The Best Naval War Games

By Zach Zimmerman 04 Jun 2019 21

Naval warfare has a rich history dating back to ancient times, spanning countless conflicts that have relied on access to the world’s oceans. Fleets and flotillas have been crucial for the logistical transportation of materials, goods, treasures and troops. In combat, naval vessels have the capability to strike a decisive battle against the opponent or interdict against their supply lines. Undoubtedly, this is an important branch of a nation’s military, but how does this element of warfare translate to videogames?

Feeling a bit sea sick? How about checking the best ancient and medieval war games instead?

Those who are looking for naval warfare can find games that are worth an investment, whether more arcade-style combat, or developing the strategy for an entire battlefleet. The following titles are absolute plays for the admiral-minded types looking to expand their naval-themed experiences.

Primarily, the games presented are of two sorts: the wargame-likes – where it is more about an arcade or pure battle experience, and the simulations – where understanding of mechanics and planning accordingly can take a whole afternoon if need be.

Recently Released & Community Suggestions

Not every naval wargame release necessarily earns itself a place in our top spots, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve to be highlighted. Here's a summary of recent releases you might also be interested in:

Supremacy at Sea WW2 (Review)

Developer: Naval Warfare Simulations
Tags: WW2, Strategic, Management, Pacific, Atlantic, Mediterranean, Operational
Purchase: Direct

SAS 4

In many ways SaS is a counter-point to NWS' other entry on this list, Rule the Waves. It's not getting a sequel and hasn't had the same amount of support as the below game, but provided you can still get a hold of it (you can only purchase what few physical copies remain from the NWS store) it's a very engaging naval warfare game that focuses on the big-picture. There are three campaigns covering the Pacific, Atlantic and Mediterranean theatres, and you're tasked with managing and deploying fleets and task forces based on operational needs of the campaign. Along with fleets and ships, you can also manage air assets, and even intervene in ground battles.

It's a little bit fiddly to get working on Windows 10 machines, but it is doable and this is one of those rare games that clearly has been designed by someone with immense knowledge and passion for the subject, and have offered a unique take that makes best use of the resources and technology they had available. The quintessential 'indie' war game.

Rule the Waves (Review)

Developer/Publisher: Divide By Zero Software Inc./ Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Various Theatres, Strategy, WW1, Management
Purchase: Direct

29

No naval wargame has come close to the possibilities available in Rule the Waves. This is equal parts grand-strategy as it is naval management and engagements. With the turn to the 20th century, you act as a developer for the nation in the great naval arms race ever. Design pre-dreadnoughts and dreadnoughts as an assortment of great naval powers, and either stick to history or decide for your nation in your own creative way.

Although graphics are simplistic, the sheer amount of content and strategic depth of this ship of the line hasn’t been surpassed yet. For those who are less about the chivalry of ships lining up and more about the naval arms race and its consequences, Rule the Waves is an absolute gem of a naval wargame and a must own by anyone who prefers the smell of sea salt over soil. Our review of its recently released sequel - Rule the Waves 2 - is currently in progress, so we'll see which version triumphs.

Cold Waters (Review)

Developer/Publisher: Killerfish Games
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Various Theatres, Strategy, Simulation, Submarine
Purchase: Steam

Cold Waters

Killerfish Games manages to hold two titles on this list, and with good reason. Cold Waters manages to walk a perfect line between arcade and simulation with this submarine-based naval game. Establishing itself in a modern setting, the player sets out in nuclear submarine and strike against surface targets and warships while evading modern ASW countermeasures. Great mission and unit variety, outstanding visuals and intuitive UI enables Cold Waters to stand tall among the greatest naval wargames out there.

Content for Cold Waters is still being released, with the latest addition being a South China Sea campaign. Those looking for a more immersive sub sim, please note that this isn’t Silent Hunter – you may be disappointed if that’s what you’re looking for here.

Atlantic Fleet (Review)

Developer/Publisher: KillerFish Games
Tags: Naval, Turn Based, Atlantic Theatre, Strategy, WW2, Arcade
Purchase: Steam, iOS

Atlantic Fleet

Initially released on iOS as a sequel to Pacific Fleet in 2015, Atlantic Fleet excels as an arcade-style turn-based naval strategy game. Slug it out in single battles, scenarios or an Atlantic campaign as the Kriegsmarine or the Royal Navy. Both factions offer a wide variety of naval vessels, from famous ships such as the Hood and Bismarck, all the way to “paper” battleships such as the Lion-class and H-44! The use of land based or carrier aircraft for strikes against ships is also present and can give an edge over the enemy.

The turn-based combat is perfect for the surface ship engagements, but submarine and aircraft carriers are a bit sub-par. The price of admission is just right for the amount of content in the game.

