The Second World War is one of the most significant periods of modern history. It involved nearly every part of the world spanning 1939-45. This time period is no stranger to the tabletop. Thousands of World War II board games released over many decades have attempted to address different aspects of the conflict. Whittling that down to a select few is a monumental challenge.
Best WW2 board games
- Axis & Allies: As foundational as Risk, the original strategic-level WW2 game.
- Memoir '44: Tactical family-weight combat supported by a heap of plastic and colour.
- Wings of Glory: Pilot beautiful toy planes across the skies of Europe.
- Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader: Deep and complex, a game worth dedicating the entirety of your hobby time to.
- Up Front: Command a squad of cards in this absolutely unique abstract design.
- Combat Commander: Europe: A modern classic that redefined small-scale tactical combat with cinematic flair.
- Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear: Squad-based conflict with a robust system for armour and vehicles.
- D-Day at Omaha Beach: Storm the beaches of Normandy all by your lonesome.
- Churchill: An esoteric game of political turmoil as the Allied powers deal with the aftermath of the war.
- Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945: Grand strategy meets fog of war in this enveloping experience.
The history of these games is nearly as complicated as their historical backdrop. The primary division is between tactical small-scale conflicts where every squad or unit is represented, and grander strategic-level operations where you are manoeuvring at the division level across whole countries. These designs in some ways have built upon each other’s bones in order to bring new and interesting twists not previously seen.
1. Axis & Allies
As foundational as Risk, the original strategic-level WW2 game
It’s impossible to think World War II on the tabletop and not touch on this Avalon Hill classic. It’s the oldest title on this list, predating even my own existence by a couple of years. Yet it’s still relevant, visually impressive and, of course, enjoyable.
The scope of this design is quite large, covering the entire conflict on a strategic scale that is global. It is best experienced with five dedicated individuals willing to set aside half a day and treat this as an event. For those wanting to truly dive deep, you can even pick up one of the many spin-offs such as Axis & Allies: D-Day or Pacific Theater. Most impressive is this game’s ability to appeal to the mass market as it can often be found at larger non-hobbyist stores.
2. Memoir '44
Tactical family-weight combat supported by a heap of plastic and colour
Memoir '44 established Days of Wonder as a formidable publisher. This design utilises the popular card-based system Richard Borg originally included in the Civil War standout Battle Cry. A tactical affair, participants take turns playing cards from their hand to activate units in either the centre or flanks of the battlefield. You push little clusters of plastic miniatures around and toss fistfuls of dice to resolve fire.
This is one of the more direct and streamlined WW2 board games on this list. You can play it with an eight-year-old or a long-time gaming companion. It embraces a solid degree of tactical considerations while also allowing you to relax and simply enjoy playing with some deluxe bits. Again, this one is well supported and has birthed over a dozen expansions, allowing you to fight on multiple fronts and field many different nationalities. You can even combine sets and play massive beach landing scenarios with multiple friends.
3. Wings of Glory
Pilot beautiful toy planes across the skies of Europe
Originally titled Wings of War, this is one of the most pleasing aerial combat games in existence. Truly flexible, you and up to a dozen others can field plastic 1:200 scale airplanes and execute dogfights worthy of a Christopher Nolan film. At the heart of the design is action programming as you plan multiple moves in advance. This leads to a chaotic fray as aircraft strafe one another and fight to establish control of the skies.
One noteworthy element of this release is that it served as an inspiring force behind Fantasy Flight Games’ popular X-Wing. It utilises a manoeuvre template system that is simply genius, and which would later be expanded upon in that Star Wars title. Furthermore, if you’d prefer to tail the Red Baron instead of a faceless Messerschmitt 109, Wings of Glory offers a World War I option which is equally delightful.
4. Squad Leader/Advanced Squad Leader
Deep and complex, a game worth dedicating the entirety of your hobby time to
Now we’re getting into the heavy stuff. Advanced Squad Leader is one of the most talked-about wargames for a reason. Its very nature is intimidating; the series comprises numerous modules which float in and out of print. The rules themselves are often stored in binders so that you can insert new pages and easily adjust the rules of engagement. As an encompassing project, it’s a beast the size of a Tiger tank.
Most of all it takes commitment and a steady gaming partner. This is one of those products you will need to dedicate yourself to. The payout is a tactical engagement that is bursting with fidelity. The nuance and scope of the ruleset allows players to model situations and outcomes that are often abstracted by its peers. This affords a World War II experience that is unlike anything else out there.
