A tabletop wargame is essentially a strategy game that incorporates various types of military operations. The hobby of wargaming is dedicated to the play of the best tabletop wargames and are also referred to as conflict simulations. Although there are disagreements whether a game can be considered a wargame or not, a general agreement exists stating that all wargames must represent and explore some aspect or feature of human behaviour on the conduct of war.
Wargames are usually categorized as science fiction, fantasy, hypothetical, or historical. The largest selection of wargames falls under the historical category and are based on real events where the game attempts to represent a credible approximation of the actual terrain and forces that were used in the event. Hypothetical wargames are grounded by historical fact but include conflicts or battles that didn't actually occur. Science fiction and fantasy are the best tabletop wargames and either provide their own unique imaginary setting or draw inspiration from fictional works.
The first wargame was invented during the 19th century and made use of Kriegsspiel rules. During the 20th century, H.G Wells published the book 'Little Wars' which introduced miniature wargames where a battle was simulated between two or more players as a pastime. The first mass-produced, large-scale board games were published during the 1950's and depicted military conflicts. These games were extremely popular during the 1970's, becoming quite technical and complex during that time. Over the years, the best tabletop wargames have changed dramatically, however, both board wargames and miniature wargames continue to enjoy a decent following to this day.
Tabletop Wargame Characteristics
While wargaming is considered a genre of its own, it can also be categorized into several subgenres. These include miniature, board, card, block, and computer versions. Beyond this, there's also a handful of other characteristics that define wargames, including the environment, the era or period of the game, and the map or unit scale of the game.
Most wargames concentrate on land warfare which is the oldest type of warfare and also the easiest to simulate. Another of the best tabletop wargames environment is naval warfare, stretching all the way back to the beginning of wargames. The most recent environment that's been introduced to wargames is aerial warfare which usually features tactical games that simulate dogfights. It's worth mentioning that multiple elements can complicate the simulation aspect of wargames and therefore games that utilise a combined arms approach are usually strategic in nature and all aspects of the game are abstracted to a larger degree. Space warfare is also a future possibility, but there are very few wargames set in space as they tend to fall in the science fiction genre.
Era or Period
As wargames are considered historical, they are generally divided into periods. These various divisions reflect the scholarly divisions of history but you will also find that some subjects are more popular than others, allowing certain wars to be categorized on their own. The Napoleonic Wars, the American Civil War, and World War II are among the best tabletop wargames, while others are broken down into several eras, such as Modern, Horse and Musket, Early Gunpowder, Middle Ages, and Ancients.
The various wars and periods, especially the popular ones, are often referred to as acronyms or initials. Therefore, the 18th century is typically broken down into several sub-periods, including American War of Independence (AWI), Seven Years War (SYW), War of Austrian Succession (WAS), and War of Spanish Succession (WSS). Some of the best tabletop wargames will take a broad approach by covering a large period of time, including Black Powder which covers both the 18th and 19th centuries, while others will purely focus on a single war, such as the War of Spanish Succession.
Map or Unit Scale
- Grand Strategy: This wargame scale primarily focuses on military strategy at the movement level and makes use of all the resources of an entire empire or state, while the focus is placed on a war that usually stretches over a long period of time. Players can't represent individual units or armies and should instead pay attention to the entire operation. These type of simulations always involve military, economic, and political conflict.
- Strategic: The military units in this wargame scale are generally army-sized, corps, or divisions that are rated by strength. During this scale, diplomacy and economic production are significant and will usually include all branches of the entire force of the nation to cover long campaigns or entire wars.
- Operational: The units in this wargame scale are divisional to battalion-sized and carry a value that is based on their overall weaknesses and strengths. Logistics and weather are the most significant factors in the game, but in most cases, a single army is the biggest element that can be controlled by a player.
- Tactical: The military units in this wargame scale range from companies or platoons to squads and vehicles and are measured by the ranges and types of individual weaponry. A single force can cover a single battle or cover a percentage of a larger battle.
- Skirmish: The units in this wargame scale are individual soldiers and are tracked by ammunition and wounding counts. It essentially comprises a small firefight where man-to-man scale is introduced.
The Most Popular Tabletop Wargames
Are you ready to vanquish your foes and defeat your enemies? Do you have the necessary skill set to command a cavalry? Lead an army? Conquer the opposing team? The only way to find out is to dive head-first into a tabletop wargame. However, with so many options out there, it's difficult to decide which wargame will provide the necessary entertainment value you desire. Fortunately, we compiled a list of the best tabletop wargames of all time to assist you in making a more educated decision.
Warhammer 40,000: Released in 1987, this wargame offers a futuristic landscape that features rival armies with unique fighting styles. It offers conceptual artwork that suggests a post-apocalyptic universe along with various dystopic themes. It's considered the most profitable wargame in existence which popularized tournament gameplay on an international scale.
Warmachine: Released in 2003, this popular wargame is a steampunk-inspired game that features steam-powered robots that fight under the direction of mystical wizards. Apart from Warmachine, the company also released a sister game, known as Hordes, featuring gigantic creatures as opposed to robots.
Star Fleet Battles: Released in 1978, this wargame is the oldest on the list but is still published and enjoyed to this day. The wargame is based on Star Trek and is arguably one of the most successful space combat wargames in existence that doesn't rely on any miniatures to play the game.
Axis and Allies: Released in 1981, this wargame provides attractive components and simplistic gameplay functionality. The main purpose of this game was to attract non-wargamers into the world of wargaming. It's also considered the most successful release from Milton Bradley.
Heroscape:: Released in 2004, Heroscape is one of the best tabletop wargames and offers an inexpensive, simplistic wargame that has been mass marketed for both adults and younger wargamers. Prior to the release of this game, miniature wargames were an expensive hobby to undertake. Fortunately, Heroscape bridged the gap and provided a brand-new demographic for collectable miniature wargames.