Victory at Sea

Developer/Publisher: Evil Twin Artworks
Tags: Naval, Real-Time, Various Theatres, Strategy, Arcade, Moddable, WW2
Purchase: Steam

Victory at Sea

Victory at Sea is an excellent game for those who want a fast-paced experience of WW2 naval warfare across multiple theatres of operation. Simplified combat controls and real time management allows for the action to be quick and engaging. Nation variety spans the traditional naval powers of British, American, Japanese and German fleets to the lesser represented Dutch, Italian and French forces for custom battles.

There is a lot of content for Victory at Sea due to free updates from the developers, coupled with a cheap purchase price. Along with modding tools that expand unit rosters (such as can be found here) and ship variety this is a great title for people looking to expand their naval libraries. 

This game also received a sequel - Victory at Sea: Pacific. Sadly, the added campaign layer has added a whole new pool of potential problems for the developer. It's got a solid foundation, but it's still got some time yet before it's in a good enough place to knock the original game off its perch.

Silent Hunter 3

Developer/Publisher: Ubisoft
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Various Theatres, Strategy, Simulation, Submarine, WW2, Moddable
Purchase:  Steam, Direct

SH3

As a U-boat captain of the Kriegsmarine, you will find yourself prowling for unsuspecting targets, ambushing convoys, or fighting against aircraft as you’re surfaced. Interacting with the ships interior is also a major component of managing your submarine. Of the Silent Hunter series, Silent Hunter 3 easily remains the undisputed champion.

What pushes Silent Hunter 3 beyond it’s sequels is the incorporation of the GWX3 GOLD mod. This mod gives the game an even more immersive experience, with quality of life changes, environment improvements and added variety still unmatched by the later titles. If you can sacrifice the visual fidelity that the later versions have, you’ll find afternoons and evenings lost as you develop into a successful U-boat Commander. Alarm! Fluten!

Ironclads 2 Collection (Review)

Developer/Publisher: Totem Games
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Turn base, Various Theatres, Strategy, Simulation, 19th Century
Purchase: Steam

Ironclads 2

Where previous Totem Games releases can be considered misfires, the Ironclads 2 series of games bundled as a collection on Steam are a great addition for any Armchajr-Admiral out there. This collection of games has you fighting forgotten engagements in the late 19th century. While the strategic element is turn based, engagements are in real time. But don’t be fooled; managing ships can get complicated when you split columns or try and envelope an opponent’s fleet.

Opponent AI, ship models and unique settings allow these naval engagements to really come alive and provide wonderfully varied experiences. However impatient players or newcomers might be frustrated by the lack of tutorials (other than just a manual) and hardcore sim fans might be disappointed by the basic mechanics for tactical engagements. However, for the price of four games, and the unique setting each brings, these titles definitely deserve the attention they get.

Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations WOTY (Review)

Developer/Publisher: WarfareSims / Matrix Games
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Various Theatres, Strategy, Simulation, Grand Strategy
Purchase:  Steam, Direct

Command Modern Air Naval Operations

You would be hard pressed to find something as intricate and detailed as Command: Modern Air/ Naval Operations is, apart from maybe the Harpoon series. Aspects to manage are satellites, aircraft wings, and navy fleets while the database includes WW2 era ships all the way into modern future weapons. This gives an excellent overview of what you are going to be working with through what spans almost a century of air and naval warfare. The base game has over 40 scenarios, and further DLC and expansions have been released in the years since.

While older titles rely on a flat image, or map, CMANO is globe based, delivering even greater immersion for the armchair commander. The amount of management and systems available is staggering. Realism is a cornerstone of CMANO and while other naval sims and wargames are more approachable due to their low price or lesser complex systems, CMANO revels in its ability to be a serious simulation. For those who are willing the opportunities are near limitless and there's a great stable of DLC for you to check out at your leisure.

Enigma: Rising Tide

Developer/Publisher: Tesseraction Games/Dreamcatcher Interactive
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Atlantic Theatre, Strategy, First Person, Arcade
Purchase: Free

31

Enigma: Rising Tide is a very strange but excellent naval wargame. What makes it so strange is the alternative history the game is based upon; the Germans won the first world war, and everything stems from that. Now that you’ve digested that twist, it is easy to see what makes Enigma: Rising Tide such a compelling game to play. Focusing on small unit actions, such as operating a corvette, submarine or a destroyer.

The game pits the player on the bridge of these vessels and manages to operate a fine balance of arcade action and command options. Where it lacks in patience and finesse, the pace of the missions and the satisfaction of a ship sinking is still gratifying in this title. Enigma: Rising Tide is for those who are wanting to take a break from the hard-fought battles of stratagem and are looking add a few more hulls to the bottom of the sea in at what sometimes can be a neck breaking pace.

