Yes, William Tecumseh Sherman was right and “war is hell”, regardless of when in time it happens, but something about laser guided munitions and modern tanks ups the ante for those of us here in the 21st century. The destruction and terror of World War Two stands as a terrifying warning from history – but even that globe-spanning conflict didn't feature fleets of satellite-controlled drones capable of firing missiles on the opposite side of the planet at the drop of a hat.
The thrills of wielding 21st-century technology, sci-fi-like gadgets and increasingly ultra-deadly weaponry in-game surely account for the words “modern warfare” appearing in the titles of so many digital games nowadays. Which is not to say to say the following list of the best of modern warfare games snubs the bad ol' 1900s. After all, the vaunted Soviet v. NATO showdown (that thankfully never happened) has also made perfect fodder for games wishing to demonstrate why we should give peace a chance.
We've selected our favourite wargames across different formats and genres that look at combat in the cold war, the modern day and – of course – in alternate-historical versions of both!
What are the best Modern War Games?
- Armored Brigade
- War Thunder
- Terminal Conflict
- Combat Mission: Black Sea
- Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm
- Wargame: Red Dragon
- Full Spectrum Warrior
- Steel Beasts Pro PE
- Afghanistan ‘11
- Graviteam Tactics
- Call To Arms
- ArmA 3
- Command: Modern Operations
- John Tiller’s Modern Campaigns series
We’ve been waiting for this game for a while, and it did not disappoint. Considering AB’s roots as a freeware game developed in someone’s spare time, it’s amazing what a little publisher support can achieve. If you’re looking for a game with the complexity and tactical depth as, say, Combat Mission or even CMANO, but the style and presentation of old-school Close Combat, than Armored Brigade is right up your alley.
The campaign generator update added new nations, including France and Yugoslavia
Set primarily in Europe, Armored Brigade is a ‘Cold War gone hot’ game where you can play as either NATO or Warsaw Pact factions. Create your task-force, define your map (using the excellent map generator), and fight it out on the plains of Europe. This is certainly one of 2018’s stand-out releases, and well deserving of a space on this list.
The game’s recently been updated with the first iteration of a ‘campaign generator’, giving you the chance to fight a successive series of battles to give you some extra context. The inclusion of new nations via the Italy-Yugoslavia Nation Pack and the France-Belgium Nation Pack further enriches what’s on offer.
Developer: Gajin Entertainment
Play free now
We’re folding some free-to-play recommendations into these lists because it shouldn’t always be about super-serious war games or simulations – sometimes it’s nice to just rock around in a Tank or a Helo and blow stuff up.
War Thunder gets our recommendation here because it features land (armoured), air AND naval combat, all in one game. All three even appear within the same matches, and there are over 1,700 to unlock and wield.
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Games like this, World of Tanks and even World of Warships need caveating slightly because, given their free-to-play nature, based around progression systems, they can actually end up covering several eras.
War Thunder starts in WW2 with the Rank I & II units. Rank III’s tend to be a mix of late-war and post-war variants of WW2 vehicles, and it’s not until Rank IV and above that you truly get into the ‘cold war’ era of military hardware.
Being free-to-play, you also should prepare yourself for a bit of grind (although if you have the money you can always just splash some cash). War Thunder may not be the modern/cold war game you’re looking, but it might be the one you need.
Developer: BL Logic
Available from: Steam
This recently released turn-based strategy offers something different, straddling the line between boardgame and videogame, presenting a strategic-level Cold War experience that mas more in common with something like Twilight Struggle. It spent most of the year in Early Access, and only released in Oct 2020 – our review can you tell you more about it if you’re ineterested.
The tl;dr is that there are a lot of smart ideas here, though a the moment a potentially weak AI may hinder solitaire players, but it makes for a cracking two-player competitive game. Made by the same team who attempted to make that Cold War-era Hearts of Iron 3 spin-off, East vs. West.
