The Best WW2 War & Strategy Games16 Dec 2019 25
The war of the 'greatest generation', WW2's allure and appeal has been hyped beyond all reason. Aside from perhaps the ancient world, it is the single most fertile ground for strategy and war games. With so many takes on this globe-spanning conflict, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff.
We’ve 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 games. We're a computer war games website, we can't be wrong!
What are the best WW2 Strategy Games?
- Unity of Command 2
- Panzer Campaigns (series)
- Steel Division 2
- Hearts of Iron IV
- Strategic Command WW2: World at War
- Command Ops 2
- Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg
- Men of War: Assault Squad 2
- Gary Grigsby's War in the East
- Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
- The Operational Art of War IV
- Panzer Corps
- Close Combat (series)
Unity of Command 2
Publisher/Developer: 2x2 Games
Tags: Operational, North Africa, European Theatre, 1943 - 45, Turn-based, Campaign, Hot-Seat Multiplayer
We'd have been very surprised if the recently release Unity of Command 2 wasn't good enough to knock the original game off its top spot. UoC 1 will always be remebered as a wonderful simple wargame, and a great gateway into the hobby, but Unity of Command 2 just takes all of the core concepts and turns it up to 11. Better visuals, better mechanics, better scenarios... there's a reason Jack was so impressed in his Unity of Command 2 review.
Common criticisms of the first game usually centre around it being more of a puzzle than a "true" wargame, which is a similar accusation levied against games like Panzer Corps. You can still see traces of that in Unity of Command 2's design - many scenarios present you with an initial set-piece or deadlock that you need to break through, but the ways in which you can achieve it have multiplied. Plus, once you do break-through it's still a pretty gripping fight to claim your objectives, and the AI will punish and push through to your back-lines if it sees an exploitable gap. This is definitely one of the year's best releases to date, however, and if you're even remotely interested it's well worth picking up.
Panzer Campaigns Series - Japan '45 & Japan '46
Publisher/Developer: Wargame Design Studio
Tags: Operational, Hex-and-Counter, Pacific Theatre, Alternate History, John Tiller, Turn-Based
John Tiller is a house name with a certain generation of computer war gamers. While he's not as involved in game-making as he used to be, his legacy stands proud through his wide-ranging series of hex-based operational and tactical wars that look like old-school counter board wargames rendered on a screen. They're not much to look at, but they've always provided a level of depth and detail not seen in many other places. Wargame Design Studio is a small development team that's taken up the mantle of JTS, remastering a lot of the old games but also making brand-new experiences in the same style.
We're highlight one of their more recent endeavours on this list, because it covers something not really seen before - the hypothetical invasion of the Japanese mainland. Officially part of JTS' Panzer Campaigns series, there are currently two titles that follow this 'what if' conflict - Japan '45 and a sequel Japan '46. We've reviewed both and are pretty impressed with not only WDS' attention to detail in terms of the research they've done into the Operations that never were, but also in terms of how they've tried to modernise the format somewhat. If you're looking to explore some plausible alt-history in an old-school package, these are some excellent games to start with.
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If you're a fan of the John Tiller style of games in general then there have been some other newer releases that may take your fancy. Other recent Wargame Design Studio releases include a 'Gold' edition of El Alamein '42 and the brand new Battles of North Africa 1941.If you want to consider something a bit more 'old school' then there's always John Tiller's Campaign Series, of which we have a review of West Front.
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 strategy game heritage. Thanks to GOG.com, you can now legally purchase the original classics once more.
Close Combat: The Bloody First
This isn't an official entry in the list but since Close Combat as a series is mentioned we'd be remiss if we didn't at least mention the latest entry into the game - Close Combat: The Bloody First. It was always going to struggle in the face of the significance of the series, and it also didn't help that the game took a bit longer than planned to actually release (it's at least a couple of years 'late' at this point). Still it did the best job it could and it's actually a pretty decent game in most respects. It's perhaps not good enough to knock the classics off their camouflaged thrones, but it's a decent modern Close Combat game that just has a few kinks that need ironing out. Read our Close Combat: The Bloody First review if you want to know more.
Hearts of Iron IV
Hearts of Iron 4 makes it's debut on this list thanks to the recent release of the Man the Guns expansion. This WW2 sandbox game has been going from strength to strength, and while its still got some ways to go Paradox's flagship war game can now finally attempt to stand amongst its contemporaries. Take command of any nation in existence in 1936, and try to guide them through turbulent period leading up to the second world war. With an open-ended nature and three competing ideologies, what form the second world war takes could be different through multiple playthroughs.
