Board games like those from the Axis & Allies and Naval Thunder sets are hugely popular in the board gaming community because they offer high-fidelity (for the most part) representations of historical periods of warfare. They also cater for those specifically interested in naval warfare, but if your board-game tastes have an even higher standard of specificity than that – say, specifically between the years of 1799-1815 – then only the best Napoleonic sea-battle board games will do. It just so happens that below you will find a selection of 5 of the very best naval warfare games that represent the best of simulated tactical and strategic situations specifically during the Napoleonic era.
(1) Admiral's Order: Naval Tactics in the Age of Sail - All Hands!
Anyone that knows anything about serious board gaming will know that the finest Napoleon-era naval warfare game available is Admiral’s Order: Naval Tactics in the Age of Sail. All Hands is best described as the core game of the Admiral’s Order series, and it is the number one pick here. Not only does this base game offer five detailed scenarios, but it also contains ten settings that dictate a variety of different naval strategies using the 56 handcrafted wooden ships that come with the set.
The handcrafted ships are a point of beauty within themselves, but fans of the Napoleonic era will bask in the glory of this game’s setting, which is between the years of 1775 and 1815. History buffs are going to love the attention to detail in the ships themselves as well as the five scenarios, which include small engagements between two vessels to full-on engagements with the gigantic ships-of-the-line (for an example of such a wonderful vessel, see HMS Victory) forming a so-called “Line of Battle”.
Far from the mass-produced feel of the Axis and Allies naval warfare games, All Hands is of the usual Admiral’s Order quality: hand-crafted wooden vessels (frigates and larger ships), a gorgeous playing board, and even an incredible-looking box to store it in.
(2) Admiral's Order: Naval Tactics in the Age of Sail: Trafalgar Expansion
If All Hands is the pinnacle of Napoleonic-era naval warfare board-gaming, then the Trafalgar Edition is the kind of expansion that all other expansions to all other board games in the world should aspire to be. Though it can only be played with the All Hands or the Edition 74 versions of the Admiral’s Order board games, the Trafalgar Edition has a total of 60 of those hand-crafted wooden ships that makes this series of games so incredibly unique.
But what makes this edition more unique is that it is the only one that is focused entirely on one single scenario: the Battle of Cape Trafalgar, 1805. Don’t worry about the seemingly restrictive framework of the single-scenario setup however – there are still 5 settings to be played, each allowing for a varied approach to the battle’s course and outcome.
Again, sticklers for historical detail are going to absolutely love this edition as much as they would all other iterations of the series since the scenario and the multiple settings allow you to experience the battle of Cape Trafalgar from multiple perspectives, playing as a commander, admiral, or captain, and impressing your own strategies and tactics on one of the most memorable naval battles in history.
(3) Admiral's Order: Naval Tactics in the Age of Sail: Edition 74
It may seem excessive to have so many of the Admiral’s Order games in this list, but after all they are the ultimate, most well-made and gorgeously presented Napoleonic-era naval board games in existence. The version in question here is Edition 74, the most comprehensive of all the Admiral’s Order games by quite a way, offering more scenarios, vessels, and settings than any other the other editions.
The ‘74’ in Edition 74 refers to the 74 handcrafted wooden ships that this edition comes with. This is 18 more vessels than you get with the All Hands edition, and is an impressive quantity of ships to own, particularly when you consider the high quality of each of the models. Not only do you get more models but you can also enjoy more scenarios – 7 in total, with 14 different settings – that include the Battle of Cape Henry with 16 ships-of-the-line, one-on-one frigate battle between Frigates Blanche and La Pique in 1795, and the Battle of Cape Ortegal with 12 vessels in 1805, about which this gorgeous painting was created.
(4) 1805: Sea of Glory
If you’re perhaps after a game that focuses entirely on 1805 (the year of Trafalgar), then your best bet if you don’t want to splash out on any of the Admiral’s Order games is 1805: Sea of Glory. Though nowhere near as collectible or visually appealing as Admiral’s Order, Sea of Glory gives players the opportunity to explore and experience the events of 1805 on an operational level, taking command of fleets from both the British side as well as that of France and her allies.
This game’s dynamics vary according to which side you are playing as. If you’re the allied side playing as France & Spain, your job is to attempt to come out of the European ports with as much force as possible in order to gain momentum to attack the British forces. If you’re playing as Britain, then your role can be largely defensive.
What makes this game so unique (as well as deserving of 4th place) is the weather system, which adds unpredictability to the events since storms and other weather conditions make GMT Games’ fine offering considerably more dynamic.
(5) For Honor and Glory: War of 1812 Land and Naval Battles
Finally here we have For Honor and Glory, a game from Worthington Publishing whose focus also lets players enjoy a variety of land battles, but also including a hefty number of naval scenarios as well. The specific historical scenarios that the game includes are from 1800 onwards – you’ve got the Battle of Lake Erie, Lake Champlain, and the Capture of the USS President through to incredible battles between single vessels such as the USS Constitution vs. HMS Java.
This is a game that has relatively low complexity in its naval rules and its execution, making it relatively accessible whilst still allowing for complex tactical scenarios to be played out. However, the simplicity of the naval portion of the game compared to that of the land-based battles makes this a 5th-place game when you consider the level of quality of the games that are above it in the list.
When it comes down to it, the reason that the three Admiral’s Order games come top of the list is that they are the games that provide the most complete and authentic experience of Napoleonic-era naval warfare. The fact that the models are hand-carved isn’t just a bonus: it adds an extra dimension to these board games that 1805: Sea of Glory and For Honor and Glory simply cannot contend with. The latter two games are still of great quality and provide a nice variety of scenarios, but if you’re going to spend money on only one, let it be spent on any of the three Admiral’s Order games.