Navyfield

Developer/Publisher: SDEnterNet / Naiad Games
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Pacific Theatre, Atlantic Theatre, Arcade, WW2, Multiplayer
Purchase: Free, Free (Steam)

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Navyfield is a curious naval game. Recommending it is like telling somebody to go see Woodstock today. As an MMO, it’s time in the sun has passed by a few years, but at it’s peak it was a phenomenal game. Although Navyfield has been overshadowed by modern releases, the game is still strong to this day. Pitting up to 32 players and an assortment of ships together, Navyfield has a surprising amount of variety and modes, backed by quick and addictive battle sessions.

Typically, fleets are a combined assortment, battleships, carriers, cruisers, destroyers and even frigates are some of the options available (unless the hosted room decides otherwise). The beauty starts with as you see the players naturally forming to picket the larger ships or the carriers and the ships with greater agility either lay torpedoes or scout for incoming spreads. Players that aren’t apart of the pack and are unexperienced can find themselves isolated and destroyed. Anti-Aircraft is also an important element, as although machine gun fire from your ships are automatic, it requires a keen eye to manage those flak bursts to take out incoming aircraft which can sway the battle in mere seconds. Matches are quick and full of action in an easy to look at isometric view.

Navyfield was and still is grindy, making the drive to those bigger ships a pain if you’re unwilling to cough up some compensation. Levelling up your crew and unlocking newer arsenals are still very much a mechanic here. However, a side benefit of this is understanding the types of ships and the benefit of different play styles. Rushing to be the King George V-class may not necessarily be as enjoyable as wiping out many unsuspecting players with a perfect torpedo spread from a Japanese light cruiser. Every faction has a distinct feel and doctrine.

Although there is a Navyfield 2, it tries too hard to compete with World of Warships, rather than capture the magic in a bottle that the first game had and suffers for it.  Both newer titles feel more about smaller engagements and which captain has the widest bow (a matter of speaking). Navyfield managed to capture fleet combat exceptionally well in a multiplayer setting the first time around and is still supported and played by players today.

Fighting Steel: World War II Surface Combat 1939-1942

Developer/Publisher: Divide By Zero Software Inc./ Strategic Simulations, Inc.
Tags: Naval, Real Time, Pacific Theatre, Atlantic Theatre, Strategy, WW2
Purchase: Free (Abandonware)

32

Fighting Steel is a lesser known title for those looking into the war chest of naval wargames; as a game, it primarily focuses on fleet action. Pitting capital ships against others in often historical context or user created scenarios, in real time ships square off to lob shells until somebody capsizes or breaks off under the cover of smoke screen. What Fighting Steel does well is the variety through a large variety of ships and how they perform in battle, and it’s attempt of authenticity, through its scenarios and mechanics. Although the graphics are simple and dated, they are crisp and serviceable. It’s easy to distinguish targets by their silhouettes for the experienced admiral.

For Jutland players, the games are very similar, only standing out on a few overlay mechanics and time period of course.   A rocky release might have damaged the hull of Fighting Steel a bit, but since 1999, the game has improved to be a compelling and immersive through patches from the dedicated. Work such as Fighting Steel Project which delivers an improved combat simulation and fixes a lot messy bugs along the way has Fighting Steel still on the fleet roster for those looking to see if their admiralty skills are still sharp.  

World of Warships

Developer/Publisher: Wargaming.net
Tags: Real-time, action/arcade, WW1, WW2, Online Only, Multiplayer
Purchase: Free

world of warships best naval wargame

While its definition as a war game is understandably debatable, Editor Joe decided to include this on our list because not only does it offer a refreshingly different experience to everything above it, but it's also a fun a surprisingly cerebral game. Featuring ships that range from WW1-era right through to the end of WW2 and a bit beyond, World of Warships is what happens if you take the concept of something like Battlefield, or Call of Duty, except everyone is controlling a warship.

What sets it apart from most free-to-play arcade games though is that there's a surprising amount of forethought required in order to play well. You've got to consider your direction and the time it'll take you to change course, gun emplacements can take time to turn (especially in the big battleships), and when it comes to attacking your distance and lead-time with your shots are also important. It's a lot more fun to play with friends, and being free-to-play means a grind does start to set in at the higher tiers, but once you get to Tier 6 you can do the special PvE scenarios which are a nice change of pace. The late James Cobb was always a quiet fan of this arcade 'war' game, and we can easily see why.

Hall of Fame

We regularly update these lists with new or looked-over games, and to keep things manageable we'll rotate out some entries to make way for others. Past members of this list include:

  • Battlestations: Pacific
  • Fleet Command
  • Dangerous Waters
  • Action Stations
  • Jutland Pro

What would your list of top naval war games look like? Let us know in the comments!

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