5. Up Front
Command a squad of cards in this absolutely unique abstract design
Up Front shook the wargaming world when it was released in 1983. This absolutely unique design from Courtney F. Allen allowed players to square off against each other over a battlefield composed entirely of cards. Soldiers, terrain, even armored fighting vehicles: all represented by a regular old deck of cards.
What’s so astounding here is how the game folds realism into playability. It’s definitely not a light and breezy affair, but it’s relatively accessible and no tough challenge for a regular wargamer. It’s also one of the more personal WW2 board games on this list as each soldier is represented individually, adding anguish and misery to those frontline casualties. This one has inspired countless subsequent designs - including the next entry - yet is still relevant and available today, albeit in a print-on-demand format.
6. Combat Commander: Europe
A modern classic that redefined small-scale tactical combat with cinematic flair
Chad Jensen’s Combat Commander series is beloved for good reason. Inspired by Up Front, this infantry-focused tactical board game is card-driven. That means you cannot execute orders with your soldiers unless you’ve drawn the appropriate card. This can be frustrating, particularly when a cluster of GIs is approaching your MG42 and you can’t find a “Fire” card to save your life.
But the natural outcome of such a system is one of cinematic beauty. It’s not so much a simulation as it is a generator of wonderful narrative moments. The ingrained events boost this approach as random sniper fire or artillery strikes will shake up the situation. Combat Commander is such a wonderful game and in the wake of its success has spawned numerous sequels covering additional aspects of the Second World War.
7. Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear
Squad-based conflict with a robust system for armour and vehicles
The Conflict of Heroes series from Academy Games completes the trio of preeminent squad-based tactical board games. This absolutely stands shoulder to shoulder with Squad Leader and Combat Commander, offering yet another angle on fierce skirmish warfare.
When this game first released back in 2008 it featured thick, gorgeous counters and large mounted maps that, at least at the time, were somewhat uncommon in the genre. Luckily, the gameplay stood up to the presentation as the system of alternating activations was enthralling. It utilises an interesting system where each unit spends action points to move or attack. You’re able to go above and beyond normal limits by spending additional command points from a shared pool reminiscent of Space Hulk, surprisingly enough.
Unlike Combat Commander, the conflict features armoured fighting vehicles alongside infantry, offering an expanded although less intimate view of the war. Yes, this group of smaller-scale tactical wargames is a crowded arena, but Conflict of Heroes remains a standout title worth exploring.
8. D-Day at Omaha Beach
Storm the beaches of Normandy all by your lonesome
This is the most peculiar inclusion on this list. Not because the game’s quality doesn’t justify its appearance - this is an absolutely strong design - but because it’s an entirely solo experience. You, and only you, push small abstract counters up the beachhead, recreating the American assault upon the entrenched German forces.
This is a brutal game. You must maintain cohesion and juggle dozens of armoured and infantry units. It will beat you down and chew through your troops, leaving you in anguish yet determined to give it another go. While it’s not much of a looker, it’s a very cerebral experience that is demanding and equally rewarding.
An esoteric game of political turmoil as the Allied powers deal with the aftermath of the war
Churchill is fascinating. Standing in stark contrast to the rest of the World War II board games on this list, this is entirely a political experience. Exactly three players sit down to take on the roles of Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin, seeking to manoeuvre against each other in a bid to divide control of the defeated Axis powers. It’s a simulation of the Allied powers dealing with the fallout of victory.
This game plays as an interesting tightrope, begging you to achieve success but not crush your foes with too much explicit force. This strongly mimics the dance of negotiation, requiring you to offer platitudes and reconciliation to your opponents. The dynamics at play are wholly unique - this one must be experienced to be understood.
10. Triumph & Tragedy: European Balance of Power 1936-1945
Grand strategy meets fog of war in this enveloping experience
Wargaming publisher GMT’s Triumph & Tragedy is an appropriate way to close the circle, as it comes across as a more sophisticated and layered take on the approachable Axis & Allies. Yes, it’s entirely Western-focused, but it still attempts to encapsulate the economic, technological and strategic affairs of WW2 in a satisfying way.
Units here are represented by blocks, a whole truckload of them allowing strong unit flexibility. The game also makes use of two decks of cards and numerous chits, offering an altogether enveloping action. The block system is really the standout element, as it performs admirably as a fog of war system to obfuscate military manoeuvring. As a game that takes well over four hours to play, this one is niche, but it’s perfectly content operating in that space.