Naval warfare has a rich history dating back to ancient times, spanning countless conflicts that have relied on access to the world’s oceans and many of the best naval games have captured the feeling perfectly. In combat, naval vessels have the capability to strike decisive blows against the opponent in battle, blockade their cities or conduct interdiction missions to sever their supply lines. Undoubtedly, this is an important branch of a nation’s military, just as naval games are an important branch of the wargaming landscape in general.
There are many naval games that are worth an investment, whether you’re into stripped-down, arcade-style combat, action-oriented simulators that put you inside a single craft, tactics games focused on individual battles, or even grander strategic titles that have you developing strategy for an entire battlefleet.
The following titles have been selected to cover all these bases – and each counts as an absolute must-play for admiral-minded types looking to expand their naval-themed experiences.
So, seal all hatches and all hands to battle stations – let’s do this.
What are the best naval games?
World of Warships
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While its definition as a ‘war game’ is understandably debatable, we decided to include this on our list because not only does it offer a refreshingly different experience to everything below it, but it’s also a fun and 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. It’s also recently added Submarines!
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Carrier Battles 4 Guadalcanal
Developer/Publisher: Cyril Jarnot/Avalon Digital
Carrier Battles was originally released a few years ago on iOS, and was a hit with the mobile crowd as it was a pretty decent turn-based wargame, one of the few that existed on mobile. Now it’s finally been ported to PC with some help from Avalon Digital and its ready to take its place on our list of top naval war games. It’s worth caveating that as much as this features a tight design, deep gameplay and smart abstractions to cover the Pacific Theatre, it IS a port of a mobile game at the end of the day.
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It’s gotten fancier graphics and some other upgrades, but it can’t shake the essence of being a more simplistic game for a simpler platform. That’s not a detriment, but it is something to bear in mind. Other than that though, Carrier Battles makes smart of use of Fog of War mechanics, as well as making you feel the tension of far-off air battles as you manoeuvre your task forces in an attempt to control the Pacific. Future upgrades that will elevate it beyond it’s mobile progenitor are planned, and you can read our Carrier Battles 4: Guadalcanal review for more thoughts. It’s a pretty decent game, all in all.
Naval Campaigns: Wolfpack
Developer/Publisher: John Tiller Software
A rare naval-themed outing from the fabled JTS house, Wolfpack is the latest entry in the Naval Campaigns line and takes you to the till-covered Atlantic theatre. You are in charge of a varying number of U-Boat ships as you try and disrupt the Allied supply lines in the Atlantic Ocean. Alternatively, you’re in charge of the Allied fleets trying to keep Britain’s life-line up and running.
There are 50 scenarios in total, along with two campaigns covering a wide range of battles and set-pieces. Not all of them can be played from both sides, but most of them can. There is also a powerful editor as standard, and the usual JTS bells and whistles to go with it. It’s still fairly old-school in that JTS fashion, but this is a more straight-forward game in many ways.
Command: Modern Operations
Developer/Publisher: WarfareSims / Matrix Games
Command’s definition as purely a ‘naval’ war game is getting rather stretched now, but despite improving the ground operations part of the simulation most of the scenarios and focus is on naval (and air) assets for the most part. Regardless of how you want to define it, it’s a damn good piece of software and deserves to be on every list it can fit under. Since it’s predecessor was here, feels right to continue the tradition.
You can read our Command: Modern Operations review to find out more about what we thought, but here’s the basic break-down: this game is the finest, most-in depth simulation of modern warfare you will ever see, and the new version definitely has a number of improvements in terms of U.I. and accessibility.
If you’ve never owned Command: Modern Air / Naval Operations (CMANO) but have a passing interest, then buying CMO is a must. If you’re an existing owner, there’s not as much new as perhaps justifies the asking pricing. Existing owners of the base CMANO game get a 50% discount until January 31st, but even then what’s on offer may not be enough for some. Still, you can always take the Paradox mentality and think of it as an investment in the game’s future in terms of new free content.
