Naval warfare in general is arguably more engaging than land-based battles because it’s a fairly alien and therefore novel sphere for many gamers to enter into. However, it really depends on the particular board game you’re dealing with because, as with pretty much all games in the world, all naval war board games are also not created equal. That is the main reason for this Top 10 Naval Warfare Board Games article. You may have already read the Top 5 Naval Warfare Miniatures Games article: this top-5 one simply looks at the board-game dimension of the naval warfare gaming world, which obviously shares a fair few common denominators with the wonderful world of miniatures gaming as well.
(1) Naval Warfare: World War 1
Christopher Dean and William Miller’s continuation of the much-loved NWS: Naval Warfare can’t be anywhere but at number one here. The focus on World War 1 will surely please enthusiasts of wartime naval forces, as will the massive selection of submarines, dreadnoughts, carriers, battlecruisers, and many more vessel types that represent virtually every naval force that fought in the Great War.
The Naval Warfare: World War 1 game includes comprehensive data cards that list the combat details of each vessel, allowing you to fully immerse yourself in submarine, aerial, and surface-based combat in the most authentic way possible. You’ll get 90 plastic combat markers with the set, as well as single/multiplayer rules, multiple campaigns, 7 colour maps, and 2 colour combat matrices. You’ll also find the appropriate downloads for the game on the Naval Warfare World War 1 thread linked from the official Naval Warfare Website.
(2) Naval Thunder: Battleship Row
Another quality set of board/map-based rules comes in the form of Naval Thunder’s Battleship Row. This ruleset has become a mark of quality over the years because of its extensive rulebook that informs a large variety of possible WWII-based battle scenarios at sea. The pack comes with two introductory scenarios to ease you in to the style of play, but the ship data cards are where the real value lies with this particular ruleset.
Perhaps most impressively, Battleship Row includes an excel spreadsheet that acts as a data customising tool which allows you to print out and use your own selection of ships during the game, as well as including the data for the ships already included in the set. This lost out on being number 1 in this list mainly because of the disappointment many will feel at not having any artwork that represents the ships on the data cards, so imagination must instead be relied upon.
(3) Naval Thunder: Bitter Rivals (Expansion)
Though Battleship Row already sits in 2nd position here, its expansion Bitter Rivals could not be anywhere other than directly below it here. This expansion augments Bitter Rivals by including additions to your naval forces; it also contains a number of extra scenarios. With this set you will find added rules that allow you to incorporate the forces of Italy, Britain, France, and Germany, as well as a commendable 13 additional historical scenarios that will take you on campaigns through the Mediterranean, Atlantic, and Pacific oceans.
The new rules aren’t revolutionary by any means (compared to previous expansion Clash of Dreadnoughts), but they do introduce WWII-specific naval developments as well as gentle improvements to the already incredible ruleset that are typical of the quality and detail we’ve come to expect from Steel Dreadnought Games.
(4) Modern Naval Conflicts: 1970s
You will often find a significant underrepresentation of modern naval conflicts in favour of the more traditional ones such as those that were part of WWII and WWII, but Modern Naval Conflicts 1970s is another Steel Dreadnought Games spectacular. Focusing on naval conflict in the 1970s, this is a board game that comes with all the necessary pieces and maps, but which doesn’t allow you to get bogged down in complicated gameplay procedures. The gameplay is simple, but its outcomes are potentially complex, making this one very easy to learn and great to play if you’re on your own.
Though a 1980s expansion followed the release of this game, the 1970s version remains the pinnacle of the modern naval warfare gaming scenario.
(5) Axis and Allies: War at Sea: Revised 2 Player Starter
There’s no denying the greatness of Axis and Allies as a line of products, but as far as this War at Sea starter pack goes, the 8 miniatures that it includes afford it a high position in this top 10. In addition to the pre-painted miniatures, you also get an updated and expanded rulebook that covers multiple scenarios for a variety of ships and aircraft.
The ruleset for this pack isn’t anywhere near as detailed as games from the Naval Warfare Simulator publisher, but you buy into this pack for the models more than anything.
(6) Axis and Allies: War at Sea: Surface Action (Expansion)
Wizards of the Coast is definitely prolific, and this is demonstrated in yet another expansion for their War at Sea game. Again, the ruleset isn’t going to enter into as much detail in its scenarios/outcomes when compared to Naval Thunder’s incredible comprehensive content on paper, but Axis and Allies’ appeal yet again comes in the form of miniatures. In this expansion pack there are 40 miniatures in total, many of them hugely recognisable units from history such as Germany’s most famous battleship, The Bismark.
So again, Axis and Allies’ appeal is largely for collectors since Naval Thunder offers a more detailed ruleset, though without A&A’s miniatures.
(7) 1805: Sea of Glory
Though this game doesn’t offer up as many historical years’ worth of conflict, its representation of the 1805 Trafalgar conflict between Britain’s devastatingly large and skilled naval forces and the undermanned Napoleonic French/Spanish fleets. The game does a fantastic job of putting forward a framework that truly represents the difficulty of the Napoleonic fleet, with their leader (whose attention was somewhat divided at that time) commanding them against a seemingly unbeatable British navy.
No miniatures or complicated models weigh down gameplay here: rules are relatively simple, the play pieces are of low-density, and the role of weather in particular is a nice touch. This is effectively a game of naval cat and mouse with a nice selection of historically-accurate ships and a nicely detailed surface to play on, all courtesy of GMT Games.
(8) Naval Warfare: World War 2
Another Naval Warfare Expansion from NWS/Steel Dreadnought Games here, and this time the World War II naval offering. This particular game offers incredible value for money since the ruleset is very comprehensive and the vessels you get to play with come in huge numbers and with high historical accuracy.
So if you enjoy taking control of merchants, battleships, carriers, aircraft squadrons, destroyers, and many more vessel types as well as creating your own custom scenarios to supplement the included ones, this is definitely a naval board game for you.
(9) Great War at Sea: Pacific Crossroads
Representatives of the naval standoff between Japanese and US naval forces between 1917-1922, this board game introduces new ships that will please veterans of the series whilst also catering for new players. This game involves fighting on a hexagon-based map with rules that can be learnt in mere minutes, and its place here indicates its brilliance in representing a rather neglected set of tensions at this time in history.
(10) Axis and Allies: War at Sea: Flank Speed (Expansion)
In spite of many reviewers pointing out some minor design flaws in the models that come with this expansion pack, Flank Speed definitely deserves a seat here because it’s expanding on already solid set of rules. This is yet another example of an appeal to collectors, but it gets the balance right by supplementing these historically-accurate (for the most part) ships with an advanced ruleset that’s relatively easy to learn.
There was never any doubt about NWS’s Naval Warfare: World War 1 taking prime position in this list. Though Axis and Allies sets appear frequently here, their miniatures are no match for the unbelievable strategic detail that NWS offers in all of their products. Some will also appreciate the games here that deal with neglected parts of naval history such as 1805: Sea of Glory and Pacific Crossroads. This list is therefore a balanced affair that accurately represents in rank order the best that naval-warfare board gaming has to offer.