For newcomers, the war game genre can be somewhat intimidating. War games can be incredibly complex in their scale and can take many hours to play. Combine that with the fact that they are inherently confrontational and it can make for an intimidating experience for new players. This can be especially true for Eurogramers who are used to both cooperative and victory point games that have little-to-no direct conflict.
Eventually you might want to try out a war game. Sometimes it’s just fun to blow up enemy troops. But where do you start? If you want a true war game experience, there are many choices out there to scratch that itch. Advanced Squad Leader has long since established itself as a fantastic war game. You can even dive into the old Avalon Hill bookshelf titles and spend some time pushing around cardboard chits.
But for those players that would rather test the water before diving in, then this list is for you. Consider these titles as all good starting points for the war game genre, even if they don’t always provide the full war experience. What they lack in their epicness of scale and depth of play, they more than make up for in accessibility and quick play time. If it ends up being something you enjoy, then take that chance to move into something more complex.
To help define the entry level war game (or even beginner war game) my first requirement was that it had to play in under 2 hours. Ideally, less then 90 minutes, but that didn’t have to be the case. Any game that took 3-4 hours probably isn’t always a good choice for a beginner. Second, the rulebook ideally wouldn’t be too complex. The game should be able to be explained in under 20 minutes. Obviously I had to be somewhat flexible with this as sometimes you have to go by feel. But in general, these games should all be fairly accessible to someone unfamiliar with the genre.
With all that in mind, we present our Top Ten Entry Level War Games.
10. Battles of Westeros
Battles of Westeros is a two-player game where players are recreating the military conflicts from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. Battles of Westeros is billed as “A Battlelore Game,” at least according to the box cover. However, once you dive into the rules, Battles of Westeros is probably the biggest deviation of the “Richard Borg combat card system” than any of the other titles. If you are unfamiliar with the system, it’s used in a number of games and is a streamlined way of handling battles. It involves players playing a card from their hand that designates which troops are activated that turn. Attacking is a simple process of rolling a dice and trying to match symbols. Battles of Westeros takes a good amount of liberty with this system and is probably more inspired by BattleLore than an re-theme.
Who’s it for?
I think Battles of Westeros would be a good choice for any Game of Thrones fans. If you are not a fan of the books, then I you would be better served with one of the other “Richard Borg” titles in this list. But for Game of Thrones fans, this is a nice adaption of the source material and a fun little war game as well.
9. Nexus Ops
Nexus Ops is a sci-fi based war game that has players taking on the role of competing corporations in a fight for the moon’s Rubium Ore. Instead of world conquest, players are trying to be the first to get a specified number of victory points. Nexus Ops does a great job of tying theme to components with some fun, neon miniatures to represent the aliens you will be controlling. Players will get to control different unit types in their area-control battle for the moon.
Who’s it For?
Sci-fi fans will feel right at home in this one as you are controlling aliens fighting on the moon. The neon miniatures help give the game an alien and futuristic feel as well. Nexus Ops also offers a good amount of variability for added replay value. The board is made up of modular hexes and the VP win condition can be changed depending on how long of a game you want. The rules are fairly simple and a good choice for someone who likes a lot of dice rolling in combat.
8. Battle Masters
While Battle Masters probably isn’t the most tactically sound game on this list, it’s one of the coolest looking. The game is played on a large 4.5 foot square game map, most likely on the floor unless you have a large table. The sheer scale of this game takes me back to my childhood (when I actually owned it) and is really the main attraction of Battle Masters. The game is heavily luck-based, but the over all size and game components make it a blast to play.
Who’s it For?
For anyone that’s looking for something to play with their kids, this can be a great choice. The size of the game makes it great fun and the rules are easy enough for little ones to understand. That’s not to say this is a kids’ game; I think adults can have fun as well. Battle Masters is probably the lightest war game on the list, but it’s a good choice for when you want to just have a beer and enjoy a medieval battle on a grand scale. While it’s currently out of print, if you can get lucky enough to find a copy, it’s very enjoyable.
