The Wargamer’s Guide to… The Best WW2 Strategy and War Games26 Apr 2018 13
This year may be the centennial of World War One, but WW2 is always in fashion. The war of the “greatest generation” it’s allure and appeal has been hyped beyond all reason, and aside from perhaps the ancient world is the single most fertile ground for war and strategy games. With so many takes on this globe-spanning conflict, I think now is a great time for another patented ‘Wargamer’s Guide’ to some of the best examples of World War II videogames.
This list will definitively offer an undeniable opinion as to what the best games in this bracket may (or may not) be, and everything here is totally not subject to change as our tastes evovle and we decide to swap out one game for another. If you've got your own suggestions, make sure to put them in the comments below!
Prefer to take the fight to the high seas? We've got a great list on the best naval war games for you to check out!
We’ve also tried to get a range of different types of games, from close-up tactical experiences to sweeping strategic overviews. So, without further ado, here's our guide to the best World War 2 strategy & war games...
Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg
Tags: Tactical, Simulation, Battle of the Bulge, WEGO, 3D
It seems you can't have one of these lists without at least one Combat Mission game. To be fair, they remain at the fore-front of tactical combat simulations and are must-plays for anyone who enjoys the hardcore-end of WW2 games. Combat Mission offers an immersive military experience, with a fully 3D engine and a turn-based/WEGO strategy layer that then plays out in real-time. Units are represented down to individual squads and tanks, however players can play anything from a Company-sized force, to a reinforced Battalion.
You could have a passionate debate about which CM game is the best CM game, but the latest iteration - 2016's Final Blitzkrieg - mightily impressed the late Mr. Cobb with its attention to detail and the general improvements to the legacy of Combat Mission as a whole: "The series remains the epitome of World War II tactical simulations. Is it too early for a Game of the Year nomination?". Final Blitzkrieg is set in Europe, 1944-45 and mainly centres around the Battle of the Bulge.
Men of War: Assault Squad 2
Publisher/Developer: 1C Company / Digitalmindsoftau
Tags: Real-Time, Tactics, Simulation, All Theatres
The Men of War series is one with humble (and slightly confusing) origins, but also one that’s grown to become a must-have staple of real-time WW2 tactical combat. For fans of Company of Heroes (see below) wanting a little more bite, this is one of the most immersive experiences you’ll ever have the pleasure of playing. There’s a depth and granularity to combat that you rarely see outside of hardcore turn-based counter wargames, and yet it remains easy(ish) to learn and interact with. It can be brutal and punishing (I don’t think they’ve ever gotten the balance quite right between tanks and infantry), but it is also thrilling.
Assault Squad 2, despite being four years old at this point, represents the pinnacle of the series’ development. The series in general has seen many different iterations and experiments, but all of that learning finally comes to together here. As official support has waned, a dedicated mod-community has arisen to provide scenarios ranging from WW1 to the Cold War. If we ever see a new Men of War game, it will be world-class.
Gary Grigsby's War in the East
No conversion on digital wargaming can exist without starting, ending or at the very least, co-existing with, a nod towards the beast set in the east. Gary Grigsby’s 2010 opus represents what happens when you take traditional hex-and-counter wargaming and use computer software to bring out its maximum potential. No-one ever said it would be accessible or easy to get to grips with– but it is the ultimate military simulation of war in the eastern front of World War 2. To paraphrase the game's official blurb:
Gamers can engage in massive, dramatic campaigns, including intense battles involving thousands of units with realistic and historical terrain, weather, orders of battle, logistics and combat results. Factors such as supply, fatigue, experience, morale and the skill of your divisional, corps and army leaders all play an important part in determining the results at the front line. The game comes with 4 massive campaigns as well as many smaller scenarios all with different strategic and operational challenges. This is not for the feint-hearted.
IL-2 Sturmovik (Series)
Publisher/Developer: 1C Company / Various
Tags: Flight Sim, Aerial Combat, Various Theatres, Series
It’s not all about the war on land of course – plenty of action up in the sky as well and the best of these is without a doubt 1C’s (previously Ubisoft) IL-2 Sturmovik series of WW2 fighter sims. The original 2001 release has sold 2 million copies and has a 91/100 metacritic score, although the rest of the franchise has had it’s ups and downs. /we imagine the current ‘best’ will differ depending on who you talk to, but IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad has the best score of the most recent releases. These days, 1C is working with Rise of Flight developer 777 Games on future IL-2 products, so we’re excited to see what the future holds.
Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
Publisher/Developer: SEGA / Relic Entertainment
Tags: Real-Time, Tactics, Strategy, Western Front 1944, Single-Player
One of the most mainstream games on this list, the advent of the Western Front Armies, overhaul of its War Spoils system and years of balance refinement cemented Company of Heroes 2's place as a respectable and enjoyable competitive RTS. With the creation of the Ardennes Assault campaign, Company of Heroes 2 now boasts one of the best replayable single player experiences in modern WW2 strategy games. It's even available as a stand-alone expansion, if you really don't want to get the core game.
Ardennes Assault provides players with a strategic territory-capture meta-game layered over the single-player missions; including semi-random events and time-based objectives that change with each playthrough. You have four Companies to command (of which you can utilize 3 in each campaign run) and hard choices in an Iron Man setting that forces the player to think through each move and live with sub-optimal strategies. If you're looking for something less hardcore, or something with a larger player base, then this is a perfect choice.