You can create your own Divisions, specialising them for specific tasks. A Battle Planner allows you to draw detailed strategies for your armies that the AI will execute for you, and there's plenty of DLC worth checking out that help elevate the base package into something special.
There is actually an important caveat to add to this entry. While Hearts of Iron 4 is becoming a great WW2-era game, it's not necessarily a great 'WW2 game' in the sense that getting a historical outcome is now only one of many possibilities, and we're not sure if it's the most common one at this point. While plenty of historical events and key decisions are modelled, the course of the war can vary, so if you're an enthusiast who wants a more 'on rails' experience, this may not actually be the game for you. Keep an eye out for the new La Resistance expansion which is due out at some-point.
Wargamer is affiliated with the Paradox Store.
Steel Division 2
Publisher/Developer: Eugen Systems
Tags: Division-level, Real-Time Battles, Operational, Turn-Based Campaign, Team play, Eastern Front
We had to stop an think about this one before committing it to the list - there's no denying that Steel Division 2 has it's problems. Multiplayer balance is an on-going concern, and generally the new campaign mode is a little bit rough around the edges. Still, we're confident in our assessment that it's overall a better game than its predecessor, and the new campaign mode is one of the finest solitaire wargaming experiences we've ever played (warts and all).
If you were a fan of the real-time tactical battles in Normandy '44, then you may have trouble warming to this - the operational realities of the Eastern Front and how it's been translated into the game make for some brutal fights, both in SP and MP. If you felt that the first Steel Division game needed more in the campaign space however, we dare you to not be impressed by the new Army General mode. Once Eugen sort out the last of the kinks, this will truly be a war game for the ages. Check out our Steel Division 2 review for more.
Strategic Command WW2: World at War
World at War easily supplants it's younger sibling, War in Europe, for the simple fact that while this is in some ways 'more the same', it's 'more the same' on a global level. Our initial concerns that this one might fall prey to the same problems the SC Classic entry Global Conflict suffered turned out to be ill-founded. Fury have learned the lessons of the past and managed to create a compelling grand-strategy sandbox, at scale, that leaves plenty of meaningful gameplay options whether you're in Europe, or the Korean peninsular.
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. Read our Strategic Command WW2: World at War review.
Command Ops 2
Lock'n Load's flagship computer wargame makes its debut on our list of best games. This more recent iteration of the series approaches a very detailed and complex subject with a system of play that is both easy to learn and smooth as silk to play. Mastering play is not easy, but that’s the hallmark of an exceptional product. Other games of this subgenre should take note.
The base version of this game is free, and the download comes with three scenarios that include Return to St Vith, Manhay Crossroads and Greyhound Dash. In this respect LnL has taken the same approach as the World War I flight simulator Rise of Flight, where they charge for additional expansion modules. Read our Command Ops 2 review to find out more.
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 2016 iteration mightily impressed the late Mr. Cobb in his Combat Mission: Final Blitzkrieg review 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. There is also Gary Grigsby's War in the West if the Eastern Front isn't your thing.
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.
The Operational Art of War IV
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 The Operational Art of War IV 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 at an end now, especially as Panzer Corps 2 is firmly on the horizon. We might even see it within the next couple of months!
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If you're a fan of the Panzer Corps format and looking for something else to play, then Order of Battle is another Matrix-owned series that may entice you (assuming you haven't come across it already). It was once described to me by a Producer at Matrix as "Panzer Corps, but with logistics", so you'll find a very similar experience that you get in the original Panzer Corps games, just with an added focus on supply.
Unlike it's sibling it's not looking at doing a sequel any time soon (that we know of), and is currently working on a new trilogy of expansions that follow the Soviet Union's trials through WW2. The first entry, Order of Battle: Red Star covers some of the lesser known conflicts in the east that preceded the main events of WW2, which you don't see often.
The base game Order of Battle WW2 is actually free-to-play and comes with a handful of scenarios so that you can try it out. To date thrre are 12 expansions you can purchase to then enhance your game and play through different parts of the war from various perspectives.
Other WW2 Strategy Game Recommendations
Not every game releases gets to take a spot in our 'Best of' lists, and some games that do earn themselves a place get rotated out for newer titles, just to keep things fresh. Neither category deserves to be forgotten so here's a quick summary of recent releases and past 'best' games:
- Battles for Spain
- Battle for Korsun
- Steel Division: Normandy '44
- Strategic Command WW2: War in Europe
- IL-2 Sturmovik
- Graviteam Tactics
- Unity of Command
What would your list of favourite WW2 war games look like? Answers on a post card!