7. Command and Colors: Ancients
One of the more popular of the “Richard Borg” titles, Command & Colors: Ancients seeks to recreate historical battles from the Dawn of Military History (3000 BS) to the Middle Ages (400 AD). This is a scenario-based game that Command Card system mentioned earlier. Unlike in Battles of Westeros, Command & Colors: Ancients stays more true to Richard Borgs system. While the game mechanics are simple to learn, they still require strategic card play and good tactics to win.
Who’s it For:
History buffs will probably like this game the best. In addition to recreating battles from ancient history, the game also fits the system perfectly. Since there weren’t any guns or planes in the ancient times, unit tactics and positioning is even more important in this game. Flanking your enemy can be decisive in this game vs others. One thing I don’t really care for is the use of wooden cubes for the armies. I’m a minis guy and I much prefer a sculpted mini to wood cubes with stickers. It’s a personal preference, but one of the reasons Command & Colors: Ancients isn’t higher for me. If those kind of components aren’t important to you, then Command & Colors: Ancients is worth a look, it’s a really solid game.
6. Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit
If I had to include setup time, Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit would have never made this list. With over 150 minis to place, this game probably takes a good 20-30 minutes to get setup. But once you get going, this game is an absolute blast. Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit recreates the final battles of Star Wars: Episode 1. I know, the movie wasn’t very good, but don’t let that stop you from enjoying this hidden gem. Players must fight battles in four different theaters of war simultaneously. Each one is important in their own right so it makes for some hard choices of where to focus your attention each turn. Players activate units based on card play and combat is handled with opposing die rolls. If you want to know more, we did a full review of Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit earlier this year.
Who’s it For?
Any Star Wars fan would be the obvious choice. Being able to control a Jedi or a Sith and having them tear their way through your enemies basic troops is great fun. If you want to move to more of a grand scale, The Plains of Naboo battle lets you control multiple units of troops. Almost any of the four theaters of war in this game would be fun in their own right, but combined, make Star Wars: The Queen’s Gambit a ton of fun to play. Add all that onto the fact that the game comes with so many unique plastic minis, means you are going to have numerous troops to slay during your game. Unfortunately the game is out of print and somewhat hard to find. But if you can get your hands on a copy, I’d recommend it.
BattleLore takes the ground work from the Richard Borg system laid out in Command & Colors: Ancients and gives it a fantasy twist. Players are now controlling a combination of medieval troops and fantasy creatures (Goblins, Elementals, Giant Spiders, etc…). To go along with the standard armies and Combat Card-driven system, BattleLore introduces the concept of Lore Masters. Wizards, clerics, warriors and rogues can aid the players with unique spells and powers. Anyone who is a fan of role playing games will be right at home here.
Who’s it For?
For anyone who is a big fan of high fantasy, this is the title for you. The Combat Card System lays the groundwork for an easy to learn game, while the addition of the Lore Masters add in a bit of an RPG element. If you want to fight with human troops next to dwarves, then you’ll be happy with BattleLore. There are many expansions for BattleLore to give you plenty of options during your game and adding to the replay value. BattleLore is currently out of print, but if you can wait, they will be releasing a second edition soon.
4. Axis & Allies 1941
When I first made this list, I didn’t think I’d be adding Axis & Allies to it. We’ve never had a game of it come in under two hours. However, when I found out about Axis & Allies 1941, I thought it would make a great entry-level war game. It takes the familiar Axis & Allies game we’ve known for many years and scales it back some. They’ve removed some of the rules and changed a few units and the game now plays quicker and more streamlined. The victory condition also can optionally be set at only conquering one capitol to win.
Who’s it For?
Axis & Allies 1941 is a great choice for anyone looking for an all-around war game. It can accommodate five players, has player income, unit purchasing and dice-based combat. If you’ve grown bored with Risk and are looking for something more, this is a great stepping stone. I think after you have grown comfortable with Axis & Allies 1941, you can easily move to one of its bigger brothers and have a comfortable feel for the system.
In Kemet, players are competing Egyptian tribes fighting over territories and trying to be the first to a specific amount of victory points. These can be accumulated through different methods such as attacking, controlling temples, developing your pyramid and other means. Kemet has a lot of great rules to keep the game moving quickly and avoiding the usually slow start for war games. In Kemet, players will also be purchasing unique upgrades for their tribe throughout the game. This lets players tailor their strategies as to how they want to play the game and also keeps their tribe unique as each upgrade is only available to the first to obtain it. I also want to note that Kemet has some great components and artwork.