Strategic Command WW2: War in Europe (Review)
As fun as tactical or even operational level warfare is, there’s something empowering about taking control of a nation’s entire strategic resources; from industry and production to the military assets. Fury Software’s Strategic Command series has been around since at least the early 2000’s and is a great example of grand-strategy wargaming. You command either the Axis or the allied powers (and you can have the AI take over individual nations if you want) and must decide where to invest your nation's production capacity across research, mobilisation, diplomacy and maintaining your armed forces. Units represent Corps, Army Groups, Fleets & Air Groups.
It’s not as well-known or as ambitious as close-competitor Hearts of Iron, but we’d argue it’s much more refined and offers a more consistent experience. This is especially true when comparing the latest versions of both series - Hearts of Iron IV vs. Strategic Command WW2: War in Europe. If you’re looking for a deep, intricate take on the strategic challenges of World War 2, this game is all you need.
Steel Division: Normandy '44 (Review)
Eugen Systems made their name creating intense, real-time operational experiences with their Cold War -era Wargame franchise, but the studio's take on World War II is equally as note-worthy. Steel Division experiments with new tools such as dynamic line of site, and area control visualisation to try and give that visceral tactical experience while still ultimately being a Division-level experience. Battles can comprise of up to 20 opponents (10 v 10) fighting across huge swathes of the French countryside. It has a pretty decent solo campaign, and you can also skirmish battle against the AI or other people.
You have to nuild your ‘army deck’ by choosing what units you want to roll out in each of three combat phases, with each historically inspired Division possessing a unique flavour and speciality for you to focus on. Different forces excel at different times in a battle, and you must also take into account air assets and off-map abilities. The game's been well supported with free patches since launch and currently has two pieces of premium DLC content. The latest one, Back to Hell, is definitely the best of the bunch so far, so make sure you pick that one up at least!
The Operational Art of War IV (Review)
Publisher/Developer: Matrix Games / Talonsoft
Tags: Operational, Turn Based, Scenarios, Various Theatres, Hex-and-Counter
The world’s secret best wargame of all time, it’s surprising The Operational Art of War hasn’t made all other hex-based wargames obsolete by now. Infinitely flexible, this game has the potential to contain all other wargames inside… a bit like Google and the internet, I guess? The fourth iteration of the series may have only offered a modest amount of improvements, but it keeps the series in place as one of the best titles for deep, operational level warfare. While the 300+ scenarios span everything from WW1 to the Korean War, there are plenty of meaty WW2 scenarios for players to enjoy, and the easy-to-use (ish) editor means that you can add plenty more. From Bill's review:
Trust me it’s worth it. Whether you have all the previous editions as I do, or you are a newcomer just starting out, this game is a must buy. Now toss in over 300 included scenarios, online play not to mention a Jim-dandy scenario editor, and plunking down a few shekels is an even easier decision to make. Yes, I know, most film sequels are never as good as the original, so what are the odds here? They’re pretty good actually. This latest TOAW edition has indeed made an almost perfect classic even better, well deserving a five star rating if not an entire constellation. Two thumbs up for a job very well done.
All it needs now is a WEGO option, and then it’d be damn-near perfect.
Publisher/Developer: Matrix Games / Flashback Games
Purchase: Direct, Steam
Many have tried to claim the throne left by Panzer General, but few have succeeded. The current successor to that classic’s legacy has to be Panzer Corps. Developed by Flashback Games and published by Matrix Games, it provides abstracted, operational-level warfare with a focus on big armoured formations sweeping across maps representing large swathes of Europe. At it’s worst, it could be described as something more akin to a ‘puzzle wargame’, but Panzer Corps has yet to fail to offer a compelling experience to all who’ve taken on its challenge.
Countless DLCs put in you in charge of various nation's armies, from scenarios of the historical to the fantastical. Neat campaign dynamics also add a sense of persistence and drama to every campaign. Official support for the game is pretty much at an end now as work ramps up on Panzer Corps 2, but the original title still stands strong as a turn-based wargame.
Unity of Command (Review)
Publisher/Developer: 2x2 Games
Tags: Turn-Based, Eastern Front, Operational, Logistics
A truly ‘modern’ wargame, Unity of Command strikes the perfect balance between deep, operational level gameplay, and modern sensibilities like accessible interfaces, easy-on-the-eye visuals and recognising that NATO counters aren’t the be-all and end-all of everything. Specialising in supply and logistics, Unity of Command’s turn-based warfare featured a challenging AI, and really made you stop and think about what you were doing. The only downside to Unity of Command is that it’s not Unity of Command 2, which is looking amazing. From our review:
Overall I'd heavily recommend Unity of Command for all wargamers, both wet-behind-the-ears type and the grizzled grays. Unity of Command is easy to get into, yet one of those wargames that challenges you in a way to not make you walk away, but to make you sit up straight and huff some steam out of your nose and say, Alright, lets try that again! The AI in some of the harder scenarios can definitely put some of the more experienced wargamers through some heated moments, but not in a cheating fashion. With the added benefit of quick scenarios and a branching campaign, Unity of Command is definitely one to put on your radar.
Close Combat (Series)
No WW2 list would be complete without the father of modern WW2 tactical strategy games. Close Combat struck the perfect balance between ‘grog’-like wargaming tradition and mainstream strategy design. Depending on which title you played, it manged to straddle the line between hardcore and mainstream with remarkable grace. The one I played the most was Close Combat 2: A Bridge Too Far - it what made me fall in love with the idea of persistence forces and armies, and I don't think I ever completed it.
There are mixed opinions regarding the ‘Matrix-era’ of Close Combat games, but the series in general remains a shining example of WW2 videogame heritage. Thanks to GOG, you can now legally purchase the original classics once more, and the series is striking out in a bold new 3D direction with the new upcoming entry, Close Combat: The Bloody First.
What would your list of favourite WW2 wargames look like? Answers on a post case, let the battle commence in the comments!