Combat Mission: Black Sea
Available from: Direct
Battlefront’s venerable Combat Mission series, best known for its uncompromising vision of small unit tactics and fastidiously researched content (and, also, really slow development-ED), is a shoo-in for our best modern war gfames list, with Combat Mission: Black Sea (CMBS) taking the cake. Depicting a fictional ‘WW3’ style conflict between Russian, American, and Ukrainian forces in 2017, CMBS can be a rude awakening for those used to Battlefront’s WW2-focused titles. Night vision, UAV’s, active protection systems, and electronic warfare list just a fraction of the new goodies CMBS brings to the table.
Black Sea’s ’quick battle’ mode has you build a force using points, a la miniatures games
CMBS as it stands offers one campaign per belligerent, along with a modestly priced ‘Battle Pack’ that expands the content to include two more campaigns and a handful of handcrafted scenarios. As with the rest of the Combat Mission line-up, CMBS also includes a ‘quick battle’ option wherein you can set the parameters of the battle and build your force using points, much in the same way miniature wargames are played.
Jury’s still out as to whether Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 is necessarily the better game – Bruce liked it enough when he did our review but it the jury’s still out on whether it’s objectively a better game than the first Shock Force or even Black Sea. Interestingly enough, though, the game and all its DLC is now on Steam as of August 25, 2020.
FlashPoint Campaigns: Red Storm
Developer: Matrix Games
Available From: Fanatical
Flashpoint Campaigns features the tried and true ‘cold war gone hot’ situation, with the player at the helm of either NATO or the Soviet Union as they duke it out over central Europe.
FC features dynamic weather effects, exhaustive TO&E’s, and a game engine that accounts for a variety of soft factors such as troop morale and training, sensors, and even the effect of weather on unit optics. And this is just scratching the surface of FC’s fulsome list of features, all of which translate into a decision-making space for the player that really captures the feeling of commanding a combined arms force.
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What also makes Flashpoint Campaigns a special modern war game, though, is its focus on command and control and the Clausewitzian “friction” that occurs when two armies start shooting at one another. FC utilizes a WEGO structure for its turns, wherein players assign orders to their units and watch them play out in real-time concurrently with one another.
FC throws a wrinkle in this, however, by introducing variable turn lengths. In other words, through proper use of command and control, and keeping units in proper formation, a player can “get inside” another player’s turn loop. And of course, the inverse is true: being on the receiving end of a particularly nasty attack you may find it difficult being effective with your units, what with having to wait two in-game hours to your opponent’s 25 minutes.
Wargame: Red Dragon
Developer: Eugen System
Available from: Steam
Eugen’s popular Wargame series offers a fresh take on the real-time tactics genre. Spread out over three titles, the first two of the trio focus on a fictional clash between the Warsaw Pact and NATO. The third title, Red Dragon, expanded the fracas to southeast Asia and added, among others, Chinese, Japanese and both North and South Korean militaries to the series’ growing roster of playable nations. Red Dragon is also the only game of the three to feature naval combat and amphibious landings. It’s also inclusive, adding all of the erstwhile Wargames’ units and many of their maps into multiplayer. This compilation of units has resulted in Red Dragon having a whopping 1,450 units to play with.
The deck system is easily this series’ most unique and endearing feature
Easily the Wargame series’ most unique and endearing feature since its inception in 2012 is its deck system. Imitating popular games, players prepare their customized armies (“decks”) before the match, and then use those ‘cards’ to deploy their troops to the battlefield. There’s no random ‘draws’ or hands though – you get access to everything from the start, with the only variables being whether or not you have the resources to bring the unit to the field.
The depth of this system cannot be overstated, with bonuses for deck doctrine (Infantry, Mechanized, etc.), mixed nation and “coalition” decks, and even manpower bonuses for using decks with dated kit, building your customized force is almost a game within a game. This card game-like experience lends itself well to a multiplayer community, where killer deck combinations and the state of the meta are often hot topics of conversation (and contention).
Full Spectrum Warrior
Developer: Pandemic Studios
Available From: Fanatical
Full Spectrum Warrior (FSW) and its follow-up Ten Hammers are, together, a crash course in the ‘four Fs’ of modern infantry combat: namely, find, fix, flank, and finish.
