I’m starting this list with a banger. Mius Front is the ultimate World War II tactical experience with a 1:1 scale. No game does it better, not even Combat Mission. This enough is sure to stir up emotions- discussions about everyone’s taste are due to arise. Yes, it focuses only on the Eastern Front and zooms into very specific operations, but what it does, does so in a phenomenal, perfectly executed way. Indeed, what’s not up for debate is the quality and sheer amount of small detail every new DLC brings to the table- meticulously recreated orders of battles, dozens of square miles of new locations to fight on, 3D models that can make even the pickiest of wargamers blush. Its battles are disturbingly realistic, working as a perfect Swiss clock with all the small pieces coming together to a perfect cadence. It’s the most authentic depiction of World War 2 to ever grace monitor screens. The two major setbacks are a lack of comprehensive tutorials and an indecipherable UI that makes the Volnichs manuscript easy to decrypt by comparison. Those can make your life miserable for a while but persevere and the tactical game goodness is just beyond the learning curve. When it comes to the Eastern Front, Graviteam Tactics: Mius Front is to the tactical plane of warfare what War in the East 2 is to the operational level. In fact, I have a theory that if you could crack open War in the East 2, dozens of Graviteam Tactics battles would be raging within.
The only franchise that can hold a dimly lit candle to Mius Front is -arguably- Combat Mission. A game that strives to faithfully recreate the experience of tactical warfare in true 1:1 scale and 3D environments. True to life ballistics and the realistic fog of war are paired up with “soft factors” (morale, experience, etc.) and attention to detail to every single aspect of the battlefield, to deliver a wargame that, akin to Mius Front, cautiously threads the thin between simulation and game. As pointless as discussing the weather, which Combat Mission is best comes down to what theatre you enjoy the most. The sunny Mediterranean? Go with Fortress Italy! The cold winter? Let it be Final Blitzkrieg. The rainy days, heavy with fog? Battle for Normandy. Destroying what’s left of the german war machine during Operation Bagration? Red Thunder. In here, there’s a slice of tactical warfare for everyone and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better alternative in the realism department. There’s also more than enough DLC for each and every entry, to keep even the most demanding of strategy aficionados entertained for years to come. If it weren’t for the inadequate controls, there wouldn’t be any doubt the games of the first generation could still hold their own pretty well.
Other similar games: Any other World War II Battlefront title.
Sitting comfortably between the hardcore realism of Combat Mission and Mius front and the arcadey action of Company of Heroes, Close Combat broke down barriers when it com is a game for those looking for real-time tactical action, with simple controls, a top-down view, and a “detailed” simulation of your pixeltruppen mental state. There’s a Close Combat entry for almost each and every theatre of the war, with the exception of the Pacific. It’s a timeless classic that will stay alive as long as people remember WW2 video games. The oldest entries are looking dated and can be a hard barrier to break, especially when playing on widescreen, high-resolution monitors. The latest entry, Close Combat: The Bloody First took the bold step of launching a game in 3D and it got a mild reception. If you could only pick one, I would advise you to pick the area of conflict it interests you the most. To me, personally, that would be Close Combat – The Longest Day but most people would recommend either A Bridge Too Far or Cross of Iron.
Any discussion around WDS titles will inevitably boil down to personal preference. Their prodigious library has something for everyone. Enamored by the tactical considerations of tactical level decisions? Can’t go wrong with JTS Squad Battles. Maybe your military career took you a bit further than expected and now you would much rather prefer to be commanding units at the platoon level? Panzer Battles will get you fixed. Or maybe, just maybe, what you really want is to command an entire portion of the front, scrambling dozens of divisions across hundreds of hexes? Panzer Campaigns. The Normandy campaigns are some of my favorites of the war, so it’s natural I go with this one.
If a beer and pretzels kind of wargame is what you’re looking for to entertain during these cold, winter nights, then Unity of Command will do that better than most other entries in this list. It’s a fun and enjoyable take on the hex and counter formula that has a proven track record of being recognized by many as the best entry-level wargame in the market, and having more of that is a good thing, as far as I see it. Best of all, Unity of Command developers is essentially expanding this entry from the western front into the eastern front, that way, there’s something for everybody. Usual complaints about Unity of Command are how puzzly the game is and how trying to achieve the best score ends up feeling like you’re just taking the necessary steps the game wants you to instead of implementing your own ideas.
“At first, my suspicion fell on writer’s block but I soon came to realize that’s just because WarPlan is that simple, and there’s really not a lot to say about it. Turns are spent moving units around the hex-based map, engaging in combat, setting up production of future units, embarking and disembarking units, choosing reinforcement priorities, bombing cities, surface fleets, airfields, and armies; making sure your supplies reach the frontlines. […] When push comes to shove, WarPlan Pacific is a worthy addition to every wargame collection and a game worth having if you enjoy the operational layer of strategy with a simple, easily accessible design that will keep you island-hopping across the Pacific for weeks”. Read my whole review here and my interview with Alvaro Souza, the game’s developer here.
The all-encompassing operational simulator of the second world war is a game that amazes and scares in the same measure. An absolute masterpiece of a game, War in the East 2 takes the concept of operational level wargaming to a sickening degree of complexity and detail. It’s absolutely mesmerizing the work done in this title, but War in the East is a harsh mistress if you lack the patience needed to get up to speed with its mechanics and the knowledge necessary to understand the nuances about the war and on how to conduct military operations in the Eastern Front. Turns can last for days and full theatre tussles are real-life months-wide affairs. It’s a grog’s game for the groggiest of grogs. If Gary Grigsby and his team submitted their latest addition to their long-standing franchise I wouldn’t be surprised if a collective Ph.D. in Historical Studies was granted.
My wargaming darling of 2021, Decisive Campaigns: Ardennes Offensive is the best operational-level wargame I’ve ever played, period. The decision to stay away from the more abstract aspects of other operational level wargames and to bravely implement novel features should serve as a textbook example of how a genre, considered by many to be stale and long past its prime can be propelled to new heights with the right knowledge, passion, and inspiration. For going above and beyond the call of duty, Decisive Campaigns was granted the first, Golden Strategy and Wargaming Seal of Approval. You should read my whole, five-star review of it. Go read it!