These may not fall in to your definition, and that’s okay. We can disagree on things. What I absolutely hate is people using a game like Memoir ’44 or Twilight Struggle as a litmus test for people who want to enter into wargaming and having people say “Oh, that’s not a wargame, you aren’t a real wargamer”. I’ve had it happen to me, it sucks and it’s not a good way to introduce and grow the hobby.
If you are new to wargames, check out this helpful geeklist on Boardgamegeek: Wargames??? YES YOU CAN!
With that out of the way, here are my top 10 Wargames, [with the publishers in brackets]
Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (2nd Edition) [Academy Games]
This is a 2 player World War II tactical game (rough idea is that it’s a very focused scale; usually a small part of one battle or one battle, depending on the time). It uses an action point system, where each player gets a certain pool of points that they can use to do various things like move, fire, assault (moving into a hex with an enemy unit and fighting). It also includes cards that allow you to do various things.
I have really enjoyed my few plays of this system. There is also a solo expansion that lets you play against the game, and while I own it, I haven’t had the chance to sit down and digest the rules for it.
I like it because it’s simple and the narrative that can develop really gets me into the action. I feel it’s rules light and the rules start simple and gradually add complexity with each new scenario, so you can take your time with it if you are just starting out.
Silent Victory [Consim Press]
Silent Victory is a solitaire WWII game where you control a submarine crew. This game doesn’t look like what many people think of when they think of wargames. There isn’t really a map, and there are a lot of charts. Some people argue that there aren’t many meaningful decisions to be made in this game because you are left to the die rolls on the charts and that’s about it, but there are some decisions you can make: how to load out your sub, at what range to fire, what targets to fire on and what ones to leave alone.
This game is in my top 10 because it is quick to play a patrol or two and the story that develops is absolutely phenomenal. You get attached to your submariners and your commander, and it always leaves you wondering “maybe I should have taken a shot at that last convoy when I had a chance”.
The level of detail is also astounding; there is an entire chart of Japanese capital and warships that you can sink, as well as tons of charts with various smaller ships.
Memoir ’44 [Days of Wonder]
This was my first wargame. This is a 2 player variable scale WWII game. It’s primary mechanic is that it’s card driven, and each card allows you to activate certain sectors of the game board. There are certain scenarios that have objectives you can hold, but usually you are just trying to eliminate a certain number of enemy forces to win.
There are tons of expansions for this, and I own just about all of them. I don’t get this played nearly at all, but you can play everything from one battle on one map to a campaign over a series of battles, to the D-Day landings over 6 maps that when put together don’t fit in my game room (Seriously…I haven’t done it yet but I will one day).
There are minis for each unit and each nation has a different color. Seriously, the amount of content that has been released for this system is astounding….dang, I really need to get this to the table again.
The Greatest Day: Sword, Juno, and Gold Beaches [Multi-Man Publishing]
This is the first game I haven’t actually ‘played’ on this list. I have set it up on a computer program called VASSAL because this thing is huge. It is part of the Grand Tactical Series and it’s a bit of a zoomed out tactical look at the D-Day landings on the British and Canadian beaches.
This is what’s known as a monster wargame because there are a lot of counters and a lot of map space. You can play a single map scenario, or you can combine them to play the whole enchilada.
This is probably the most ‘traditional’ hex and counter wargame on my list. I have two other games in the GTS series, and every time I see them on the shelf, I go onto YouTube, look up a play list on how to play the system and get excited…then don’t commit. Maybe this year is the year I actually play a scenario of this.
Ambush! [Victory Games]
This was my first solitaire wargame, and it’s one of the few games I’ve purchased twice. Ambush! was published in 1983 and was designed by one of the highest regarded solo wargame designers, John Butterfield.
Ambush! is a tactical WWII (do you see a theme here?) solitaire game where you control a squad of American soldiers in different scenarios in Europe. The counters each are an individual soldier, and much like an RPG, they each have different skills and weapons that you can roll on tables to create.
Ambush! is similar to a choose your own adventure book. You have a paragraph book that you consult whenever your squad does something (outside of combat) that drives the action forward; you might hear a bullet whiz by your head, you might see a plane going down in the distance, who knows?
There are quite a few expansions for this, and since the game is out of print, they can be hard to find. Luckily, I own them all, as well as the Battle Hymn game (which is Ambush! set in WWII Pacific theatre) and it’s expansion.
Since it’s paragraph driven, there can be limited replayability since you know what will happen each mission, but if you are like me and take your time between scenarios, that shouldn’t be an issue.