Originally released in 2004, with the sequel following two years later, FSW has its origins in the US Army’s Science and Technology Community’s attempt at training software, and this ethos shows in the gameplay.
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The player commands a squad that can be broken up into teams and must utilize the aforementioned ‘four Fs’ to navigate the war-torn streets of the fictional Zekistan.
In addition to its slavish devotion to real-world small-unit tactics, Full Spectrum Warrior turned heads upon release by not allowing players to directly control any of their units, despite FSW’s action game style of presentation. Ten Hammers slightly loosened this prohibition and allowed the player to control an M2 Bradley IFV in a few scenarios.
Steel Beasts Pro PE
Developer: eSim Games
Available from: Direct
The end-all-be-all of modern war tank sims, Steel Beasts puts the player in the position of a crew member of an AFV. The game’s roster of hyper-detailed vehicles includes (but is not limited to) iconic tanks such as the M1 Abrams, T-72, and Leopard 1A5 & 2.
Even though the title’s emphasis is on armor, it does an amazing job of depicting combined arms on the contemporary battlefield. Infantry, APC’s, Choppers, and ATGM’s are also stunningly realized, both in their detail, as well as role in the greater battle going on around the player.
Steel Beasts also supports multiplayer for up to eight players—which, when you consider that each player can command NPC units, can lead to a wargaming experience very different from the normal “eye-in-the-sky approach” to virtual commanding.
With a $125 price tag and 100-page manual, Steel Beasts is not for the faint of heart. For virtual treadheads not intimidated by a learning curve, however, Steel Beasts leaves its competition in the dust.
The follow-up to 2015’s Vietnam ’65, Afghanistan ‘11 builds off of developer Every Single Soldier’s counter-insurgency sandbox and improves on the formula in every way. Putting the player in charge of US Military operations in Afghanistan circa 2011, Afghanistan ‘11 is a wargame about winning over the local population. Combat still plays a central role, but even when it does happen it’s towards the end goal of promoting stability and diminishing the influence of the Taliban.
There’s also a Royal Marines DLC that adds playable British forces
Afghanistan ‘11 flips so many wargame conventions on their head, it may take even seasoned grogs some time to fall into the titles rhythm of sending out patrols, sweeping the mountainous terrain and nursing your limited cadre of US forces. The title features a main campaign, as well as randomly generated ‘skirmish’ mode for you to test out your approach to counter-insurgency (COIN) operations in a consequence-free environment.
The Royal Marines DLC also adds British forces in addition to a slew of new gameplay features for players who have fully grokked the base game, or simply want more variety.
Keep an eye out for…
A new upcoming wargame that’s just hit steam is War Room. It’s still in Early Access, but like A11 it attempts to recreate the themes and operational setting of the Middle East. You’re put in charge of an entire theatre, and must deploy your troops to hunt down insurgents but also win over the hearts and minds of the people. Check back in on this entry as we should have some gameplay impressions online by the time we come to update this again.
Available From: Steam
Although known primarily for their World War Two scenarios, both Graviteam Tactics games, Operation Star and its successor Mius Front, are home to some excellent DLC featuring modern conflicts generally unsung in the wargaming world. Operation Star’s DLC Operation Hooper offers players a slice of the Angolan Bush War, specifically the Battle of Cuito-Cuanavale. Graviteam Tactics’ signature dual strategic/tactical gameplay moves significantly faster here than the Ostfront, with BMP’s, choppers, and speedy modern tanks turing the strategic layer into a lightning fast game of maneuver.
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Operation Star’s other modern offering, Shield of the Prophet, features a counterfactual 1979 military contest between the Soviet Union and Iran. Mius Front’s upcoming DLC Operation Moduler is taking the series back to Angola, once again during the Battle of Cuito-Cuanavale. The titular Operation Moduler saw South-African forces squaring off against the Angolan forces of the MPLA. In addition to the new scenario specific vistas and units, Moduler will also come bearing all the Graviteam gameplay and engine enhancements found in Mius Front.