Who’s it For?
I think Kemet is a great choice for someone who wants more variety in their war game. There are plenty of upgrades in three different categories ensuring that each player plays the game a little differently. I think Kemet could be a good choice for someone coming from a Eurogame background. The dice-less combat system, the fast movement around the board and the tribe upgrades should all appeal to a Eurogamer who likes to keep things moving and have many options on their turn.
2. Risk: Legacy
What is Risk doing on this list? I’ll be honest, I’m far from a Risk fan. I first played the game well over a decade ago and it was a staple through my college days. However, the repetitive nature of the game and long play times kept it on the shelf once I discovered other titles. Risk: Legacy turns that all on its head in a fantastic new game. Risk: Legacy is meant to be played as a campaign over the course of a dozen games or so. No longer is world domination your sole objective. Players want to collect star tokens and be the first player to collect four of them.
But that’s not even the great part of Risk: Legacy. The awesome part is that you truly make this game your own. Throughout your multi-game campaign, you’ll be tearing up cards, writing on the board, applying stickers and otherwise permanently marking up your game. For someone who likes to keep his games in mint condition, this is pretty cringe-worthy. But once your get into it, it’s some of the most fun you’ll have in a game. When you have to choose between one of two powers for your race and literately tear up the rejected one, it’s painful to do. Finally, the game also comes with secret envelopes and boxes that are only opened when certain events happen in a game. Things in those envelopes will affect future games in a variety of ways. If you want to know more, you can read our full review of Risk: Legacy here.
Who’s it For?
While Risk: Legacy can really be enjoyed by anyone, I think it’s truly meant to be played by the same five people over and over. You’ll be signing the board when you win and getting specific bonuses that only apply to you in future games. You and your friends will develop a history with this game and that’s why its best when you play with the same people for the life of the game. You can look back and fondly remember when you nuked Brazil or when that ammo shortage appeared in Europe. Games of Risk: Legacy can be played in as quickly as 30 minutes so its possibly to get 2-3 games in one session. Risk: Legacy is a great choice for just about anyone and is sure to create some lasting memories.
1. Memoir ’44
Memoir ’44 is a two-player war game set during World War II. As one more title that utilizes the Richard Borg command card system, Memoir ’44 is also one of the most popular of that group. So what sets Memoir ’44 above the other games utilizing his system? A few things actually. The theme makes this game very accessible to anyone. You don’t have to be a history buff to jump into the WWII theme. Everyone knows what the war was about and the details of the conflict. That’s probably why WWII was the staple of FPS video games before modern warfare came to the scene. Memoir ’44 is very easy to learn, plays quickly and comes with a variety of historical scenarios. The game also comes with a ton of plastic minis from army troops to tanks to fortifications. You can find out more with our full Memoir ’44 review here.
Memoir ’44 is a fanatic and accessible game in its own right, but what bumped it up into first place on this list is the Operation Overlord variant. Operation Overlord takes Memoir ’44 from two-player only game to eight total players (four per side). Players get to experience a military-style chain of command game as one player acts as the general for their side while the other three players each control one of the flanks in the battle. While I haven’t been able to play this variant myself, I’ve heard nothing but amazing things about it and have been dying to try it. One of my Gen Con goals next year will be to try and get in a game of this. To play Operation Overlord you either need to get the expansion from Days of Wonder or buy a second set of Memoir ’44.
Who’s it For?
Anyone really. The WWII theme is familiar and accessible to everyone and the rules are very easy to learn. The Richard Borg Command Card System did a great thing for entry-level war games, so the easy way to chose one of them is to pick the theme you like the best. I think Memoir ’44’s theme makes it the most accessible of the lot (Fantasy, Game of Thrones, Civil War and Ancient War are your other options). Add to that the fact that there are already a ton of campaigns options, expansion packs, terrain packs and the Operation Overlord variant, and you have many options to increase its replay value. Memoir ’44 is a great game for anyone who’s looking to step into the war game genre that can make it to your table over and over again.
I think the war game genre can incredibly fun and new players have many options to get started with. If you are still undecided, grab a game where the theme interests you and go from there. Overall, any of these games should make for a fun tabletop experience. Think we missed any? Let us know in the comments below.