I normally don’t rank games, but Ambush! is without a doubt my number one Solitaire wargame.
Thunderbolt/Apache Leader (TAL) [Dan Verssen Games]
TAL is a solitaire game where you control a squadron of close air support aircraft. There are tons of campaigns to choose from, and each campaign has a bunch of different situations you can play.
There are two parts to this game. The first is actually choosing your squadron. You get to choose both the aircraft that comprise your group and the pilots who actually pilot the craft. Each pilot has different skill levels and at each of those levels, they have different ratings for different ways to fire weapons, removing stress, and they can gain XP to level up to get better stats.
Once you’ve done that, you actually fly missions where you are taking out enemy battalions that may have special abilities that hinder you in the earlier mentioned portion of the game. You load out each aircraft with specific weapons for the enemies you’ll face, and then you fly the battle out on a map comprised of various hexes with varying degrees of cover that you and your enemies can use.
The RPG/campaign type elements and the story that evolves as you play this game make it replayable time and time again
Liberty or Death: The American Insurrection [GMT Games]
Liberty or Death is a COIN game set in the Revolutionary War period. COIN games are relatively new in the hobby, but COIN is an overall system that focuses on “guerrilla warfare, asymmetric warfare, and COunterINsurgencies around the world – in both historical and contemporary conflicts” (taken from http://www.gmtgames.com/c-36-coin-series.aspx).
There are tons of settings currently, from Cuba in the 1958 revolution to present day Afghanistan to Roman Britain. The thing about COIN games is that there are usually 4 sides, and while they may work together they each have their own specific goals on how to win the game. You can also play these solo as GMT provides flowcharts for each side that you can use as AI players.
The first game I tried in the COIN series really didn’t click for me, but Liberty or Death came strongly recommended by a few wargamers I follow on Twitter. I ordered it on a whim, set it up, went through the example of play and I was hooked. For some reason, it just clicked. I am looking forward to my first 4 player playthrough of this next month; it’s how I’m celebrating my birthday this year!
Commands and Colors: Ancients (CC:A) [GMT Games]
Commands and Colors: Ancients is in the same system as Memoir ’44, but instead of WWII you get a wide swath of ancient history, mainly focusing on the Mediterranean. It doesn’t have miniatures, but stickered blocks (that the buyer has to sticker themselves) that represent various units. There are tons of expansions that have art that reflects the timeframe for each expansion (for example, Republican Roman blocks are grey, while Imperial Roman blocks are Red). It’s also a bit more complex than Memoir ’44 because the different unit types can do ranged fire or close combat and have some other special rules.
When I want something quick to play, but want it to have a bit of oomph to it, CC:A is pretty much my go to.
D-Day at Omaha Beach [Decision Games]
D-Day at Omaha Beach is a tactical (there’s that word again..) solitaire game of storming Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings in Normandy. This one is also designed by John Butterfield, and it’s probably the oddest looking map of the bunch. The reason for this is the game system uses different color coded dots to determine who can fire at you and how deadly it is, and so there are different dots in each hex. This is a game where cards drive a lot of the action, and so even though it focuses on one segment of one battle, I haven’t had two games that have played out the same way. This too generates a great narrative, and was successful enough that they published two more games in the series for the landings at Tarawa and Peleliu. I would say it’s a step up from entry level, but there are plenty of playthroughs and player aids online that help get the flow of the game down.
Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations (HL: CAO) [Dan Verssen Games]
Last and certainly not least is Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations. This game is in the same ‘Leader’ series as Thunderbolt/Apache leader, but instead of close air support you are flying fighters and bombers off of air carriers. This is my favorite Leader game, and I don’t think anything will come along to unseat it (unless someone happens to buy me a pledge level of the Corsair Leader Kickstarter that’s running at the time of this writing). Growing up I was enamored with the F-14 Tomcat, and in this game that is one of the major planes you can take on missions.
The game is structured much like TAL, so it would be pretty repetitive to dive into that again, but the aircraft and armaments are different, and the way you play the battles out are different as well; in HL:CAO you are focusing on one target and the anti-air emplacements around it. There is even a Cthullu expansion which I own, but haven’t had a chance to play ( I want to get through the base game campaigns, and since it was released in 2010 I have some work to do).
Well, there you have it. My Top 10 Wargames. Are you a wargamer? What’s your favorite game or system to play? If you aren’t, do you have any interest in trying out a wargame? Leave me a comment and let me know!