Call To Arms
Developer: Digitalmindsoft EU
Available From: Steam
Ostensibly the modern warfare incarnation of Digitalmindsoft’s Men of War (MoW) series and sharing the same engine, Call To Arms enjoys many of the same features that have made MoW a fan favorite for years, albeit with a WW3 twist. Although only currently featuring two factions, the United States Army and the Global Revolutionary Movement, Russia and Germany are purported to be in the works.
This is an exciting prospect for modern military aficionados as Call To Arms shares the same persnickety attention to detail as it’s WW2 forerunners with each individual unit having its own inventory of authentic kit. One exciting new feature Call To Arms brings to the table is the ability to take control of any unit from the first-person perspective. This feature combined with fully destructible environments and the lethality of modern weaponry really brings Call To Arms into its own, as dictating orders to your units and then participating in the attack yourself or providing cover with the PK light gun is a feeling unmatched by most wargames.
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Available From: Steam
As the game that launched a thousand mods (including the Fortnite sensation), ‘vanilla’ Arma isn’t often talked about as much as the games/mods derived from this venerable consim.
And this is a shame, because it is prerequisite playing for anyone with even a passing interest in contemporary warfighting. The base game’s campaign does an admirable job of easing the player into navigating the waters of modern war military simulation, and soon enough your commanding AFV’s, calling in mortar strikes and adroitly toggling between the game’s multitude of firing positions.
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Assuming you tire of the Mediterranean vistas of Atlis and Stratis, Arma 3’s DLC Apex offers up the south-east Asian themed Tanoa, and along with it a suite of new weapons, vehicles and factions. And of course, this being Arma, just about every military conflict of the last 50 years can be found in the workshop. Rarely trodden topics like the Falklands or First Chechen War are only a download button click away for Arma-ites looking for something beyond the stock campaign(s).
Don’t forget to check out our extensive Mods guide if you want to take your game to the next level. It recently received a new campaign expansion called Contact – covered in our Arma 3 DLC guide – which is a fascinating trip off the beaten path, but does little to enrich the wider game (Aliens, tho).
Developer: Shrapnel Games
Available From: Direct
If I were pressed to describe WinSPMBT in one word it would be ‘breadth’. Meticulously researched, and with OOB’s for the game’s 92 nations (!!) ranging from the end of World War 2 up until 2025, WinSPMBT quite literally has it all.’Out of the box’ it features over two hundred scenarios and 13 campaigns, and that’s before considering the bottomless amount of user created content available courtesy of WinSPMBT’s robust editor.
Although pushing nearly two decades since coming into being, WinSPMBT still enjoys an avid following judging by the throngs of fresh AAR’s and “Opponents Wanted” postings over at developer Shrapnel Games forums, which bodes well for the continued life of the game.
Other Modern War Game Recommendations
John Tiller Spftware have also made some modern-era wargames as part of their ‘Modern Campaigns’ series, such as Danube Front ’85, Korea ’85 and Middle East ’67. These are low-res, top-down hex-and-counter affairs as is JTS’ bread-and-butter, so apart from some mechanical differences to account for the era these play and feel largely like their brethren across the rest of the company’s catalogue. Still pretty good if that’s your cup-of-tea though.
If you want something really complex, try Command: Modern Operations
A quick shout-out must also go to ICBM. If you ever played DEFCON and remember it fondly, this is definitely worth checking out. For everyone else – this is a game about firing nukes at each other until a ‘winner’ is declared, if you can call it that. There’s a lot of manoeuvring and development that takes place leading up to the war to end all wars, but this is a simple game with a simple premise. Read our ICBM review for more.
If you’re looking for something really complex. it may be worth checking out Command: Modern Operations. You’ll also find that game on our list of the best naval games, although you could make a case for it to be on either list, especially since CMO now has enhanced ground combat. We feel it’s still approaching modern warfare predominantly through the lens of naval and air based assets though, and the mechanics are all skewed towards those areas of combat.
For a token table-top wargaming suggestion, Bill recommends Great Escape Game’s Seven Days to the River Rhine rule-set, which offers an excellent alternative to heavy-weights like Team Yankee, although it’s still compatible with all the same miniatures!