On Feb 24th, 2020, CMO received its’ first piece of Command LIVE micro-DLC, Broken Shield 300. To date it’s the best example of such DLC that’s been released since the project started, and bodes well for the future of such smaller releases on the new platform.
Developer/Publisher: Killerfish Games
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.
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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.
Rule the Waves 2
Developer/Publisher: Naval Warfare Simulations
While the sequel to Rule the Waves won’t be ground-breaking for anyone experienced in the original title, Rule the Waves 2 is a clear improvement over its predecessor in more ways than one. With an expanded timeline through to 1950, air forces and Air Craft Carriers now make their appearance in the mid-to-late game, shifting the priority of naval doctrine from Dreadnoughts and super-ships to platforms capable of fielding large amounts of air power.
Other little improvements, such as changed naval invasion ranges, mean that this takes on a more long-form, emergent narrative experience similar to Hearts of Iron – it’s less about painting the map your colour, and more about the strategic and long-term naval performance of your nation. There’s still room for improvement – in-game events and politics remain a eurocentric affair, the game is terrible at explaining itself, and we’d love to see mechanics that cater towards large-scale warfare between alliances.
As with the first game, this is a unique experience in naval wargaming, and anyone even remotely interested should definitely try it out for themselves. Read our Rule the Waves 2 review to find out more about what we thought.
Supremacy at Sea WW2
Developer: Naval Warfare Simulations
In many ways, SaS is a counter-point to NWS’ other entry on this list, Rule the Waves 2. It’s not getting a sequel and hasn’t had the same amount of support as the other 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.
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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’ wargame.
Developer/Publisher: KillerFish Games
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.
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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
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, and an enticingly cheap purchase price.
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Add in modding tools that expand unit rosters (such as can be found here) and ship variety, and you have here 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 there’s still work to do yet before it’s in a good enough place to knock the original game off its perch. It’s also worth pointing out that the developers are working on a new game – Victory at Sea: Ironclad.
Silent Hunter 3
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 its 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.
Ironclads 2 Collection
Developer/Publisher: Totem Games
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 armchair 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. 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.
Totem also makes the Clad in Irons series, which is what it’s currently focusing on. It recently released a DLC for one of its games entitled Clad in Iron: Carolines 1885.
Enigma: Rising Tide
Developer/Publisher: Tesseraction Games/Dreamcatcher Interactive
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.
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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.
Developer/Publisher: SDEnterNet / Naiad Games
Navyfield is a curious naval game. Recommending it is like telling somebody to go see Woodstock today. As an MMO, its time in the sun has passed by a few years, but at its peak it was a phenomenal game. Although Navyfield has been overshadowed by modern releases, the game is still strong to this day. Pitting teams of up to 32 players against one another with an assortment of ships, 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 as you see the players naturally forming to picket the larger ships, or the carriers and more agile craft either laying torpedoes or scouting for incoming spreads. Players that aren’t part of the pack, or are inexperienced, can find themselves isolated and destroyed. Anti-Aircraft is also an important element as, although machine gun fire from your ships is 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-on-the-eye 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. Leveling up your crew and unlocking newer arsenals are still very much mechanics here. However, a side benefit of this is understanding the types of ships and the benefit of different play styles. Rushing to play as a 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). The original Navyfield, by contrast, managed to capture fleet combat exceptionally well in a multiplayer setting and is still supported and played by players today. It’s well worth giving a whirl in 2021.
Fighting Steel: World War II Surface Combat 1939-1942
Developer/Publisher: Divide By Zero Software Inc./ Strategic Simulations, Inc.
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.
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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.
Other Naval War Game Recommendations
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:
- Rule the Waves
- Battlestations: Pacific
- Fleet Command
- Dangerous Waters
- Action Stations
- Jutland Pro
Token tabletop tip: If you’re looking to expand into tabletop games and are looking for something a little different, read our Silent Victory review – it’s a solitaire submarine warfare game from GMT games, set during WW2’s pacific theatre.
Author note: Additional words by Zach Zimmerman.