Other Notable Options:
Command and Colors: Napoleonics
Great list! You have piqued my interest in Kemet! I am going to have to go check it out. Have you played any of the “Birth of America Series” games, 1175 or 1812? I have heard a lot of good press on them and would be interested in seeing how they compare to these other entry level war games.
After reviewing your list, I cannot help reaching the conclusion that you are much more of a boardgamer than a wargamer (nothing wrong with that). Only three of the games actually model real wars. Furthermore, a serious wargamer would never list Memoir 44 at #1 in any list of wargames – even for beginners. Actually, aside from thematic variations, “Ancients” and “Memoir” are pretty much the same game.
It is a good list of starters for new people interested in games that are ‘wargamish’ but a newbie would enjoy other wargames a whole lot more. Here is my own list of suggestions.
1. Conflict of Heroes – very easy simulation of WW2 tactics to learn with superb clearly written rules
2. A Victory Lost – an elegantly designed and easy to learn simulation of WW2 operations on the Easter Front
3. Manoeuvre – a simple card assisted wargame with a Napoleonic Theme. Look out for a sequel that will use monsters and wizards in the near future. If I have an hour to introduce someone to wargames I use this one.
4. Hannibal – One of the first CDGs. Basic mechanics are easy to grasp quickly and the game NEVER gets old.
5. Hammer of the Scots – A simple superb introduction to the block game genre of wargames.
All 5 of these games include string thematic elements, are simple to learn to play, introduce new players to common wargame mechanics and are challenging and interesting enough to still be worth playing even after a player has moved well beyond amateur status. I would say that Ancients has many of those qualities too and might be in my top 10.
Hannibal is a bit longer, a full game can take 3-4 hours. I’d go with Washington’s War if we’re going for 2 hour CDGs. Hammer of the Scots is a great choice.
Here would be my list of the Top War Games.
1. Panzer Blitz
2. Quebec 1759
3. Panzerarmee Afrika
4. Russian Campaign
5. Third Reich
8. Wooden Ships & Iron Men
9. Panzergruppe Guderian
not played for years but i thought escape from colditz, would have been in top 10. very addictive and easy to pick up..looking for a similar game to that, can you recommend
Having played half the games on the list, I feel Mr. Mastrangeli did an admirable job narrowing down this diverse genre into 10 “intro” titles. His list demonstrates how relatively simple strategies and tactics combined with dice rolling and card drawing play out in the realms of fantasy, ancient history, modern warfare and science fiction. Some readers may appreciate a more in-depth analysis that breaks the list into subcategories.Then again, some new tabletop gamers might fall victim to information overload.
Twilight Struggle would also be an excellent introductory title. Simple rules plays fast and very deep.
But he said wargames.
I’d say it depends on why you want to play a wargame. If you just want something that has conflict in it, this list is fine (even if there are few if any games from the wargaming hobby present). If you want games that actually help ease a player into the hobby itself, I don’t know that any of these are particularly good choices – so they won’t make a transition to playing actual military simulations any easier.
Thanks for introducing me to battlelore. This site practically brought it to my attention and after watching reviews for the second edition i made the decision of ordering it. This may be the only wargame I need. Kudos to you!
I loved seeing the shout out to Battle Masters. It was my first wargame as a kid and nothing has ever touched it’s over the top scale. Might i add, that if you cant find a reasonably priced copy of Queen’s Gambit, then the newer Star Wars Risk scratches a similar itch.
Definitely not an intro game, but the A Game of Thrones Board Game – 2nd Edition is a FANTASTIC, luck-less war game.
How could you possibly leave out the two biggest military board games of all time, namely Battleship and Stratego?
I can’t tell if this comment is a joke or serious. I really hope it’s a joke, so I’m going with that. 🙂
Are there plans for an updated list? Would 878 Vikings make it?
Not a bad idea, we’ll put it on the list to do.
Risk is a bore game not a wargame.
I am not a real wargamer. But my absolute fave is Viktory II. Easy to learn, fun to play. Strategic, yet enough luck factor that a weaker player ( Newbie )
can win if the luck is on his side. A fantastic but nearly forgotten game.